After the end of the Cold War, experts who closely studied trends in democratization believed that democracy was destined to sweep the globe. With the Soviet Union gone, there was no clear ideological force opposed to democracy, and no obvious model for economic growth under an autocratic government. Democracy had sunk roots in every corner, including in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, disproving some theorists who once believed political freedom only worked in wealthy countries. The Clinton administration made democracy and human rights a priority in dealing with many developing nations. Malaysia was one example of this advocacy; after the Malaysian government tried to suppress street protests in 1998, Vice President Al Gore, visiting Kuala Lumpur at the time, publicly criticized Malaysian leaders and praised the “brave Malaysian people” who were out demonstrating.
Those predictions of democratic triumph did not materialize. Wounded by the Bush administration’s mistaken war in Iraq, and struggling with budget deficits, the United States has devoted less attention to pushing for rights and democracy around the world. To some extent, this retreat may be popular: Polls of Americans taken by the Pew research organization show the highest levels of isolationist sentiment in the United States in decades. But rhetorically advocating for democracy puts little burden on ordinary Americans, and the government’s funds for aiding democracy promotion are but a rounding error in the overall federal budget. Still, the Obama administration has consolidated aid programs for democracy and for governance in many countries, essentially cutting democracy assistance. Meanwhile, the president himself appears reluctant to use the bully pulpit to advocate for rights and freedoms abroad.
Malaysia is a prime example of the administration’s reticence. Gore had publicly rebuked Kuala Lumpur for its crackdown on protestors. But when Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim faced charges, in 2014, of sodomy in a case that Human Rights Watch called “politically motivated proceedings under an abusive and archaic law,’ the Obama administration said little. Visiting Malaysia in April 2014, Obama declined to meet Anwar, and instead fulsomely praised the Malaysian government, ignoring its growing crackdown on all forms of opposition. In December 2014, Anwar was found guilty and sentenced to five years in jail. Following Anwar’s jailing, this past summer the Kuala Lumpur government went even further, shutting down a prominent Malaysian financial publication, The Edge, for publishing details of alleged improprieties in the massively indebted state fund 1MDB. The Malaysian government further arrested Anwar’s daughter, sacked any cabinet ministers who had been critical of how 1MDB was handled, and tried to muzzle other local press outlets.
Meanwhile, in many young democracies the public, once optimistic about the benefits of democracy, has soured on elected leaders---and on the very process itself---before a strong commitment to democracy has taken root. In general, it is the middle classes, not the working classes, who seem to have soured first on democratic change. Like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro or---in the most extreme case---Russian President Vladimir Putin, too many elected leaders have, after winning votes, failed to uphold any other foundations of democracy. They crush the media, judiciary, and the bureaucracy, create personality cults around themselves, and reduce democracy to a (often rigged) vote once in a while. Their path of destruction is convincing many people in their countries that democracy is little different from authoritarian rule---and that democracy may perhaps be even more violent and chaotic than autocracy.
For more on the continuing decline of democracy, in Spanish for Spanish-speaking readers, see my new article in La Vanguardia.