Every month now we get treated to another anti-Semitic blast from Turkey’s leadership, which seems to be running some kind of slur-of-the-month club. Who knew that Jews all over the world were busy trying to take down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? Last week, it was Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to declare that Turkey would not “succumb to the Jewish lobby” – among others supposedly trying to topple Erdogan, the Hurriyet Daily News reported. This was after Erdogan had suggested that domestic opponents to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, were “cooperating with the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence arm. So few Jews, so many governments to topple.
Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s cheap, crude anti-Semitic tropes, which Erdogan now relies on regularly to energize his base, are disgusting. For the great nation of Turkey, though, they’re part of a wider tragedy. It is really hard to say anymore that Erdogan’s Turkey is a democracy. Even worse, it is necessary to say that Turkey’s drift away from democracy is part of a much larger global trend today: Democracy is in recession.
As the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond argues in an essay entitled “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession” in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy: “Around 2006, the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states). … The number of both electoral and liberal democracies began to decline after 2006 and then flattened out. Since 2006 the average level of freedom in the world has also deteriorated slightly.”
Since 2000, added Diamond, “I count 25 breakdowns of democracy in the world – not only through blatant military or executive coups, but also through subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedure. … Some of these breakdowns occurred in quite low-quality democracies; yet in each case, a system of reasonably free and fair multiparty electoral competition was either displaced or degraded to a point well below the minimal standards of democracy.”
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Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey are the poster children for this trend, along with Venezuela, Thailand, Botswana, Bangladesh and Kenya. In Turkey, Diamond writes, the AKP has steadily extended “partisan control over the judiciary and the bureaucracy, arresting journalists and intimidating dissenters in the press and academia, threatening businesses with retaliation if they fund opposition parties, and using arrests and prosecutions in cases connected to alleged coup plots to jail and remove from public life an implausibly large number of accused plotters. This has coincided with a stunning and increasingly audacious concentration of personal power by … Erdogan.” Rule of law in Turkey is being seriously eroded.
Meanwhile, Freedom House, a watchdog group, found that, from 2006-14, many more countries declined in freedom than improved. This trend has been particularly pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, where declining transparency, crumbling rule of law and rising corruption are becoming the norm.
Why this trend? One reason, says Diamond, is today’s autocrats are fast learners and adapters. They have developed and shared “new technologies of censorship and legal strategies to restrict civil society [groups] and ban international assistance to them,” and we haven’t responded with new strategies of our own. Also, old habits of corruption and abuse of power went into hiding during the 1990s and 2000s, when post-Cold War democracy was ascendant, “but now corrupt autocrats feel the heat is off and they can rule as nastily and greedily as they want.”
Moreover, China, which has no democracy standards or problems with corruption abroad, has displaced the U.S. as the most valued foreign aid provider in much of Africa, while Russia has become more aggressive in undermining virtually every democratic tendency on its borders. Finally, post-9/11, we let the “war on terror” supplant democracy promotion as our top foreign policy priority, so any autocrat who collared terrorists won a get-out-of-jail-free-card from America.
But, Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget.
“The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”
Diamond urges democrats not to lose faith. Democracy, as Churchill noted, is still the worst form of government – except for all the others. And it still fires the imagination of people like no other system. But that will only stay true if the big democracies maintain a model worth following. I wish that were not so much in question today.