Why Democracies Are in Decline

It’s getting and harder and harder to maintain an informed electorate.

Democracy is a test. You can’t just wing it and you can’t just skip it. It requires study and it is strongest when everyone participates on test day, which is every day.

That makes democracy hard, too. You can’t rely on others to take the test for you or to look over someone else’s answers to figure out how to add your unique voice and perspective.

Democracy is in retreat globally. Only 5.7 percent of the world lives in a “full democracy,” according to the newly released Democracy Index. American democracy, too, is facing a stress test in the form of impeachment. It’s time for all of us to cram around democracy’s meaning.

There are governments and systems claiming they are democratically legitimate. Some of the worst offenders use democratic tools to say that they are free and open societies.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, for example, uses elections, suggesting that mere voting makes his presidency valid and legitimate. Here’s the rub: In Putin’s Russia, he disqualifies, sidelines, arrests, or destroys any credible opposition to his one-man rule. The result? Those who go to the polls have the right to choose, but only from a winnowed-down list of survivors and sycophants. Is that democracy?

Freedom of speech is another democratic feature. But not all speech is created equal. A joke told in the Soviet Union when I lived there in 1991 was often repeated by Ronald Reagan:

An American visiting Moscow crows about U.S. freedoms and tells a Soviet friend, “I can demonstrate in Washington, go into the White House, see President Reagan and tell him he’s a lousy, no good president.”

The Soviet tells him he has the exact same freedom of expression. “Really?” asks the dumbfounded American.

“Yes,” says the Muscovite. “I can demonstrate at Lenin’s tomb, walk into the Kremlin, find General Secretary Gorbachev’s office, irately pound on his desk, and tell him what a lousy, no good president Ronald Reagan is.”

Democracy in name is not necessarily democracy in deed. That’s why so many authoritarian and totalitarian states fondly flaunt “democracy” in their titles. North Korea, for example, is officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Go figure. There is no truth in that advertising.

Voting is only part of the equation defining democracy. The other part requires an informed citizenry where everyone has the franchise.

Democracy relies on its participants knowing what they are voting for or against. There are all kinds of tricks to keep people from figuring out what they are really pulling a lever to achieve. Those include referendums that implore you to vote “No” for something while actually wording things to allow the very thing you believe you are voting to quash.

Brexit is a good example of confusing the electorate. European “Leave” and “Remain” stories became misleadingly muddled by the time the referendum was help. Did Brits vote for greater sovereignty if they voted against the European Union? Would Scotland or Ireland agree that an independent Great Britain assured a stronger union at home? These are unanswered questions, but they exemplify how a plebiscite can be gamed and voters confounded.

Information is the key to giving individuals power and insight into the democratic process. Knowledge is power, after all. For this reason, we are often at sea in this new digitally driven, internet-dominated, social-media-sloshing information environment, where a tsunami of data is coming at hyperspeed. Given the data deluge, our ability to judge and value that information is severely diminished. How can we know if someone is telling the truth, an advocate is supporting our interests, or a candidate represents our views? For every site or post that reinforces our opinions and beliefs, there is an equal or greater number of datapoints to counter our preferred narrative and understanding. And most seem real and credible. Yikes!

In a world where democracy is a test—and in an era where we have less and less time to study—a citizen’s abilities and responsibilities are challenged. In fact, they may be at a breaking point.

This suits demagogues and dictators just fine. They are not friends of democracy. They just like to claim that they are. So they do whatever they can to add to the cacophony, contribute to the misinformation or prevent rational and reasonable voices from being heard and credible alternative narratives from being told.

Suppressing information is the favored tactic of these scoundrels. That’s why strongman Nicolás Maduro has forced AT&T’s DirecTV to yank CNN and BBC from being broadcast in Venezuela. It’s why Russia and China are experimenting with plans to cut off their countries from the internet. And it’s why in the United States, with Facebook allowing fake news sites and prevaricating political speech to be propagated, we have an information environment of competing false claims and equivocating candidates.

Democracy is a test, and we are less equipped than ever to pass it. 

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.