The Rise of Illiberal Democracies

Monday, April 23, 2018
Michael Abramowitz

President, Freedom House; Former White House Correspondent, Washington Post

Nicole M. Bibbins Sedaca

Chair, Global Politics and Security Concentration and Professor in the Practice of International Affairs, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; Former Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Timothy Snyder

Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University; Author, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America

Kati I. Marton

Author and Human Rights Activist

Speakers discuss the growing trend toward populism around the world and the current global state of democracy.

MARTON: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this incredibly relevant—I would say urgently relevant program that we’ve gathered some of the most brilliant specialists in the field of illiberal democracy, populism, and all the problems that current beset I would say the globe. This is a global problem. And we can’t escape its reaches. We see red lights flashing all over the place, from Venezuela, to Russia, Turkey, Poland, Hungary. We have first time an extremist right-wing party in the Bundestag, with the AfD. And we—did I—did I mention President Trump—(laughter)—who, of course, gives courage to these authoritarian regimes.

I was in Brussels making an intervention at the European Union last week on behalf of journalists in Poland and Hungary. And I can tell you that in meeting with the ambassadors of both Poland and Hungary, they both expressed high hopes for our midterm elections, and not in the way that most Democrats have high hopes. So it’s—these movements are definitely—they draw strength from each other and they represent in some ways the first real challenge for the high hopes of the European Union, which simply lacks the mechanism to fight back against the forces of illiberal democracy—if one can even call—if one can even call a democracy illiberal.

The European Union was meant to be a gentleman’s club. And when these nations joined in the ’90s, the nations of the East, the former so-called captive nations, we in the West, many of us, assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that that was that. That Europe was now well on its way to a democratic future. And that has not come to pass. And I am—I am very, very pleased to have Mike Abramowitz, who is the president of Freedom House. I am not going to list either Mike or Nicole Bibbins Sedaca or Tim Snyder’s bios, because that would take up our entire time. And as Tim just pointed out, introductions shorten one’s life. (Laughter.) So I’m doing you all a favor. Check their illustrious careers on your—on your brochure.

Mike, your—Freedom House has dome some excellent work on this—on this issue, and on this incredible moment that we’re all facing, and which seem to have caught so many of us by surprise. Were we—did we overestimate the power, the allure of democracy? And if so, why?

ABRAMOWITZ: Right. Well, thank you, Kati, for—and thank you to the Council for hosting us here. It’s great to be with three friends. I thought what I—I think—I don’t think we overestimated the allure of democracy. I think we might have underestimated the determination of the bad guys to fight back. And that’s, I think, what you’ve seen over the last 20 years. I thought maybe I could just take two minutes or three minutes to kind of just kind of set the stage with a couple of the key findings that we’ve had from Freedom House over the last—we’ve out two important reports in the last two months. One on the state of freedom in the world, in which we track political rights and civil liberties. And the other on the state of democracy actually in the region we’re talking about, the 30 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Eurasia.

And I think if I could say three or four key points. I’m always asked: Is democracy in crisis? And I—or in peril? I think I can—I think I can make the case. Part of it is the numbers. If you look at Freedom House scores, we’re in the middle of what has been—we’ve been tracking the state of democracy in the world for almost 50 years. And we’re in the middle of what some have called a democracy recession. So 12 consecutive years in which democracy, political rights, and civil liberties are declining around the world. This past year 70 countries experienced declines in our scores, compared to less than half that experienced improvements. What’s also kind of important to say is that really important and influential countries are actually backsliding in serious ways.

The country that has probably done—deteriorated the worst over the last 10 years, according to Freedom House scores, is Turkey, which is sort of a perfect example of this concept of illiberal democracy. So Turkey was on its way 15 years ago to become part of the EU. You know, not a perfect democracy, but moving in the right direction. Now you’ve got it being the leading jailer of journalists in the world—150 journalists in jail, thousands of people in—thousands of civil society in jail as well, and really a terrible situation. I think—and you could add to that Poland and Hungary. Still free, according to our standards, but really slipping very dramatically. And other countries like Venezuela and the Philippines.

The other thing I would just close with saying is that I think—I’m very concerned that there’s a powerful counternarrative that is being shaped by countries like Russia I particular—and Tim has written brilliantly about this in his most recent book—but also China, in which—you know, when I was growing up in the shadow of the Cold War people just assumed that democracy was the way to go, that this was the best system. And I can in my first year as being the president of Freedom House, I find that I have to really make a case that the democratic values and democratic standards. And that’s something that’s really surprising to me.

And so there’s really a strong counternarrative that’s being fostered by these countries that is really, I think, been very influential in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and other places, that actually democratic—that democracy does not have to—you can have success in society without, you know, having democratic—democracy and democratic values. And that’s something that’s quite concerning.

MARTON: Indeed, it is. And on that topic, and to underscore the global nature of the populist wave, recent polls shows that whereas two-thirds of Baby Boomers—American Baby Boomers value democracy, only one-third of Millennials do. So somewhere we’ve slipped.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a distinguished professor at Georgetown University and deals with these issues, and also has real-life diplomatic experience as a former State Department official. So I’m very glad to welcome you, Nicole.

So how did—how did those of us who upheld the values of the European Union, NATO, indeed, democracy—how did we become the bad guys? And how did—how did—how was the narrative captured by the likes of authoritarians, with Putin leading the charge, and Orbán and Kaczyński, and Erdogan following his lead? How did—how did we get to this pass?

BIBBINS SEDACA: Yeah. Thank you, Kati. It’s a great question.

I mean, I’d like to pick up on Mike’s point, which is do think this narrative plays a really huge part in this, which is many of these leaders— Orbán and others—you see redefining what happened in 1989, and redefining it as the West takeover of what was going on in Hungary and other countries, as opposed to how it was characterized at the time, which is a liberation from communism. And I think that is one thing which has contributed to this, which is the really effective way that these leaders have been able to redefine that narrative.

I think many of us also were overly exuberant. We assumed that those countries which have had far more years as democracies and have been able to consolidate their institutions, have well-developed civil societies, well-developed media—we assumed that our exuberance was shared by everyone else. And so we, to some extent, I think, underestimated some demographic shifts which were going on, which is in 1989 and the years after there was a significant emigration of people who were externally looking who left the country. There was also now in 2018 we see a significant portion of the population, as you’re talking about, who didn’t experience the fall of the wall. And so for them, this concept of democratization is something which is far more distant to them in their minds.

And so when these populations, which have less consolidated institutions and demographic shifts internally that experience some of these external shocks—economic shocks, immigration, technology and the ability of leaders to use that—they weather it differently than those countries that have more consolidated, established democracies—which are also experiencing these shocks, but are a little bit more stable with a different dynamic internally to weather those.

MARTON: One of—one of the things that all these countries that are heading in this direction have in common is that the first institution to go is the press. The way that both Orbán and Putin have been able to sell this false narrative is because their populations—and equally so of Turkey, Mike—get really one source of news. And it’s all—and it’s all the ruling party’s source of—source of news. And if you cut the people off from the many voices—the many imperfect voices of a free press, it is far easier to manipulate them. And this is—this is a real problem.

So Tim Snyder, you’ve—you’re kind of a triple threat. Not only a great and popular sterling professor, I believe, at Yale of history, but you’ve written some of the most original and brilliant works, starting with—well, the first one I read was Bloodlands. But you kept me awake the last couple of nights reading The Road to Unfreedom, which is an absolutely devastating account of, well, how Russian elected Trump for us. So it’s great to have you. Thank you.

How did we get here? And how do we get out of this mess? (Laughter.) You have 30 seconds. (Laughter.)

SNYDER: So let me try to bring together some of the points that Mike and Nicole have made, and think back a little bit to 1989, and ask about what some of the other trend lines were that we might follow as correlates of decline of democracy. Because, of course, one of the most important things about the Freedom House work is that Mike is not just making a dramatic announcement about 2017. He’s talking about a trend that goes back now 12 years in a row, I believe. And it’s interesting to ask what else has been happening in those last 12 years.

I think Nicole made a very important point which I’m going to make in slightly different language. In the book, that Kati was nice enough to mention, I call it the politics of inevitability, the idea that there is no alternative to democracy, that if you have the market you’re going to have democracy, that the history of ideas is over, that there are no alternatives. How often have we heard that idea from the right or from the left, that there are no alternatives? But of course, there were alternatives the whole time. And as Mike correctly said, there are determined people. And I would also add, interesting thinkers who, in the last decade, have been trying to push those alternatives. So that’s—our notion that history was over I think made it easier in this way for history to come back.

A second thing which I think is worth stressing is wealth inequality. If we look at the two countries that are doing the most to push these kinds of regimes abroad, which in my view are the Russian Federation actively and the United States of America by its absence and by the occasional tyrannical cheerleading of its president, these are the two countries which, according to Credit Suisse are—have the highest levels of wealth inequality in the world. The U.S. is the only country which really competes with the Russian Federation. And wealth inequality makes it very difficult for people to think about a future.

It’s no coincidence that the Millennials don’t believe in democracy, because they quite rightly believe that they’re not going to live as well as their parents. This is a trend which has been accelerating here in the last decade. And I think one way that Russia foretells what can happen in the U.S. is that what Russia does, is that it shows how an oligarchical clan can govern from a position of permanent wealth inequality by way of spectacle and by way of a constant promotion of a story about us and them.

Which is a third thing I wanted to mention, which is the internet. I can’t help but notice that the trend that, again, that Freedom House’s reports short coincides in times with a period when world internet penetration went from about 20 percent to about 60 percent. So whatever else one says about the spread of the internet, we cannot say that it is associated with the spread of democracy. Really, on the contrary. I think if you want to say that the internet spreads freedom, you have to have a very specific account of what freedom is.

And I think we might want to start thinking about the possibility that the internet actually is fundamentally authoritarian rather than fundamentally liberatory. The internet has a tendency to give people what they already want to hear, and it has a tendency to separate them out into their own atomized internet worlds. And it also has a tendency to push these narratives of us and them. So although I quite agree with Kati that the government is very good at capturing a narrative about who’s innocent and who’s guilty, it’s also very striking how the internet allows this to happen. And it’s also very striking how it allows it to happen in a globalized way, such that a country very far away from you—in Nebraska, or Ohio, wherever you are—can help you decide that another political party in your own country is the enemy, right? So this comes back to what happened in ’89. Yes, there was a globalization. But that globalization was dark in ways that I think are only beginning to become clear to us.

MARTON: So we haven’t yet mentioned one of the most powerful motives for the rise of populism, which is the fear of refugees, migrants. Most graphically on display in Hungary, where you can’t go a block without seeing a billboard showing George Soros’ smiling face, and the headline over that face is: Don’t let him have the last laugh. Now, six months ago, George Soros was known to a very small handful of Budapest literati. Now he is probably the second-best known person in Hungary, after Victor Orbán.

And this manipulation of the fear of migrants, of which by the way there are virtually none in Hungary and very few in Poland as opposed to over a million in Germany where this problem doesn’t exist, is something that we haven’t really dealt with sufficiently. We seem to, step by step, accept that this is the way of the world now. And I think that I frequently ask myself: What didn’t my Hungarian grandparents, whose lives did not end well—what didn’t they do in the ’30s that we should be doing today, rather than sleepwalking through this extraordinarily dangerous passage?

So, Mike, the migration problem and how it relates to the rise of populism—I mean, the party in the Bundestag that represents—the Alternative fur Deutschland—is entirely about fear of outsiders.

ABRAMOWITZ: Yes. Well, I certainly think that Tim’s three or four points that he made, kind of explaining these trends, were spot on. There’s not one silver bullet to this issue. But I would agree with you that you have to add in immigration to this mix, that we have probably the greatest number of refugees since World War II in the world, or displaced people. I think, what—even greater. And so it’s clear that even in countries that don’t have migrants, that populist or scaremongering politics have taken advantage of that.

I always sort of look at it from a slightly different perspective, which is that this would be, to me, an example of how, you know, consolidated democracies have not done a good job of, you know, delivering on what people expect. I think that, you know, just to take our own country for example, it’s not unreasonable, it strikes me, for people to expect, you know, rules to be followed, that there be an orderly, you know, system of migration. And people feel threatened by what they perceive to be disorderly. And so the failure of the country and our politicians to really kind of come to some kind of agreement over the last 25 years around the immigration policy strikes me as a major driver of what’s happening here. And I think that’s also happened in Europe as well.

The other thing that I would also add to the issue about America, which is that I think while one can be critical of Trump, I don’t think that this problem started on January 20th, 2017. And I certainly think, you know, one issue that I certainly feel needs to be sort of put on the table is kind of the global impact of the Iraq War. So that, you know, it’s interesting, when we do—when you look at polls, focus groups, you know, people really associate democracy and democracy promotion with the U.S. military intervention. And that war was not a war—sort of after the fact it was talked about as something that was justified in the name of democracy. But it was really taken for other purposes.

But I think that the hangover of that has made Americans and the rest of the world very hostile to the idea of democracy, and democracy promotion. It has handed a propaganda tool to people like Putin in particular. So I think that that would just be two things that I would add to the mix in terms of saying what’s going on here.

MARTON: Nicole, we haven’t yet gotten to the other piece of it, which also erodes the European Union, which is—which is Brexit, and how the combination of Trump in the White House, and Brexit, and Putin ascendant have really kind of left the burden on Merkel and Macron to hold back the tide. Talk to us a little bit about whether Germany and France together in partnership are capable of doing that without the support of the United States, which was meant to be an essential part of that transatlantic alliance which—upon which the post-World War II order was built. Can they do this on their own?

BIBBINS SEDACA: Yeah. It’s a great question. Let me just add two points on the refugee issue, and then talk about whether they can handle that.


BIBBINS SEDACA: I echo all of Mike’s points, and then add to it if you look at the struggle that we’re having in the United States, in Germany and other countries, which have been multicultural for a very long time and have grown into the liberal world order since it was founded, we expected countries that didn’t grow into the liberal world order since 1945, and have largely—largely—been relatively homogeneous to react similarly to this call to be liberal and open to responding to your international commitment to refugees. And I think that was a pretty significant ask. Or, we underestimated how states would react to that.

The United States has been at the forefront of pushing democracy for generations. And the United States has not made that the priority under this administration and is looking inward. The same thing with Brexit. I think it will be really a challenge for Merkel and Macron at this time, when they are also looking inwardly into their own countries and inwardly into keeping the EU defined, for them to take a leadership role, which they’ve never even done in better times. So I—the responsibility is with them and other actors, including the United States. But I am somewhat skeptical if they’ll be able to play as forceful a role as they need to in this situation.

MARTON: Tim, do you have a stronger sense of the power of the European Union without American support to counter all these various movements and pressures, without Washington standing for what it traditionally stood for, which is basic democratic values, human rights, free press? Who stands for them now?

SNYDER: Well, let’s hope so. I mean, I think in some sense this may be a good thing for the Europeans because even if we sitting in New York can’t figure out how they’re going to do, there’s not really much choice, right? If they want—the European Union is—the European Union, as we all know, is the largest economy in the history of the world. As we all know, it’s the most important zone of contiguous democracies. If they want to be these things, they’re going to have to figure out how to do it.

This connects this issue of migration, which I’d like to spin a slightly different way because I think it might make more sense for us to think about the politics of migration rather than speak of a migration problem as such. Because one can’t help but notice that both in Europe and in the states it’s the places which don’t have any migrants where it’s a political issue. You know, our vice president wanted to ban Syrian migrants to Indiana. You can just ask yourselves how many there actually are. The Syrian refugee crisis is politically resonant in Russia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The total number of Syrian refugees in those countries is about the as the number of people in this room. And in some countries it’s actually, as Kati said, zero.

So there’s actually inverse correlation between the number of migrants and refugees and the resonance of the politics. This was also true in Brexit, where the regions in Britain which were most likely to vote for Brexit were the ones where people had the least contact with actual people who were not white Christians. So I would speak—I’d be careful to speak about a politics of this, which isn’t to say that any country can take unlimited amounts of migrants with no consequences. I think German policy was mistaken. But I think we have to think of it as a politics if we want to get handle on it, because if I can be a country that has zero migrants and win elections on migration, that can’t be answered by there being fewer migrants, right?

So I think, though, I would echo Mike’s point about the functional state. I think people feel—people are vulnerable to the politics of migration when they feel like the state isn’t working, and when they feel like it’s not clear what’s going to happen in their—in their children’s futures. The final thing I wanted to say, though, about democracy in the U.S., one of the things—I wonder if the rest of you feel the same way—one of the things I’ve noticed or I’ve felt in the last couple of years is that you can’t stand still, that one of the problems—I mean, there are many—but one of problems with the idea of America first is that you can’t actually withdraw from the world and call time out and say we’re just going to do things at home for a while. That it’s always—a democracy is always either going forward or backward. There’s no pause button to push. So I think what we do, whether we realize it or not, is always having consequences.

MARTON: So before we open up to your questions, your new book spends a great deal of time and extraordinary detail delineating how Russia, with precious few resources other than gas, has been able to, without firing a shot, win the cyber war. And this is—this is incredibly relevant for our future, never mind our past. How was Russia able to do that? And why have we not been more skilled at countering that cyber war?

SNYDER: Mmm hmm. Thank you for calling it a war. I think it’s very—because countries only really learn when they lose wars and when the realize they’ve lost a war. Those are the two preconditions which, as Mike suggested with a reference to the Iraq War, aren’t always fulfilled. So in the case of 2016, we lost a cyber war. I’m pretty confident that’s the way historians are going to remember it. We got our hats handed to us in a cyber war. Another country—it’s not just that they elected the guy, they chose him a long time before the process even began. Without a foreign power, he’s not even plausible, let alone a candidate, let alone the president.

How can this be possible? Well, first, on this word “war.” War, according to Clausewitz, is breaking the will of the enemy. It’s altering the will of the enemy. It doesn’t have to involve combat. Clausewitz makes clear—this is very important—combat is a means to an end. You can win a war without traditional combat. And so you can lose a war without traditional combat. You can have as many tanks as you want and you can put as many of them as you want on Pennsylvania Avenue. That will not save you from having your will broken by cyber war. That’s the first thing.

The second thing, how can this happen? Well, Russia, as you quite rightly say, in traditional 20th century geoeconomic terms is weak. However, if you can change the way international relations work from the objective of the economics and the technology to the subjective of the fears and the divisions, then you can win by playing a very—a hand that’s very weak in traditional terms. If you can get Americans not to think about the rest of the world and get them to think of one another as enemies, then you can win. And just—I mean, I’ll give you just one example of a thousand that on Election Day 2016 in the United States the hashtag that Russian bots were firing under was #WarAgainstDemocrats. And I would—I would venture to say that at that moment very few Americans, Democrats or Republicans, were thinking about the rest of the world. We’re thinking about ourselves, our preoccupations, our enemies, right?

If you can change the way world politics works from the objective to the subjective, from the tanks to the psychological, then you can win as Russia. And that’s what they have done. Their whole cyber budget is less than one F-35. Ask yourself honestly, which would you rather have? Russia’s cyber capability or one F-35?

MARTON: So I promise we’re going to come to you in one second, but I don’t want to leave all of us here in despair at the state of the world. And so, Mike, I would like for a minute to dwell on the positive—yes, there is a positive side to all this—and that is that we are not Hungary. That’s a good thing at the moment, even though I am a proud Hungarian. We are—we have been jolted, I believe, out of our complacency. Our civil society has never been more actively engaged. Ditto for the media. We have the #MeToo movement, which is a vibrant form of dissent, and a very effective one. We have students marching for—against lax gun laws. So these are positive—our system has been shocked into action, I believe. Do you agree with that?

ABRAMOWITZ: I do. And just to pick up on Tim’s point, asking, like, about America. I mean, I do believe that fundamentally the future of democracy around the globe depends on America, both as—not just exporting democracy, but also being a strong exemplar of democratic practice. And so I think that is something, in fact, Richard has talked about that in terms of the important role of, like, our own domestic politics in this international movement for democracy.

But I do think, you know, it’s interesting, Kati. I think you have to have a little bit of a sense of perspective. And I was struck. I read an article recently that concerned a meeting of kind of American democracy activists who were sort of doing a woe is us about the state of democracy. And at the meeting was Vladimir Kara-Murza, who’s, like, a great Russian dissident who’s been poisoned twice but Putin, but he’s been trying to really fight hard with Mr. Khodorkovsky and others to—you know, to try to restore democracy to Russia. And he said: Look, guys—(laughs)—I wish I had your problem, you know? You guys can—you guys have still the free press, you still have civil society, you guys have, you know, tools to fight. So we have to have a little bit of a sense of perspective.

But I do think it is important to say that what happens in America really matters. You know, at Freedom House, we do a lot of work around the globe with individual human rights defenders and activists, all over the world. It’s really some of the most inspiring work we do, and it’s really—for me, it’s great meeting these folks. And one of my colleagues was in Kenya in the fall for helping advise some of the groups there on making sure the Kenyan elections were free and fair, involved in some consultations with them. And he came back and he told me: You know, one of the leading activists said there, you know, we don’t—you know, we don’t really feel America has our back anymore. And that really stayed with me, because it says that what we do, what matters here does matter in places all over the world. So I think what happens here is really important.

MARTON: Absolutely. Yes. Nicole, you have something to add to that?

BIBBINS SEDACA: Yeah. I’ll just add, I just remember in my later days at the State Department and then working with a civil society organization, I heard many times people saying: What does it matter if the United States doesn’t lead? Why do we have to be the ones out there all the time? And I think we’re now seeing. We’re seeing that. And I think that has, as you’ve said, rejuvenated an interest both domestically on doubling down on the strength of our institutions, but also on rethinking what the United States’ role should be in the world. And when countries that have been allies that are emerging democracies that are making progress don’t feel that we have their back, then it’s a wakeup call. And I think that is the positive story, I think, to take away, which is a lot of people who have been a little bit complacent are now making the argument that Freedom House has been making for a long time.

MARTON: So on that bright note, I know that we have many questions. And please state your name, and please do make it a question not a speech. (Laughter.) So we have mics to go around. This gentleman I believe had his hand up first. Just identify yourself, please.

Q: Thank you. Stephen Blank.

History counts. Do we have any right to be so surprised—and I’m talking to Timothy mainly—be surprised at the illiberal turn of the countries we’re dealing with? These are really new countries in a way, though the peoples are old. And with very lousy histories in terms of democratic development, institutional stability, since they—since they became independent countries after the—well, I guess in the early 20th century. So should we be surprised at what’s happened?

SNYDER: OK. I’m going to—I’m going to try to follow Kati’s guidance and not be gloomy about everything. (Laughter.)

MARTON: Good. Thank you.

SNYDER: You might have noticed how she didn’t let me get the last word on that last one. (Laughter.)

MARTON: There was method to my madness.

SNYDER: Out of sheer—out of sheer prudence. So I’m going to—I’m going to make your question sharper, and then I’m going to try to answer it. I don’t think it’s just the case that these countries have weak records with democracy. The whole history of democracy is one of waves that crash. So for every wave of democratization, there’s been a wave of de-democratization. And it’s actually rather hard to find examples of countries that would meet the standards, our standards, of democracy, say, circa 2016, including the United States of America.

If you look at the United States of America in 1930-35, you have a country which won’t take any refugees, where the reasons against taking Jewish refugees that are argued in the halls of Congress are basically the same as other people are giving. That’s just to take one example. You’re looking at a country where a huge percentage of the population is disenfranchised legally. So the United States—this in a way continues the argument that we were having at the end, or the discussion. The United States has to democratize itself. We can’t promote something that we don’t have. And, I mean, if we take a tough look at ourselves—again, to pull on something Mike said—it’s not just Mr. Trump. I mean, the Citizens versus United, whatever you think about it, that does not democratize the country, right?

When the Supreme Court decides in 2013 that racism is no longer a problem 22 American states then pass voter suppression laws. That’s not democratization. Whatever you think of the legality of it, that’s not democratization. And wealth inequality itself, I mean, that’s—it’s very hard to have a democratic discussion when, you know, you have a dollar and I have a billion—or, it’s more likely, the other way around. (Laughter.) Well, I’m an academic and you’re the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) But because if you have a billion dollars, the truth is not enough for you. And if I have a dollar, the truth is too much for me. And without communication, it’s very hard to have democracy.

So, I mean, I would extend the point and just say that in general it’s been very hard. And I would send it further and say, for the West European countries—I mean, when was Britain a democracy? If you’re governing three quarters of the world and treating people as not citizens but subjects, you’re not a democracy. If you’re France and you have second-class citizens in Algeria, you’re not a democracy. And so on and so forth. It’s very hard to find that moment when everybody was a democracy because it never happened. So, I mean, what I would stress is that we can turn the question around and ask about the things which make democracy possible. Which, for me, precisely have to do with integration.

And it’s very hard for Europeans to be democracies without one another. They’ve never done it. And this is why the European Union, whatever its chances are, is the hope for democracy in Europe. And, in my view, this applies to the British as much as it applies to the Poles. I’m worried about British democracy. I’m worried about the future of Great Britain as a state, honestly, if Brexit actually comes to pass.

So I would push the point further. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong about Poland in the ’30s. There are plenty of things particularly wrong about Poland in the ’30s, but nothing that one doesn’t find in Portugal, and few things that one doesn’t find in the U.S., to be frank. So I think the point—your question is actually much sharper. And it reminds us how much we all need to keep democracy going. There isn’t a thing in the world called democracy that just goes on by its own.

MARTON: And can I just add to that, that the most vibrant democracy in Europe at the moment, namely Germany, did not have a very good decade in the ’30s either. So these countries are not destined to be undemocratic. There are a whole bunch of other factors. And one of them, frankly, is the luck of leaders, the luck of drawing good leaders as opposed to demagogues.


Q: My name’s Anne Nelson.

And I’d like you to address the role of organizations in Middle America, outside the coastal areas, that have had a growing influence on elections, especially in swing states, and the role of dark money that comes through organizations such as ALEC and others, where an organization like the NRA may be receiving this money, engage in electoral politics, and also receive money from Russian elements at the same time. Thank you.

MARTON: Wow. Wow, that’s a—who would like to—(laughter)—it’s such an important question. We can devote a whole other session to that. I think, Tim, this is on you.

SNYDER: I mean, the—so the thing that I call in the book the politics of inevitability, the idea that you know the rules of history, you know how progress is going to happen, one American version of that is the idea that capitalism brings democracy, from which—which isn’t true, by the way—but the idea that capital—that would mean that more capitalism means more democracy—the freer the market, the better chances you would have to—which just is not true. I mean, the places where the market is freest, where the state is absent, are offshore companies. The places where the market is freest are anonymous companies in Delaware, you know, where 200,000 companies are registered at a single building, believe it or not.

So the places where the market is freest, where it’s totally unregulated, are the places which attract what you’re calling dark money, and which also have an effect on politics. So the Russian government as we know it cannot exist without this. And also, its connections with American politics function through this. It would be very hard for someone like Mr. Trump to exist in our consciousness, let alone be president of the United States, without precisely that unregulated gray zone of capitalism. So our own story about how more capitalism means more democracy has, in a way, come back to bite us. And I think one has to try to extend the rule of law, to use a conservative term, to extend the rule of law to these places so we can’t have a situation like this.

The NRA is one example of a larger trend. I mean, it is odd that the National Rifle Association would send its representatives to Moscow in 2015, and then shortly thereafter give the Trump campaign $30 million. It’s odd that that there’s an organization in the Russian Federation whose sole purpose is to support gun rights in the United States, because of course there will never be gun rights in Russia, right? That’s not going to happen. But they nevertheless have—they have an organization whose sole purpose is take part in the American gun rights discussion.

So, I mean, one of the things that one has to get straight to have a democracy in one country I think is sovereignty, right? You have to have a notion of what the rule of law is. Without a rule of law which somehow controls, it’s very hard to have democracy in a country.

MARTON: Mike, you have something to say.

ABRAMOWITZ: Can I just make one other point in response to your question? I do feel that—and I’m speaking here as someone who was actually a political reporter before I worked at Freedom House. So I was at The Washington Post for 20 years—25 years. And what I would just say—I’d be a little bit cautious about—I mean, American democracy has been fraying before 2016 for reasons that don’t have to do with the Russians. I mean, they did not have to bring—they exploited political polarization, but political polarization has been—has been, you know, been accelerating for the last 30 years. And both parties are—in my view, are to blame for it. It’s kind of an arms race you have going. And now it’s been fertile territory for the Russians to exploit in the way that Tim talks about in his book. But I would not say—I just would be a little bit cautious about it.


MARTON: Yeah. Sure. Can we hear from Tim and then Nicole?

SNYDER: Just I forgot the second part of your question. So, I mean, Mike’s absolutely right. But the dark version of that it’s not just the Russian oligarch. It’s also our own oligarchs, right? And so the agenda of the Kremlin is not the same as the agenda of, say, the Koch brothers. But they—but, you know, this is nevertheless oligarchical pluralism, as opposed to the nicer kind of pluralism. So it does—I think it does matter hugely when your point of view on American democracy is that of Kansas, right?

I mean, when I think of—when I think about U.S. national security and our current nominee for secretary of state, I think, you know, does the point of view on national security from Kansas, right, is that the right one—I mean, just to make a—because when you’re in Kansas you’re not worried that much about the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, from which America, right, runs the world—the fact that global warming makes that naval base unviable in a matter of a few years. If you’re in Kansas, you may not see that, right? And if you’re—if the way you see the whole world is let’s deny global warming from Kansas, you know, that’s—that may not be in the interest of the entire country. OK, I was just trying to get the other side of your question. I’m sure Nicole will now say something—

BIBBINS SEDACA: No, not at all. No. I’m not—

MARTON: Go ahead, Nicole.

BIBBINS SEDACA: I would just pick up on the point about sovereignty, which I think is absolutely crucial. But I also think we need to recognize, sovereignty will not get better. It will only get weaker in the global system as it stands right now because the ease with which different forces, through technology, through financial transfers and others, can have impact on other places. And so I think the key thing then for those who care about liberal democracy at home and abroad is to identify what those forces are and see how there can be a shift to counter those forces.

And I think to some extent, we spend a lot of time in our country particularly debating left and right, Republican and Democrat, on various issues—which is absolutely important—but there also needs to be a debate about liberal versus illiberal democracy in our country and otherwise. Which means some people who have different policy views may need to come together periodically to say: This is what you think of Syria. This is what I think of Syria. But I respect that it’s important there is diversity of views and let us therefore oppose those who would degrade the institutions that would not allow us to debate. And so to some extent we as a society need to take on not just the left-right debate, but also say that there need to be a debate in the other direction as well.

MARTON: And I’d just like to point out that some of these countries that we’re talking about, some of these authoritarian demagogic rulers, were democratically elected. And so that raises a whole other question about democracy that, OK, Orbán has just swept back into power by a thundering majority, which enables him to change what’s left of the Hungarian constitution. But what does that do for—to protect the rights of minorities and those who didn’t vote for him? So, you know, he can call himself a democracy, but is it?


Q: Yeah. Christopher Dickey with The Daily Beast.

I feel as if we may have missed one key element here. Nothing is more anti-democratic or more easily exploited by demagogues than fear. And we haven’t talked about terrorism at all. But if we want to talk about the de-democratization of the United States and Europe, terrorism obviously had a huge role. And in fact, I’m surprised that the decline in democracy only goes back 12 years. I would have thought it would go back maybe 2001 or 2002. The Iraq War was a direct result of terrorist action, not because Saddam was behind it but because terrorism was used as the pretext for it. And while the Russians certainly helped Donald Trump get elected, the terrorist attacks in Paris, in San Bernardino, and elsewhere, at the end of 2015, essentially launched his campaign. He was able to play on this fear that somehow Mexicans crossing the border were in league with people in ISIS and bombing in Paris. And I’m just surprised that we haven’t addressed that at all in this discussion.

MARTON: That’s a good point, Chris. Thank you so much.

Interestingly enough, the terrorist attack in Paris did not result in the National Front being elected, however. We got Macron.

Q: (Off mic.)

MARTON: Yeah. (Laughs.) So how do you—how do you explain that? So what is it about our country, our society that proved more vulnerable to Russian intervention than—same can be said about Germany. OK, so the Alternative fur Deutschland is in the Bundestag, but it has only 13 percent support. And Merkel was reelected, having welcomed 1 million mostly Middle Eastern refugees to Germany. So how do you explain that?

BIBBINS SEDACA: I would say—I mean, most of these leaders have to use fear in order to gain votes, but also redefine this narrative of who is us, right? Because you have to have that in order to have support. And that fear could be fear of immigration, fear of refugees, fear of changing culture, fear of terrorism—however you want to define it—fear of people who look different than I do. But you have to have that fear element. I think to the extent which we’ve seen other politicians capture a narrative more effectively, to take those same true facts—immigration is a reality, terrorism is a reality, refugee flows are a reality. To the extent that they’re able to capture that and change it into a narrative that fits into a cohesive understanding of who we are as a society, they’ve been more effective.

I think in the United States that wasn’t the case, that there wasn’t this recognition that there was a valid concern or a valid fear that could then be co-opted and brought into a different narrative. And so the narrative here, and I think in some other countries, and I think it is in Hungary, was able to be created that we are us. We are this culture. And anything coming into it, whether it’s terrorists or immigrants, is a threat to the us.

MARTON: Yes, sir.

Q: Ralph Buultjens, New York University.

I was struck by the fact that you did not mention one word about religion, and your discussion was largely Western-centric. In many non-Western democracies, religion is the major force against liberal democracy. Not only in the Middle East. Look at India. Look at Sri Lanka. Look at Myanmar, OK? I’d like your comments on that.

MARTON: Well, let me just say, in defense of our topic which was fairly focused, that I wish we could—I wish we could attack all the problems in the world, because there are—there are many. And you cite, of course, one of the most crucial ones. And I hope they’ll ask us back to discuss the problem of religion in other parts of the world outside Europe. In Europe, it’s not at the forefront of the debate, or I don’t believe that in the United States it is to the extent that it’s responsible for our current political situation. But of course, it’s a very real problem. Anybody want to add anything to that?

SNYDER: Just one word. We were supposed to be talking about Eastern Europe. So we’ve already gone way beyond our mandate. (Laughter.) But I mean, I think your question, sir, connects interestingly with the previous question about terrorism. I mean, a white person of Christian background is going to be shot in the U.S. or die violently, most likely the perpetrator is going to be someone else of white Christian background. But people of white Christian background in the United States are more likely to think of Muslim terrorists and African-Americans when they think of violent death. And that’s a very good example of how really existing things in the world can be changed, can be turned to specific fear. So when the president, for example, changes an office of terrorism to office of Islamic terrorism, he’s doing something which is significant. I mean, there is terrorism in the United States. Most of it is Christian and white and right-wing. But if you relabel it another way, you’re pointing—you’re directing fear.

And the interesting thing is that it’s not actually fear. I mean, fear has an object. It’s anxiety. I think much of the way the new authoritarianism works is that it finds fears that no one can really resolve, and it just harps on them over and over again. If it’s not a fear you’re going to resolve, it’s anxiety rather than fear. I think they govern from anxiety. And we’re a little bit more vulnerable, because levels of anxiety are higher here than elsewhere. And that’s because our state, in many ways, is less functional than European states.

MARTON: Next question. Yes, you. Yeah, and then you. Can you give us your name?

Q: Matthew Hurlock. I’m a lawyer.

And, again, I understand the narrowness of the topic. The question to me is that also in 1989 was Tiananmen Square, where the democracy movement was crushed by China. And in my conversations with people here—by the government of China. What one discovers, what is becoming clearer to thinkers about China in particular is the virulence of the Chinese Communist Party, and their—the idea was post 1989, if we trade with them, they’ll liberalize. It’ll be fine. And we’re discovering very clearly that that’s not the case. It is in fact the case, I think, that China is focused on returning to being the Middle Kingdom, the dominant power in the world. And in order to do that, they need to supersede the United States as the dominant power in the world. And they are clearly, having just named Xi Jinping dictator for life, anti-democratic.

MARTON: Is there a question?

Q: The question is coming now. (Laughter.) Now they’re building to Europe with, you know, the Silk Road, et cetera, indebting all the countries on the way. Aren’t they the threat? Aren’t we not talking about the material global threat to the democratic movement worldwide? And what is your perception of that? And what would you do to counter that?

MARTON: Thank you. OK, Mike.

ABRAMOWITZ: Well, first of all, we have five minutes left it looks like.

MARTON: (Laughs.) And we’ve got a couple more questions.

ABRAMOWITZ: And we could be going on for hours and hours. But I’m glad you raised that question, because I do think that in the long term, you know, the rise of China, it poses more of a challenge to democracy in the end than Russia. I don’t know if Tim or Nicole believe that, but basically because China is a dynamic, prosperous, growing country. It’s lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last 30 or 40 years. And clearly Xi Jinping is positioning himself and saying: Hey, look, we can—we can be a model for the developing world. You can have capitalism in an authoritarian context.

And so I think in the long run that’s going to really be a challenge for us at places like Freedom House, or Yale, or Georgetown. Like, how do you, you know, combat that thinking. Because in the long term, I do think that societies can’t be prosperous unless people are given thought, freedom, freedom to speak, and all the kind of freedoms that, you know, make things possible like Silicon Valley. But I do worry about that. And I do—so I think that’s a valid point.

BIBBINS SEDACA: Very valid one.

MARTON: Thank you. Yes, sir. I think we have time for—

Q: John Du (sp). I’m a lawyer too. I also work in the space of cross-border transactions between China and the U.S.

So to follow on that question, if in the, you know, future is that China will provide alternative example to other countries, is democracy itself, you know, a definitive value in itself, whether there are other systems or value which can be beneficial to broad development?


SNYDER: You want to go first, Nicole?

BIBBINS SEDACA: Yeah. I’ll just—quickly on that. I mean, I think China is just trying to, as Mike has said, present this alternative of economic growth. And it’s been successful domestically. It also has been because it has a massive economy of scale. But it’s certainly been able to export that to Africa and to other places in the world. And African countries are finding that short-term investment to be beneficial for their own economic growth. I think we can’t—we can’t underestimate the fact that calls for democratic rights and calls for many of the liberal values are things which come from societies themselves. They’re not this imposition that comes externally. So I think that sense, that longing is not something which is only because governments are trying different things out. I think that is a response to what is coming from the grassroots anyway.

MARTON: Tim, do you want to add something?

SNYDER: Yeah. I like the way you posed the question, because I think you’re absolutely right. People who are in favor of democracy have to make the case for democracy, just as people who are against democracy I think should openly make their case against democracy. As for me, my case for democracy wouldn’t have to do with the idea that it’s the best form of development. I would rather have 100,000 a year and be free than have $105,000 a year and not be free, because—and I’m happy to make the case at length as to why I think freedom is inherently a good thing. And I think your question sets the debate very nicely, because I think those of us who think that democracy is good ought to be able to explain why it’s good, rather than just saying it’s inevitable or everyone’s always going to have it. We know it’s not inevitable. We know not everyone’s going to have it. But perhaps it is—perhaps it’s good.

MARTON: And I think that, if anything, we learned in recent times that democracy is not guaranteed. It’s not a given. And the Athenian democracy lasted only 200 years. We’ve already passed that. But I think if we’re going to improve on that record, we do have to be vigilant. And I want to close on that—on that plea, that let’s keep asking ourselves what it is that prior generations didn’t do to protect and preserve values that we too, I think, took for granted at the end of the Cold War. And I can’t think of a better panel than these three people who have begun this conversation. And I hope we have many more.

So thank you for your participation. And Tim, Nichole, and Mike, thank you for yours. (Applause.)


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