All over the globe, plenty of lessons for American democracy reformers
Zohdy is the director of the Open Gov Hub, a network of almost 50 groups promoting transparency, accountability and civic engagement around the world. Raderstorf is a consultant to that organization and a public policy graduate student at the University of California- Berkeley.
"Washington is broken," says …. well, everyone. To say that something's wrong with American democracy is practically an unspoken and bipartisan assumption in today's politics.
And the United States is not alone in facing this new and building strain. Larry Diamond, a renowned democracy scholar at Stanford, warns of a "global retreat from freedom" with decay in both old democracies, like the United Kingdom, and young ones, like Poland and the Philippines. This is not a coincidence. Clearly many factors driving discontent and dysfunction in the United States are global forces of economic, geopolitical, social and technological change.
When you look closely, as we did in the Defending Democracy Program, the parallels are remarkable — almost every aspect of our current democratic crisis is repeated (and often exaggerated) somewhere else. "Make Brazil great again," says that country's president, Jair Bolsonaro. According to President Trump, comparisons to Hungary's anti-immigrant strongman Viktor Orbán are both true and a compliment. Want to see how bad online disinformation or media intimidation can get? Just look to Ukraine or India. Attempts by Poland's far-right government to control the judiciary by force seem like the natural extension of recent Supreme Court battles. The list goes on and on.
If anything, the only thing exceptional about American democracy these days is how high the stakes are. For more than seven decades, the United States has promoted democracy abroad. Now, with the vacuum left behind, the decline of American democracy has a contagion effect on the rest of the world.
But even as other countries sing the same song, most in Washington still seem to believe we have little to learn from the rest of the world. Together, we've worked on democracy reform issues in a dozen countries, and the United States is the only one where both problems and solutions — from money in politics to press freedoms to checks and balances to lobbying to electoral systems — tend to be discussed in isolation. This is a missed opportunity. And breaking down this outmoded, exceptionalist assumption can help light the path forward in many ways.
Most obviously, a global perspective can help illuminate risks and red flags, giving us more time to combat them. Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue convincingly that almost everything about the Trump era fits clearly with what we know about "how democracies die" throughout history. They pay particular attention to the erosion of norms, the "soft guardrails" of democracy and the rise of polarization and partisanship — which justify winning power at any cost.
The cautionary tales of polarization are particularly important, not just for Trump and his supporters but also for his critics. For example, both liberals and conservatives like to accuse the other of paving the road to a Venezuela-like collapse. But both miss the bigger point: Polarization and mutual hostility between supporters and detractors of Hugo Chávez led to dictatorship as much, or more, than anything else.
In more practical terms, looking comparatively can help benchmark policies on various issues, a test of how we're doing among our peers. Nowhere is this more dramatic than on money in politics, where the United States is hugely out of step with almost every other advanced democracy. In fact, many of the biggest corruption scandals around the world — from Brazil's campaign slush funds of Odebrecht bribes to South Korea's influence peddling crisis, both of which led to impeachments — would plausibly have been legally permissible here.
At the same time, it's not all bad. Looking to other countries can help identify solutions in addition to problems. Democracy reformers don't have to start from scratch on every issue.
Take online disinformation: In the United States, debate focuses mostly on the role of internet platforms in policing content and the delicate balance (and tradeoffs) between truth and freedom of expression. But in Finland, the approach couldn't be more different. To confront decades of Russian propaganda efforts, the government invested heavily in "media literacy" education starting in 2004. Instead of blocking disinformation, they just labor to teach the tools needed to recognize it in school. The results are impressive and encouraging, but rarely mentioned in the United States. (If our interactions with some of the Finnish government are any indication, it could not be more eager to teach its methods.)
Other countries can also teach democracy reform tactics, political strategy and organizing techniques. South Korea's candlelight movement brought up to 2 million people into the streets in 2016 to protest corruption. After a series of corruption scandals, Chile's government in 2015 ushered through major reforms to money in politics, ethics, lobbying and transparency laws — a remarkable political achievement. Between 1984 and 1996, New Zealand swapped out its aging electoral system, to the surprise of much of the political class. Tunisia defied the fall from grace of the Arab Spring to build — so far — a stable democracy. Though each case has caveats and limitations, and obviously every country is unique, and provides lessons to study — from the general (timing is everything) to the specific (pro-reform civil society movements work better when diverse and federated but with clear coordination and decision-making processes).
Most sobering, zooming out helps put into perspective the difficulty and complexity of strengthening democracy and fighting corruption. There is no perfect country or perfect system. For example, Canada recently re-elected Justin Trudeau even as he lost the popular vote. Less obviously, reformers should not assume that exposing corruption, or even passing reforms, is the end of the story. Often things get worse before they get better. Across Latin America, a wave of corruption scandals, toppled governments, protest movements, and (in many cases) real reforms starting in 2015 was arguably the biggest single anti-corruption shift in world history. But you'd never guess from the opinion polls: Voters globally are angier and more disaffected than ever before.
Democracy, as it turns out, is hard work. And especially so when you go it alone.