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More than any constitution or law, democracy rests on what the late political scientist Robert Dahl called a “system of mutual security.” Each side in the democratic contest must have confidence that the other side will play by the rules of the democratic game, accept defeat if that is its fate, and return to fight another day. The political fight must be restrained by mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual restraint—respect for the right of opposing political forces to contest and criticize, trust that the other side will not eliminate it if it comes to power, and restraint in the methods used to contest for and hold power. No democracy can long survive a political atmosphere devoid of these norms. Yet that is the abyss into which American democracy is descending.
One year ago today, the United States suffered its most serious brush with constitutional failure since the Civil War. Many things remain unknown about the tragic and horrifying assault on the U.S. Capitol. There is no doubt, however, about the scale of the violence or about how close the United States came to seeing the peaceful transfer of power sabotaged for the first time in the country’s history. The damage of former President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie”—that he did not really lose the 2020 presidential election—has been poisonous and long lasting. Most Republicans and up to a third of the American public do not believe that President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. And a variety of different polls, using varying wording and methodologies, have all documented a growing willingness of the American people to consider or condone political violence. When the polarization between two political camps reaches the point that each side regards the other as morally intolerable, as an existential threat to the country’s future, democracy is at risk.
The January 6 insurrection was neither the beginning nor the end of this descent. For some two decades, political scientists have been worrying about the growing polarization of American politics, as evidenced in rising congressional gridlock, an unwillingness to compromise, and the maximalist, take-no-prisoners tone of cable news, talk radio, and social media. Well before Trump began to use the power and prestige of the presidency to trample on democratic norms, ratings agencies noted a decline in the quality of U.S. democracy. Analysts at Freedom House have shown the decline unfolding steadily between 2010 and 2020, dropping the country’s “freedom score” by 11 points—from 94 to 83—on a 100-point scale. Due in part to eroding public trust in democratic institutions, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy” in 2017. And in 2020, International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), a widely respected international think tank focused on democratic development, classified the United States as a “backsliding democracy.”
Among Washington’s democratic allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, as well as many emerging democracies worldwide, there is mounting concern, even alarm, at the deeply troubled state of democracy in the United States. As Americans tear their own country apart, fragile democracies are retreating before a tide of illiberal populism, dictatorships in China and Russia are surging in power and ambition, and the norms and restraints of the post–World War II liberal order—including the indispensable norm against territorial aggression—are crumbling. Last month, the Biden administration finally held its long-awaited Summit for Democracy to rally international resolve and push back against the illiberal tide. It was an important symbolic step, because despite the collective weight of the European Union and the geopolitical courage and generous assistance of small European democracies such as the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden—which refuse to be cowed by China and Russia—the United States remains the world’s most important democratic bulwark. A global democratic countermovement will find its energy and conviction challenged, however, as long as it depends for leadership on a democracy as troubled as the United States. This is the paradox of global democracy today: the fate of freedom still rests on a deeply flawed and unstable democratic superpower. Inside that paradox rests a series of other paradoxes—a set of sobering obstacles to the dream of global democratic renewal.
The first of these paradoxes is that reviving democracy in the United States requires depolarization and hence compromises that can bridge partisan divides and build coalitions from the center out. Compromise suggests a middle ground between two poles and actors on each side willing to seize that ground. But a key feature of the country’s democratic crisis is that one of the two major political parties is undermining the essential conditions for free and fair elections, particularly neutral and nonpartisan procedures for administering and certifying elections. In the year since January 6, numerous U.S. states have seen Republican legislators push and in some cases adopt laws enabling them to assert partisan control over the electoral process and thus possibly to reverse the results of a free and fair election. And even more states have adopted provisions that make voting more difficult for the kinds of people who tend to favor the other party.
There exists a legislative remedy to this threat to democracy: the Freedom to Vote Act, forged through compromise between progressive and moderate Democratic U.S. senators. It would address not only the rising dangers of voter suppression and partisan sabotage of the electoral process but two other scourges of American democracy, gerrymandering and dark money. It would bring American democracy at least somewhat closer to the standards of impartial, independent, professional election administration that make this vital function noncontroversial in wealthy democracies, such as Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and most EU members, and even in numerous less prosperous democracies, including Costa Rica, India, and Mexico.
Yet the Freedom to Vote Act lacks support from even a single Republican in the U.S. Senate. Hence it can be adopted only by removing one of the most arcane and dysfunctional features of American democracy, the Senate filibuster. This raises a second paradox. Although it has been for some two centuries a model and inspiration for emerging democracies, the U.S. system has grown stale in its resistance to reform and has failed to keep pace with global democratic innovations. The United States lacks many of the national institutions of accountability and good governance that are common in peer democracies, such as an independent anticorruption commission, a human rights commission, and an ombudsman to investigate citizen complaints. The country remains stuck with a “first past the post” electoral system that has been rigged for partisan advantage via redistricting and that is highly vulnerable to polarization, because it tends to entrench just two political parties: voters usually reject third-party options so that they do not “waste” their votes.
On January 6, the United States suffered its most serious brush with constitutional failure since the Civil War.
During much of the twentieth century, the two parties competed for “median” voters and kept more radical tendencies at bay—albeit at the horrible price of ignoring pervasive racial discrimination and Black disenfranchisement in the South. But as realignment occurred beginning in the late 1960s, parties became more coherent, primaries increasingly selected more partisan and ideological nominees, and congressional compromises got harder and harder to forge. In truth, however, the problem runs even deeper. In the Senate, the filibuster now blocks political reform, but institutional reform was slow even before the filibuster became (only in recent decades) an automatic requirement for legislation. Hence a third paradox: although the United States holds itself up as a model of democratic experimentation and adaptation, the U.S. Constitution is among the world’s most difficult to amend. Dramatic change often requires decades of advocacy and mobilization of the kinds that produced female suffrage and equal rights for racial minorities.
Of course, reform can happen incrementally, state by state. Alaska and Maine have recently adopted an electoral reform called ranked-choice voting, which offers real promise of reducing polarization. Under that system, it makes sense for independents and third-party candidates to run for office and for dissatisfied voters to vote for them, because no votes are “wasted.” Instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank their choices, and if no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, the least popular candidates are eliminated and lower-preference votes are counted in “instant runoffs” until someone wins a majority. This and other options, including various systems of proportional representation that could replace “first past the post” in multimember congressional districts, offer the best long-term prospect of reducing the country’s polarization.
And then consider a fourth paradox: although voter suppression and electoral subversion now seriously threaten U.S. democracy, the country’s flawed electoral processes still offer the best hope of arresting democratic decay. Other countries have transcended this paradox to preserve or revive democracy. In India in the mid-1970s, Chile in the late 1980s, Mexico in 2000, and more recently in Peru, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, and Zambia, authoritarian regimes and illiberal forces were defeated through broad and resolute electoral mobilization. Today, opposition blocs in Hungary and Turkey are mobilizing to the same end, facing long odds against regimes that have stacked the decks in their own favor.
A crucial lesson emerges from these diverse circumstances. People do not generally cast their votes for or against democracy; the abuse of power has to get very bad and typically remain bad for a long time before it will become the dominant issue. So political forces seeking to defend or renew democracy must speak to other issues, in particular the economy, and they must craft the broadest possible coalitions in doing so. This requires going against the trend of polarization by showing respect for the concerns of people who previously backed illiberal options. In the 2019 municipal elections in Turkey, the opposition made stunning gains against the ruling authoritarian party by crafting just such an inclusive campaign. Leaders dubbed their strategy “radical love.” In Hungary, in the recent primary to nominate a candidate to face Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the coming parliamentary elections, the country’s disparate, six-party opposition coalition took a similar approach, choosing the centrist outsider Peter Marki-Zay, the mayor of a small provincial city. Marki-Zay is promising a return to Europe and accountable government—but with a populist edge.
And therein lies perhaps the most difficult and important paradox of all: sometimes, it takes a dose of populism to fight populism. Although successful pushbacks against illiberalism must bridge partisan polarization, they often triumph by condemning corruption and crony capitalism and by mounting appeals to economic fairness and inclusion—promises also made by aspiring autocrats, who abandon them once in power and divert attention from their policy failures and limitations through appeals to identity and cultural grievance. Democracy’s defenders need to avoid the brutal divisiveness, contempt for institutions, intolerance of pluralism, and exaltation of the leader that define illiberal populism. But they should try to energize voters by expressing moral outrage and empathy for people’s insecurity and loss and, when possible, by putting forward charismatic candidates who embody a message of change. Such a strategy lifted the environmental activist Zuzana Caputova to the presidency of Slovakia in 2019, and it now gives opposition parties a fighting chance of winning electoral victories in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey.
Broadening the base of support for democratic reform is crucial, because authoritarians and illiberal democrats always seek to tilt the political playing field to a degree that requires the opposition to win a larger than normal victory. Oppositions that dismiss this danger—and fail to transcend their own divisions and alternative identity claims—typically falter.
As Americans tear their own country apart, fragile democracies are retreating before a tide of illiberal populism.
The January 6 insurrection was the product of a political climate, if not a political plot, intentionally produced by an authoritarian populist leader and movement. Trump may well seek a return to the White House, this time with a leg up in critical battleground states where his Republican allies have made it easier to invalidate the legitimate results of elections. To defeat his brand of populism, Democrats need to avoid militant appeals to identity-based grievances that illiberal populists seize on to paint Democrats as advocates of “cancel culture,” “reverse discrimination,” and efforts to “defund the police.” In addition to fighting against racial exclusion and prosecuting violent white nationalism, Democrats should borrow a page from New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s playbook and get tough on crime. The radical right will seek to stoke racial anxiety in any case, but Democrats shouldn’t make it easier for that message to resonate with swing voters.
In 2022 and 2024, elections must be squarely focused on the question of which party offers the people a fairer economic deal. Shifting away from identity politics would go against the grain of the moment, which is defined by demographic change and social media passions. It would require a disciplined focus on job creation, childcare support, early childhood education, health-care expansion, infrastructure investment, the new green economy, and bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. The three Democratic presidents who managed to serve two full terms in the last century—Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—all understood the need for a message of hope and optimism focused on bread-and-butter economic issues. Democratic success might also require a presidential candidate who can craft an outsider, anti-elite image more authentic and persuasive than the one Trump has perfected—but shorn of illiberal tendencies. In the near term, that might be the hardest paradox for American democracy to overcome.
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