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Photo collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Amanda Northrop/Vox

A bad year for the bad guys

In key countries around the world, 2022 was the year democracy proved it could fight back.

On the night of February 23, the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I attended a reading group with a number of prominent Washington foreign policy experts and journalists. We had convened to discuss the work of Carl Schmitt, an interwar German political theorist who believed — among other things — that politics is, at base, about violence. The fundamental political distinction, in Schmitt’s view, is between “friend and enemy”; the fundamental political act is killing one’s enemies. A peaceful democratic world is, in his mind, a fantasy; ultimately, politics would always return to brutality.

As we were wrapping up, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on television to announce a “special military operation” in Ukraine. The mood in the room was dark, full of foreboding; one of the world’s largest and most fearsome military powers appeared on the verge of gobbling up a smaller and weaker neighbor. A world some of us believed was governed by rules and democratic politics felt like it was giving way to Schmittian barbarism.

At the time, the Ukraine war seemed likely to be the first of several catastrophes for the democratic world in 2022. In Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, a looming presidential election was expected to lead to a democratic crisis — its own January 6 moment. The US midterm elections seemed almost certain to elevate supporters of Trump’s election lies to key electoral administration positions, raising the likelihood of another meltdown. This all came amid a decade-long decline in the number of democratic governments around the world, a global transformation that seemed to herald a new world order with China as its leading power.

But as the year winds to a close, the story has turned out to be quite different. Instead of showing weakness, democratic systems displayed resilience. Instead of showing strength, authoritarian systems displayed vulnerability. It was, all in all, a surprisingly good year for democracy.

In Ukraine, the initial Russian lightning strike was decisively repulsed. It has devolved into a grinding conflict in which Ukraine, despite brutal losses, managed to repulse the Russian attack and even retake significant amounts of territory — with major support from the democracies of Europe and North America.

In Brazil, right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro lost his reelection bid and agreed to leave office. His most aggressive effort to overturn the results, a lawsuit alleging fraud, ended in a hefty fine for his party for engaging in what the chief justice of the Supreme Electoral Court termed “bad faith litigation.”

In the United States, election deniers lost every swing state race for governor or secretary of state — crushing defeats that may have even undermined the former president’s standing in the GOP.

And in China and another influential authoritarian state, Iran, major protest movements emerged, each calling for democracy and free elections. While the Chinese protests appear to have slowed, they were the greatest popular challenge to the government since Tiananmen Square. And the Iranian protests are still going strong, posing a formidable threat to the Islamic Republic.

These events pointed to an old truth, hard-won knowledge from the struggles of the 20th century: Democracy enjoys some fundamental advantages over its autocratic rivals.

Authoritarian systems have a tendency toward groupthink and ideological rigidity, frequently proving unwilling or unable to properly assess information and change course when existing policies prove disastrous. Democracy, meanwhile, tends to be widely supported by people who live under it, creating problems for authoritarian forces who are too blatant in their aims to subvert the system.

This does not mean that democracy will inevitably triumph in any specific country, let alone across the globe. Democracies have weaknesses, ones that authoritarian-inclined forces inside democratic states have repeatedly proven capable of exploiting. In 2022, elections in Hungary, Israel, and the Philippines all showed that the authoritarian challenge remains enduring and potent.

But when we look at the year’s events in the world’s largest and most influential countries, the story is on balance a positive one. The authoritarian governments that were supposed to outcompete democracy floundered, while some of the biggest democracies staved off major internal challenges.

In 2022, we lived through a relative rarity in recent memory: a decent year for democracy.

The Ukraine war exposed an authoritarian weakness

When the war in Ukraine began in February, many observers assumed that Russian victory would be all but assured. Moscow shared this assumption — which, somewhat ironically, evolved into a self-defeating prophecy.

The Russian invasion was designed around a lightning advance to Kyiv. The theory was that Russian mechanized forces could take Ukraine by surprise, seize the capital quickly, and push Ukraine’s armed forces to submit or withdraw from much of the country within the opening weeks. That’s not what happened: The Ukrainians exploited the vulnerabilities created by Russia’s attack — inadequate support for the front, poorly defended supply lines — and turned back the initial assault.

By the end of March, the war of regime change had already failed, forcing Russia to eventually dial down its ambitions. By the fall, Ukraine had begun further rolling back Russia’s gains, retaking roughly 55 percent of the territory seized by Russia in the invasion’s early days.

Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen erected at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on September 30, as he speaks at a rally and concert marking the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops then occupied: Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.
Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Why did the Russian plan fail? Part of the blame rests with Russia’s FSB intelligence service, which had falsely reported that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government had little public support and was likely to crack under pressure. But the biggest problem appears to be Putin himself.

In the war’s early days, Western intelligence officials and independent experts quickly concluded that the Russian president’s stated belief in the idea that Ukraine was a fake country, rightfully part of Russia, was genuine. This blinded him to the motivating power of Ukrainian nationalism for its leadership, military, and population.

“He actually really thought this would be a ‘special military operation’: They would be done in a few days, and it wouldn’t be a real war,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the CNA think tank, told me in March.

In recent months, our understanding of the Russian failures has only grown. This month, researchers at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, published a report on the war based on a tranche of captured Russian orders provided by the Ukrainian government. “These plans,” RUSI finds, “were drawn up by a very small group of officials and the intent was directed by Putin.” Most of the Russian government was kept in the dark; there were no contingency plans in case things went wrong.

“The plan itself [never] envisaged any outcome other than its own success,” the RUSI researchers conclude.

These errors were a predictable consequence of the structure of Putin’s regime.

In a prescient prewar analysis published in Foreign Affairs, political scientists Seva Gunitsky and Adam Casey argue, “If he makes a miscalculation and launches a major invasion, it will likely be because of the personalist features of his regime” — meaning the degree to which power has been consolidated in the hands of one man. Personalism, they argue, exacerbates a fundamental tendency of authoritarian states toward policy miscalculations.

“Leaders suppress dissent, punish free expression, encourage personal loyalty, and divide their security agencies. They therefore struggle to understand both how their people feel and what other states are planning,” Gunitsky and Casey note.

The course of the war bore out this general theory. Because Putin has surrounded himself with cronies and yes-men, there was no one in the Russian government who was willing to criticize the invasion plan in any serious way — let alone challenge the president’s underlying theories of the Ukrainian state.

Of course, war is unpredictable. But from the vantage point of the present, it appears that Russia has fallen into a classic authoritarian trap — blundering its way into a policy disaster due to a system that insulated its leadership from reality.

How Iran blundered into revolt

Another authoritarian regime saw trouble this year: Iran, which has been rocked by a massive wave of nationwide anti-regime protests. And as in Russia, the authoritarian information problem is a major part of the story of how this came to be.

On September 13, a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly failing to properly cover her hair. According to eyewitnesses, Amini was severely beaten while she was in police custody. She died three days after her arrest.

As news of Amini’s death spread, Iranian women and girls began removing their hijabs in public and taking to the streets to protest. These teenage girls and young women inspired demonstrations across the country, pulling in anti-regime protesters from all sectors of Iranian society. So far, the government’s brutal crackdown — including public executions and the indiscriminate use of live ammunition against packed crowds of protesters — has yet to defuse the demonstrations.

An Iranian women who has removed her headscarf protests in Tehran on October 1 in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police.
AP Photo/Middle East Images

We can’t yet say that the regime is on the brink of collapse: A significant protest wave between 2018 and 2020 petered out with the Islamic Republic still intact. Yet the fact of repeated major protests speaks to deep and enduring public discontent.

Iranian women have been mounting a subtle campaign of resistance to the headscarf policy for decades. In the past, Iran’s government had allowed citizens to voice frustration with its policies by permitting them to vote for (relative) moderates in presidential elections, such as the 1997 victory of Mohammad Khatami. Though the presidency’s powers are limited, they’re also real, and Iranians took these elections seriously. In 2009, when the Islamic Republic was seen by many to have rigged the election to ensure incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory over reformer Mir Hussein Mousavi, millions took to Iran’s streets to protest. The next time around, in 2013, the clerics allowed a freer vote — leading to a victory by moderate Hassan Rouhani that set the stage for the 2015 nuclear deal.

In 2021, Iran was scheduled to hold another vote, but this time, the authorities decided to rig it from the get-go. Before the election, Islamic Republic authorities disqualified nearly every viable presidential candidate save one, ultra-hardliner Ebrahim Raisi. As a result, Iranians didn’t take the vote seriously; the contest saw the lowest turnout since the Islamic Republic’s founding.

The elections in 1997, 2009, and 2013 all indicated major public demand for reform — hopes that were partially accommodated (as in the nuclear deal) and more typically dashed (as in the repression of the 2009 protests). But in 2021, the low turnout seems to have been misread as acquiescence rather than a sign that the more liberal segments of the public had lost faith in making change through the system. Once in office, Raisi pursued a hardline agenda including escalated enforcement of headscarf rules, seemingly oblivious to the blowback it would bring.

The Iranian protests illustrate a different facet of the authoritarian information problem: its difficulty identifying festering problems and adjusting policy before there’s a crisis. Societies are big and complicated; figuring out what’s going wrong and how to solve it are tremendously difficult tasks.

The core institutions of democracy, including a free press and regular elections, create mechanisms for policymakers to get input from people and adjust accordingly. Authoritarian governments like Iran’s, by contrast, repress dissenting opinions and criticisms of their policies — leading them to blunder into crisis without even knowing it, or to arrogantly assume that they can force unpopular policies onto the public.

Iranian demonstrators take to the streets of Tehran on September 21, a week after Mahsa Amini died while in police custody.
AFP via Getty Images

One of the most famous demonstrations of this effect comes from Amartya Sen, an economist and philosopher at Harvard. Sen’s work on famines showed that such humanitarian disasters are not, as commonly thought, typically caused by food supply shocks like drought. Instead, they are caused by political structures: No democracy has ever experienced a famine; democratic leaders’ incentives and informational structures make them more likely to act than their authoritarian peers.

“A free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have,” Sen writes in his 1999 book Development as Freedom.

Obviously, a political uprising is a very different event from a famine. But from the Islamic Republic’s point of view, it is similarly disastrous. While the regime may well survive this latest round of protest — its capacity for repression should not be underestimated — the Iranian people have shown that its government’s repeated underestimation of their anger comes with significant costs.

China aimed to fix authoritarianism’s problems. It failed.

In Development as Freedom, one of Sen’s key examples of authoritarianism causing famine is the Great Leap Forward in China. Between 1958 and 1961, Communist Party Chair Mao Zedong embarked on a series of disastrous agricultural reforms that led to the deaths of roughly 30 million people — the deadliest famine in all of human history.

In theory, China’s move toward a more free-market economy starting in 1979 should have created the conditions to prevent a repeat of this catastrophe: allowing its leadership to get informational signals from the market without political liberalization. Sen, for his part, was skeptical. “When things go reasonably well [in China], democracy might not be greatly missed, but as and when big policy mistakes are made, that lacuna can be quite disastrous,” he writes.

For some time, China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic looked like it might prove him wrong. But by the end of 2022, it became clear that China’s Covid policy had turned disastrous for reasons predicted by Sen’s theory.

Workers in personal protective equipment walk past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai, China, on June 10, as the city locked down for Covid-19 mass testing.
Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

After China failed to contain the first outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019, leading to a global pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) acted swiftly and aggressively to contain the spread inside the country. Until this year, it appeared to have done a better job of keeping death rates down than the wealthy democracies in Europe and North America. The policy seemed so effective, in fact, that President Xi Jinping had turned it into a major feature of his government’s propaganda — proof of the superiority of Chinese-style state capitalism to Western liberal democracy.

But China’s “zero Covid” policy always had significant problems. The harsh nature of its lockdowns, where people were confined to their homes and entire offices shut down, infuriated citizens and damaged China’s economy. China’s dogmatic insistence on the success of its own model led it to limit vaccination campaigns and refuse Western mRNA vaccines, which have proven superior to China’s homegrown SinoVac.

From the CCP’s point of view, these were acceptable downsides to a policy that mostly contained disease spread — right up until the omicron variant began sweeping through China earlier this year. The more infectious variant required even more severe lockdowns to prevent mass death: In March, most residents of Shanghai, one of the world’s largest cities, were confined to their homes for weeks.

Public frustration began to mount. During the height of Shanghai’s lockdown, people were filmed screaming their frustration out their windows.

Things came to a head after November 24, when a fire broke out at an apartment building in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, home to the brutally repressed Uyghur Muslim minority. The building was on lockdown at the time; at least 10 people died, a death toll that many Chinese believe could have been avoided if the government hadn’t been denying building residents freedom of movement.

The fire in Urumqi had the same galvanizing effect as the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran. As news spread, a wave of protests swept the country. And those protesters took the once-unthinkable step of linking their frustrations with Covid policy to the regime itself: blaming Xi for the tragedy in Urumqi and calling for elections.

The protests in China have not been large enough to threaten the regime. But they are forcing the government to act: In early December, China announced that it would ease some of the most hated Covid restrictions (like mass testing requirements and mandatory hospitalization after infection). It’s a major win for the protesters, but also one that sets up China for a significant outbreak this winter.

Demonstrators chant slogans against China’s zero-Covid policies in Shanghai, China, on November 27.
Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Together, the failure of zero Covid and the emergence of anti-CCP protest demonstrated that China’s regime has not really solved the information problem that plagues authoritarian regimes. And more and more Chinese citizens are recognizing that blame for policy failures rightfully belongs with the regime.

“We don’t want a dictatorship. We want democracy. We don’t want a leader. We want voting,” protesters chanted at a demonstration in Shanghai.

And then they said something else, something telling.

“We stand with the women of Iran.”

The United States and Brazil proved democracy’s resilience

Democracies are not perfect. Their leaders make terrible policy mistakes and persist in sticking with them — think the war in Iraq, the Trump administration’s handling of Covid-19, or dozens of other recent examples in the United States.

But democratic governments have a built-in feature for addressing the fallout of these mistakes: People get to vote. When a leader makes a mistake, voters can elect a new one. This transfers the polity’s loyalty from a leader or a ruling elite to the system itself. Thus, individual disasters are generally less system-threatening for democracies than they are for autocracies.

In the past decade, democratic citizens’ fundamental loyalty to the electoral system has been severely tested. Across the democratic world, voters have begun to express significant discontent with the status quo, electing leaders who threaten to subvert and even topple democracy from within. Today, such elected authoritarians have won power in important countries like India — posing a greater threat to democracy’s future than Russia or even China.

In 2022, two of the world’s largest democracies, the United States and Brazil, held pivotal elections that very well could have accelerated this global process of democratic decay. But in both cases, the systems held firm — showing, for all its problems, that modern democracy retains protective antibodies that can activate when the system comes under duress.

The US midterms were expected to be the beginning of a new crisis for American democracy. Republicans seemed poised for a “red tsunami,” one that would sweep election deniers and conspiracy theorists into governor’s mansions and election administration posts in swing states across the country. The worry was that they would then be in position to hand the 2024 election to their patron, Donald Trump, regardless of the will of the voters.

Some of them were quite explicit about their undemocratic aims. Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor in Wisconsin, openly proclaimed that Republicans “will never lose another election” in the state if he won in 2022.

But in Wisconsin and the other five key presidential swing states — Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona — Michels and his fellow election deniers were defeated. In each of these states, the governor’s mansion and secretary of state position will be controlled by someone who (correctly) believes that the 2020 election was on the level. American democracy dodged a bullet.

Since the election, I’ve been interviewing victorious candidates in these races and Democratic operatives who worked on them. They all tell a similar story: Casting their opponents as enemies of democracy, and themselves as neutral defenders of the right to vote, worked.

“There was a very hidden silver lining to the ascent of Donald Trump and Trumpism,” says Adrian Fontes, Arizona’s incoming secretary of state. “People are now genuinely aware of the fact that democracy depends on people of integrity and honor administering it.”

Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels speaks to guests during a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on August 5.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Early data analyses suggested that Democrats won key races not by turning out more of their own partisans but by persuading independents and even some Republicans to vote for them. Among these voters, democracy appeared to be an important issue: One survey, from Impact Research, found that 64 percent of Republicans who voted for Democrats cited conspiracies about the 2020 election as a top issue for them in 2022.

The group Run for Something, a progressive outfit that identifies and supports candidates for local office, worked with 32 candidates in tight, swingy races — some of whom competed against election deniers, some of whom did not. Their internal data, shared with Vox, showed that election deniers were easier to beat. Run for Something candidates won about 77 percent of races where their candidate competed against an election denier, as opposed to 53 percent of those where they didn’t.

“What we found from our own polling is that people want to feel like elections are being run fairly, regardless of partisanship,” says Ross Morales Rocketto, Run for Something’s co-founder.

In the face of a serious challenge from candidates who aimed to subvert its mechanisms, American voters turned out to protect the system.

The 2022 Brazilian presidential election revealed a different aspect of democratic resilience: the way that it generates buy-in from not only ordinary citizens, but elites as well.

The incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro, was widely seen as an existential threat to Brazilian democracy. During his time in office, the former army captain worked to bring the military into politics — even attempting to give officers a role in counting ballots in the October 30 election. He once claimed that, if he ordered Brazil’s military to impose order on the country, they would listen: “Our armed forces could one day go into the streets ... the order will be followed.

In the runup to the election, Bolsonaro and his allies had repeatedly laid the groundwork for allegations of fraud in the event of his defeat. When the October 30 results showed a narrow victory for his opponent, Lula, the defeated president’s supporters took to the streets in cities across the country. Many worried that the stage was set for a Southern Hemisphere repeat of January 6 — potentially with buy-in from the armed forces.

But that’s not what happened. Almost immediately, leading Brazilian authorities, including many of Bolsonaro’s partners, worked to reinforce the legitimacy of the outcome.

“The Senate President, the Attorney General, Supreme Court justices and the heads of the electoral agency went on television together and announced the winner,” explains Jack Nicas, the New York Times’s Brazil bureau chief. “The House Speaker, perhaps the president’s most important ally, then read a statement reiterating that the voters had spoken. Other right-wing politicians quickly followed suit.”

Bolsonaro, silent for two days after the election, ultimately went onstage and acknowledged that he would be leaving office. While he did not admit that he had legitimately lost the election, he agreed to abide by constitutional procedures and depart if that’s what the law required. His lawsuit contesting the results was swiftly smacked down by the courts.

After the results were officially certified on December 12, a group of his hardcore supporters attempted to attack a police station in downtown Brasilia. But the riot swiftly petered out.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro presides over the formal graduation of the latest class of naval cadets in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 10, just weeks before his government is due to relinquish power to the incoming government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on January 1.
Bruna Prado/AP
Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, holds his election certificate with Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes in Brasilia, Brazil, on December 12. The Supreme Electoral Court certified Da Silva’s election win for the 2023-2026 presidential term.
Eraldo Peres/AP

The Brazilian case is, if anything, a more dramatic example of democratic resilience than the United States. In a younger democracy where the military had ruled from 1964 to 1985, a majority of voters turned out to vote down a candidate who had all but openly promised to trigger a crisis if he lost. And when the time came, Brazilian elites banded together to ensure that the election results were respected.

“All of Bolsonaro’s escape valves were shut off,” Brian Winter, vice president of the Council of the Americas think tank, told the AP. “He was prevailed upon from all sides not to contest the results and burn down the house on his way out.”

Not a perfect year, but an encouraging one

Despite the positive developments in 2022, the global crisis of democracy is hardly over. Electoral authoritarianism continued to show its strength in countries around the world.

In Hungary, the paradigmatic case of a democracy that had backslid into authoritarianism, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government defeated a united opposition ticket in the country’s April election. The election demonstrated that the system he had built, where elections are not nakedly rigged but held under extremely unfair conditions, is quite resilient.

In the Philippines, authoritarian-inclined President Rodrigo Duterte abided by term-limit rules and departed office as scheduled. But the ticket that won the May election does not inspire confidence: Bongbong Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Sara Duterte, the outgoing president’s daughter. The Duterte-Marcos ticket won in part by exploiting a rising nostalgia for the Philippines’s autocratic past: a sense that democracy was chaotic and destabilizing, and that strongman rule could restore order.

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., right, poses for photos with his new vice president, Sara Duterte, after Marcos took his oath as the next president in Manila, Philippines, on June 30.
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

In Israel, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the country’s November election with the support of extremist parties, including the neo-fascist Jewish Power faction. Netanyahu, currently on trial for corruption charges that include allegations of using state power to buy favorable press coverage, will soon likely have enough votes in parliament to pass a law giving the legislature power to override court rulings with a simple majority vote. This bill could pave the way for legislation shielding him from having to serve jail time, if convicted; it would certainly strip power away from the Supreme Court, one of the key Israeli institutions protecting minority rights and basic democratic principles from the new coalition.

These elections fit a broader pattern of democratic decline stretching back years. A March report from V-Dem, an institution that aims to quantitatively assess the health of democracies around the world, found that democracy had reached its weakest point globally since 1989.

The most common regime type around the world, per V-Dem, is not any species of democracy (as it was just a few years ago). Today, the report finds, a 44-percent plurality of governments worldwide are “electoral autocracies” — defined as regimes with “institutions emulating democracy but falling substantially below the threshold for democracy in terms of authenticity or quality.”

The events of 2022 do not mean that things are turning around. The long-term threat to democracy remains very real.

What they do show is that there are also significant sources of democratic resilience and authoritarian weakness — ones on display in some of the most influential states on the planet. If nothing else, 2022 reminded us that reviving democracy is a choice, and that, this year at least, enough people around the world chose it.

Correction, December 24, 3:40 pm ET: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had already left office. His opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will be inaugurated on January 1, 2023.

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