- - Monday, May 17, 2021

If you search “why democracies fail,” you will find enough reading material to keep you busy for the rest of your life.

From former President Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign to discredit the results of the 2020 election, despite the absence of evidence of significant voter fraud, to the emergence of authoritarian strongmen across the globe, the health of the liberal democratic order has been the subject of countless conversations, cable news debates, news articles and essays.

The latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast attempts to answer the question: Is democracy really in retreat at home and abroad?

The rise of China, a military coup in Myanmar, the electoral success of right-wing, populist governments in Europe, Vladimir Putin’s staying power, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent in Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s drift toward autocracy — these are the most obvious signs that liberal democracy is under assault, at least in the eyes of neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan.



The current landscape has provoked comparisons to the 1920s and ‘30s in Europe, where democratic governments were swept aside by varying forms of fascism and communism.

“There are rolling developments in the world today in which for every strongman or proto-authoritarian government, there is a protest in the street. There is an election of democratic leaders who adhere to liberal norms,” said Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a senior adviser at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington-based think tank.

I don’t think you can place a monolithic narrative on the world, split it up and say, here are the bad guys and here are the good guys,” said Ms. Vlahos, a veteran journalist covering U.S. foreign policy.

As far as the health of democracy in the U.S., Ms. Vlahos said the post-9/11 expansion of the national security state eroded civil liberties, pointing to the largely unaccountable privatization of intelligence gathering. Moreover, many Americans never recovered from the 2008 crash of the financial system.

The resulting loss of faith in institutions, from Wall Street to the federal government to the news media, has caused a “crisis of democracy” that has little to do with typical partisanship.

“I feel as though the last four years, and especially the last year, has been the culminating moment of a long slide in terms of how [Americans] feel about their democracy,” Ms. Vlahos said.

For more of Ms. Vlahos’ observations about the global political landscape, listen to this episode of History As It Happens. 

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