Power, Performance, and Legitimacy

Issue Date April 2024
Volume 35
Issue 2
Page Numbers 5–22
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Democracies today remain in a potent and protracted recession, and they have retreated from the ideological struggle against autocracy. We can renew the world’s democratic momentum through power, performance, and legitimacy. Democracies must generate economic prosperity and opportunity while containing corruption, crime, and abuses of power, to reinvigorate support for democracy across regions and generations. Liberal democracies cannot be weak or retreat; they must exert their power to safeguard free and fair elections, independent media, and the rule of law. Nowhere in the world where dictatorships repress rights, censor information, and propagate disinformation can democracy be secure. Every defense of democracy is a source of inspiration and instruction. We must get serious again about promoting the values, experiences, requirements, and institutions of democracy. And we must do so on the scale, with the scope and ease of access in many languages, required to save it.

How can we renew momentum for democracy in the world? I believe there are three keys to doing so: power, performance, and legitimacy. That last is the belief, as Seymour Martin Lipset often put it, that the political system in place in a country is morally right and proper, the best form of government.

I will consider each of these keys, but first, let us consider the state of democracy around the globe today. I have argued for some time that the world entered a democratic recession around 2007, and that this recession has been deepening. People and organizations working on the ground to achieve, defend, and improve democracy share this assessment, but it is contested among scholars. So, first and briefly, let us consider the evidence.

About the Author

Larry Diamond is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy.

View all work by Larry Diamond

I assess democracy in two ways: categorically, as either present or absent, and continuously, on a scale from zero to 100 that averages the three principal annual measures of liberal democracy. These are the Freedom House combined scale of political rights and civil liberties, the Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and the Liberal Democracy Index put out by the Varieties of Democracy project (V-Dem). To track trends, I average these three measures — think of this average as a “poll of polls.”

To assess whether a country is a democracy or not, I ask whether the people of that country choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections. Elections are free when diverse parties and candidates can contest and campaign, when people and groups can organize to support their candidates and are able to criticize incumbents, and when there is a secret ballot as well as low political violence. Elections are fair when they are administered by impartial officials and courts, when there is a reasonably level playing field to access the media and other resources, and when there is universal adult suffrage and independent monitoring of the voting and the count.1 In many countries, these conditions are jeopardized by uneven protections for civil liberties, extensive corruption, and a weak rule of law. The retreat from democracy has mainly been among these illiberal democracies.

To distinguish “liberal” democracies, I count those that have one of the two best scores — a 1 or a 2 — on both Freedom House scales, which rate countries on political rights and civil liberties, respectively.

Judgments about whether a country is an electoral democracy can be difficult to make, and may be contested. Many democracies have been in serious decline, but if they avoid complete constitutional rupture and keep holding multiparty elections, it can be hard to say whether they still meet the minimum conditions for electoral democracy. Most observers agree that Turkey, Bangladesh, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Benin have become authoritarian regimes. But other cases, such as those of Hungary and the Philippines, remain in dispute.

Hungary is the country most often misclassified as a democracy, thereby lending undeserved legitimacy to what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán proudly calls an “illiberal democracy.” Orbán’s big win in his 2022 reelection bid showed “how autocrats can rig elections legally, using their parliamentary majorities to change the law to neutralize whatever strategy the opposition adopts.”2 The test of democracy is not whether a regime holds political prisoners and imposes a pervasive climate of fear. It is whether the people can choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections. Orbán and his Fidesz ruling party have taken near-total control of the mass media while grotesquely gerrymandering electoral districts and intensely politicizing the civil service, the judiciary, and other regulatory bodies. What Orbán is running is not an illiberal democracy; it is a very clever autocracy.

The Glass Half Full

Now for the evidence. On the positive side is what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way term “democracy’s surprising resilience.”3 Over the last fifteen years, most liberal democracies have indeed proven resilient. The share of states with at least a million people each that rank as liberal democracies peaked in 2006 at 34 percent, and since then has dipped only four points.4 Aside from Hungary, all EU member states — like most advanced industrial countries — remain not just democracies but liberal democracies. Brazil had a close call with democratic disruption in the weeks following the October 2022 presidential election, when the defeated incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, was questioning the outcome and canvassing for a possible effort to circumvent it. But he was forced to concede defeat and leave office. In June 2023, Brazil’s electoral court disqualified Bolsonaro from contesting future elections until 2030 because of his baseless preelection claims that the voting system would be rigged — a violation of the country’s election laws.

The Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World

Larry Diamond delivered the twentieth annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World on 6 December 2023. The title of his lecture was “Power, Performance, and Legitimacy: Renewing Global Democratic Momentum.”

Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006) was one of the most influential social scientists and scholars of democracy of the second half of the twentieth century. A frequent contributor to the Journal of Democracy and a founding member of its Editorial Board, Lipset taught at Columbia, the University of California–Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, and George Mason University. He was the author of numerous important books, including Political Man, The First New Nation, The Politics of Unreason, and American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. He was the only person ever to have served as president of both the American Political Science Association (1979–80) and the American Sociological Association (1992–93).

Lipset’s work covered a wide range of topics: the social conditions of democracy, including economic development and political culture; the origins of socialism, fascism, revolution, protest, prejudice, and extremism; class conflict, structure, and mobility; social cleavages, party systems, and voter alignments; and public opinion and public confidence in institutions. Lipset was a pioneer in the study of comparative politics, and no comparison featured as prominently in his work as that between the two great democracies of North America. Thanks to his insightful analysis of Canada in comparison with the United States, most fully elaborated in Continental Divide (1990), he has been dubbed the “Tocqueville of Canada.”

The Lipset Lecture is cosponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Munk School, and the Embassy of Canada in Washington, D.C., with financial support this year from Johns Hopkins University Press, the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and the Embassy of Canada. To view videos of the Lipset Lecture from this and past years, please visit www.ned.org/seymour-martin-lipset-lecture-on-democracy-in-the-world.

In Argentina, runaway inflation that reached 161 percent in November 2023 has pushed 40 percent of the population into poverty.5 The debate in the October–November 2023 presidential election was about two radically different policy visions and the performance of the previous government, not about whether to retain democracy. Democracy worked. Miserable government performance brought the decisive defeat of the corrupt and incompetent ruling Peronist party. But the radical change that 56 percent of Argentines voted for when they elected Javier Milei also rejects a forty-year national consensus repudiating the country’s military dictatorship and embracing accountability for its rights abuses.6 In Chile, a years-long process of much-needed constitutional reform went down to a crushing defeat in a 2022 referendum. In a victory for liberal democracy, voters justifiably opposed constitutionalizing a vague and bewildering array of environmental, social, and identity rights.7

Among the liberal democracies, partisan and ideological polarization is often worrisomely high, while political tolerance and trust have eroded. But many third-wave democracies still seem robust; many reversals or degradations of democracy have been temporary; and emerging autocracies face their own formidable obstacles to consolidation.8

Democratic backsliding, moreover, is reversible. In Orbán’s Hungary in 2022 and in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey in both 2019 and 2023, democratic oppositionists ran hard in elections. The authoritarian Turkish government’s barring of Istanbul’s popular mayor from the 2023 presidential race was perhaps all that saved Erdoğan. And in October of that year, a positive policy agenda and huge turnout by younger voters enabled the democratic opposition in Poland to triumph. The victory of Poland’s Civic Platform not only halted an eight-year slide away from liberal democracy by Poland’s populist Law and Justice party, but also reaffirmed lessons from Turkey’s 2019 municipal elections, from the electoral victory of Greek center-right liberal-constitutional forces over left-wing populists the same year, and from elsewhere in Europe and beyond. When prodemocratic forces rally behind a platform that speaks to voters’ concerns, highlight incumbents’ blunders and corruption, and rise above populist polarization with broad appeals to a democracy-friendly “civic nationalism,” illiberal and populist forces can be beaten at the ballot box.

Democratic backsliding tendencies have also been contained by the early and vigorous countervailing action of state institutions, such as the courts and the civil service,9 and by political and civic strategies that pursue moderate goals using democratic institutional means. That is how the Colombian opposition was able to frustrate attempts by President Álvaro Uribe (2002–10) to aggrandize “executive powers, undermine the courts and Congress, and coopt oversight agencies.”10

Democracy’s Drawn-Out Recession

Unfortunately, however, many efforts to subvert democracy have not been contained. And thus, we remain in a protracted democratic recession, embodied in the following four trends.

First, among countries with populations of more than a million, the share that are at least electoral democracies (a category that includes liberal democracies, but is wider) has declined from a peak of 57 percent in 2006 to around 43 percent today.11 In a pair of difficult judgments, I include India and Indonesia among the defectors from democracy.12 Yet even leaving them aside, the global trend is clearly negative. And if we can no longer count those two huge countries as democratic, then the share of humans who live under democracy has declined from 55 percent in 2006 to 25 percent today.

Second, every decade since the third wave began in 1974 has seen a rise in the rate of democratic breakdown. While it was 8 percent in the 1980s, it was 19 percent in the decade that ended in 2022.

Third, the rate of transition to democracy has been falling: While 36 percent of all autocracies became democracies during the 1983–92 period, that rate fell in the following three decades to 30 percent, 21 percent, and then 12 percent in the decade ending in 2022.

Among larger countries, virtually all mobilizations for democracy have failed in this century. So far in this century, there have been only two high-profile cases in which a mass movement for democracy has brought about a democratic transition. Both movements, moreover, started during the century’s first decade: Ukraine following the Orange Revolution (launched in late 2004) and Tunisia following the Arab Spring (launched in late 2010). Every other instance of mass popular mobilization (through elections, mass protests, or both) to achieve or restore democracy has fallen short. The failed cases include Burma, Iran, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Egypt plus a number of other Arab states. The rising pace of democratic breakdowns alongside the shrinking rate of transitions has meant fewer democracies in the world, indeed significantly fewer than in 2007.

Fourth, Freedom House data from 2007 through 2022 show a steady pattern of many more countries declining than gaining in freedom. The relative decline in 2022 was only very slight, but once again in 2023 Freedom House found that more than twice as many countries declined in freedom as the number that gained, and that the declines were bigger in scale than the improvements.

The most troubling case of democratic regression has been that of what, until recently, was the world’s most populous democracy: India. The Hindu-chauvinist policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — in power since 2014 — have ravaged this giant country’s long record of political pluralism, free expression, judicial independence, and religious tolerance.

The authoritarian project has advanced so far that, as Maya Tudor writes, “incumbent turnover remains electorally possible but improbable because the Modi government has substantially eroded the de facto protection of civil liberties and executive constraints.”13 Fear now stalks the media (including social media) as well as the worlds of academic, intellectual, and even artistic expression. Due to “widespread harassment of independent journalists and concentrating ownership structures,”14 self-censorship is now the norm. According to Freedom House, India ranks well into the bottom half of seventy countries on measures of internet freedom, behind such autocracies as Angola, Morocco, and Singapore.15 India now leads in government-directed internet shutdowns.16 The BJP regularly uses weaponized law enforcement to intimidate and punish opponents.

That party’s ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), as represented by formally discriminatory laws and the blatantly bigoted outbursts of high-profile leaders, has driven a rising wave of violence against India’s Muslim minority. These assaults on democracy and human rights are all the more ominous, Šumit Ganguly argues, precisely because they are parts of a project aiming at the permanent transformation of India’s political system. If India is arguably still a democracy today — and as I have said, I do not believe that it is — it is “far from certain that India will remain” one.17

It is now fashionable to declare that claims of democratic backsliding reflect a “recency bias” that elides a prior history of authoritarian abuses. Yes, many of these backsliding democracies (including India’s) were of low quality, featuring “feckless pluralism” or a “caesaristic, plebiscitarian executive.”18 The countries that have slid to or over the brink of democratic failure in the last two decades, however, were all at one time genuine, competitive democracies. They include Benin, El Salvador, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela, which are all now autocracies, plus India, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa, which have greatly deteriorated.

To assess the global trends between 2006 and 2022, we can take my 100-point democracy scale (averaged from the “big three” measures published by Freedom House, V-Dem, and the EIU, respectively), and ask how many countries declined by at least five points from their peak score during these years and how many improved by at least five points from their lowest score.19 Here, I drop the states with fewer than a million people each while also setting aside for special scrutiny 45 “big” states (population above fifty million, GDP above US$500 billion, or both). Of the 21 big states that experienced significant change, nineteen declined. Eleven of those were democracies in 2006, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey — and the United States (the only advanced industrial democracy in this group). During this time, only two big-country democracies notably improved: Colombia and Taiwan (which became one of the most liberal democracies of the third wave). Of the eight big authoritarian regimes that experienced significant change, all of them became more repressive, including Russia and China (see the Table).

If we widen our scope to take in all countries with more than a million people each, the picture remains discouraging. In total, thirty democracies declined during these sixteen years, and only six improved by at least five points across this span. Some of the decliners that are not among the “big” countries are nonetheless politically significant due to their demonstration effects: Hungary is the self-proclaimed illiberal model; Ukraine is the biggest democratic victim of Russian aggression; Tunisia is the one Arab state that gained democracy (and then lost it); and Botswana and Mauritius are the only two countries in Africa that have been continuously democratic since independence (recent Afrobarometer surveys in each reveal dramatic declines in public satisfaction with democracy’s performance). By contrast, the four smaller democracies that improved are Timor-Leste, Malawi, Moldova, and Sierra Leone — countries whose combined population of about 34 million encompasses roughly 0.42 percent of humanity.

When we look at these numbers, the relative country weights behind them, and trends such as further tightening in the world’s autocracies plus political polarization and illiberal populism in many of its democracies, we must see that we are still in the grip of a potent and protracted democratic recession. We need a strategy to reverse it.

Legitimacy and Performance

This is not quite yet a “third reverse wave.” But with growing challenges to democratic legitimacy, the feckless performance of many democracies, and dramatic shifts in the global balance of power, the possibility of a much more disastrous retreat of freedom cannot be dismissed.

Let us begin with democratic legitimacy. There is still a broad aspiration for democracy around the world. This belief in democracy remains sufficiently widespread to support the claim that democracy is a universal value, in the sense that people from vastly different cultural traditions see it as important to their lives.20 In Asia, support for democracy remains strong in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and at least nominally so in Thailand and Indonesia.21 The most astonishing evidence for universal values, however, comes from Africa. The Afrobarometer survey finds that two-thirds of Africans across 36 countries continue to believe that democracy is preferable to any other form of government. At least two-thirds of Africans reject each of the authoritarian alternatives (one-person rule, one-party rule, or military rule).22

Unfortunately, though, dramatic declines in support for democracy are evident in some African countries. The most prominent of these is South Africa, where in 2022 only 43 percent said that they backed democracy over every alternative — a 21-point drop over the last seven years.23 South Africa has one of the highest percentages in Africa (nearly half) who say that it is more important to have a government able to get things done than one that is politically accountable. Three decades after apartheid’s end, the country struggles with one of the world’s worst youth-unemployment rates (61 percent). Overall, a third of working-age South Africans lack jobs.24 Not surprisingly, satisfaction with the way democracy is working in South Africa has declined 23 points since 2015, with just 25 percent of South Africans saying they were satisfied in 2022.

Brewing in South Africa now is explosive discontent not simply with the disheartening shortfalls in employment, economic growth, and social services, but with rampant corruption on the part of the African National Congress — a ruling party that has faced no serious electoral challenge in three decades. If South Africa slides toward illiberal populism grounded in racial resentment, as could happen in the 2024 general election, it will be tragic for not only the country but the continent.

Public-opinion trends in Latin America are also troubling.25 Across the region, support for democracy has declined to 48 percent from 65 percent in 2010. In Mexico, the region’s second-largest country, it is 35 percent. Disturbingly, democratic support is lowest among the young. Only 43 percent of Latin Americans below age 25 say that they support democracy over every alternative. Satisfaction with the way democracy is working has plunged to abysmal levels in formally democratic Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador (where it is 22, 17, and 12 percent, respectively). In Peru, which has had seven presidents in the last eight years, it is 8 percent. The only two Latin American countries with majority democratic satisfaction are Uruguay and El Salvador, where the power-grabbing authoritarian president, Nayib Bukele, is wildly popular thanks to his brutal crackdown on ruthless criminal gangs.26 Across the region, satisfaction with democracy fell from 45 percent in 2009 to 28 percent last year.

Again, protracted poor performance is heavily to blame. High levels of crime and violence alarm voters. The global commodities boom that lifted the region through the early years of the twenty-first century has ended. New jobs, higher wages, and social spending drove the region’s poverty rate down from 27 to 12 percent and softened historically sharp inequalities.27 But Latin American economies remained too dependent on commodity exports, with prices often driven by demand from China.

As Lipset explained in his seminal work, there is an intricate relationship between legitimacy and regime performance. Belief in the legitimacy of democracy may be shaped by culture and history, but it is also driven by economic development and the performance of present versus past regimes. Newer democracies cannot rely on tradition as a source of legitimacy, but must show that they can solve problems and deliver what people want from government. A long record of effective performance — in delivering economic growth and opportunity, reducing poverty and inequality, providing social services, controlling corruption, and maintaining political order and security — fills a reservoir of legitimacy that can sustain a democracy in times of crisis. Lipset cautioned, however, that “even in legitimate systems, a breakdown of effectiveness, repeatedly or for a long period, will endanger its stability.”28 The most dangerous democratic illusion is the vanity of permanence, the notion that because democracy has become deeply legitimized through decades of effective performance, it will never unravel.

A major reason why democracy has been eroding in this century is its poor economic and political performance. Newer democracies have the thinnest time cushion. Tunisia made a transition to democracy after 2011, but it failed to deliver and citizens tired of ineptitude, fragmentation, opportunism, and corruption among the politicians and their shallow parties. Voters elected the “antipolitical” populist strongman Kais Saied as president in 2019, then stood by or even applauded when he closed parliament and seized control in a 2021 self-coup.29

Even when a democracy begins with high legitimacy and persists for decades, however, the law of political gravity applies. At some point, democracies under stress must stand and deliver or else watch public support bleed away, not merely for the ruling parties but for the system. To avert a downward spiral in South Africa, to avoid giving generals in more countries a pretext to seize power, to preempt authoritarians such as Patrice Talon in Benin or the presidents of El Salvador and Tunisia from gutting constitutional norms, democracy must generate some measure of economic prosperity and opportunity while containing corruption, crime, and the abuse of power.

Power Matters

Another reason for the retreat of freedom and democracy has been the shifting balance of global power and prestige. “During the third wave, U.S. and European pressure, diplomatic engagement, and support often tipped the balance toward a successful transition (or away from democratic demise) in precarious circumstances.”30 But now, Washington, Brussels, and individual European democracies are less likely to exert pressure — not only in the form of sanctions, but even in the weaker forms of diplomatic efforts and statements of principle — to oppose democratic backsliding or, indeed, admit its existence.

This reluctance enabled Orbán to dismantle Hungarian democracy before he had to face material consequences. It has given President Aleksandar Vučić room to maneuver Serbia back to competitive authoritarianism, while thinking this would not affect Serbia’s bid for EU accession.31 And it has enabled Bukele to get away with murder in El Salvador.32 Coordinated diplomatic pressure can still work to defend democracy, as U.S. president Joseph Biden’s administration showed when it successfully pressed Brazil’s army and politicians to respect the 2022 election results.33 We need more of this. The essential work of financial and technical aid to democratic organizations, parties, governing institutions, movements, media, and electoral processes goes on, but it lacks the synergy with diplomatic support and pressure, and the increased scale of support that the times demand.

The retreat from democracy promotion — stemming from unsuccessful U.S. state-building efforts in Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, the polarizing effects of social media, and various stresses of globalization — reflects a broader erosion of national self-confidence and resolve in established democracies. These are important if intangible dimensions of global power.

Objectively as well, the power of the Western democracies has been ebbing. The G7 countries’ share of global GDP has declined since 2002 from 42 to 30 percent, while the share of the global economy accounted for by the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa plus others) has risen from 19 to 32 percent.34 With China’s economic stagnation, India’s share of the BRICS growth and output is growing. There are democracies among these “emerging market” countries, but even they tend to place “noninterference” interpretations of sovereignty ahead of concerns with democracy and human rights.

The world’s most potent autocracies, principally Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have been increasingly deploying “sharp power” to undermine and subvert democracy. These covert, coercive, and corrupting initiatives are designed to penetrate, sway, and propagandize democratic societies and institutions.35 Democracies are taking steps to counter sharp power, but even the wealthiest democratic societies remain vulnerable to efforts by Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and the Gulf monarchies to insinuate authoritarian influences into democratic civic life. We still have a huge amount of work ahead to defend the integrity and autonomy of our universities, research enterprises, and think tanks; our high-technology innovations; our private enterprises; our newspapers, broadcast, and other media; our subnational governments; our political parties; and our community organizations and other civic institutions from covert efforts to bend them to the purposes of powerful and determined authoritarian regimes.

The battle for independent, critical media and open flows of information is especially important, because authoritarian efforts to distort news and narratives and to pump false and democratically demoralizing content into social-media streams and public conversations can shift public opinion and sour public support for democracy promotion and indeed democracy itself. This has been the purpose of Russian and Chinese global propaganda, along with specific efforts to sway election outcomes.

Then there is the hard power of military might, which Putin’s Russia has used first to gobble up parts of Georgia and now to try to obliterate Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty. A Russian victory in Ukraine would embolden Putin to attack other now-democratic parts of the former Soviet Union, and to cast a broader and darker shadow of tyranny over the entire region. Since the February 2022 start of this senseless war, Putin has morphed his country into a totalitarian state whose expansionist regime permits no dissent.36 Meanwhile Xi’s China, with the world’s most rapidly expanding military, is using its growing naval and air forces to dominate the South China Sea and pressure Taiwan into giving up its democracy in favor of “unifying” with Beijing. Should Xi’s plans succeed, the prospects for freedom in Asia would fall sharply, and in countries around the world power-grabbing autocrats, not constitutional democracies, would seem like the wave of the future.

This is why the defense of Ukraine and Taiwan, and of other endangered democracies in Eastern Europe and East Asia, is part of one and the same cause. And although it is a more complex case, I believe the same is true for the existence of the state of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East. If we shrink from defending Israel’s right to exist democratically as a Jewish state, we not only erase a historic and legitimate claim to nationhood, but we legitimize and reward authoritarian actors who use violence to achieve their aims. This is not a judgment about what the borders of that Jewish state should be if peace could be negotiated with the Palestinians. It is not to ignore the staggering humanitarian consequences of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. It is a minimum assertion: We cannot allow a democracy to be erased from the map by aggression, terror, and intimidation.

The cause of freedom in the world is indivisible. Democracy cannot be secure anywhere in the world when it faces powerful dictatorships that deny democracy’s legitimacy, repress the rights of their peoples, censor information, and propagate disinformation and untruth. Every democratic loss or failure has potential diffusion and demonstration effects. And likewise, every birth or defense of democracy becomes a source of hope, instruction, and inspiration.

The “realists” say that our rule in dealing with these dictatorships should be “live and let live.” To be sure, we must do all that we can to avoid war. But autocracies and their repressive ways cannot live benignly alongside liberal democracies, because autocrats face a fundamental legitimacy dilemma. Unable to turn to free political competition to renew their mandate, they are vulnerable to legitimacy crises — to the slow creep of cynicism and detachment such as the Soviet Union faced, with the ever-present possibility that a sudden upwelling of popular discontent and disgust will cast it aside.

This is the Great Fear that haunts dictatorships. It is why they feel so threatened by free flows of information, independent research, critical debate, and alternative ideas in education and the arts. It is why they must dominate the realms of information and ideas. And it is why, if they cannot instill sincere devotion to the rulers, they must at least generate fear, hatred, and resignation.

Fear of the other — of some readily demonized minority, the Roma, the Jews, the Muslims, the immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the other, in whatever form — is indispensable to autocrats. If all they have to offer is a record of economic performance, that can be fleeting. When they cease to produce improvements in people’s lives, people ask, “What have you done for us lately?” And then people will no longer make the bargain where they say, “We will give up our freedom in exchange for development.” If you are the ayatollahs in Iran, Putin in Russia, or the inheritors of the other bankrupt autocracies in Burma, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe — if you are Xi Jinping in China as he watches growth fade, assets deflate, and capital flee — you must fall back on every dictator’s one indispensable weapon: fear. Fear of uncertainty, fear of dangerous minorities within, fear of enemies without.

Fear can be used to feed aggressive, xenophobic nationalism. If you cannot give your people personal dignity and opportunities to prosper, you bombard them instead with an ultranationalist story that invites them to see themselves as heroes of a great national project and its fated triumph over enemies. You promote glorious nationalist goals: The reunification of the motherland, the conquest of supposedly lost territory, the will to regional or global power — dominance over lesser, weaker nations. It is an old and ugly story; its dangers are the harsh lesson taught by countless needless wars.

It is this fundamental and ancient truth that we confront today in the most important challenges to world peace: Russia’s brutal, unprovoked war against Ukraine. Hamas’s mass murder of innocent Israelis, a war of nihilistic, antisemitic rage by a criminal organization masquerading as a state. The backing that Iran’s primeval theocratic dictatorship offers to Hamas and other terrorist proxies in the region. If you are Xi Jinping sitting atop a shrinking populace, a stalling economy, and a bullied and subjugated business class, and your ideology of control and your ambition for historical greatness are at stake, you wage a campaign of cyber, political, economic, and incremental military aggression against Taiwan, with the goal of eventually swallowing that free island as you recently swallowed Hong Kong. And you have already signaled your readiness to snuff out freedom with the merciless crackdown on civil liberties and political pluralism in Hong Kong since 2020, which finally revealed Beijing’s promise of “one country, two systems” to be an utter fraud.37

Power still matters. And that includes the most basic and tragic element of power, the ability to mobilize and repel violence.

Just as it seeks to reshape borders, military power shapes expectations. That is captured by what international-relations theorists call the “bandwagon effect,” and by the German term Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. If democracies are weak and irresolute (and then suffer military defeat), or if they cower and prevaricate in the face of authoritarian aggression, it will not just be the defeated democracies we lose. Many other states and societies will throw in their lot with the new authoritarian juggernaut — or model themselves after it, as the embodiment of strength and success. In a world without rules, people will line up behind the powerful.

Democracy cannot be weak. It cannot afford to lose on the battlefield. This is why it remains so vital for the future of freedom globally that Ukraine defeats Russia’s aggression. It is why Hamas must be disabled and delegitimated as a terrorist organization, while at the same time everything possible is done to preserve the lives, rights, and dignity of innocent Palestinians, as well as their legitimate claim to a state of their own. And it is why liberal democracies must clearly signal their intent to help Taiwan defend itself.

Neither can democracy afford to lose at the negotiating table, or in the UN General Assembly, or on the debate stage, or in the race to develop new technologies, or in the classrooms, and most of all the social-media platforms that are shaping what people think and believe. The democracies cannot afford to be divided, and democrats in politics and civil society must not fail to unite in the cause of recognizing, confronting, and repelling authoritarian efforts to reshape the world order.

The news from this global struggle is not all bad. Democracy’s adversaries are deeply anxious. The populations they rule are aging and even shrinking. And their economies are in deep trouble. They are not — or in the case of China, are no longer — models of success.

Democrats of various parties, ideologies, nationalities, and cultures have a positive agenda to present. It offers the opportunity to live in dignity, truth, and the limitless, creative possibilities of human freedom. It includes the capacities to protect freedom, to correct failures of policy and governance through rational suasion and peaceful change, and to improve societies through means that only democracy can provide: free and fair competition for power, inclusive participation, open flows of information, restraints on brute power, and an encompassing rule of law that secures everyone’s rights. Dictatorships, by contrast, can offer only the grim, degrading bargain: Give up your freedom and we will give you order, and maybe (for a time) prosperity.

Dictators know that their peoples do not want, or will not indefinitely accept, the authoritarian bargain. The people of Burma do not want that bargain. It is why the country’s repressive military is at war against its own people — a war that the forces of repression are losing. The people of Iran do not want that bargain. It is why, more than a year after the ayatollahs’ morality police beat to death a young woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, over her clothing, and after more than five-hundred Iranians died and twenty thousand suffered arrest in “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, civil resistance continues. And it is why Narges Mohammadi of Iran won the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her extraordinary courage in defending human rights.

The people of Venezuela do not want that bargain. It is why seven million of them — a quarter of the populace — have fled that country in the last eight years. The people of Africa do not want that bargain. It is why, even with all the challenges and disappointments of multiparty politics, three-quarters of Africans say that they want to choose the leaders of their countries through “regular, open, and honest elections.”

And most certainly, the people of Ukraine do not want that bargain, and thus are enduring enormous hardship and sacrifice to defend their democracy against Russian aggression.

Power and Legitimacy

Power and legitimacy are two sides of one story that determines who rules. The more power you can muster, the less legitimacy you need. And vice-versa. But legitimacy is also a form of power. The great Czech democrat, Václav Havel, understood that to deny an unjust regime legitimacy, to “live within the truth” and refuse cooperation, even in mundane ways, is a form of power, “the power of the powerless.”38

Exerting the power of the powerless helped to pave the way for the fall of dictatorships in the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, power and legitimacy were converging to support movements for freedom around the world.

Now we are losing ground to aggressive autocracies, and to autocrats in democratic clothing. While powerful autocracies have waged muscular, technologically adroit assaults on democracy and its values, we have retreated from the ideological struggle.

It is not the people of Burma, Belarus, or Venezuela who have retreated, or the people of Thailand, who were robbed of a democratic election victory last year by a cynical alliance of generals, partisan opportunists, and powerful elites. It is not the Iranian freedom movement or its symbol, Narges Mohammadi. It is not the brave journalists of Russia and Belarus (and many other countries), who carry on reporting the truth about their autocracies the only way they can, in exile. It is not the leader of Tunisia’s Muslim democratic party, Rached Ghannouchi, who became a political prisoner last year at age 81 for insisting that President Saied should restore democracy. It is not the newspaper publisher and defender of democracy Jimmy Lai, who returned to Hong Kong several years ago, already past 70 and a very wealthy man, to face the prospect of life imprisonment rather than abandon his fellow journalists and the cause of freedom in Hong Kong. It is not Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who, with her husband in jail for challenging Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential election, stepped in to lead that campaign, and who now carries it on from exile. It is not Vladimir Kara-Murza, who returned to Russia in 2022 despite the threat (now realized) of a decades-long prison sentence for opposing Putin’s corrupt dictatorship. And it was most certainly not the leader of Russia’s democratic opposition, Alexei Navalny, who returned a year before Kara-Murza facing the same prospect, and who has now paid the ultimate price with his recent death in prison at the hands of the Russian state.

It is not they who have retreated from the struggle, but the wealthy and resourceful democracies. We are not waging the ideological struggle, the normative struggle, the informational struggle for democracy and freedom with all the energy, assets, conviction, coordination, and technological ingenuity that we should, and which the times demand.

We must get serious again about teaching and diffusing the values, experiences, requirements, and institutional designs of democracy. And we must do so on the scale, with the scope and ease of access in many languages, that is required. We must get more serious about countering authoritarian disinformation and influence efforts, exposing their lies, distortions, and self-serving purposes. We must provide democratic movements and publications with the technology and resources to report the news, educate for democracy, and counter authoritarian propaganda, on a scale much larger and more daring than we now do.

If we want to restore global democratic momentum, we need to prove something. We must prove that democracy, with freedom and law-based rule to set against autocracy’s repression and arbitrariness, is a morally and practically superior form of government, and indeed the only form of government that has assured or can assure human dignity, peace, and prosperity. It should not be hard to make this case, for it is true.39 But it requires resources, imagination, and renewed confidence both in the moral imperative behind this cause and in its enduring promise.

In accepting the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2023 Democracy Award on behalf of all those imprisoned or killed in the struggle for democracy that year, the Venerable Golog Jigme, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, human-rights activist, filmmaker, and former political prisoner, offered a message that should sustain us in this struggle:

Autocrats resist the simple fact that the desire for freedom is inherent to human nature. It can never be extinguished — not through propaganda, not through censorship, and certainly not through brute force. Because of this, I know freedom will win, autocrats will fail, and we must never give up.40


The author is grateful to the Smith Richardson Foundation for supporting the research that led to this article.

1. Jørgen Elklit and Palle Svensson, “The Rise of Election Monitoring: What Makes Elections Free and Fair?” Journal of Democracy 8 (July 1997): 32–46.

2. Kim Lane Scheppele, “How Viktor Orbán Wins,” Journal of Democracy 33 (July 2022): 45–61.

3. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “Democracy’s Surprising Resilience,” Journal of Democracy 34 (October 2023): 5–20.

4. My calculations here are for countries with populations of greater than one million, because the countries with populations smaller greatly distort the picture. Of those 37 tiny countries, 34 (92 percent) are democracies, and 29 of them (78 percent) are liberal democracies. If we take the remaining 157 states over one million population, less than half are democracies, and only 30 percent are liberal democracies.

5. Adam Jourdan and Horacio Soria, “Argentina on a Knife-Edge as Presidential Election Offers Clashing Visions of the Future,” Reuters, 17 November 2023, www.reuters.com/world/americas/argentina-knife-edge-presidential-election-offers-clashing-visions-future-2023-11-17.

6. Constanza Lambertucci and Mar Centenera, “Javier Milei’s Extreme Right Threatens to Break Consensus on Argentina’s Military Dictatorship,” El País (Buenos Aires), 5 September 2023, https://english.elpais.com/international/2023-09-05/javier-mileis-extreme-right-threatens-to-break-consensus-on-argentinas-military-dictatorship.html.

7. Eduardo Alemán and Patricio Navia, “Chile’s Failed Constitution: Democracy Wins,” Journal of Democracy 34 (April 2023): 90–104.

8. Levitsky and Way, “Democracy’s Surprising Resilience.”

9. Thomas Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, “Democracy’s Near Misses,” Journal of Democracy 29 (October 2018): 16–30.

10. Laura Gamboa, “How Oppositions Fight Back,” Journal of Democracy 34 (July 2023): 92.

11. The “electoral democracy” tag, explains Freedom House, goes to all countries “that have met certain minimum standards for political rights and civil liberties,” with the proviso that electoral democracy “should not be equated with ‘liberal democracy,’ a term that implies a more robust observance of democratic ideals and a wider array of civil liberties.” See “Freedom in the World 2023 Methodology Questions,” https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/FITW_2023%20MethodologyPDF.pdf. Thus, all liberal democracies are also electoral democracies, but not all electoral democracies qualify as liberal democracies.

12. At least one of the three surveys classifies each of these two as nondemocracies, but they do not agree on either country.

13. Maya Tudor, “Why India’s Democracy Is Dying,” Journal of Democracy 34 (July 2023): 125.

14. Tudor, “Why India’s Democracy Is Dying,” 125.

15. Freedom House, “Freedom on the Net 2023: The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence,” https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-10/Freedom-on-the-net-2023-DigitalBooklet.pdf,26–27.

16. Tudor, “Why India’s Democracy Is Dying,” 127.

17. Šumit Ganguly, “Modi’s Undeclared Emergency,” Journal of Democracy 34 (July 2023): 145; Šumit Ganguly, Dinsha Mistree, and Larry Diamond, eds., The Troubling State of India’s Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2024).

18. Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13 (January 2002): 5–21; Guillermo O’Donnell, “Illusions About Consolidation,” Journal of Democracy 7 (April 1996): 34–51.

19. A few countries that I also leave aside changed by five points or so, but 2022 found them roughly where they had been as of 2006. These oscillators include Argentina and South Korea (where democratic quality dipped and then recovered), and also Nigeria and Pakistan (which improved before slipping back to their disappointing 2006 levels).

20. Amartya Kumar Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10 (July 1999): 3–17.

21. Larry Diamond, “Trends in Support for Democracy in East Asian Countries,” in Yun-han Chu et al., eds., How Asians View Democratic Legitimacy (Taipei: National Taiwan University Press, 2023), 18–31.

22. I am grateful to the Afrobarometer and its former executive director, E. Gyimah-Boadi, for sharing this data with me.

23. The latest Afrobarometer survey (Round 9) was conducted in November 2022. The comparison is to the Round 6 survey, whose South African portion was conducted in June 2015.

24. Lynsey Chutel, “One Year in the Infuriating and Humiliating Search for a Job in South Africa,” New York Times, 12 November 2023.

25. I am grateful to Latinobarómetro’s executive director, Marta Lagos, for sharing these data with me.

26. Under Bukele, satisfaction with the working of “democracy” in El Salvador soared from 11 percent in 2018 to 64 percent in 2023. His public-confidence rating of 86 percent is by far the highest of any Latin American president.

27. Ravi Balakrishnan and Frederik Toscani, “How the Commodity Boom Helped Tackle Poverty and Inequality in Latin America,” IMF Blog, 21 June 2018, www.imf.org/en/Blogs/Articles/2018/06/21/blog-how-the-commodity-boom-helped-tackle-poverty-and-inequality-in-latin-america.

28. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53 (March 1959): 89. See also Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Democracy, updated ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), and The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1963).

29. Nate Grubman, “Coup in Tunisia: Transition Arrested,” Journal of Democracy 33 (January 2022): 12–26; Daniel Brumberg, “Tunisia’s Broken Democracy: A Preliminary Assessment,” Arab Center, 12 May 2023, https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/tunisias-broken-democracy-a-preliminary-assessment.

30. Larry Diamond, “Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled (Expanded Edition),” Journal of Democracy, January 2022, www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/democracys-arc-from-resurgent-to-imperiled-expanded-edition/#f54-text.

31. Mehmet Sezgin, “Serbia: A Case of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Democratic Erosion Consortium, 5 January 2023, www.democratic-erosion.com/2023/01/05/serbia-a-case-of-competitive-authoritarianism.

32. Laura Gamboa, “How Oppositions Fight Back,” Journal of Democracy 34 (July 2023): 90–104.

33. Michael Stott, Michael Pooler, and Bryan Harris, “The Discreet U.S. Campaign to Defend Brazil’s Election,” Financial Times, 21 June 2023.

34. James Eagle, “Animated Chart: G7 vs. BRICS by GDP (PPP),” Visual Capitalist, 27 July 2023, www.visualcapitalist.com/cp/animated-chart-g7-vs-brics-by-gdp-ppp; M.G. Chandrakanth, “How BRICS Countries Have Overtaken the G7 in GDP Based on PPPs,” Times of India, 9 April 2023, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/economic-policy/how-brics-countries-have-overtaken-the-g7-in-gdp-based-on-ppps.

35. Christopher Walker, “What Is Sharp Power?” Journal of Democracy 29 (July 2018): 9–23, and “Rising to the Sharp Power Challenge,” Journal of Democracy 33 (October 2022): 119–32; Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (New York: Penguin, 2019).

36. Anton Troianovski et al., “How the Russian Government Silences Wartime Dissent,” New York Times, 29 December 2023.

37. Victoria Tin-bor Hui, “Crackdown: Hong Kong Faces Tiananmen 2.0,” Journal of Democracy 31 (October 2020): 122–37.

38. See Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” www.nonviolent-conflict.org/wp-content/uploads/1979/01/the-power-of-the-powerless.pdf.

39. “Case for Democracy: Report,” V-Dem Institute, March 2023, www.v-dem.net/documents/34/C4DReport_230421.pdf.

40. Golog Jigme, “Remarks to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Fortieth-Anniversary Celebration,” Washington, D.C., 14 November 2023.


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