“Democracy is difficult — perhaps the most difficult to operate and preserve of all known forms of government.” Bernard Lewis, the late, great scholar and historian, offered that observation more than a quarter century ago.
He added this succinct summary of democracy’s origins: “It arose in a limited region, among the peoples of western and northwestern Europe, and was transplanted by them to their colonies overseas. It has flourished, or at least survived, in some other places; sometimes, as in India, bequeathed by the departing imperial rulers; sometimes, as in the former Axis countries, imposed or implanted by the victors.”
For a half century, Freedom House, the watchdog organization founded in 1941, has been monitoring democracy’s progress around the world. The trend line has been encouraging. Until lately.
Its new annual report, “Democracy in Retreat,” is described as a “grim assessment,” marking the 13th consecutive year of “global declines in political and civil liberties.” Of 195 countries evaluated, 116 experienced “a net decline,” while only 63 chalked up a “net improvement.”
Hungary is demoted from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Nicaragua falls from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” Tunisia remained the only country “in the Arab world” rated “Free” but even there “freedoms of assembly and association were imperiled by legislative changes and the leadership’s failure to set up a Constitutional Court undermined judicial independence and the rule of law.”
China’s “mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslims — with some 800,000 to 2 million people held arbitrarily in ‘reeducation’ camps” is attributed to an attempt to “annihilate the distinct identities of minority groups.”
The report highlights also what might be called transnational or globalized repression: “A growing number of governments are reaching beyond their borders to target expatriates, exiles and diasporas. Freedom House found 24 countries around the world — including heavyweights like Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — that have recently targeted political dissidents abroad with practices such as harassment, extradition requests, kidnapping, and even assassination.”
It’s a solid and useful report, though one which, I regret to note, is diminished by bows to both “political correctness” and partisanship.
An example: The report states that “eight democracies have suffered score declines in the past three years alone due to their treatment of migrants.” It is indeed despicable for governmental authorities to abuse those fleeing conflicts and poverty. But does that accurately characterize the situation in all of these eight democracies? The report provides insufficient evidence.
Surely, it is not undemocratic to consider the economic, political, demographic and cultural impacts that massive waves of immigrants are likely to have on Europe and the United States. (No one is “migrating” to Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea.)
Nor is it undemocratic for self-governing citizens to decide which migrants and how many they will permit to cross their sovereign borders, and avail themselves of the civil rights and social benefits those citizens provide for themselves. Reasonable people can disagree over immigration policies. My complaint is that Freedom House doesn’t appear to appreciate that.
A second quarrel: Freedom House criticizes Israel for a law confirming its longstanding self-identification as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Israel’s minorities — Muslims, Arabs, Christians and Druze among them — have more rights, freedoms and protections than do the majorities anywhere else in the region — “the Arab world,” to borrow Freedom House’s phrase. Yet, for some reason, Freedom House concludes that a re-statement of Israel’s raison d’etre — self-determination for the Jewish nation in part of its ancient homeland — has “strained Israel’s democracy” and “downgraded the constitutional status of non-Jewish citizens.” It’s a bum rap.
On to partisanship — which Freedom House demonstrates by the amount of space devoted to attacking Donald Trump. I’m not saying that criticism of the president’s excesses — expressed more in his tweets and off-the-cuff remarks than in policies — is undeserved. I am saying that equal outrage ought to have been directed toward the growing anti-democratic left.
In particular, those who call themselves not the “loyal opposition” but “the resistance”; those who shout down and seek to “de-platform” conservatives and libertarians; groups such as Antifa that physically assault those they dislike; politicians who would restrict the rights of Americans they disdain as oppressors or “privileged.” Shouldn’t all that have been featured in this report, too?
I’ll end on a note of semi-agreement. Freedom House is correct to sound the alarm about the decline of democracies abroad and the erosion of democratic values at home.
The report asserts: “Only a united front among the world’s democratic nations — and a defense of democracy as a universal right rather than the historical inheritance of a few Western societies — can roll back the world’s current authoritarian and anti-liberal trends.” I wish I believed that would do the trick.
What might? At home, we need to once again reinforce, rather than trash, democratic habits and institutions. Students need to be taught, and voters reminded, that democracy remains “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.”
Abroad, we need to use all instruments of American power to prevent the continuing ascendance of authoritarians, prioritizing those who intend us harm. Yes, I am arguing against isolationism. But no, I am not arguing for “nation-building,” a mission for which Americans have neither appetite nor aptitude.
As Bernard Lewis pointed out, democracy has generally taken root in far-flung lands only after being bequeathed by colonialists or imposed by victors. At present, Americans can be accurately described by neither term.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.