A very real crisis of democracy is unfolding throughout the world. Authoritarian governments are on the rise, and far-right politicians who pine for the days of dictatorship are rising to prominence, even winning power, and forging cross-continental alliances as they do so. Joe Biden is not wrong when he says renewing democracy “is the defining challenge of our time.”
Unfortunately, if Biden’s just-finished Summit for Democracy is anything to go by, the US liberal establishment neither understands this threat to democracy and their part in creating it nor has any real solutions for reversing it.
Biden’s summit — a two-day-long Zoom call between 110 countries — was largely a symbolic affair aimed, first, at reestablishing Washington’s traditional self-conception as the “leader of the free world,” and second, as a coded slap in the face to an emerging axis of Russia and China. Participants were meant to agree on a set of democratic commitments that they would make real in months and years ahead. Kicking things off on Thursday, Biden called on governments to not just protect civil liberties and the right to vote but to tackle corruption. Other ideas put forward include protecting journalists and ending internet shutoffs.
But a leading problem with the whole affair is that Washington is an imperfect messenger for this pro-democracy message, to say the least. Never mind its long history of undermining and overthrowing democratic governments that don’t suit its strategic and economic interests. And on the same day Biden convened the second day of the summit, warning of the “backward slide of rights” around the world, his administration had just won its appeal to extradite and, eventually, prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — a grave threat to press freedoms in the United States and globally.
A lot of the criticism of Biden’s summit has, understandably, focused on the suite of voting rights reforms he promised to pass but has half-heartedly pursued and apparently given up on as president. If only this indifference was the worst of it.
In fact, Assange’s potential prosecution, which puts Biden more in line with his authoritarian predecessor than with the Barack Obama administration that came before him, is just one of several steps Biden and the Democrats have taken that are actively hostile and damaging to US democracy. Others include applying the “war on terror” framework to the domestic sphere, to be used against dissidents and activists across the political spectrum, and the years-long campaign of pressure on Silicon Valley to censor and control online speech.
So far, it doesn’t sound like the summit has covered the issue of foreign interference in other countries’ domestic spheres, something which, in the minds of those pushing the summit, only China and Russia do. This is hardly surprising: the operating principle of Washington foreign policy has for decades been that US interests override everything else, and it’s hard to imagine the Biden administration agreeing to anything that would limit its ability to meddle within other countries’ borders.
But this is a major sticking point. It was only last week that the eleven-year-old coup that Washington backed in Honduras, which brought a right-wing narco-state to power and led to years of violence and repression, was effectively rolled back. Such developments explain a recent global survey that found nearly half of people consider the United States a threat to their democracies, more than both Russia and China.
And if the United States is unwilling to agree to any limits on its foreign meddling, then why would any other country? That’s not even to mention that “anti-corruption” efforts like the one Biden’s now pushing was the vehicle by which a soft regime-change operation was cynically carried out in Brazil, ending up with the far-right authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro in power.
Finally, the summit did not focus on the real, underlying root of popular disgruntlement with liberal democracy: the hardening wealth inequality and declining living standards of the neoliberal era. Just as in the United States, countries around the world that embarked on their own neoliberal programs from the 1980s on have seen wages stagnate, the rich get richer, public services slashed or privatized, and living costs and poverty grow, all while fostering an individualistic culture that casts what were once social issues as personal ones. The result has been a tearing of the social fabric, a consolidation of power among the very richest, and widespread political disillusionment with the existing establishment.
Biden alluded to this — sort of — in his opening remarks, mentioning that “most worrying of all” is the “dissatisfaction of people all around the world with democratic governments that they feel are failing to deliver for their needs.” But the vagueness of this statement, coupled with the administration’s concerted focus on “fighting corruption,” makes it unclear if, in fact, the White House really does understand how four decades of neoliberalism has driven the problem he’s ostensibly tackling.
In any case, this was still only one of three factors that simply “exacerbated” a preexisting loss of faith in democracy, according to Biden. The others were “outside pressure from autocrats” and “voices that seek to fan the flames of societal division and political polarization.”
Yet it wasn’t Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping who imposed or otherwise pushed the crippling austerity that collapsed the political center and fed the rise of the far right in Greece, Italy, Hungary, and Spain, along with a host of other Central and Eastern European states. That was Angela Merkel and neoliberal bureaucrats in the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Likewise, for all the fixation on Russia’s attempts to help Donald Trump, the most significant source of support for Trump and Trump-like candidates is the millions and billions of dollars they raise from the American oligarch class. The threat to democracy is coming from inside the house.
Ironically, a recent Chinese foreign affairs ministry analysis, as self-serving as it is, turns out to be a far more insightful and careful diagnosis of what is ailing US democracy than any of the clichés spouted by Biden at the conference. Meant as a broadside in response to the summit, which China conspicuously wasn’t invited to, the report makes a fairly uncontroversial argument based largely on US sources: that “democracy in the US has become alienated and degenerated” and “increasingly deviated from the essence of democracy.”
The analysis cites several well-documented developments: the total domination of US politics by money, a corporate-controlled media ecosystem, unfair and restrictive primary and general elections, institutionalized gridlock, and a tightly controlled and limited electoral system that restricts voters to choosing between two parties of elites. Incidentally, these are all products of decades of the same neoliberal program Biden was one of the foremost champions of in his long career.
A double irony is that Beijing points to these issues to excuse its own, highly illiberal system, which it publicly calls a democracy. “There is no perfect system of democracy in the world, nor is there a political system that fits all countries,” the report states. “Democracy is established and developed based on a country’s own history and adapted to its national context, and each country’s democracy has its unique value.” Once cast as a model, US democracy has now been so eroded, autocrats can use it to justify their own elite-controlled systems.
No one was expecting much from the Summit for Democracy, and it delivered. In the world of the Biden administration and the summit, the decline of democracy is like an asteroid crashing into Earth, coming out of nowhere and seemingly at random — history’s most epic case of bad luck. It’s going to be a difficult problem to solve if you don’t know why it’s even happening. It’s not a great sign for Biden that his supposed rival seems to have a better idea than he does.