2017 was a tough year for democratic governance around the world. A short list of countries which have experienced significant challenges – in the form of brazen assaults on foundational principles, noisome erosions of governing norms, convulsive disruptions of institutions, or mild indifference to sub-ethical behavior - includes Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany, Honduras, Kenya, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
This list excludes threats to democratic governance posed by autocratic leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It also excludes places where corruption on an industrial scale is undermining the rule of law, such as Brazil, Guatemala, or Romania. Nor does it include failings in the institutions of global governance, where, for example, the UN Security Council has been repeatedly stymied from taking action on Syria, the plight of the Rohingya, and elsewhere.
The challenges are also varied. In Africa the future of democratic governance is on a knife’s edge in at least four countries. Kenya, which last summer was lauded when the Supreme Court annulled election results riddled with irregularities, now is on the cusp of bifurcating into two separate states. Zimbabwe, after 37 years of despotic rule by Robert Mugabe, experienced a coup, resulting in the appointment of Mugabe’s long-term deputy, Emerson Mnangagwa, who may or may not lead the country through the democratic transition it so desperately needs. The corruption scandals engulfing South African President Jacob Zuma pose a variety of challenges to democratic governance in that country. And in the DRC, President Laurent Kabila, in power since 2001, continues to postpone presidential and legislative elections that should have taken place in 2016.
Perhaps the most visible challenge to democratic governance is that taking place in the United States. The weekly, if not daily, if not many-times-daily, attacks unleashed by Donald Trump on the norms, principles, and institutions of democratic governance in the United States are the gravest threat our democracy has faced in decades. The strength and resilience of our system has borne up well so far. To observe Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testify with integrity and competence in response to bald-faced political hackery; to experience Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s dignified silence in the face of the President’s tweet-tantrums; to witness the incredible fruits of our independent press; to see the judiciary methodically continue its work and fulfill its constitutional mandate. These facts are a testament to the durability of our system of governance, and to the Founders’ clear understanding of the nature of power. However, as the investigation into Russian meddling with the 2016 election progresses, and as those under investigation feel increasingly threatened, one can be sure that the system will be tested further.
So what is behind these threats to democratic governance? Undoubtedly, there are major societal changes taking place that are putting significant strain on our democratic systems: economic displacement caused by technology and globalization, the absence of a compelling vision for the future by many liberal parties around the world, the ubiquity and speed of information flow that puts truth and fiction on an even keel. There is considerable anger about the changing fortunes the new world is producing, and the failure of our politics to address them. This has resulted in widespread cynicism about the ability of democratic governance to deliver on its promises, which cynicism opportunistic leaders have exploited to their advantage.
Another factor is that the defenders of democratic governance have been all-too silent during this period of assault. While the attacks come fast and furious from all directions – including from China, which in its own less dramatic way presents perhaps the gravest challenge to democratic governance, in its ability to offer an alternative that in certain respects has served its people well – the pro-democratic voices have been largely missing. As we learn almost daily, in the era of social media, if you don’t respond to a challenge levelled, you have all but conceded victory to your opponent.
2018 will be an enormously consequential year for governance, as processes set in motion in 2017 or 2016 will culminate this year. Individuals and institutions who care about democratic governance can no longer remain silent.