VINCENT KESSLER / REUTERS A heavy hand: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in France, October 2015.

Democracy in Decline

How Washington Can Reverse the Tide

In the decade following the Cold War, democracy flourished around the world as never before. In recent years, however, much of this progress has steadily eroded. Between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries, among them Kenya, Russia, Thailand, and Turkey. Around the same time, several other global “swing states”—countries that, thanks to their large populations and economies, could have an outsize impact on the future of global democracy—also took a turn for the worse. In nearly half of them, political liberties, as measured by the U.S. nonprofit Freedom House, contracted.

Meanwhile, many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens. They are silencing online dissent by censoring, regulating, and arresting those they perceive as threats. Many of them are attempting to control the Internet by passing laws, for example, that require foreign companies to store citizens’ data within the home country’s borders. Offline, states are also constraining civil society by restricting the ability of organizations to operate, communicate, and fundraise. Since 2012, governments across the globe have proposed or enacted more than 90 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly.

Adding to the problem, democracy itself seems to have lost its appeal. Many emerging democracies have failed to meet their citizens’ hopes for freedom, security, and economic growth, just as the world’s established democracies, including the United States, have grown increasingly dysfunctional. In China, meanwhile, decades of economic growth have proved that a state need not liberalize to generate prosperity.

Not all the trends are bad. Optimists can point to Nigeria, which in May 2015 experienced the first truly democratic transfer of power—from a defeated ruling party to the opposition—in its history, or to Sri Lanka, which returned to electoral democracy in January 2015 after five years of electoral autocracy. The first Arab democracy in decades has emerged in Tunisia, and in Myanmar (also called Burma), a democratically elected government now shares significant power with the military. The authoritarian model of capitalism

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