1 big thing: Democracy ... meh
Unforced by coup or war, one developed country after another has chosen an authoritarian style of democracy over the last two years, leaving millions mystified by a political shift very few foresaw.
The trend, supported in elections, has forced conventional leaders to scramble, mostly without effect.
- The big picture: Leading scholars tell Axios that economics ultimately underpins the turmoil — a financial slide that erodes the association of democracy with rising living standards and upward mobility, while populists and partisan media stoke resentment.
- Why it matters: "The big danger," says Yale's Timothy Snyder, author of 'The Road to Unfreedom,' is that people decide that full-bore authoritarianism is inevitable. Neither democracy nor authoritarianism is inevitable, he tells Axios. "Authoritarianism is, however, more likely if we don’t attend to the challenges that make democracy harder."
Theatrically outsized personalities give the trend motive power — Russia's Vladimir Putin, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and of course President Donald Trump. In an era of seemingly uncontrollable forces, these figures lend an air of break-all-the-rules derring-do, at least attempting to set things right.
- In the most recent events, Trump assailed NATO allies in Brussels, courted U.S. rival Putin, and threatened, in an all-caps tweet, to annihilate Iran.
- Polls show that such unrestrained behavior does not weaken the populists' hand, but instead seems to strengthen it.
"Populist authoritarian politicians are successful because they promote themselves as the voice of the people, and hence 'true' democracy, while undermining these checks and balances." — Roberto Stefan Foa, a professor at the University of Melbourne
In a much-read April article in Foreign Affairs, Foa and Harvard's Yascha Mounk correlated the new politics with a shift in global wealth away from the democracies that fought the Cold War against Moscow. Within five years, they forecast, non-democratic nations such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia will be richer as a group than the Western liberal democracies.
- That very fact sets the West on its heels. Simply put: autocratic regimes are competing in economic performance. And a lot of countries are noticing that the tide, led by China, is going toward the autocratic path.
China presents an especially vivid example — a superlatively vibrant economy built within authoritarianism, and proof that, contrary to what the U.S. has argued for decades, you need not be democratic to get rich.
- Like prior great powers, China is creating far-reaching infrastructure — its Belt and Road Initiative — to stretch its reach around the world, in effect placing its vitality side-by-side with a West failing even to keep its middle class intact.
Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor at the University of Michigan, says Beijing's model is widely misunderstood. China is authoritarian, but not purely so. Rather, going back to Deng Xiao Ping, it has blended strong rule with "directed improvisation," she tells Axios.
"China is best understood as an 'autocracy with democratic characteristics.'" — Ang
Go deeper: Read the whole post