Michael Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan voice promoting democracy where he oversees analysis, advocacy, and direct support to frontline defenders for freedom. Abramowitz spent the first 24 years of his career at The Washington Post, where he was national editor and then White House correspondent. He spoke in the 2019 session Springtime for Strongmen.
We caught up with him about which countries are doing the most harm to democracy and why the United States is struggling to maintain a healthy democratic system.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report states that “the very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished among many.” Can you describe how the idea of democracy has been tarnished?
The countries that are doing the most to try to tarnish democracy are Russia and China. But they are taking advantage of the fact that the world’s democracies are not delivering. Even in the United States there is a deep dissatisfaction with how democracy is functioning, the huge influence of special interests, and the government's inability to address core issues.
In particular, the United States and other major democracies are failing to address the needs of citizens left behind by globalization. In these societies, democracy has long been linked with market economics; indeed, during the Reagan years, it was common practice to refer not just to democracy, but to democratic capitalism. Now, in societies like the United States, Great Britain, and France, a large segment of the population is experiencing declining status and narrowing opportunities. The inability thus far of major democracies to address this problem has damaged the democratic idea and opened the door to criticism from autocracies like Russia and especially China.
I would not underestimate the role of the Iraq war. Initially waged in the name of fighting terrorism and destroying weapons of mass destruction, the war came to be associated with the flawed imposition of democracy by the United States. The invasion led to a murderous ethnic conflict with long-term repercussions in the Middle East that are still being felt today. The war has unfortunately contributed in a significant way to the demonization of the very idea that the United States should support democracy and human rights as part of its foreign policy.
What threat to freedom needs to be addressed most urgently?
Racial, religious, and ethnic divisions are certainly right at the top. These divisions are being fanned by the rise of populism, with its obsessive focus on non-white immigrants, and leading to encroachments in political rights and civil liberties. Forging inclusive, stable democracies where equality under the law holds sway will be one of the greatest challenges to democracy in the coming decades.
Over the long run, the rise of the Internet and social media poses perhaps even greater challenges. It was not so long ago that these technologies were seen as liberating forces; think of the role of Facebook in helping the activists in Tahrir Square rally against a dictator. Now authoritarian powers, led by China, are deploying technology to build extensive systems of censorship and surveillance, while the health of existing democracies is being undermined through proliferating online hate speech and deceptive and false information delivered on a viral scale. We urgently need to protect the freedoms we enjoy, particularly freedom of speech and expression, while making sure our open technology platforms do not enable the subversion of democracy.
Freedom House has identified a 13-year decline in freedom around the world. When you consider the state of the world today and try to imagine the future, do you feel hopeful or discouraged?
You have to be worried about recent trends. Complacency is not an option. This rise of China is a huge challenge, and the major democracies are not facing up to the reality of the China threat to freedom. China has the least free Internet in the world and is exporting tools of repression, like facial surveillance techniques, beyond its borders. China’s ambitions for global leadership go beyond economics. Xi Jinping has set the goal of replacing liberal democracy as the dominant global system with something more like the system that prevails in China, which combines a certain kind of mercantilist capitalism with limited political rights and civil liberties. The fact that so few recognize the magnitude of the China challenge is disturbing.
That said, I’m definitely an optimist. Democratization has been the story of the past century. At the beginning of the last century there were about a dozen democracies in the world; today there are nearly 120, depending on how you count them. Even dictators feel pressure to hold elections, however flawed, to justify their hold on power. At Freedom House, we are consistently amazed by the resilience of people to throw off their shackles and seek freedom. Consider recent developments in Sudan and Algeria, where popular movements succeeded in forcing out autocrats of long-standing. We don’t know how things will develop. But these upheavals are sharp reminders that aspirations of freedom and justice cannot forever be pushed aside, even in places like the Middle East that seem permanently hostile to democracy.
Are there surprising developments in freedom and democracy around the world in recent years?
At the beginning of the century, China appeared to be moving in a more open direction. It seemed like the fantastic economic growth and integration in the world’s trading system would gradually make China, if not a liberal democracy, a freer and more just society. That assessment, which I shared, was wrong. Instead, China’s score in our Freedom in the World survey has declined. Today it’s lower than it was 15 years ago. China is the first country to succeed in building a modern economy with a flourishing middle class without experiencing a measure of democratic progress. That’s a real surprise and a challenge to democrats (with a small "d").
A second surprise is the strains on democracy in our own country, which did not start with the election of Donald Trump but are growing. Much of the decline is centered on weaknesses in the rule of law, including problems with the criminal justice system, an increasingly politicized judiciary, and lack of equal treatment for minorities. Over the past decade, the United States has declined from a status comparable to Germany and similar European democracies to a status roughly at a level with Italy and Poland, two countries with serious problems. This is more than a surprise; it is shocking — and should stand as a wake-up call for Americans.
Finally there are countries — and Taiwan and South Korea are good examples — where democracy has taken root despite relatively recent histories of dictatorship. Again, they are yet another sign that democracy and human rights are universal aspirations, not just western constructs.
What can everyday people can do to promote freedom and democracy?
First, and most obviously, people should fulfill their civic responsibilities. Not just voting, but the full range of actions that are part of democratic citizenship: jury service, military service if conditions warrant, involvement in civic enterprises.
I also encourage citizens to get involved in the proliferating number of civic initiatives aimed at ending the deep polarization that plagues democracy in the United States – such as The Better Arguments Project here at the Aspen Institute. We make everything worse when we treat politics or civic life as a search and destroy mission. People should approach the challenge of citizenship from a perspective of solving problems, being willing to compromise, and reaching agreements with others. Members of other groups and parties within your democracy are not your enemies; they are ultimately your sounding boards and partners in a common effort to improve conditions for the country as a whole.
The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.