A ‘Democratic Depression’ Could Be Around the Corner


putin jinping cropped
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on June 25, 2016. (Photo by Greg Baker-Pool/Getty Images).

Democratic institutions worldwide have reached a unique and precarious turning point, said Larry Diamond on a recent episode of the World Class podcast by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).


After the Cold War, the world became dominated by liberal values and a prevailing consensus for freedom, democracy and human rights, Diamond told World Class host and FSI Director Michael McFaul. During this time, the percentage of democratic states rose from making up about a quarter to more than half of all of the independent states in the world — which had never happened before in history. However, explained Diamond, who is senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, this trend may come to an end soon.

“It’s under severe challenge from Russia, China, Iran and from many other countries that were until recently democracies or are in danger of no longer being democracies soon,” Diamond said. “We are in a new and urgent situation.”

In 2018, Freedom House — a non-governmental organization that conducts research on democracy and political freedom — reported a decline in global freedom for the 13th consecutive year, reversing the post-Cold War trend between 1991 and 2006.
“We could be on the cusp of a democratic depression,” said Diamond. In his view, here are the four main causes of this worldwide shift. 

[Sign up for the FSI monthly newsletter to receive stories like this directly to your inbox.]

Incremental Authoritarianism
The first cause, according to Diamond, is what he calls “incremental authoritarianism,” which usually occurs when elected populist rulers — such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Tayyip Erdoğan, for example — begin to spread conservative, anti-immigrant or anti-pluralist values in an attempt to “save” the nation from corruption or threatening international illiberal values.

“Of course, the corrupting influences are human rights, accountability, pluralism, the rule of law and anything that would constrain their power and eliminate all potential rivals,” Diamond explained.

Russian Rage
The second cause has to do with Russia’s status as what Diamond describes as a “fallen superpower.”. Russia has begun to intervene in the politics of European democracies, meddle with the politics of the U.S. electoral democracy, spread confusion and promote division — all actions that stem from “Russian rage.”

“I think Putin has become unleashed,” he said. “He’s much more aggressive and ambitious now that he has found a cost-effective way of inflicting damage on democracy through disinformation and the penetration of the electoral space of democracies that we thought was sacred and secure.”

Chinese Ambition
Since coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to cultivate ties with “sympathetic actors” abroad — whether it be by sending Chinese citizens to U.S. graduate programs or to think tanks — but this effort has been ramped up and extended under Xi Jinping to a degree that hasn’t been seen before, according to Diamond.

“Chinese influence is extending into universities, corporations, Chinese-language media overseas, and certainly into aggressive — and I’d say illegal — technology practices that are boldly trying to create a new world of Chinese influence and even domination by the People’s Republic of China,” he explained.

American Complacency
Finally, Americans have become complacent about the security of their democracy, and many think that it doesn’t require their attention or participation in order to be upheld, said Diamond. In addition, some Americans have also become comfortable about the slow deterioration of their democracy through the polarization of U.S. politics. 

“People are becoming so intense in their feelings about parties and politicians that they won’t even talk to people from the other side at the Thanksgiving dinner table,” Diamond said. “Some of the statements of our own president are not consistent with democratic values…in which everyone is recognized as having the right to speak and in which violence can never be encouraged.”

Read more about Diamond’s thoughts on the state of global democracy in his new book, “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”