The Age of Insecurity

Can Democracy Save Itself?

Power to the populist: Trump at a rally in Florida, December 2017. CARLO ALLEGRI / REUTERS

Over the past decade, many marginally democratic countries have become increasingly authoritarian. And authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements have grown strong enough to threaten democracy’s long-term health in several rich, established democracies, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. How worried should we be about the outlook for democracy?

The good news is that ever since representative democracy first emerged, it has been spreading, pushed forward by the forces of modernization. The pattern has been one of advances followed by setbacks, but the net result has been an increasing number of democracies, from a bare handful in the nineteenth century to about 90 today. The bad news is that the world is experiencing the most severe democratic setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

The immediate cause of rising support for authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements is a reaction against immigration (and, in the United States, rising racial equality). That reaction has been intensified by the rapid cultural change and declining job security experienced by many in the developed world. Cultural and demographic shifts are making older voters feel as though they no longer live in the country where they were born. And high-income countries are adopting job-replacing technology, such as artificial intelligence, that has the potential to make people richer and healthier but also tends to result in a winner-take-all economy. 

But there is nothing inevitable about democratic decline. Rising prosperity continues to move most developing countries toward democracy—although, as always, the trajectory is not a linear one. And in the developed world, the current wave of authoritarianism will persist only if societies and governments fail to address the underlying drivers. If new political coalitions emerge to reverse the trend toward inequality and ensure that the benefits of automation are widely shared, they can put democracy back on track. But if the developed world continues on its current course, democracy could wither away. If there is nothing inevitable about democratic decline, there

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