Photo @ Element5 Digital for Unsplash.

The future of democracy

Adam Wakeling

Adam Wakeling

Adam is an Australian lawyer and historian, and the author of "A House of Commons for a Den of Thieves: Australia’s Journey from Penal Colony to Democracy." He is on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.

Democracy has a long history and is now well-established in western countries. However, faith in it is declining, and it has faced significant setbacks in the past decade. While we should not exaggerate the challenges it faces, we should not take it for granted, either.
Late last year I received my ballot paper for a local government election. It’s a reminder that, among all the human beings who have ever lived, I’m part of a fortunate minority who is given a say in how they are governed.

In the western world, the idea of democracy runs deep. We’re used to voting for everything from class captain to treasurer of the lawn balls club. If we’re outvoted on something, even if it’s only what restaurant we go to with our friends, we’re expected to bear our loss with good grace.

At least, this is how it was. The President of the United States, the world’s most powerful and highest-profile democracy, has refused to concede defeat in last year’s Presidential election, claiming widespread fraud. At the time of writing, his campaign has not managed to produce evidence to satisfy the courts in over sixty lawsuits, commentators in the media, the administration’s own officials, or the state officials managing the election, many of whom are from the President’s own Republican Party. The President and his defenders cannot explain why Republican officials in Georgia and Arizona would have conspired with the Biden campaign, why the Democrats, if they were adept at secretly stealing elections, did not perform better in Congress, why a Democratic Governor and Secretary of State were not able to deliver North Carolina’s electoral votes or critical Senate seat for the Democrats, or why the swings towards Joe Biden in urban counties in Georgia and Arizona (where they alleged fraud) were similar to the swings in urban counties in Texas (where they did not). They have not been able to explain how such a massive operation, involving hundreds, if not thousands, of people working for multiple agencies across both parties in several states, was planned or co-ordinated. While they have made bold and sweeping claims of systemic fraud on social media and before crowds at rallies, they have not even tried to advance them in court. In one lawsuit in Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign’s lawyers made it clear to the court that they “do not allege, and there is no evidence of, any fraud in connection with the challenged ballots”, well-aware that making such a claim would amount to deliberately misleading the court. Many of the President’s supporters have continued to defend him despite knowing that he has a history of making unsubstantiated claims about elections. For example, Senator Ted Cruz offered to argue the Trump campaign’s claims of fraud in the U.S. Supreme Court (see tweet below) even when Trump had previously accused Cruz of stealing the 2016 Iowa Caucus through fraud.

There is nothing illegal in refusing to concede, filing lawsuits, or requesting recounts. That said, every defeated major party presidential candidate has conceded once the result of the election became generally known. William Jennings Bryan sent William McKinley a telegram in 1896, Wendell Wilkie conceded to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a newsreel in 1940, and Adlai Stevenson admitted that he lost the 1952 election to Dwight D. Eisenhower live on television. Every candidate has followed suit, giving a public concession once the major media networks called the result. This is not law, but it is a norm of behaviour which President Trump has not followed. Much of our democracy rests on these norms.

More than half of the world’s people live in a democracy of some sort, but most of these are very young. Democracy in much of southern Europe in younger than Jaws. Democracy in Eastern Europe is younger than Die Hard. Authoritarian government is still a living memory in France, Germany and Japan. Is democracy a passing phase, or is it likely to last as long as modern western civilisation does? We shouldn’t give up on democracy, and we shouldn’t give up on protecting it either.

The Rise of Democracy

The Ancient Greeks may have invented the word democracy, but large-scale democracy, as we would think of it today, dates back to the nineteenth century. Before then, countries had elected institutions, but they were elected on very narrow franchises, usually limited to property-owning men. For example, in 1780, Great Britain had around 218,500 voters out of a population of 10.6 million. In other words, about 2% of the population could vote for the House of Commons. Elected institutions also had limited power compared to unelected ones. In December 1783, King George III dismissed a government which had the support of the House of Commons and appointed a new one which did not, forcing an election. Today, we would not consider eighteenth-century Britain a democracy, even if it did have an elected Parliament.

Over the next two centuries, the franchise expanded. Revolutionary France experimented with suffrage for all men in 1792, and again – following another revolution – in 1848. American states rolled back property qualifications for voting between 1792 and 1856. The British colonies in Australia began to pass constitutions allowing all men to vote in the 1850s, and over the second half of the nineteenth century, New Zealand, the British colonies in North America and the United Kingdom itself followed suit. New Zealand enfranchised women in 1893, and most other western democracies had done so by 1930. Racial restrictions on voting – whether set by law or enforced in practice – lasted longer and were not removed in the United States and Australia until the late 1960s.

Just as the franchise expanded in democratic countries, democracy spread around the world: in the nineteenth century, through the United States, France, and the British colonies. Then to Argentina, Italy, and the rest of Western Europe. With the collapse of the German, Austrian, Russian and Turkish empires at the end of the First World War, the process accelerated. Political scientist Samuel Huntington called this the first wave of democracy.

Then, in 1922, history began to flow the other way. Democracy failed in Italy, Japan and Germany, and was then crushed in the countries conquered by their armies. According to Max Roser’s numbers in Our World in Data, the world went from 25 democracies in the early 1920s to just eleven in 1942 – the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Chile. The Allied victory in 1945 and the de-colonisation of the developing world saw a booming second wave, which stagnated at around 37 democracies in the 1970s as democratic institutions failed in a number of post-colonial states. Finally, the fall of Communism in 1989 brought a third wave. The number of democracies passed the number of autocracies for the first time in 1998.

Since then, the number of democracies and the proportion of the world’s population living in democratic states has remained steady. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World Report (L2C), 26% of countries accounting for 34% of the world’s population are unfree, 30% accounting for 24% of the world’s population are partly free, and 44% accounting for 39% of the world’s population are free. Political freedom, of course, is more than just the ability to vote in an election, but the two trend together. The 2011 Arab Spring raised hopes for a fourth wave of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, but these hopes have since withered.

Is Democracy in Retreat?

Freedom House gave their 2019 report the provocative title ‘Democracy in Retreat’. “The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century,” the report’s summary notes, “but the pattern is consistent and ominous”. Some states that are already authoritarian are becoming more so. In China, Xi Jinping has abolished term limits, cracked down on dissent, and, in contrast to his bland and bureaucratic predecessors, promoted a cult of personality around himself. Some states which were democratising seem to have stalled. External observers have expressed concerns at the Polish Law and Justice Party Government’s politicisation of the courts and increased control over state media. Not even well-established democracies have been immune. I am writing this in the aftermath of the shocking storming of the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob, described by President-Elect Joe Biden and a number of commentators in the media as “unprecedented”.

In her recent Twilight of Democracy (which I reviewed for Areo), journalist and historian Anne Applebaum ran through some possible causes behind this democratic retreat. One is the spread of conspiracy theories, not the “big lie” of totalitarian regimes but a “medium-sized lie” which sounds plausible, is easier to say than to disprove, and can be taken up by alternative media outlets and spread through social media. The claim of massive systemic voter fraud in the 2020 U.S. presidential election is an example. Another is “restorative nostalgia”, the longing for a past which may never have existed. Opponents of democracy can suggest that getting rid of corrupt legislative institutions can bring back some sort of golden age. A third is the understandable frustration the average voter can feel with slow, clunky and bureaucratic democratic institutions. And fourth, the hyper-partisan politics of isolated internet echo chambers. We go from disagreeing on solutions, to disagreeing on problems, to disagreeing on facts. When we no longer trust our opponents to follow the most basic rules, the rules themselves start to fall apart.

Furthermore, faith in democracy in western countries is declining, particularly among young people. According to research by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, 1 in 6 Americans thought army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995. Among older Americans, 43% agreed that it was not legitimate for the army to overthrow an incompetent government, but only 19% of millennials agreed with the same statement. The numbers in Europe are similar.

Democracy’s critics often see it as inadequate to deal with the threats modern society faces. English climate scientist James Lovelock has suggested that the threat of climate change means that “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”. Others have argued that the effective management of COVID-19 in China compared to Europe and the United States shows the superiority of authoritarian (or “post-democratic”) government, although this fails to account for an effective response to the virus in democratic South Korea and Taiwan. The circumstances may be new, but the argument that democracy is weak, inefficient and indecisive is not – its critics in the 1930s said the same thing.

Photo @ Element5 Digital for Unsplash.

Democracy’s Future

Democracy certainly faces big challenges, but how much of a threat is it really under? A democratic collapse in one or more western countries would be a black swan event, something theoretically possible but outside the range of outcomes we plan for. Predicting these events in advance is extremely difficult. We knew it was theoretically possible for a terrorist attack in the United States to kill nearly three thousand people, sub-prime mortgages to cause an economic collapse, or the global economy to be shut down by a pandemic, but these all still took the world by surprise when they happened (in 2001, 2008, and 2020 respectively). There were forerunners – the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, the popping of the dot-com bubble, the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak, the emergence of MERS in 2012 – but they only really became important in retrospect.

On the flipside, most calamities which are possible do not actually happen. Democracy, in western countries, still enjoys tremendous popular support, and democratic institutions have a long history. It is hard to imagine the United States without elections in November or the United Kingdom without the House of Commons.

If our goal is peace, prosperity and happiness, liberal democracy remains unsurpassed as a system of government. It has shown remarkable resilience, often springing back decades after it was suppressed. Poland lost its democracy in 1939 and regained it half a century later. Its enemies have consistently underestimated it to their cost. The Nazi Party in Germany thought it had gotten rid of democratic institutions in 1933, only to have them restored after Germany’s defeat in 1945. That said, maintaining it takes effort, both a willingness on the part of voters to actively participate in public life, and just as importantly, a willingness to accept being outvoted.

The problem arises when people don’t accept that they have been outvoted, which brings us back to Applebaum’s “medium-sized lie”. The United States, unlike other modern democracies, does not have an independent electoral commission and relies on partisan state and local officials to run elections. This has led to a history of claims of illegitimacy by supporters of losing candidates and parties. For example, a number of progressive commentators accused George W. Bush of stealing the 2004 presidential election through electoral fraud in Ohio. None of the claims, though, have been anywhere near as far-reaching as Trump’s, nor have they attracted as much support in Congress. In 2005, the House of Representatives still voted to certify George W. Bush’s win 267-31 and the Senate voted 74-1. Creating an electoral commission would surely increase confidence in the system, although it would not satisfy those with the strongest suspicion of the ‘deep state’. Trump has set a troubling precedent, but we do not know as yet if refusing to accept election results and claiming fraud will become a regular feature of politics in the United States or elsewhere. It is certainly a possibility, particularly as more and more people turn to a decentralised social media ecosystem for news.

Ironically, the biggest threat to democracy in the west now is probably voters deciding that they’ve already lost it. In other words, we could end up killing democracy in order to save it. We can take some comfort, though, that the citizens of democracies have pulled their institutions through serious challenges in the past. And America’s institutions have held through the current crisis, thanks in a large part to principled Republicans at a state and federal level. This is an encouraging sign. Ultimately, though, democracy in the United States and other countries will probably last for as long as we are willing to put in the effort —, which could be either a comforting, or a troubling, thought.


Adam Wakeling


Received: 24.10.20, Ready: 15.01.21; Editors: Omaina H. Aziz, Jessica Brown.

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