Mood Swings: Freedom, Democracy and the Latest Right-Wing Populist Upsurge

Democracy is presently in a recession. Freedom House’s (an independent research institute) annual report for 2018 indicates that for the 10th consecutive year the world’s citizens, taken in the aggregate, are less free (meaning enjoy less political rights and civil liberties) than was true in earlier years. Some countries included in the report as ‘free’ no longer enjoy this status. Turkey and Venezuela under the rule of Presidents Erdowan and Maduro, are now labelled as ‘not free’.  The political situations in Poland and Hungary show a decline in the democratic quality of their political systems. The United States was not exempt from this democratic recession either. During the first year of the Trump Administration, the report suggests the US suffered a modest decline in freedom as well. The frequent attacks launched by President Trump against the media, including some individual journalists, was the principal cause of a modest decline in ‘freedom’. In this  regard, and despite their own woes, the US compares unfavorably to such key western democracies as Britain, France and Germany.

Why the worldwide decline in freedom? Does the recession have to do with the rise of ‘populism’ in Europe and the Americas, as some observers have suggested? Do we then confront an irony; more popular involvement in political life, the less free the country? Thirdly, is the decline in democracy a short or long-term phenomenon?

Let me address the last and broadest question first. It was not that long ago that many observers were celebrating the triumph of democratic rule throughout the world. The end of the cold war, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the total collapse of the communist project, led many to conclude that liberal democracy was the only serious alternative for sensible citizens and governments. The Fascist alternative had ended with the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. For some time afterward, it appeared as if some version of the Soviet System and the ideology on which it was allegedly based posed a serious threat to the western democracies and their liberal democratic institutions. In addition, for some pessimistic observers the United States was doomed because of its ‘imperial over reach’. But the dramatic events of 1989-1991 proved otherwise and appeared to confirm Francis Fukuyama’s famous observation that ‘History’ had come to an end, at least in the Hegelian sense.

This boom and currently bust experience with democratic rule is not unprecedented. Over the course of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th, there had been an expansion in the number of democracies in place in Northern Europe and elsewhere in the western world.  This trend came to an end though following World War I, as democracy entered into a recession.  The worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s accelerated the trend towards authoritarian rule as Germany, Italy and Japan led the way towards fascism. And as the American journalist Lincoln Steffens famously observed after his tour of the Soviet Union, “I have seen the future, and it works!” Bourgeois democracies appeared incapable of coping with the great stresses brought on by the Depression. The future then, belonged to either fascism or communism, take your pick.

Following World War II there was another expansion of democratic rule. In this case the expansion was led by the ‘new nations’ of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East that had previously been the colonial possessions of the European powers. This expansion was short-lived however, as one new democracy after another fell under the control of autocratic leaders. The trend was acute in Latin America especially after the Castroite revolution in Cuba (1959). Fearing other revolutionary surges among the continent’s young people, the military seized control in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and the Andean nations.

By the mid-1970s, the outlook for democracy seemed particularly grim. On the occasion of America’s bicentennial in 1976, the American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that democracy is really like monarchy, a relic of past centuries, where the world was not where it is going. No sooner did Moynihan express this lamentation than Spain, Portugal, and Greece abandoned their military rulers and installed new democracies. Shortly thereafter, these countries were followed into the democratic column by Argentina, Brazil, Peru and a few other Latin American nations.

The surprising spread of democratic rule around much of the world during the 1980s and ‘90s was then followed astonishingly by the toppling of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes and their replacement by liberal democracies.

Although there are those who believe that the current recession represents a long-term secular decline in the democratic prospect, it appears instead that we are dealing with a circular pattern, one in which democratic booms are followed by democratic busts. The dynamic that appears to be at work involves an initial wave of popular enthusiasm for the new or newly restored democracy. Unrealistic expectations rise that the new and popular democracy will be able to solve virtually all of the nation’s problems. When this fails to occur, disillusionment follows, particularly among segments of the population who believed they would be the economic beneficiaries of the new order. What follows frequently is the appearance of a populist movement, either right or left, whose leaders emphasize that ordinary people have been robbed of their democratic benefits by an unscrupulous and corrupt political elite. It appears at this point that democracy goes into a period of recession.

What role for radical right activity in these developments? Radical right groups during periods of democratic recession appear as both cause and effect. They serve to exacerbate democracy’s problems typically by their attacks, both verbal and physical, on minorities in the population they link to the causes of the country’s problems. In so doing they make an independent contribution to radicalizing the situation and by placing greater strain on the country’s by now beleaguered democratic institutions. As an effect, the radical right-wing version of populism serves to prolong the democratic recession by narrowing the electoral base for political parties and civil society groups hoping to achieve an end to the recession and a restoration of a liberal democratic order.

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and is Foundation Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. See his profile at:

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