Democracy is resilient - but so is authoritarianism around the world
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here and a happy Monday to you. Time for a Quick Take to kick off your week. I thought I would talk about the state of democracy.
Of course, over the course of the last 10 years, there's been so much discussion of the world becoming more illiberal, lower case that more people in the world are living under authoritarian regimes or mixed governments, hybrid governments than living under pure democracy. In part because authoritarian states are growing more powerful, in part because some democracies, including the United States, are watching their systems, their institutions erode and watching their political leaders become de-legitimized.
Is that now changing? Over the last few weeks, we've seen a United States midterm election that certainly did not appear to be a win for election deniers, and Donald Trump is doing worse than he has. But you also see demonstrations, major demonstrations, a lot of people that are angry on the streets in some of the most powerful authoritarian regimes around the world, Russia, Iran, and even China. I will say that all of those developments are welcome, but the importance that they have in terms of the political systems themselves are widely varied, and I wouldn't overstate them.
So starting with the authoritarian regimes, I think Russia is in very serious trouble, but I don't see a lot of instability internally at all. The trouble that Russia's in is that their military is being soundly defeated by a much smaller country with a lot of support from NATO and a lot of their people are going to be suffering economically very heavily, not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. The demonstrations in Russia have been very small, they've been sporadic, and they've largely been stopped. First round of demonstrations at the beginning when the war was announced, a couple thousand people arrested, most of them let go. Then a few hundred thousand people were called up on mobilization a few months ago. And you saw more demonstrations, another few thousand arrested, and all of them almost let go.
The interesting thing is that there were almost a million Russians that got out of the country when they announced that mobilization and the Russians kept the borders open. Why would they do that? Well, in part because a lot of those people are not so happy about the Russian regime, and I assume the Russian government was just as happy to see them out of the country, but there's really not a lot of instability politically inside Russia.
So Russia as a country's losing power, they're becoming much less influential on the global stage. Putin is getting humiliated and angry, but there's no proximate threat to the authoritarian regime. And Putin were removed, it's not like Russia's going to become a democracy. It would be run by another kleptocracy of military and national security elites that also hate the West. This is not Khodorkovsky suddenly coming back from his exile or Nemtsov coming back from the dead.
In the case of Iran, that's the one place that I would say has the greatest possibility of regime change. Though the most likely kind of regime change if it occurred would be for the theocrats to be forced out by the Revolutionary Guard Corp, the IGRC. And if that were to happen, there would be some liberalization of religious and social norms, absolutely. But it would still very much be an authoritarian state, kind of between Pakistan and North Korea, as opposed to an open democracy. Now, I mean, there's a tail possibility that the people are effective in rising up and they're able to overthrow the entire regime. That would be an enormously bloody thing, but it would ultimately be fantastic for the Iranian people. I wouldn't be betting on that outcome right now, even though I think we'd all like to see it.
And then there's China, and in the case of China, there's really no political instability. The demonstrations that were talked about widely in the West were very small in China, and there's been zero repeat of them despite the fact that there's still quite a bit of lockdown and quarantine going on across China, and that's because the ability of the Chinese government to assert control to fully surveil their population and to threaten and arrest anyone that is seen to fall afoul of that is incredibly high.
And the general support level for Xi Jinping in the Communist Party, given the economic capabilities they've displayed over the past years is also relatively high. You put those things together, and surely there are a lot of Chinese, especially in places like Shanghai, that are educated, wealthier, that would love to see more liberties for Chinese citizens. But the idea that the Chinese government is not long for this system, I think, is a canard. That's not going to happen.
So I'm very cautious about overstating the fact that there are people that are courageous, that are willing to express their anger at very deeply repressive and not always particularly well run regimes. But that doesn't mean that democracy suddenly is on the agenda for any of them, frankly.
I'm more optimistic about the United States, but in part that's because I've been more optimistic about the United States. Back in 2020, even in the heat of January 6th, my view was that the likelihood of a successful coup was zero. And the reason for that is because no one from the military would support it. No one from the judiciary would support it. And even when Trump called his own party supporters in charge of elections in states like Georgia and Arizona said, find me some votes, they didn't. And the reason they didn't is because it was against the law, and they weren't prepared to do that.
Now, of course, that's also why you got a majority of Republican legislators in the House on the evening of January 6th voting against certification of the election because they recognized there was no chance of a coup, so they didn't feel like they had a big enough problem they needed to deal with. Even after the events that day, they were focusing more on their jobs. Now, if the midterm elections in the US had returned a large number or even a small number of election deniers that could directly oversee key elections in states, in swing states, as governors and secretary of state, then I couldn't have said that 2024 would have no chance of a coup. Democracy would have been, even if it's only a low risk, in a more existential danger. That's no longer true. They all lost. Trump's also much weaker than he has been historically. I don't have confidence that Trump can't get a second nomination, but certainly it's looking more challenging.
A lot of people are going to be running against him. Even someone like Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who pledged that she would not run if Trump was running. Trump's now running. She's now thinking about it. Why? Because Trump looks vulnerable. And so as a consequence, everyone's stepping up to take a shot. It's true. A lot of people aren't willing to name his name when they're criticizing him. It's more oblique. But after January 6th, Kevin McCarthy was heading right down to Mar-a-Lago to stand with him and show his loyalty. He's not doing that this time around.
So for all of those reasons, I think that democracy is not particularly threatened existentially. It's not as weak as a lot of people have been presuming for very different reasons on the left and on the right. But nonetheless, I think ultimately the resilience American system remains very high. Unfortunately, the entrenchedness of authoritarian systems around the world that have been gaining over the past years also remains very high.
That's it for now. Talk to you all real soon.
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