The Risks Facing Democracy

The following is a transcribed speech delivered by Gerald F. Seib on April 6, 2023, at the 2023 Chuck Hagel Forum in Global Leadership held at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Let me start with a story. Back in the fall of 1991, while covering the State Department for The Wall Street Journal, I accompanied Secretary of State Jim Baker on a trip—one that showed the appeal of freedom and democracy. In September of that year, Secretary Baker flew to the crumbling Soviet Union. From there, he embarked on a lightning visit to the newly independent Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Actually, Secretary Baker hit all three of those countries in a single day—which made for a very long day, but also a completely inspiring one. The Baltic states were taken over forcibly by the Soviet Union during World War II. But they never really accepted their fate as part of the Soviet Union. Nor did the U.S. accept it. They were considered “captive nations,” and their flags hung throughout the Cold War in the lobby of the State Department, alongside those of the world’s other sovereign nations.

So when the Soviet Union was dissolving, the Baltic states were finally free again. That was cause for celebration. As we visited, the atmosphere was full of new possibilities. Churches that had been closed by the Soviet authorities, or turned into museums, were being reopened. The leaders of the Baltic states declared they wanted to become part of the free world’s international organizations. Above all, they wanted to be part of the world’s growing club of democracies. At every stop, Secretary Baker marveled at being in “free and independent” countries. He could have added: and now, democratic ones.

Those were heady days, and some important things seemed certain to be true: Democracy was the wave of the future. Authoritarian regimes were becoming a thing of the past. The Western model was the envy of the world.

Even Vladimir Putin seemed to be part of this new wave. In fact, the day before visiting the Baltic states in 1991, Secretary Baker made a stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, to meet the mayor of that city and his top aides, who seemed to have emerged as the foremost agents for pro-Western reforms in Russia. One member of that St. Petersburg inner circle was, yes, Vladimir Putin, who was seen then as an agent of potentially positive change.

Today, three decades later, Mr. Putin looks very different. But so does just about everything else. In fact, we can’t be sure that any of those happy 1990s assumptions about the course of the world still hold true. In particular, the idea that democracy is demonstrably the wave of the future, not just in the Baltic states but around the globe, is being challenged.

And that is what I want to talk about tonight: the risks facing democracy. Most concerning of all, democracy is at risk because of a problem staring us right in our faces: The U.S. has lost some of its moral authority to lead the world in protecting and expanding democracy. Let’s be honest. We did NOT have a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election, which is the very hallmark of a healthy democracy. Millions of people refuse to accept the results of the last presidential election. We had a former president actually suggest we simply suspend the Constitution so he could return to office. This is not a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic because democracy has proven over time to be strong and durable. Still, what I want to talk about specifically tonight are some steps we all can take to protect and strengthen our democracy, for ourselves, and for the world.

Sadly, the list of places around the world where democracy is under a cloud is long. It starts in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to invade Ukraine for a lot of reasons, but one major reason was to stop and then reverse the spread of democracy toward his borders.

By the same token, look at what is happening between Russia and China. Their leaders have proclaimed a new “friendship without limits.” Their goal isn’t merely to challenge America, but also to demonstrate together that democracy is fading as a model—and that authoritarian regimes and economies are the waves of the future. Don’t take my word for it. Read the words of Presidents Putin and Xi themselves. They will tell you directly.

Equally distressing is the number of places around the world where this thinking is reaching fertile ground. According to a new report from Freedom House, 2022 was the seventeenth consecutive year in which more countries declined in freedom rather than gained. Let me go down the list of some trouble spots as enumerated in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine:

  • Tunisia: Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab spring, is turning into a dictatorship.
  • Bangladesh, Hungary, and Turkey: In all three, elections are getting less democratic. In fact, we now are witnessing the phenomenon of “elected autocracies”—countries where strongmen use elections to take power and then begin eroding the very democracy that they used to take office.
  • Algeria, Belarus, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe: In all those places, antidemocratic regimes are holding onto power.
  • Brazil: Its defeated president won’t really accept that he’s been defeated.
  • Mexico: President Lopez Obrador is trying to silence critics and remove democratic checks and balances.
  • India: Prime Minister Modi is chipping away at press freedoms, minority rights, and judicial independence.

And speaking of judicial independence, even the new government of Israel is attempting to rein that in. The judiciary is a particularly important check on power in Israel’s parliamentary system, which has only one legislative chamber controlled by the prime minister’s coalition. So even in Israel, a democratic point of light in a largely authoritarian Middle East, there are questions about democracy’s health.

On top of all that, imagine a world run by autocrats and dictators who also have the emerging power of social media disinformation platforms, online surveillance capabilities, and artificial intelligence at their disposal, and you have a scary picture.

Why is this happening? In part, authoritarian leaders are making some progress by arguing that countries run by a firm hand, with a centrally controlled economy, are, by definition, more efficient. In democracies, by contrast, people spend a lot of time arguing and fighting and failing to fall in line behind any central plan. Not to be too melodramatic, this is the kind of thinking that helped lead to World War II, when the leaders of Germany and Japan explicitly argued that fascism was superior to democracy and inevitably would overtake democratic nations.

Some of this autocratic thinking appears to be seeping into corners of even our own society. I was surprised at something I heard while attending a recent conference of American business leaders. There was a discussion on stage of the need to protect democracy. When the time came for audience questions, one of the business leaders stood up and said: Why are we spending so much time talking about democracy? That isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to have a more efficient economy, and democracy has nothing to do with that. If my company were a democracy, I wouldn’t even be in charge.

That’s not encouraging. By the way, we’re also testing the boundaries of our own democracy in some new ways. Is it wise to have a state supreme court election in Wisconsin in which millions of dollars flow into the state not to support candidates because the donors think they will be fair and impartial jurists, but rather because those donors assume they will be partisan advocates for one side or the other in the abortion debate? Similarly, is it wise to use the legal system to prosecute a former president? I’m not smart enough to know the answers.

Now, having said that, it’s important to remember that democracy is SUPPOSED to be messy. There are supposed to be arguments. That’s not a sign of weakness but of strength, because it is out of open debate and free thought that people’s rights are protected, and innovation can flourish.

I also think it’s important to say that all is not bleak around the globe. Freedom House sees some signs of improvement in the last year—that is, countries where democracy has regained ground. Similarly, Samantha Power, the former American ambassador to the United Nations and current head of the Agency for International Development, writes in her own new piece in Foreign Affairs that last year may have marked the high-water mark for authoritarianism around the world. She says authoritarians’ appeal will diminish after Russia’s disastrous performance in Ukraine and China’s epic mishandling of Covid.

Let’s hope so. But even Ambassador Power argues that the U.S. needs to move decisively to turn those hopes into firm realities. Abroad, she argues that the U.S. needs to give aid to fledgling democracies and work harder to combat online propaganda and disinformation aimed at undermining democracies. And domestically, she argues that the U.S. and other democracies need to do more to address the kinds of income inequalities that give rise to populism and authoritarian arguments.

That last point strikes me as highly important. The best thing we can do in the U.S. is strengthen our own democracy to restore some of that light that is supposed to serve as a beacon for the rest of the world. Moving back onto safer ground starts with a broad acceptance across our society of what democracy really means. Democracy means accepting legitimate election victories by candidates you don’t like and then working within the system to defeat them next time, if you feel that strongly about it. Democracy means defending the institutions of democracy, even after those institutions may do something you don’t like.

Above all, democracy isn’t automatic. We shouldn’t take it for granted. We need to take actual actions to protect and preserve it. Three come to mind:

  • First, the leaders of our two major political parties should come together and agree on some best practices for conducting elections and counting votes. In our federal system, elections actually are conducted by the 50 states. But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be some national consensus on basic practices for registering voters, scheduling elections, tabulating votes, certifying elections, and handling disputes. That would build trust, which is what we need now. And the two parties and their leaders have every reason to do this; every elected official, after all, is dependent on the same system for his or her legitimacy.
  • Second, institutions outside of government can help by holding political leaders accountable when it comes to honoring elections. The Carter Center in Atlanta is the leader in this space, with an initiative that deserves a lot more attention than it is getting. Last year, the Center launched the Candidate Principles for Trusted Elections initiative. This bipartisan effort encourages candidates, political parties, and voters to sign a pledge to uphold five core doctrines of democratic elections: integrity, nonviolence, security, oversight, and the peaceful transfer of power. Other institutions joined in, and some notable candidates from both parties signed on; let’s hope more do by before the 2024 election.
  • Third, and this is the thought I really want to leave you with tonight: It’s not adequate to hope that others will protect our democracy. We all, as citizens, have a responsibility to do our part.

Here, I think the most compelling call to action comes from Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a new book entitled, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. Richard is, as his title would suggest, a foreign-policy expert. But he is so worried that the decaying of our democracy is a threat to our national security that he decided to take on this domestic problem.

His message is that we all have some duties—yes, some obligations—if we want to help preserve, protect, and defend democracy. Here are his 10 obligations:

  • Be informed.
  • Get involved.
  • Stay open to compromise.
  • Remain civil.
  • Reject violence.
  • Value norms.
  • Promote the common good.
  • Respect government service.
  • Support the teaching of civics.
  • Put country first.

That’s a great list, and most of the items speak for themselves. But let me put an exclamation point behind two of them:

  • Be informed. This means both seeking out and consuming legitimate news and filtering out lies, propaganda, and disinformation. This is getting harder, not easier in an environment filled with sources that purposefully distort the news. But it isn’t difficult to find a few reliable news sources and to use them. To be truly informed, one needs to read widely.
  • Value norms. That means engaging in behavior our society deems proper, even when there isn’t a law or regulation requiring it. Some of what makes America great are its institutions, government, and civil, and the fact that our society has always embraced certain norms of behavior that are acceptable and expected.

Speaking of institutions reminds me of traveling to Iraq in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein was in power and watching how he had destroyed that nation’s civil institutions and created a pure police state. And when Saddam fell, society collapsed because there were no institutions holding it beyond the iron hand of a dictator.

I would add one other obligation: Listen. Don’t just talk. Listen to those you disagree with and those you aren’t sure about, so you can understand them. Whether you like it or not, 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2020. And 81 million Americans voted for Joe Biden. They’re not all evil, or stupid, or dupes.

In short, put talking to your neighbor above shouting at him or her, or rolling your eyes. Above all, recognize that here and abroad, democracy isn’t a spectator sport. Get into the game.

Thanks to you all, and a special thank you to Secretary Hagel.

Gerald F. Seib serves as a senior mentor (non-resident) for the CSIS Executive Education Program. He was formerly the executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal.