Democracy has come increasingly under attack, not only from violent groups, but from government institutions changing from within to expand individuals’ power. Beginning in the early 2010s, many democracies around the world began to move closer to authoritarianism via attacks on elections, media, and civil liberties. This transformation is happening in tandem with a rise in right-wing populism, both riding on a sense of general dissatisfaction with the great powers of the world. According to the Varieties in Democracy Institute, the majority of the world lives in countries classified as autocracies for the first time since 2001, and more countries are likely to join that list very soon. Even long-standing democracies in the G20 such as Brazil, India, and the United States are not immune from the far-right wave.
Some of the most powerful countries in the world are already authoritarian governments, the two best examples being China and Russia. Russia promised after the Cold War that its new democratic systems would hold and that the people, rather than the single-party regime under the Soviet Union, could hold it accountable by the people. However, Vladimir Putin quickly began consolidating power around himself and assassinating political opponents upon becoming President in 1999. Russia still censors any media critical of the government and is attempting to regain control of the territory it lost after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The current invasion of Ukraine is the culmination of Putin’s attempt to regain Russia’s lost power after the Cold War, and it has become possible because of his disregard for democracy at home and abroad.
The People’s Republic of China, on the other hand, was formed after the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) seized power in 1949, and has maintained authoritarian rule ever since. While China has made drastic reforms since Mao Zedong’s destructive rule, it is still not classified as a democracy because of its suppression of free press and lack of voting for national offices. While local bureaucracies are elected by the people, regional and national offices are not, which means that the Chinese government is in no way responsive to the people it governs. Additionally, the C.C.P. uses concentration camps to imprison political opponents and religious minorities, in particular the Uyghur population in the province of Xinjiang. China has gradually built up its economic and military power and is currently keeping pace with the United States as a global superpower.
Many other nations are in a state of back-sliding democracy, including some of the world’s most prominent democracies. One example is India, which has been under the rule of President Narendra Modi since 2014. Modi’s actions, rhetoric, and policies have been steadily pushing the country closer to autocracy, and India has been officially classified as autocratic as of 2020. The signature belief behind Modi’s party, the B.J.P., is an ideology known as Hindu nationalism, the idea that India should be a Hindu nation. This is not only provocative because of India’s long history of religious tension, and because this ideology goes against India’s founding principles as a strictly secular state, but also because most of the Hindu nationalist policies are focused on an anti-Muslim agenda. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (C.A.B.), for example, explicitly excludes Muslims from gaining Indian citizenship. According to American news publication Foreign Policy, the C.A.B. and the complementary National Registration of Citizens law have removed over 120,000,000 eligible voters from the Indian electorate and could be leading to India becoming a “Russian-style ‘managed democracy’ – one retaining all the trappings of democracy while operating as a de facto autocracy.”
Brazil is another nation slipping into autocracy. The current president of Brazil is Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power in 2019 through weaponizing the already extremely polarized Brazilian population. Bolsonaro used online disinformation to fuel his campaign, blaming all of the country’s polarization on the people in power and presenting himself as a populist standing against a controlling elite. Once in power, Bolsonaro began witch hunts for “communists,” which essentially meant any politician who was not as far right as he was, among his political opponents. Even more unsettling, he started calling the legitimacy of Brazil’s voting system into question, so much so that Human Rights Watch claimed he was “threatening democratic rule in Brazil.” Bolsonaro has indicated that he will not accept the results if he loses election and showed support for the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil before democracy took hold in 1988.
Finally, the United States, the most powerful and long-standing democracy in the modern world, has eroded its claim to that title. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected to the U.S. presidency on a campaign based heavily on mass disinformation and an “us vs. them” dynamic. He established scapegoats, notably immigrants and Muslims, for America’s political issues. When he came into power, he showed disregard for rule of law by trying to stop an investigation into his campaign’s dealings with the Russian government. Later in his presidency, he was impeached for attempting to obtain dirt on one of his top political opponents. His most explicit attack on American democracy was helping to incite an insurrection in 2021: an attempt to overturn the results of an election that he lost.
While it is unsettling to see all of these attacks on democracy come from within, it is much more unsettling to see how popular most of these movements are. Much of this popularity is influenced online through mass disinformation, which all of the leaders discussed in this article have leaned into extensively. The only way to combat this kind of threat is through constant vigilance and energetic participation from every citizen of every country.
These leaders know that they can be held accountable to the people, which is why they are trying to subvert their countries’ democracies. Every voter must work to ensure that these individuals cannot gain power.
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