Freedom House released their 2017 report on democracy worldwide, and the trends are disturbing. (More)

The resident faculty opened the month with a three-part series on whether democracy is crumbling in the U.S. so I sneaked into the BPI Grafix Department and swiped that image to summarize the Freedom House 2017 Report titled Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.

In case you’ve never heard of them – I hadn’t – Freedom House was founded in 1941 as an “independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.” Please don’t confuse Freedom House’s annual reports with the better-hyped Heritage Foundation’s annual ‘Index of Economic Liberty’, which focuses exclusively on taxes, regulations, and gutting organized labor. The folks at Freedom House know that “freedom” means more than the right of rich people to get richer:

We recognize that freedom is possible only in democratic political environments where governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.

For a relatively brief period – starting in the late 1980s – it seemed as if freedom and democracy were on the march. The fall of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe, market reforms in China, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and truces ending bloody civil conflicts like Northern Ireland and Spain’s Basque region seemed to herald a bright epoch of better, freer self-government. And that trend of more people enjoying more freedom continued until 2006.

Alas, 2017 marked the 11th consecutive year of declining global freedom. For much of that period, the global decline came from countries that reverted to despots after flirting with democracy in the 1990s, and in repressive regimes that grew even more repressive. But this year Freedom House found the decline spreading to countries that they still score as ‘Free,’ including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, and the United States.

Their overview essay, Arch Puddington and Tyler Roylance write:

In 2016, populist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents.

All of these developments point to a growing danger that the international order of the past quarter-century – rooted in the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – will give way to a world in which individual leaders and nations pursue their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints, and without regard for the shared benefits of global peace, freedom, and prosperity.
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As the year drew to a conclusion, the major democracies were mired in anxiety and indecision after a series of destabilizing events. In the United States, the presidential victory of Donald Trump, a mercurial figure with unconventional views on foreign policy and other matters, raised questions about the country’s future role in the world. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the collapse of the Italian government after a failed referendum on constitutional reform, a series of antidemocratic moves by the new government in Poland, and gains by xenophobic nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe similarly cast doubt on the strength of the alliances that shaped the institutions of global democracy.

At the same time, Russia, in stunning displays of hubris and hostility, interfered in the political processes of the United States and other democracies, escalated its military support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and solidified its illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. China also flouted international law, ignoring a tribunal’s ruling against its expansive claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea and intensifying its repression of dissent within its borders. And unscrupulous leaders from South Sudan and Ethiopia to Thailand and the Philippines engaged in human rights violations of varying scale with impunity.

In the wake of last year’s developments, it is no longer possible to speak with confidence about the long-term durability of the EU; the incorporation of democracy and human rights priorities into American foreign policy; the resilience of democratic institutions in Central Europe, Brazil, or South Africa; or even the expectation that actions like the assault on Myanmar’s Rohingya minority or indiscriminate bombing in Yemen will draw international criticism from democratic governments and UN human rights bodies. No such assumption, it seems, is entirely safe.

Among the international trends they identified: violent response to anti-government protests, increasing internet surveillance, silencing journalists and academics, ruling parties suppressing political challenges, rising ethnic and religious nativism. They also pointed to the rising use of referendums to evade limiting political and constitutional structures:

A constant refrain among democracy advocates is that “democracy is more than just elections.” A truly democratic system includes a variety of other checks and balances that ensure freedom and resilience over time, such as a free press, independent courts, legal protections for minorities, a robust opposition, and unfettered civil society groups.

Referendums represent a radical reduction of democracy to its most skeletal form: majority rule. Too often, they are called in order to circumvent some obstacle thrown up by political or legal institutions – failure by elected officials to reach consensus, for example, or a constitutional barrier that powerful actors find inconvenient. Whatever the intent, such referendums are an end run around the structures and safeguards of democracy.

The prominence of consequential referendums in 2016 could therefore be interpreted as another sign that global democracy is in distress.

And they offered this observation:

One of the main casualties of the nationalist and populist wave that rolled over the world’s democracies in 2016 was the de facto two-party system, a traditional division of the political spectrum into two mainstream parties or coalitions of the center-right and center-left, which has long ensured stable government and a strong opposition in much of the free world.

Left in its place were dominant ruling parties with few checks on their power, fragmented parliaments with no governing majority, or an infusion of radical factions whose core constituencies gave them little incentive to moderate or compromise in the public interest.

That tracks with Ishaan Tharoor’s Washington Post interview with Sasha Polakow-Suransky:

Today, left and right are defined more in terms of one’s position on immigration. During the 1970s and ’80s, there were clear ideological battle lines in European politics, mostly along economic policy lines. That divide has been blurred and eroded. In the ’80s, most far-right parties were hostile to immigrants and the welfare state. But at some point they discovered they could make huge intellectual inroads by becoming more socialist than the socialists.

France is the most clear-cut case: If you look at the electoral map, districts that were Communist-dominated 20 years ago now voted overwhelmingly for Le Pen. She doesn’t like to talk about a “welfare state,” but she has lured those voters by promising something similar: social protections, but for the French. It is the idea of a nativist nanny state, and it has been hugely politically profitable.

Indeed when U.S. progressives held up the successes of Scandinavian social democracy, conservatives replied that the welfare state only worked there because those countries were “homogenous.” In that article, Kevin Williamson cites studies showing we’re more likely trust people who look like us, even though those same studies found “facial similarity” was a poor predictor of trustworthiness.

Notably, Williamson introduces that study by declaring “The human brain is a shrewd investor” and concludes it with a parenthetical “We’re kind of an awful species.” So … umm … which is it?

Regardless, the conservative argument says we’re more likely to credit Our Kind as deserving help, but think Those People are cheating the system. So we can have a diverse society – or we can have a robust social safety net – but not both.

Of course that analysis treats racial and ethnic distrust as immutable facts of nature. It conveniently ignores that right-wingers relentlessly nurture that distrust.

For example, one of the God-King’s first acts was to order the Department of Homeland Security to form a new office focused exclusively on crimes by immigrants. Never mind that several studies show undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

I say “never mind” almost literally. We estimate the likelihood of events based on how easily we can recall examples – that’s known as availability bias – and vivid examples are easier to remember. So gathering and hyping a relative handful of Immigrant Commits Heinous Crime! stories will make more white people think immigrants are a threat to public safety … just as cherry-picking and hyping stories of crimes committed by people of color make more white people suspicious of blacks and Hispanics.

You can’t both howl “Those People can’t be trusted!” and also lament racial and ethnic distrust as reasons to oppose a robust social safety net.

Except you can, as the rise of so-called ‘populism’ – really xenophobic nativism – is showing. Of course, it helps if you have a state-funded, state-trained troll army working to sow division and discontent because that state wants democracies to devolve into autocracies.

But we can’t just point the finger at Russia. They’re fertilizing cultural weeds that the radical right have been sowing for decades, if not centuries. Those weeds have choked out the flower of democracy before, many times. Those weeds can choke out that flower again. Even here.

Weeding is hard work, and it often feels like a Sisyphean struggle. But when we stop weeding … the weeds win.

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Image Credits — Democracy: Bryce Durbin (TechCrunch.com); Cracks: MothvalleySage (DeviantArt); Smoke and Painting effects: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)

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Good day and good nuts