A child protester in Moscow hauled off by police in body armour says it all.
There has clearly been worldwide trend away from democracy in the past few years. The April Spring yielded fewer democracies than the fall of communism and Russia is now arresting child protesters, such as the boy in the above photograph, hauled off the streets of Moscow on June 12.
Is he the future of Russian progress and this moment only seeding a new generation committed to a more democratic future? Isn’t history, in the long run, progressive, rather than cyclical?
After all, Brexit took a blow in the most recent parliamentary elections, while France and Germany have emerged as new leaders articulating a vision of the free world based more on ideas than super powers.
In Russia and Eastern Europe, protests are on the rise, and a backlash against authoritarianism seems sure to come.
So is democracy coming or going?
First, the data: Today 51% of the 167 countries and territories in the world are technically democracies, but in 2016, the world became less democratic overall, including the United States, according to Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 survey.
And it is not a recent trend. 109 countries have seen a net decline in their level of democracy in the past ten years, according to watchdog organisation Freedom House.
The implications are disturbing to those who believe that a fundamental desire for freedom creates an inexorable march towards increasing democratisation and civil liberty.
Perhaps this idea is inherently flawed, and we do not really live in a world that, with a couple of bumps and bruises along the way, grows more democratic over time.
In the past few years, populist revolts against dictatorships have seemed to create only more intractable ones that could last generations.
Meanwhile in the west, the United States elected a bizarre Russian-backed candidate who seems to be annoyed by democracy and backed by “true believers” drunk on their new sense of validation and composing 25% of the electorate. In the east, the most secular and democratic of Muslim-majority countries, Turkey, voted to permanently grant dictatorial powers to its leader.
Meanwhile, the world’s emerging super-power, China, boasts a citizenship happy enough with economic growth at the expense of political or cultural freedom.
Clearly, something is in the air and it is not democracy.
It is unclear whether social media that allows instantaneous communication between dissident leaders and their followers can add the historical perspective that allows them to play a longer game, ie to wisely make thoughtful plans and organisational steps towards governing, rather than simply reacting against the status quo. Ironically, Wikipedia, woefully superficially, is often the only place on the Internet to piece together the whole against pieces of news coming at us like speeding bullets.
Can protest movements that support democratic-style governments learn from the past? Can they create the intellectual and organisational infrastructure that allows democracies to form and maintain themselves over time?
Or will they continue to cathartically express collective national emotions, then fade into obscurity, leaving ever more hardened authoritarian regimes in their wake?
In particular, can passionate but inexperienced youth movements learn from history with the benefit of the internet? Can youth acquire the wisdom of the ages, not just where to meet and rally, and if so how?
So far the news is mixed. But historically, the night, like many of the protestors around the world, is young.
This month Worldstir takes you on a tour not only of the data on democracy in 2017, but also of protests and small moments where the seeds of new thinking are taking root.
All the links below are original stories contributed by writers and translators around the world, and we will continue to update them into 2018. So lean back, click and prepare to learn how democracy is, and is not working.
Starting with the data on the United States, we ask “Why the United States is no longer a full Democracy,” a status the Economist quietly removed in 2016.
Only around a third of U.S. millennials see civil rights as “absolutely essential,” according to a study by Yascha Mounk, a Harvard University researcher, and Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne, a giant backwards generational change.
Trump’s election, the equivalent of a political wrecking ball, is one result.
But there are also signs of change afoot. Trump once famously asked Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” Within six months, voters had learned there is quite a bit to lose, after all, starting with health insurance, and ending in public education, protection from environmental and world banking disasters, along with tax-payer funded Trump-empire inspired foreign intervention, often paid for in the lives of young soldiers.
In “The Tale of two populists” we interview Trump supporters who represent: True Believers and Naive Believers. Anecdotal evidence is showing that Naive Believers may be wisening up as Trump’s policies and cartoon character implode his presidency just in time for the 2018 presidential elections.
In the Middle East, we looked at the data on democracy and asked are there any full democracies after the Arab spring lost its promise? The answer is, frankly, saddening.
But a new generation has learned a key lesson about what happens when an alliance of opposition groups fails to discuss and agree on how post-regime change provisional governments will work and checks on power-grabs.
In Mexico, social media fueled youth protests in 2012, but their president also learned to use tax-payer funded “Penabots” – automated social media to create fake news and illegally influence election results. Now that all parties in Mexico use bots to manipulate popular opinion, how will the opposition respond?
We also found a new kind of candidacy by a Mexican party that already has formed highly democratic parallel governments in rural areas representing indigenous people. They will run a female indigenous “spokesperson” on the Independent ticket in 2018. The party’s guiding principles include the formation of “bottom-up” decision-making, uninfluenced by external financiers, a lone experiment in new democratic forms.
And in Serbia, after a satirical Serbian comedian (see article and video here) and candidate won 10% of the national vote for president in April, 2017, the president nominated a gay woman as Prime Minister, in a turn away from Russia and toward the European Union.
In dictatorial Belarus, an unemployment tax backfired and forced the dictatorial president to back down.
Finally, there is China, where one of our translator tells us “What Chinese people really think about democracy,” where the drug of economic growth is an acceptable trade off to civil liberty, but a new kind of home owner’s association is teaching people in to discuss and vote on issues among a group of equals.
As always journalists continue to tell the stories of the world in spite of the dangers. In “The most dangerous places to be a journalist,” we show heroes who gave their lives and the stories they died for. As long as there are these courageous journalists, democracy still has a chance.
So what conclusions can we draw from these assorted snapshots of democracy in action ─ or not ─ in 2017?
My own conclusion as editor of this project is that democracy has been treated too long as a universal principle, rather than an organism, one with flesh and tissue, in need of doctors with a more clinical outlook.
We need mechanics and software engineers. We need critical thinking to review the mechanisms of what works and what doesn’t in early, mid and late-stage democracies. Like many other institutions, it is time to rethink the future of democracy based on 21st century ideas.
A dual Turkish-American citizen, witness to both the Erdogan’s five year power grab and Trump’s thwarted desire for the same, told me that maybe Democrats should join Republicans in supporting de-centralization of power away from the President, so important head of agencies may be selected directly by the people or by the states.
This may be a good or bad idea, but it is a new one that at least takes into account the new reality of the tremendous increase power by top political executives across the world. New ideas are badly needed.
It may take the next generation to finish the task, perhaps by the boy in the photograph above this article. Perhaps by a generation of leaders yet unborn.
Please send us your ideas for democratic change to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.