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03 January

Democracy: At A Critical Historical Juncture

A generation ago, Francis Fukuyama declared the "end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fukuyama’s irrational exuberance over the triumph of democracy more

Democracy: At A Critical Historical Juncture

A generation ago, Francis Fukuyama declared the "end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fukuyama’s irrational exuberance over the triumph of democracy was rooted in the mistaken concept that human history is a linear progression. It is not.
History is contested – a competition between different visions of the future and understandings of the present and past. When Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, western liberal democracy had become the dominant, post-World War 2 historical path. Path dependent social, economic and political processes, and the increasing returns generated by these processes, strengthened and spread democracy across the globe. Democracy thrived, and its successes were mistaken as irreversible. But democratization did not extinguish the age-old need of some for authority, obedience, and tradition; and it did not subdue the fears that can stoke demand for order and an escape from freedom.

"Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for a man to bear, something he tries to escape from?"

Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Political demagogues have stoked these fears to acquire power. And in the digital sphere, hatemongering rhetoric has created a new path of increasing social, economic and political returns abetted by algorithms and generated a critical historical juncture.

That juncture is before us. One path leads to a new world where authoritarianism surges and ancient hatreds and fears are renewed on digital steroids. The other leads to a reformed vision of democracy and the furtherance of human rights and civil society.

Either path is now possible. The path taken will be chosen, for better or worse, in the next few years.

Time is short. Democracy and the future are at stake. Here is the situation confronting the world in three bellwethers: The United States, Hungary, and Poland.

Situation – The United States:

In America, the tip of the spear on which the future of democracy may hinge is clear. It is voting rights. Illiberal actors are working to disenfranchise Black, Brown, young, and poor voters and, while discrediting the reliability and fairness of the system, rig it from inside so that extremists win no matter how the voters’ vote. These actors are also fully engaged in gerrymandering U.S. House districts to establish the hegemony of Trumpublicans in Congress for the next decade onward.

Within the next 15 days the U.S. Senate will either pass a voting rights act to protect democracy or fail to do so. Passage of a voting rights act in the Senate depends on carving out an exception to the filibuster rule. Senators Joe Manchin and Kristin Sinema are opposed to this carve out. Changing their minds is an insider, political-elite game. Once the outcome of the voting rights act in the U.S. Senate is certain, there are three clear paths forward:

#1. If voting rights fails and gerrymandering is not addressed by the Senate, state-by-state legal challenges to extreme redistricting maps must be expanded. The results of this work may be too late for the 2022 Congressional elections, but unless the maps of many states are contested and revised U.S. House districts (as well as state legislative districts) will be rigged in for the next decade. Competitive districts will be minimized. The more extreme elements of both parties – Trumpublicans and Democrats will be encouraged. Compromise and bipartisanship will be punished even more by party structures. And the advantage of a minority of Americans over the majority, as is the case in U.S. Senate elections already, will be locked in.

#2. Challenges to voter suppression efforts passed by state legislatures in many states must also be challenged in court by the Department of Justice and through voter rights’ suits. Systematic efforts to disenfranchise voters are once again in full swing across America. Without legislation to prevent this, the only remaining option, besides defeating state legislators in gerrymandered districts, is the courts. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court is now captured by the authoritarian minority working to suppress the vote and gerrymander many states. In the past, the Supreme Court has been captured by minority interests – the Federalist takeover before Jefferson became President and the Lochner Court post-Reconstruction are two good examples. But the present Court, installed in large part through the illiberal, machinations of Senator McConnell, is embarking on breathtaking repeal of fundamental precedents that have advanced and protected the rights of women and minorities in America. Stare decisis is being chucked by the Roberts’ Court and the institutional reputation of the Supreme Court is fading with each reversal.

#3. Finally, the non-partisan turnout of younger voters (18-29) is another key area with important implications for 2022. Younger voters, who are more likely to sit out the 2022 general election are also more likely to oppose illiberal actors and advocates. There are several organizations who will work to activate these voters in November. The likely Supreme Court decision, coming in late June, to eviscerate Roe vs. Wade decision could ignite these voters. Supporting efforts to turnout younger voters, whose opportunity to live in a democratic, civil society in the future is on the chopping block, is imperative.

In the longer term, opinion work in the United States indicates that younger voters are less likely to support the basic tenets of democracy than older voters. This is a growing demographic challenge to democracy in America. Basic attitudinal research on these younger voters geared to understand and bolster ways of increasing their knowledge of and support for democracy is needed.

Situation – Poland & Hungary:

In Poland, the PiS eked out a hate-and-fear-messaged, presidential electoral victory in 2021 by a 51% to 49% margin. The map of the election is eye opening, revealing that the PiS’s victory was heavily dependent on the southeastern corner of Poland. There was also a notable rural/metro split. Hungary is confronting a critical parliamentary election in early April. Like Poland, polls show this election is a dead heat with Fidesz taking 48% and the United Opposition winning 46% at this time.

Channeling Trump, Prime Minister Orban has already declared that, if he loses the election the results will be illegitimate – the outcome of a system rigged by mysterious, conspiratorial forces that do not represent Hungarians. Given the control Orban has established over state institutions in the last several years, he may be able to defy an electoral loss and remain in office completing his construction of a truly illiberal democracy. What Trump tried and was unable to do in the United States before the certification of President Biden, Orban may perfect.

Action: The upcoming election in Hungary and the parliamentary election in Poland in 2023 are critical contests for the future of democracy in these countries as well as the future of the European Union. The EU parliamentary election in 2024 is another important bellwether. Activating slumbering pro-democracy supporters and making them aware that their future and the future of democracy is at stake must be a top priority. And if Orban loses, he cannot be allowed to remain in office without a strong, unequivocating response from the European Union and the global supporters of democracy.

Authoritarian bullies can only be repulsed by a strong, unwavering response. That is the lesson of the last several years. It is unfortunate that the world needs to learn this lesson again.

Dr. Matthew C. MacWilliams, University of Massachusetts Amherst