Some academics have asserted that democratic recession is a myth, and that perceptions of democratic recession originate in excessive post-Cold War optimism. What do you think of claims like this?
We were all optimistic—likely overly optimistic after the end of the Cold War. Having said that, I do believe that democratic recession is a very real phenomenon. And that belief doesn’t stem solely from that fact that scores we put out in Freedom in the World every year show a numerical decline. There are qualitative things happening on the ground that are indicative of the decline that is in progress. The most prominent of these is probably the rise of China as a major global power—an authoritarian state, that inherently presents an alternative model to countries that are at a crossroads, regarding their future trajectories. presents an inherent threat to the democratic values of major democracies. We’ve observed how China is systematically attempting to undermine belief in democracy, all around the world.
There are many examples of the democratic recession—for instance, the decline of the democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Poland, which were very distinctly strong democracies. have given up on a lot of those values that are central to democracy. Also consider the deepening authoritarianism of countries like Venezuela and Myanmar.
What are some of the forces driving democratic recession in the Western world and can this pattern be reversed?
It absolutely can be reversed. The major driver in the Western world, among established democracies, is a loss of faith among the populations of these countries in the democratic process. Many segments of the population no longer believe that democracy can deliver on their everyday concerns. For most people, those are personal security and economic prosperity. There is a feeling among people across many different countries that democracy is no longer delivering. I think this sentiment is the result of a very real phenomenon that has been, in part, driven by globalization, which has benefited certain segments of the global population, failed to benefit others, while outright disadvantaging some, and worsening the lives of many others.
I think we’ve also seen failure of democratic leaders to be inspiring, and to help people understand how democracy is serving them. We’re losing faith in democracy, but also forgetting that a less democratic system would actually be worse. So, can it be reversed? Absolutely—but we need to start seeing real results on the ground as well as improvements in people’s lives. Those in power cannot lead and represent an elite or stand only for the people who elected them. Heads of states need to do a better job of speaking for all people in country.
What new challenges has the Covid-19 pandemic represented for democracy and human rights? What will the state of democracy in the world look like post-Covid?
COVID-19 is a genuine threat, and it’s something that people have valid reasons for fearing. However, when societies encounter these kinds of existential threats, whether it’s health-related or a security issue, like terrorism, there’s more leeway for undemocratic leaders to take advantage of the situation and push through their own agendas. That is what we’ve seen over and over with COVID. The health crisis has been used as an excuse to further undemocratic policies in a huge range of countries across the world—mostly in middling democracies, authoritarian states, and in democracies that might have traditionally been stronger, but are governed by leaders with authoritarian tendencies.
There has been backlash toward the authoritarian growth we’ve seen during the pandemic. Democracies have been much more proactive about unity, alliances, and speaking out against abuses over the past few months. We may see a swing in the opposite direction. However, it’s also possible that the kinds of repression occurring around the world will last well after the end of this health crisis. All around the world, we’ve seen constitutional amendments, the undermining of opposition activists, and the silencing of independent media. These changes will likely have an impact well after Covid-19 is gone.
Can you explain the concept of transnational repression?
Increasingly, governments have been reaching beyond national borders to silence their critics abroad. Jamal Khashoggi is the most well-known case of this—the Saudi government went into Turkey to kill him. Over the past few years, we’ve been conducting a study that found more than 600 cases of non-democratic regimes physically targeting their citizens in other countries within the last five years. The most extreme cases are assassinations, and kidnappings, but we also noted various instances of surveillance, monitoring, extradition, or rendition to an unsafe situation.
Most recently, Belarus grounded a plane that was in transit between Lithuania and Greece. This is another instance of transnational repression. The Belarusian government wanted a dissident journalist who was on the plane back in the country to impose further repression on . These cases are surprisingly widespread and physical targeting is only the tip of the iceberg— there are digital threats, threats to family members, etc. The impact of this is far reaching.
A recent Pew Research Center piece claims that half of the experts polled predicted that the human use of information and emerging technology will weaken democracy in the next 10 years, and a third expect technology to strengthen and reform democracy. Where do you stand?
Technology can have a very positive impact, but in some parts of the world authoritarians have the upper hand right now. Many of these technologies are new and complex yet offer immense opportunity. We need people who believe in rights and values and want those rights and values to be upheld on the internet, to articulate a positive vision for what technology can offer. It isn’t necessarily just about the technology, its about values, ideology, and how we use these powerful tools.
When the internet was young, it was an opportunity for pushing back on authoritarianism in a lot of ways because it allowed people with no voice in the traditional political realm to move online, organize, and speak out when they otherwise couldn’t. Over time those same techniques have been turned against . Being online is almost a necessity for most people in the world. When governments shut down social media accounts, or even huge portions of the internet, particularly during key moments that threaten these regimes—these are forms of repression. Often, these threats move very fluidly between digital and physical space. may start online…but soon, you have somebody at your door.
We’ve seen a resurgence of populism around the world. Could Canada, a nation with a strong history of respect for political rights and civil liberties, experience similar trends seen elsewhere in the world? How can such trends be avoided?
According to Freedom House measures, Canada ranks very well. It has almost a perfect score—98/100, 40 out of 40 on political rights, and 58 out of 60 for civil liberties. Canada ranks almost perfectly on all of our metrics, including individual rights, rule of law, civil liberties, functioning of government, etc. Democratic regression can happen anywhere though. And it happens differently depending on the place. Canada has very strong institutions, so democratic regression will be less likely. In the U.S, President Trump was extremely damaging for our democracy, but our institutions, especially the judiciary, the media, and civil society really fought back. That may have helped salvage and preserve our democracy in a way that has not taken place in Hungary and Poland.
Having said that, it happened here in the US, and it can happen in Canada, it can happen anywhere. Democracy is not an endpoint where once you achieve it, it sustains itself. Democracy is a system that needs to be cared for and cultivated, and if you don’t do that, it is going to erode. We feel certain norms very strongly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are institutionalized. Often, they aren’t. If the right person comes to power and wants to take advantage of loopholes in the system, they might be able to. There are actors in the world that have immense interest in undermining systems, including Canada’s. We all need to be vigilant and concerned for democracy. We need to fight to uphold it.
Sarah Repucci heads Freedom House’s Research and Analysis department. Drawing on more than 20 years’ experience in programming and research in democracy and human rights, she oversees Freedom House’s flagship publications Freedom in the World, Freedom on the Net, and Nations in Transit.
Repucci represents Freedom House in the media and in academia, and advises policymakers and business leaders on democracy and human rights around the world. Her commentary has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, Foreign Policy, and the Journal of Democracy. She has testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations on the dangers faced by reporters who uncover human rights violations, and has led focus group exploring Americans’ attitudes toward democracy.