The Slow Death of Democracy

February 1, 2023 marked two years since Myanmar’s government was subject to a brutal military coup. Myanmar’s junta—a government composed of military authorities—has created a humanitarian crisis by successfully taking over the previously democratic government. The coup was a response to the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy, a pro-democratic party in Myanmar’s Parliament when Myanmar’s military (the Tatmadaw) refused to accept the election results. On February 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw surrounded Parliament and arrested multiple elected officials. Since then, despite committing countless crimes against humanity–nearly 20,000 people have been arrested, and 2,900 have been killed—the junta continues to hold power. While an opposition force is growing, it has yet to remove the junta from power; yet another stain on the value of democracy throughout the world. 

Military dictatorships have historically been highly flawed in how they rule, almost always ending with the complete collapse of the entity in power. Myanmar is an extreme example of what happens when groups of people undermine democracy and fair elections. Using the military to go against the people’s will immediately turns democracy into a dictatorship, with Myanmar’s military stating that all future elections will only include junta-backed political parties

It is a shame that in 2023, nearly 80 years after the end of World War II and 32 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, military dictatorships still exist. To be blunt, the junta is a disgrace to their people and a disgrace to the world. Myanmar’s military has become a state of terror, with the forced disappearance of opposition leaders, the murder of nearly thousands of bystanders in towns throughout the country, as well as the mass imprisonment of protestors leveling a blanket of fear on the population. However, the junta also serves as a haunting reminder and a dismal reality check: democracy is dying on an international scale.

The need for democratic governments peaked in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union; before 1991, autocracies dominated governments worldwide. In 1980, there were about 80 autocratic governments and 40 democracies. By 2000, those numbers switched, with democracies leading at 80 and autocracies at 40. This was known as the third wave of democratization, characterized by many former Soviet states gaining independence. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2017, over half of the countries in the world were democracies of various types. However, this percentage has since dwindled. The Democracy Index scores countries on how democratic they are on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being completely authoritarian and 9 being full democracy. In 2020, 49.4% of countries were democratic, and in 2017, that number dropped to 45.7%. This begs the question: what is causing the slow demise of democracies around the world?

To properly answer this question, one must consider current events. Liberalism and the support for pure democracy are dying trends, even in countries that are champions of such ideas. According to the Democracy Index, the United States is not even in the Top 5 democracies in the world. In fact, the United States is labeled as a “flawed democracy”, with a score of 7.85/10. This pits the United States against countries such as Portugal, Greece, and various Eastern European countries, countries that are typically perceived as “less democratic.” 

This ranking is not accidental, but rather the result of domestic issues. The United States, despite the ideological differences between its left-wing and right-wing parties, is still center-right in comparison to many western, first-world countries. This results in far-right politics in America that are characterized by near-fascism. Many prominent right-wing politicians in the United States have proposed banning books, the dismantling of the Department of Education, and a “national divorce” of left-wing and right-wing states, as well as support for a coup to reinstate Donald Trump as president following his loss in the 2020 presidential election. Compare this to the United Kingdom and its right-wing Conservative Party, which still supports socialized healthcare, raising the minimum wage, and gun control—which are all considered to be fairly progressive. With one half of the United States’ legislative branch being taken up by a party that does not believe in said progressive policies, it can then be assumed that the American conservative ideology is more far-right than most of Europe. However, the support for far-right initiatives extends far beyond the United States. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, won her position by her Conservative Party gaining a majority in the 2022 election. According to the BBC, she has formed the most right-wing government in Italy’s history since World War II. She has been criticized for her include anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-immigrant rhetoric; she has also praised Mussolini in the past, while also becoming affiliated with the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement

Unfortunately, it seems that even in countries that have remained democratically stable, the push toward authoritarianism is becoming an ever-increasing issue. This problem is not unique to the 2020s. In 1973, the U.S. staged a military coup in Chile, which saw the democratically elected, left-wing president Salvador Allende overthrown. The reasoning for U.S. involvement in the coup was then-President Nixon’s fear of a communist state in South America, which would have supposedly been a threat to capitalism in the United States. However, this is not the first time that the U.S. has gotten involved with the replacement of governments in foreign countries. During the Cold War, The United States government attempted to interfere with foreign governments nearly 72 times. According to Mother Earth Travel

[F]rom 1932 to 1973, Chile was the only country in Latin America to sustain electoral democracy at a time when major Marxist parties led the workers. Its stable multiparty political system bore more resemblance to West European than to Latin American models. Chileans took great pride in their representative democracy, and many looked with contempt on their more tumultuous neighbors.” 

Despite Chile being seen as one of the most stable democracies in the world, disagreements within the government, along with support from the United States, eventually led to a brutal coup and polarizing dictatorship. To this day, small right-wing groups throughout Chile still view the dictatorship as a positive point in Chilean history. 

Another question that arises when examining the rise of authoritarianism is how people continue to support these regimes, even in light of unpopularity and alleged atrocities? According to multiple sources, there is a psychological component behind this phenomenon. In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Diane Dreher lists several powers that result in the following of authoritarianism. The list includes the power of authority, limited information, and fear. Dreher notes, 

“[T]oo often, orders from people with positional power can overrule individual judgment. Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s landmark study showed how people mindlessly obeyed an authority figure. They followed his commands to administer potentially fatal shocks to a person in the next room whenever he gave a wrong answer to a test question. Despite the victim’s cries of pain, pleas to stop, and complaints about his heart condition, the vast majority (82.5%) of research participants obeyed the experimenter. While hearing the screams from the person next door, these participants kept pushing the button to deliver severe shocks increasing to the level of 450 volts. Milgram (1974) concluded that most people will follow an authority figure’s commands because our culture reinforces us for obedience.” 

Using the results of this experiment, Dreher further concludes that the lack of access to information forces the person to only follow the authoritative figure, and that the use of fear causes a person to unconsciously make decisions despite its ramifications. 

While general authoritarianism feeds into a person’s fears, fascism—a popular form of authoritarianism—feeds into people’s prejudice. According to historian Lawrence Britt, defining characteristics of fascism include powerful nationalism, identifying enemies as a unifying cause, military supremacy, sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with crime and punishment, obsession with national security, and fraudulent elections. To summarize, the appeal of fascism is established through scapegoating minority groups and proposing a heavy reliance on the government and military in order to protect nationalism. This explains why support for far-right groups has increased since the events of the pandemic. For example, xenophobia ran rampant during the COVID-19 pandemic, with anti-Asian hate crimes reaching historical levels since the end of World War II. Also, issues such as the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine have seen an awkward difference in opinion within countries such as the United States, with the majority of Americans believing in sending aid to Ukraine but a small, yet growing number of right-wing groups being against it.

The rise in support for authoritarian regimes results in a harsh reality: democracy is slowly dying out. What was once thought of as the ideal and most stable form of government is now being swept away in order to appeal to prejudices and fears. Even in the United States, a self-proclaimed champion of democracy, there is a concern that democracy may be extinct in the near future, and internationally consequentially. The preservation of democracy lies in the people, not just governments. Without it, the support for human rights and the people as the source of power may diminish. In democracies, power is derived from and facilitated by the people, not the few or the elite. When a government is given power by their constituents, and whose power is checked through elections and the rule of law, only then can support for human rights flourish. Furthermore, history has shown that when the people of a country demand change, change can happen. Whether it was to end a tyrannical monarchy in the United States and France, or to impose limits on the powers of a ruler via the Magna Carta, history has proven that power does indeed lay in the hands of the many, not the few.