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Democracy is losing

Around the world, democracy is on the decline — and it’s not clear Biden can reverse the trend.

Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping while standing in front of the flags of the US and China.
Then–Vice President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 4, 2013, in Beijing.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

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It’s been a bad few years for democracy around the world — so bad that Freedom House, which tracks the health of the world’s democracies, says that we’re in a “long democratic recession.”

That recession deepened last year, Freedom House concluded in its 2021 report. While democracy improved in 28 countries, it declined in 73 — the biggest gap in democracy’s 15-year slide so far. And the world’s two biggest democracies, the US and India, were among those that declined.

A chart showing the number of countries where democracy has improved or declined. Freedom House

Some of the global slide was driven by governmental overreach in response to the pandemic. But that wasn’t the whole explanation. In the US, former President Donald Trump questioned legitimate election results, leading to an attempted coup at the Capitol. And in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies continued a crackdown on critics.

“With India’s decline to Partly Free, less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a Free country, the smallest proportion since 1995,” Freedom House found. (The US still qualifies as “free,” but less so than before.)

A chart showing the decline of “free” countries. Freedom House

Autocratic regimes, particularly powerful nations like China and Russia, are making things worse. These countries have built a network of sorts — what Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic dubbed “Autocracy Inc.” — that enables and supports further anti-democratic regression. Through this support group, these nations’ leaders can cement their power and wealth — at the expense of their own citizens — even as much of the world criticizes what they’re doing.

Consider Turkey. Once a serious candidate for European Union membership, the country has in recent years moved in an authoritarian direction. In 2009, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called China’s repression of Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, a “genocide.” But since Erdoğan took his own autocratic turn when he became president, he’s taken a softer approach — even deporting Uyghurs in Turkey to China — as he’s received more support from China.

As Applebaum argued, “As he has become openly hostile to former European and NATO allies, and as he has arrested and jailed his own dissidents, Erdoğan’s interest in Chinese friendship, investment, and technology has increased, along with his willingness to echo Chinese propaganda.”

Similarly, autocratic regimes from Belarus to Syria to Venezuela have been able to count on Russian and/or Chinese support.

Given the lessons of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Arab Spring, there’s a deep skepticism that military intervention could do much of anything to turn the tide, at least without risking catastrophe (up to nuclear war).

So President Joe Biden’s administration seems to be trying a different tack: leading by example. Biden said as much in his address to Congress earlier this year — framing the goal of his agenda as a means to shore up faith in democracy at home and around the globe.

“We have to prove democracy still works,” Biden said. “That our government still works — and we can deliver for our people.”

After all, one reason many countries were willing to embrace democratic models was the success of the US and other Western nations in the 20th century. If America no longer looks like a successful model — and if democracy keeps backsliding here too — that source of inspiration will dim.

Yet Biden’s full agenda has struggled in Congress, with the Build Back Better Act’s fate uncertain and election reforms failing to pass. An attempt to show the American government can work could ultimately provide an example for the opposite.

In its report, Freedom House argued that the world’s democratic leaders should shore up their credibility at home and globally. It went on: “If free societies fail to take these basic steps, the world will become ever more hostile to the values they hold dear, and no country will be safe from the destructive effects of dictatorship.”

Paper of the week: Inequality’s causes in America and Europe

A new study, coming to the American Economic Journal, looked at the causes of income inequality in the US and Europe — with some surprising results.

Researchers Thomas Blanchet, Lucas Chancel, and Amory Gethin combined US and European data sets, from surveys to tax data to social insurance benefits, to get a comprehensive look at inequality before and after tax-and-transfer programs. The idea was to build a model so comprehensive it would overcome previous errors in this line of research, such as the underrepresentation of top incomes in surveys.

The most surprising finding: “[T]he distribution of taxes and transfers does not explain the large gap between Europe and US posttax inequality levels. Quite the contrary: after accounting for all taxes and transfers, the US appears to redistribute a greater fraction of its national income to the poorest 50% than any European country.”

The typical story is that Europe has less inequality, and inequality has grown more slowly across the continent over the past few decades, because it aggressively redistributes money through policy. These findings, though, suggest that “Europe has been much more successful than the US at ensuring that its low-income groups benefit from relatively good-paying jobs.” (Stronger labor unions in Europe, Blanchet told me, are likely part of the explanation.)

This is just one paper, taking a fairly novel approach with a combination of a lot of data sets and looking at a very hot topic, so it’s not the last word on this issue. Hopefully, there will be many more studies to replicate or dispute the findings.

But by challenging the traditional story, it shows just how much we still have to learn about what is really needed to drive down inequality in the US and abroad.