When critics of President Trump argue that he is a threat to democracy, his supporters tell us to relax. No one is being exiled to Alaska or locked up for criticizing the supreme leader. The courts, Congress and the media all continue to function. Elections aren’t being canceled.
All true, but it offers scant comfort given the historical experience of how other countries have lost their freedom. There is seldom a moment of clarity, at least not early on, when a dictator announces that democracy has been abolished. Much more common is for aspiring autocrats to chip away at the foundations of liberal democracy — judicial independence, freedom of the press, minority rights, an apolitical civil service and so on — while maintaining its facade.
Unfortunately, this type of democratic erosion is now the norm across the world. The “Freedom in the World 2020” survey, released Wednesday by Freedom House, reports that 2019 saw the 14th year in a row of political deterioration, with 64 countries experiencing a loss of liberties, while only 37 experienced improvements.
Some of the worst repression is occurring in China as a result of what the report rightly describes as “the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing campaign of cultural annihilation in Xinjiang.” But you expect repression from a communist regime. What is truly disheartening is to read that during the past year, “25 of the world’s 41 established democracies experienced net losses” of freedom.
The worst offender is the world’s largest democracy, India. The recent anti-Muslim pogroms in New Delhi — which killed 46 people and were carried out with the connivance of senior police officers — are sadly indicative of the country’s illiberal direction under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As Freedom House notes: “While India continues to earn a Free rating and held successful elections last spring, the BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitments to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.”
Less dramatic but nevertheless depressing is the erosion of U.S. democracy. Since 2009, the United States has fallen eight points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale. With a score of 86, we are now ranked behind countries such as Greece, Slovakia, Italy and Mauritius. Freedom House points out some alarming trends of late, which include “an ongoing decline in fair and equal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers,” Trump’s declaration of “a national emergency in order to redirect Defense Department funds to the construction of a wall along the southern border,” his attempt to “extract a personal political favor from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky,” and his orders to “current and former officials to defy all congressional subpoenas for document and testimony about the matter.”
This is only a small part of Trump’s efforts to undermine checks and balances, which include an ongoing purge of officials deemed traitors to Trumpism, blatant political interference with the administration of justice, and frivolous libel suits against The Post and the New York Times intended to silence critics.
Similar erosion is occurring in one of the United States’s closest allies, Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emerged from the latest election on Monday in a strong position to form a new government despite his indictment on corruption charges. Freedom House notes that “Netanyahu has taken increasingly drastic steps to maintain the loyalty of far-right groups, entrenching and expanding West Bank settlements at the expense of the moribund Palestinian peace process, banning foreign activists based on their opposition to such policies, and enacting a discriminatory law that reserved the right of self-determination in Israel to the Jewish people.”
There is a real danger that countries such as India, the United States and Israel may now be going down the same road that Hungary and Poland have already traveled. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has lost 20 points in the Freedom in the World survey over the past decade and become the first European Union member to be classified as only “Partly Free.” Under the Law and Justice party, meanwhile, Poland’s freedom score has fallen nine points since 2015.
The good news is that, just as there is nothing inevitable about democracy’s triumph, so too there is nothing inevitable about its demise. As Freedom House notes: “The mass protests that emerged or persisted in 2019 in every region of the world are a reminder that the universal yearning for equality, justice and freedom from oppression can never be extinguished.”
To prevent further erosion of freedom, it is imperative to remove anti-democratic leaders from power. While that requires a revolution in China, here it only requires high voter turnout. The United States, which has joined the retreat from democratic ideals in the past three years, can now take the lead in renewing democracy by voting Trump out of office. If we fail to seize this opportunity, the erosion of our democracy will only accelerate.
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam," a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography.