Trump Is Gone, but Democracy Is in Trouble

A new report reveals that democratic governments are in retreat around the globe.

An illustration of a hand crushing marble pillers, which are emanating red lines.
Adam Maida / Getty / The Atlantic

After November 3, I allowed myself to dream that the battered troops of democracy would regain their courage and go on the offensive.

For a decade or more, authoritarian populists around the globe had won one upset victory after another. They rose to power in India and Brazil, in the Philippines and the United States. And though Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte were at first mocked as incompetent leaders who would soon lose power, they have proved surprisingly shrewd at maintaining their popularity or concentrating power in their own hands. Over the past 10 years, examples of populist politicians being thrown out of office in free and fair elections have been few and far between.

Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump finally changed that. For the first time in a decade, the citizens of a powerful democracy took a close look at populist politics and decided that they had seen enough. It felt as though the tide might finally be turning. The democratic fightback was about to begin.

It is still eminently possible that this optimism will ultimately be vindicated. But in the months since the election, two important developments have made me more pessimistic.

The first is domestic. Trump and his allies have managed to convince a worryingly large share of his base that the election was stolen from him. And while Trump has somewhat faded from public view, the Republican Party, for now, remains under his firm control. As his triumphal reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference demonstrates, he remains his party’s only real star.

In a country with two major parties, democracy is safe only if both care more about preserving the political system than about beating their opponents. But one of America’s big parties is now willing to break the most basic rule of democracy: that free and fair elections should determine who gets to govern, and that those who lose must accept the legitimacy of their successor.

The danger for American democracy is far from over. Until the Republican Party banishes Trump and drops his big lie, every presidential election will be a potential extinction-level event.

The second reason for pessimism is international. With the exception of Trump, dictators and their admirers have had a very good year. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are more self-confident than ever. Alexander Lukashenko, in Belarus, and Nicolás Maduro, in Venezuela, appear to have weathered potent challenges to their reign. Looking around the world, I see depressingly few democratic bright spots.

Now a new report by Freedom House quantifies just how dire the situation is.

Larry Diamond, one of the world’s leading scholars on democracy, pointed out in 2008 that the world had entered a “democratic recession,” a claim based on the think tank’s meticulous annual reports about the state of more than 200 countries. Every year, more countries are moving from democracy to autocracy than from autocracy to democracy.

According to Freedom House’s latest report, that democratic recession is now entering its 15th consecutive year, and the decline has accelerated to a record pace. In 2020, 73 countries became less democratic; only 28 moved in the right direction.

The retreat from democracy was especially stark in some of the most populous democracies. Brazil and Indonesia, for example, have both witnessed serious attacks on their institutions in the past 12 months.

Worse, India has crossed a crucial threshold. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi resoundingly won reelection in 2019, he has intimidated critics, subverted the independence of the judiciary, and adopted discriminatory policies against the country’s large Muslim minority. Because of the ever more repressive nature of his government, Freedom House has now, for the first time since 1998, classified the country as only “partly free.”

The other striking thing about the report is just how few reasons for hope it finds. The Arab Spring has long since turned into a bitter winter. In the Middle East, only the citizens of Israel and Tunisia retain substantial democratic freedoms. In Ethiopia, a new president who presented himself as a democratic reformer has started to oppress the opposition and oversee deadly atrocities. And in countries from Georgia to Myanmar, politicians who had once seemed serious challengers to entrenched powers are now in jail or under house arrest.

The most remarkable thing about this year’s report, in fact, is how far it has to go in a valiant attempt to include some semblance of a good news story. According to the think tank, the brightest spots for democracy in 2020 were Malawi, a country of 19 million people, and North Macedonia, a country of 2 million people. With the world’s most populous democracy careening toward authoritarianism, and only a few democracies making hesitant steps toward democracy, it is little wonder that fewer than one in five people around the world now lives in a free country.

None of that, however, is a reason to throw in the towel.

The United States has, for now, pulled back from the brink. And although the current state of the Republican Party is deeply worrying, the party’s next presidential nominee may yet turn out to be a conventional conservative.

In the meantime, the new administration is doing its best to reestablish America’s claim as the leader of the free world. The years in which naked attacks on democracy would earn foreign leaders an especially warm welcome at the White House are, for the time being, over.

Even in countries that are sinking more deeply into autocracy, the appetite for democracy remains as strong as ever. The longer populists and dictators are in power, the more obvious their flaws, and the more awe-inspiring the courage of their steadfast opponents, such as Alexei Navalny in Russia and Bobi Wine in Uganda.

I have not given up on my dream. The 2020s may yet turn out to be the decade in which democracy regains its strength. But for that to happen, a lot will have to change.