The U.S. can’t effectively promote democracy abroad unless it works better at home

Larry Diamond writes: In the global democracy promotion community, few actors are paying attention to the growing signs of fragility in the more liberal developing democracies, not to mention the more illiberal ones.

Broadly, we know why democracy and freedom are slipping back. What Francis Fukuyama calls “neo-patrimonial” tendencies are resurgent. Leaders who think they can get away with it are eroding democratic checks and balances, hollowing out accountability institutions, overriding term limits and normative restraints, and accumulating power and wealth for themselves and their families, cronies, clients, and parties.

Space for opposition parties, civil society, and the media is shrinking, and international support for them is drying up. Ethnic, religious, and other identity cleavages polarize many societies that lack well-designed democratic institutions to manage those cleavages. State structures are too often weak and porous, unable to secure order, protect rights, meet the most basic social needs, or rise above corrupt, clientelistic, and predatory impulses. Democratic institutions — parties and parliaments — are often poorly developed, and the bureaucracy lacks the policy expertise, and even more so the independence, neutrality, and authority, to effectively manage the economy. So weak economic performance, and certainly rising inequality, is added to the mix.

It isn’t easy to develop democracy in poor countries and weak states. And there is a significant failure rate even in middle-income countries. But if we don’t become more focused, more creative, more determined, more resourceful, and less apologetic in promoting democracy, the democratic recession is going to mutate into a wave of democratic regression, a bleak period for freedom, political stability, and the American national interest.

So what is to be done?

We need to begin by disaggregating the problem. Let’s start at the top of the hierarchy of democratic development and work down. I used to add at the end of this kind of lecture a reflective caveat,

“Physician, heal thyself.” In other words, we can’t be credible and effective in promoting democracy abroad if we don’t reform and improve its functioning at home. That was usually the last imperative I mentioned. Now it needs to be the first.

Like many of you who travel widely, I am increasingly alarmed by how pervasive and corrosive is the worldwide perception — in both autocracies and democracies — that American democracy has become dysfunctional and is no longer a model worth emulating. Fortunately, there are many possible models, and most American political scientists never recommended that emerging democracies copy our own excessively veto-ridden institutions. Nevertheless the prestige, the desirability, and the momentum of democracy globally are heavily influenced by perceptions of how it is performing in its leading examples. If we do not mobilize institutional reforms and operational innovations to reduce partisan polarization, encourage moderation and compromise, energize executive functioning, and reduce the outsized influence of money and special interests in our own politics, how are we going to be effective in tackling these kinds of challenges abroad? [Continue reading…]

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