As the anti-globalization wave unfolds, liberal democracy is in stunning retreat worldwide and authoritarianism is advancing globally. According to Freedom House, between 2005 and 2018, the countries that are rated as “Not Free” countries rose from 23 percent to 26 percent while the countries rated as “Free” dropped from 46 percent to 44 percent, which indicates the rollback of democratization surge after the end of the Cold War. The phenomenon of democratic decline and authoritarian revival not only defies Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument prior to the collapse of communism, but also reminds academic scholars of the precarious scenarios in Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s-1970s. This disturbing trend prompts scholars to ask when the democratic momentum took to a halt and how this is happening.
Larry Diamond tends to perceive the interventionist war in Iraq as a first turning point for democratic advance, citing the failure in subsequent difficulty in democratic rebuilding as a major setback for America’s efforts to promote democratic and liberal values globally. Meanwhile, the examples of the faltering economy, struggling politics, and destabilizing society in emerging democracies are deepening public doubt on the viability of liberal democracy. It’s partially true that these factors may contribute to prevalent dipping sentiment for democracy, but distrust towards liberal values remains limited to peripherals instead of encroaching upon advanced democracies. If the intervention in Iraq coincidentally marks a starting point of reversed democratization trend, the financial crisis in 2008 is the watershed that signals the beginning of an era of public discontent and resentment towards political institutions in liberal democracies. The crisis not only pushed the global economy to the brink of recession, but also unleashed a series of far-reaching chain effects that are still reshaping the world order today after more than a decade since the economic catastrophe.
First, given the contagious nature of economic crisis, when market disturbances and investor panic is transmitted from the epicenter of the U.S. to global market, the ideas of “free market” upheld as the one of the pillars of “capitalist democracy” are called into question. This offers incredible opportunity to authoritarians to tout alternative approaches. For instance, authoritarian China has been arguing for the infallibility of its state capitalism including state-guided development model and the state’s “irreplaceable role” in market.
In addition, the theory that political legitimacy is built upon the basis of economic performance was once adopted by political scientists to study regime change in autocracies and authoritarians, but now the theory may also remain valid for pluralistic democracies. When economy thrives, coupled with narrow economic inequality, democracy consolidates. However, the opposite also makes sense. When democratic institutions do not necessarily ensure economic equality, together with political polarization, partisan struggles and political stalemate, the confidence in political institutions starts to wane. When the political elites in democracies are struggling to reduce economic inequality and appease social discontent, these feed authoritarian propaganda apparatus with perfect textbook materials to educate its people about the democratic deficiencies and demonize democratic system as underlying sources for ineptitude to maintain order and deliver growth for the purpose of justifying authoritarian institutional advantages like state control and power centralization.
In contrast to malfunctioning democracies festered with economic malaise, political deadlock and inefficient decision-making process, authoritarian states are increasingly competent in building apparent political consensus and delivering political stability in highly-efficient manner with minimal opposition and dissident voices, and thus provide a safe haven for global profit-seeking capitalists and return-seeking investors. Guoguang Wu offers explanation for the authoritarian resurgence from the angle of global political economy, contending that global capitalism after the end of the Cold War led to “capitalism-democracy disjuncture” where “democracy depends on capital while capital depends on effective authoritarianism”. Thus, the capitalist democracies have the incentive to tolerate the emboldened authoritarian regimes in exchange for capitalist interests and market resources in these states.
As global investors and businesses continue to rely on capitalist resources in stable authoritarian states and are more addicted to huge market, the authoritarian becomes aware of its bargaining chip and starts to attach additional political conditions. In this regard, it’s an excellent example that China repeatedly slapped or threatened to slap economic sanctions on foreign business or political actors for not following the party-state’s political rhetoric on its “core interests”. Therefore, western companies and politicians cautiously toe the party-lines and fall into deafening silence for fear of economic retribution and compromised interest. Some outspoken scholars and media pundits are accusing China of imposing its “political correctness” on foreign companies through economic coercion, which is a fact. However, it’s equally true that some western businesses are economically coercible in the first place.
By the same token, it’s a concern of western scholars and politicians that authoritarians have been exerting political influence through “sharp power”, a combination of misinformation campaign and covert financial benefits, to compromise atmosphere of free expression and corrupt civic and political institutions, which is undoubtedly a reality. Nonetheless, it’s equally important that the political openness in democratic societies turned to be a weakness rather than a strength, making themselves more vulnerable to political penetration, and their rivalry with authoritarians more asymmetrical. In other words, authoritarians are well-positioned to corrupt democratic institutions by taking measures like co-optation of former public officeholders and academic scholars, and insertion of state-sponsored propaganda publication in local newspapers, because democracies are corruptible and penetrable in the first place.
Therefore, unlimited political openness, plus value-neutral pursuit of capital and benefits, are the intrinsic pain point in democratic capitalism. Authoritarians know it well and manipulate it well. Of course, the optimists may observe that democratic norms endured previous tests in spite of setbacks and will always prevail in ongoing contest with authoritarianism. But optimism alone won’t necessarily ensure ultimate democratic triumph and survival.
In his debut speech as the CCP General Secretary in late 2012, the Chinese President Xi Jinping indicated that “to forge iron, we need to become a strong hammer” when speaking of improving party discipline and governance. Now this is exactly relevant to democratic societies: to push forward democratization worldwide, you have to solve your internal problems first. In an analytical piece of the possible authoritarian influence of China, one of “Big Five” authoritarian states, Andrew J. Nathan maintains that even if China does little to undermine democratic institutions, its modernization model combined with authoritarian values may serve as example for other authoritarian regimes to follow. As is advised by George Kennan for the confrontation with the former USSR, “every courageous and incisive measure to solve the internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people is a diplomatic victory over Moscow, worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiques”. Hence, nowadays democracies should manage themselves better in response to the age of authoritarian comeback.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Keyu Chen served as financial translator for Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. He holds M.A. in international journalism and communication from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He’s interested in political communication, comparative politics and international relations.