Opinion

The authoritarian moment

All over the world, liberal democracy is in retreat

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

History, it turns out, is not over. Liberal democracies have not won the war of ideas. In his influential 1992 book, The End of History, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama surveyed a world in which the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War was over, and the West had won — seemingly for good. Free-market democracies, Fukuyama said, had proven they were the "final form of human government." But that victory's permanence was an illusion. In the 21st century, liberal democracy is in retreat all over the world, as autocrats and populist extremists seize the levers of power. In China, President Xi Jinping has made himself an emperor. In Russia, the modern czar Vladimir Putin leverages the West's social media and free speech to deepen our divisions and interfere in our elections. Poland, Hungary, and Turkey are all devolving into autocracies; far-right populist parties are on the rise throughout Europe. "Twenty-five years ago, I didn't have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward," Fukuyama recently told The Washington Post. "And I think they clearly can."

In a new book, The People vs. Democracy, political scientist Yascha Mounk explains what Fukuyama failed to foresee. Center-left and center-right mainstream parties, Mounk says, have failed to address the powerful economic and cultural anxieties created by globalization, immigration, and multiethnic societies. Faith in democracy is waning; the belief that the system is "rigged" is growing. That's opened the door to nationalist strongmen who claim to speak for "the people," with simplistic solutions to their complaints. If democracies and mainstream parties do not adapt, Mounk warns, the center will not hold; authoritarians on both the left and right may carve up the world. Here and abroad, the threat to free speech, individual rights, and the rule of law is very real. History is still being written, and it's a real page-turner.

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