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World remains more democratic despite challenge of authoritarianism, political scientist says

SARAJEVO - Offering a less pessimistic view on the state of democracy today, Harvard University professor Steve Levitsky said global democracies have been surprisingly resilient and still have a fighting chance even against the rising threat of anti-democratic forces.

Jul 4, 2024

Bryan Daniele Manalang

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4-minute read

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SARAJEVO – Offering a less pessimistic view on the state of democracy today, Harvard University professor Steve Levitsky said global democracies have been surprisingly resilient and still have a fighting chance even against the rising threat of anti-democratic forces.

The broad consensus that democracy is falling in steep decline all over the world needs to be fact-checked, Levitsky, an American political scientist, said in his closing remark at the 11th International Fact-Checking Summit (GlobalFact 11) in this capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The idea that the world is succumbing to Chinese or Russian-style authoritarianism is completely off the mark. The forces sustaining pluralism, competition and pro-democratic forces remain very strong across much of the world,” Levistky added at the annual fact-checking conference coordinated by the International Fact-Checking Network held this year in Sarajevo with local partner ZaštoNe.

Citing data from several organizations like the Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy, Levitsky said the number of democracies from 1975 to 2000 has nearly tripled and continues to remain relatively steady today. These democratic gains are just less likely to be covered by the press instead of the “backslidings.”

“The world is still considerably more democratic than it was in the 1990s despite the rise of China, despite [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, despite [former United States president Donald] Trump, despite social media, despite AI, despite COVID. To me, that suggests a fair amount of democratic resilience,” he said.

The Harvard professor of government gave two reasons for the continuing survival of global democracies: economic development and the fragility of new autocracies.

“There continues to be a super-powerful correlation between economic development and democracy,” he said. When resources are “dispersed” away from the state and to its citizens, people are more likely to support and sustain opposition groups instead of being highly reliant on their governments.

And the other reason is that most new autocracies are as weak and fragile as the democracies they replaced. “[Autocratic] governments have a hard time governing well, they fail to deliver economic results, they fail to deliver public services,” Levitsky said. These failures can lead to autocracies losing the will of the people and risk their collapse.

Populism still a threat

However, despite his optimistic view, Levitsky said populism has emerged as a major threat to democracies worldwide.

“Populist candidates are winning elections today than in any time of history before. Populists win elections with a promise to bury the political elites, to drain the swamp,” he said. However, he said that while populists may threaten democracy, they do not always kill it.

Populists have an easier time winning today than 20 years ago as political establishments – including political parties, large interest groups and major traditional media outlets – are weakening all over the world, according to Levitsky.

Populist candidates can openly campaign against the establishment and still win as they longer need the establishment’s vast amounts of resources and political capital to run for a position, compared to the political scenes of the 19th and the 20th centuries.

“The weakening of political establishments is unquestionably democratizing… It opens up the political system to a much wider array of groups and individuals,” Levitsky said. “But that very democratization, that very opening up, leaves democratic liberal institutions vulnerable to anti-system forces.”

Independent press crucial to sustaining democracy

In a sit down interview with IFCN Director Angie Drobnic Holan, who asked about role that the free press and fact-checkers play in the fight for democracy, Levitsky emphasized the importance of a free, independent press as part of the “countervailing” power against anti-democratic forces.

“Democracy needs opposition. And for people to oppose the government, they need information. Thus far, we have yet to discover a means of providing [an] independent source of information to citizens without the independent media,” he said.

Fact-checking is one way for people to make public figures accountable to their constituents. “Holding politicians, holding elected officials [and] powerful people accountable for what they do… is building and sustaining norms of accountability,” Levitsky said. “That if they get caught in a lie, they should pay a price.”

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