The greatest paradox of modern politics is that there are more elections than ever before in human history, and yet the world is becoming less democratic.
Voting will take place in more than 60 countries this year—an unprecedented number—containing roughly half of the global population. But even with all this voting, democracy is under severe threat, endangered by predatory politicians who rig elections and disgruntled voters willing to hand over power to autocratic leaders. The most pivotal election will take place in November, when the world’s most powerful democracy decides whether to turn itself over to an avowedly authoritarian demagogue.
To make sense of this paradox requires understanding why democracy is on the decline. Recent shifts in geopolitics, technology, and economics, alongside the rise of authoritarian populism and innovative election-rigging techniques, have created a tsunami that threatens to sink democracies across the globe.
After World War II, democracy was scarce and deeply flawed. Most democracies were in Western Europe and North America, and they weren’t fully democratic (many political scientists don’t consider the United States a full democracy until the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Much of Latin America moved toward democracy in the 1970s and ’80s. Then, in the 1990s, large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe began to hold multiparty elections for the first time.
That democratic surge took place largely because the Soviet Union collapsed. During the Cold War, developing nations were treated like interchangeable pawns on a global chessboard, where their value was tied to whom they supported, not how they governed. The United States professed a passionate ideological defense of democracy but routinely supported grotesquely undemocratic regimes, so long as they sided with Washington over Moscow. Sometimes, the U.S. even toppled democratic regimes to replace elected foes with despotic friends. The threat of defection from West to East was ever present, and when democratic push came to geopolitical shove, geopolitics often won out. [Continue reading…]