Demonstrators are in the streets in Iran and China to protest repressive governments. Ukrainians are defending their democracy, flawed as it is, against Russian invaders. Elections in Africa and Asia resulted in changes in the ruling powers that were accepted without violence.
For years, democracy and freedom have been in retreat around the globe, and — in many minds — even here in the United States, where just last week a former president proposed the “termination” of some rules in the Constitution. But events in far-flung corners of the globe have produced glimmers of hope that suggest that the direction of democracy is not simply one way.
Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization founded in 1941 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie to promote democracy and liberty around the world. After a long career at The Washington Post, where we worked together, Abramowitz has spent nearly six years trying to reverse the trend of recent years and, for the first time in a while, sees reasons for optimism.
We talked about China, Iran and the broader swings this week:
Baker: You wrote last week that recent developments “point to an eventual reversal of the dismal trends” of democratic reverses of recent years. Is this a moment of optimism, or are we getting too excited?
Abramowitz: We are being reminded every day that people are willing to risk all for the right to live in freedom, peace and dignity. I wouldn’t underestimate the willingness of Russian, Iranian and Chinese regimes to respond brutally to the protests to hold onto power. But yes, I am optimistic. Time and history are not on the dictators’ side.
Freedom House has documented 16 years of shrinking freedom around the world. Last year, you found that freedom had declined in 60 countries and improved in only 25. What has driven this trend?
Things differ from country to country. But broadly speaking, dictators and illiberal leaders in democracies — think of Hungary’s Viktor Orban — have capitalized on people’s grievances about economic conditions, demographic shifts or social change to make the case that only strongmen rule, and only they can solve complex problems.
What about in the U.S.? Donald Trump called for “termination” of parts of the Constitution to put himself immediately back in power. What would you rate a country where that happened?
We do not foresee a scenario in which our Constitution will be terminated. In places where that has happened, where authoritarian leaders have undermined democratic systems to secure their own power, those countries are generally considered “partly free” or “not free” by Freedom House.
How big a threat do you see to American democracy?
I have faith in the underlying resilience of our country’s democracy. The antibodies to antidemocratic thinking and practice are kicking in. I think people are seeing the risks in a way perhaps they didn’t before. But we should not take the survival of our democracy for granted. I was a reporter for many years and have seen a lot, but I never would have dreamed a political figure, and his supporters, would have tried to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power.
We’ve seen protests in Iran and China before, but the governments survived. Should we expect the outcome to be different this time?
The honest answer is, I don’t know. I think these regimes are more brittle than we see from the outside. Dictators are subject to the same pressures to deliver as democratically elected leaders are. As you know from the Soviet Union, regimes can seem impervious to change — until they are not. I don’t expect to see Xi Jinping in power in five years. China isn’t suddenly going to turn into a democracy, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of dissent.
President Biden has been relatively quiet about the China protests. Should he be speaking out more?
Everyone should be speaking out more, particularly democratic leaders. It’s not productive or realistic to cut all ties to authoritarian regimes, but we should use this engagement to press human rights concerns. If democracies don’t defend these values, who will?
You were a co-host of an event with the George W. Bush Institute highlighting human rights defenders. Of those you’ve met, who was one of the most impressive?
I think often of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition figure and journalist who was living in the United States but went back to Russia around the time of the Ukraine invasion despite two assassination attempts and knowing he would be thrown in jail. There are many remarkable people out there who are risking everything to bring freedom to their countries. That gives me hope.
Related: The upheaval in Peru’s government is a test of its democracy.
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