The State of the World, Ep. 4: Democracy
In episode four of The State of the World, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan speaks with political scientists Emile Hafner-Burton and Courtenay Monroe about democracy—what it is, why it’s under threat, and what we can do about it. Emilie is IGCC Research Director for the Future of Democracy and a professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and the Department of Political Science. Courtenay is a professor of political science at UC Merced and chair of IGCC’s steering committee.
The State of the World is a special series on IGCC’s Talking Policy podcast that explores the biggest global challenges that will shape our future. The series is part of a suite of activities celebrating IGCC’s 40th anniversary.
This episode was recorded on January 4, 2024. The conversation was edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Talking Policy on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
2024 is set to be the biggest election year in history. More than 50 countries will go to the polls, and over half the world’s population will get a chance to cast their vote.
[clip: “India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and, of course, the United States… a huge swath of the globe will vote in national elections”]
But democracy is under threat.
[clip: “Not my president, not my president, not my president”]
Around the globe, misinformation, authoritarianism, disillusionment, and violence are all on the rise.
[clip: “We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6 marks not the end of democracy but the beginning a renaissance of our democracy”]
Is democracy losing ground? Will autocrats come to power? What is happening, and what can we do about it?
This is the State of the World, a series of five conversations hosted by the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
I’m Lindsay Morgan, Associate Director of IGCC, and in each episode of this series, I’ll talk with some of the best thinkers from across the University of California about the biggest global challenges that will shape our future.
In our last episode, I spoke with Richard Matthew and Fonna Forman about our rapidly changing climate.
This is episode 4: Democracy.
Lindsay: To understand what’s going on with democracy – and what democracy even is – I sat down with two scholars of political science.
Emilie Hafner-Burton is IGCC Research Director for the Future of Democracy and a professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and the Department of Political Science. She’s the author of Making Human Rights a Reality.
Emilie: Autocrats have become so much smarter at utilizing quote-unquote democratic tools or what seems like democratic tools to crush people and to do it with the consent of the masses.
Lindsay: Courtenay Monroe is a professor of political science at UC Merced and chair of IGCC’s steering committee. She’s also a member of IGCC’s Democracy Group. Her research focuses on political violence, state repression, and human rights.
Courtenay: The threats that we’re seeing right now to democracy, while there have always been threats, what we’re seeing right now is, in my opinion, a little different and a little more worrisome than, say, like, worries we might have had during the Cold War about, like, for example, the rise of communism.
Lindsay: The number of democracies in the world, the quality of democracy in those countries, and the share of the global population that live in a democracy– all of these things have been getting worse over the last decade or so. So what’s going on with democracy?
Courtenay: You’re absolutely right that something is going on with democracy. So the Swedish Variety of Democracies Project called 2020 the year of– I think the year of the autocrat.
We see a lot of sort of moves away from democracy. There’s been a lot of academic research and we have a lot of vignettes suggesting that autocrats in recent years have preferred to look like democratic leaders, right? So, ruling by kind of a velvet fist with the trappings of democratic institutions; leaning on propaganda and economic growth; having elections even though they may not be contested; and trying to avoid violence if they can.
And so what I think has been really interesting in the last couple of years in terms of trends is that in addition to that, we’ve also been seeing kind of a return to violence, right? So since 2020, we’ve seen a number of countries in Africa, for example, return to military rule. And even in the strongest democracies, we’ve seen, democratic backsliding in recent years.
So, you know, I think we can talk about domestic threats to democracy and international threats to democracy, and I hope we get into that conversation moving forward, but I do think, like, what we see happening is sort of qualitatively different than what we’ve seen in the past.
Emilie: I want to say one more thing about this, which is that when we confront crises, so that could be a war, that could be an invasion, that could be a terrorist attack, that could be an economic collapse, we all search for strong leaders.
And part of what’s going on with democracy right now is that would-be tyrants, and I’m gonna call them budding authoritarians, they know now the surest way to secure their power and to do it in a democracy is to do it in the language of the people in the language of, of the masses. And that is leading to the erosion of checks and balances and constitutional freedoms.
So in short, that’s what’s going on with democracy right now. And that’s why I have some worries. I have hopes as well, but I have worries. But if you look at Hungary, you look at Poland, you look at Turkey, you look at Israel, you look at the United States, the erosion of democratic norms is being engineered by leaders that are claiming to speak in the name of and with the authority of the people.
Democracy is undermining itself. The biggest threat to democracy today is democracy…
Lindsay: What is democracy? Like, what makes a democracy a democracy? And what is the point of democracy?
Like, what makes it better than the alternatives? You know, this is something I think we mostly assume, but we don’t often articulate. What are we talking about when we talk about democracy? And why should we want democracy?
Emilie: I think democracy is an argument in and of itself about what a democracy is. And that’s one of the most important parts of what democracy is, it’s a conversation.
And one of the things that we know is that like our own positions as people on what a democracy is and what it means, it isn’t stable.
I’m gonna say there are four ingredients to the flavor of democracy that I want and I’m gonna tell you that there are different flavors of democracy and there are versions that I don’t want, so it’s complicated. So here are the four ingredients that I would put into the bucket of what makes —I’m going to balance it now by saying a liberal democracy. I don’t mean democratic or republican, I mean a liberal democracy in that term.
Representation, of the people. By the people, for the people.
Rights. So I mean that in the sense of human rights, broadly speaking. But basic rights to self, to security, to property, to health.
The rule of law, critical. You can have the rule of law without a democracy. You cannot have a healthy functioning democracy without the rule of law. So that’s my number three ingredient.
And participation, which is related to representation, but it’s not quite the same thing. That’s more about civic space, and the glue that ties that all together are the checks and the balances. That’s what, for me, makes a democracy.
I want to give you the definition of democracy that I don’t like and part of what worries me right now. And it’s the majoritarian focus. It would be the will of what the masses want and vote for.
That is not what a liberal constitutional democracy is. People will define it that way, but because the majority want something, doesn’t make it the right thing. Look at the genocide in Rwanda. Look at what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now. We can give examples everywhere.
So what I don’t like about the definition of democracy is the one that says the masses get to decide, the majority decides. For me, the version of democracy that I want to support and that I fight for is the one that has those rules. Representation, rights, the rule of law, and space for participation. But Courtenay, I would love to hear your definition on it. And I know my views are quite controversial.
Courtenay: Yeah, that’s really interesting, Emilie. So I’m going to give, I think, and I agree with that conceptualization of liberal democracy. One thing that might be useful is to sort of step back for a second and think about, like, what I think of as sort of two big categories of how people conceptualize democracy.
One is that, sometimes, academics, political scientists talk about what’s called a minimalist conceptualization of democracy. And this is, I think, akin to what Emilie doesn’t like, right? This is a conceptualization of democracy that focuses entirely on whether or not there are contested elections within a country.
Were there elections that were contested? Was there alternation in power? And it doesn’t take into account any of the other elements that Emilie mentioned that she likes about a democracy. So you can contrast that with, what we might call, like, a more substantive definition of democracy, and that’s what Emilie offered, right?
This is a definition of democracy where we think a little bit, not just about that Sort of raw institutions, that go into that definition, but also think about, like, what are the outcomes we might like to see as a result of that democracy?
Emilie: Can I follow up? I’m sorry. I don’t mean to interrupt.
Lindsay: No, please do…
Emilie: The second part, there is a point of democracy and it is better than the alternative. I can take a poll of my students and I can say, do you prefer to live in a weakly institutionalized democracy that’s at war, or do you want to live in a rich, wealthy, authoritarian country like Singapore with amazing food?
And I would take Singapore every day over the answer of the weakly institutionalized, you know, collapsing government. So it is correct that democracy is not inherently better. But I will tell you what I do believe, if it can be the flavor that Courtenay and I are describing. It is absolutely better than the alternative and the reason that I believe this is if you ask, if you survey the world, the vast majority of people are going to tell you they will prefer to live in a democracy.
Lindsay: In his recent column, actually just this week in the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh acknowledges that the number and quality of democracies have declined from a historic peak in 2012.
But he points out that they’ve only fallen to the levels that were seen in 2002. And he argues that democracy is still far more prevalent, far stronger today than it was, you know, just a few decades ago. He writes, “the world is still incomparably freer than it was at the midpoint in the last century, when 1.7 billion of the planet’s 2.5 billion lived in closed autocracies. Now, 2 billion of the 8 billion do.” And he says, “the autocratic world is nowhere near to reversing the losses that it suffered in the second half of the 20th century.”
Are fears of democracy’s decline overblown? Is this a case of overvaluing recent data points?
Courtenay: I think that this comes back to questions about how we conceptualize and measure democracy in part. There are many different facets that are used to decide.
Is a country a democracy? Is it not a democracy? How democratic is a country? I think according to Emilie’s definition of democracy that she preferred, that she sort of set out for us as like the gold standard at the outset of this conversation. Democracy is in trouble. I think we can see that with several elections that are upcoming in countries that we have historically thought of as democracies.
I’m talking about countries like India and Pakistan and Indonesia, countries where we have historically thought that democracy was on pretty good footing, at least in recent years, where elections in 2024 are really going to potentially matter a lot.
And then again, that’s just to name a few. And so I think when we’re thinking about is democracy in trouble, maybe not under some definitions, especially when we consider that autocrats are oftentimes using the trappings of democracy, even though they’re continuing to be autocrats. But I think liberal democracy, as Emilie was discussing it, the kind of democracy that we would like to live in, I continue to be concerned about that type of democracy.
Lindsay: Emilie, over to you.
Emilie: In 2024, there will be more people voting in elections than have ever happened in history around the globe. And what I think is so interesting about that is will that be good or bad for democracy? And I don’t know the answer to that question, because these elections are going to be utilized in a variety of locations, to cement dictators into power. Back to our earlier conversation using democratic means to cement authoritarianism, using the will of the people to take power over the people, which is not the democracy that I want to live in.
Lindsay: There’s such a giant cognitive dissonance in what you’re describing, both of you. You know, that we’ve never been more democratic in a certain sense, globally, and that democracy has never faced the kind of threat that we see today. And this is happening at the very same time. I mean, how do we make sense of that?
Courtenay: I think what is happening right now, in advanced liberal democracies, is that we’re finally starting to have the conversation about the possibility of democratic backsliding in countries where we thought democracy was safe. So I think the rise of right-wing parties, the rise of populism, the sort of polarization that we’re seeing in a lot of advanced industrialized democracies is leading into conversations about the demise of democracy in places where, you know, if you sort of look at measures of democracy, there are places like the United States and places in Western Europe where the democracy scores haven’t changed very much in recent years and in the last couple of years, we’ve seen changes in those scores, and so I think part of the cognitive dissidence is because we’re actually having a conversation now about the fact that democratic institutions aren’t a given.
Like, once instituted, democratic institutions can fail. And I think that’s something that wasn’t at the forefront of discussion in public discourse for a really long time.
Lindsay: Courtenay, you said, if I understood you right, that democracy, at least in the U. S. has been thought of as sort of a given. And now we know it’s not a given. You have to do things to maintain democracy. It doesn’t just function on its own. It’s actually us that makes democracy. That’s like a heavy responsibility, but it also does provide, maybe, a pathway where we do have agency over what’s happening.
And I want to ask you both you know, what can ordinary citizens do? If democracy is not inevitable and it’s kind of up to us to, to maintain it, what are we supposed to do? Emilie, start with you.
Emilie: So where my concern lies, and that’s what we were just talking about with regards to who are we electing and what are they using their elected power to do.
So whether that’s stacking a legislature or stripping the court or whatever it may be, it’s about rolling back checks and balances.
So we have relied upon democratic institutions to create those checks and balances and that’s what’s getting rolled back.
That’s what democratic backsliding is. That’s the concern.
So where my hope lies, and I do have quite a bit of hope… I’m going to call it countervailing institutions.
So what am I talking about? Okay, let’s leave the government out of it for a second. So civil society, the informal institutions. That might be your church, that might be your trade union, that might be the public protests you do or do not want to go to, but there are informal institutions that can play a role and that role about the balance power between the people and the government.
And I actually have a huge amount of hope on that level. And there’s so much evidence. Look at the protests. Do you remember just the white papers that they were holding up in Hong Kong? Didn’t even say a word. Just the paper. So powerful. So powerful. So my hope lies there.
What can people do? Vote, read, show up, educate, and speak. That’s what the normal person can do. And you know what? The vast majority of people don’t do that.
Courtenay: First, I love the term countervailing institutions. I’m going to adopt that. So, I agree with Emilie entirely. Civil society matters, so domestically, domestic civil society matters. I think the other thing that might matter is, you know, and I think we see it sort of mattering globally, and I think sometimes in the United States, don’t have a stomach for it, but protest matters.
When people don’t have a lot of faith in democratic institutions, they choose not to work within those institutions. And this is sort of what Emilie was suggesting. And so, in addition to sort of the countervailing institutions she was suggesting, we do see protests mattering for helping to uphold democratic norms.
And that’s not always pretty. And that’s not always pleasant, and there are real costs associated with that, but I do think that there’s potentially a real role here for people supporting democratic norms in the streets, if they can’t support them through institutions.
Lindsay: Most of our listeners at Talking Policy are based in the U. S., and the January 6, 2021 insurrection is an emblem for many of democracy’s decline in the U.S.
We’ve seen the growing influence of extremist factions in congressional politics, efforts to limit voting, efforts to weaken the judiciary. How is what is happening in the U.S. the same as what’s happening in other countries. So how is it part of this bigger global phenomenon, and in what ways is the U.S. experience unique?
Emilie: We’re actually not that different. U.S. exceptionalism, I find very interesting because what is happening in this country is the same thing that is happening or similar in Hungary, in Poland, in Turkey, in Israel, in Brazil, it could be a long laundry list. And what that is, is where we started, Lindsay, with this conversation when we are in crisis, we seek strong people, strong leadership.
And there are aspiring autocrats. And there have always been aspiring autocrats in this country, and there always will be. An aspiring autocrat, and I will call him that, and that is my point of view, an aspiring autocrat utilized a podium at speed that could diffuse information that could get people to literally storm the Capitol of this country. That is new. That is new, but that is not different than what is happening in any of these other countries. But I think there’s a very huge global implication to the United States – I’m going to use the word failure, and I’m going to mean it – under all of the administrations, Democrat and Republican, to promote democracy and to promote the flavor of democracy that we’ve been talking about that we want.
We should be supporting democracy, in the ways that we can, around the world, and we’re not, and our own internal struggles are leaving a vacuum.
Lindsay: When it comes to this year’s election in the United States, what are your concerns? What are you worried about, and what are you not worried about?
Emilie: I’m not worried about the 2024 election. I don’t know who will win. I don’t believe a January 6th is going to happen again. I’m not worried.
I’m worried about the fact that we have already, and when I say we, I mean the majority of people who are showing up to polls and voting people into office who are literally rolling back democratic institutions in this country.
But when you start putting that into legislation, when you start creating rules that keep people from going to the polls, when you start institutionalizing it, which we are quite far on the path of doing, that worries me very much. We’re already on that path. So 2024 isn’t going to be any different.
Lindsay: So it’s not this particular election that you think is a singular instance that we need to worry about, but it’s more that the problems are already well underway and will continue no matter who gets, who gets voted into office. Yeah, Courtenay, over to you. What do you think?
Courtenay: I agree with Emilie. It is important to think about who gets elected and what policies might come as a result of a particular individual or particular party being in power, but I think it’s also really important to recognize that what we really should be concerned about is that whoever is elected reflects sentiment and preference of a majority of people who voted for that individual or who voted for that party. And so one of the things I think that we need to focus on is not just who is actually elected, but what are the policies and what are the sentiments of the population that is voting for that individual? Right?
We talk about polarization and we talk about elite polarization, but to some extent, fringe parties get elected because they have popular policies for the people.
And so I think one thing to think about, and this is consistent with Emilie’s take that if we’re going to be concerned, we should already be concerned. I would sort of devolve it even down further and say, we should not only be concerned with who’s in power, we should be concerned with the preferences of citizens in democracies that led those people to come to power in the first place.
And we oftentimes, I think, over-focus on who’s getting elected and focus less on the preferences that led to those election results in the first place.
Lindsay: You are scholars, you study this stuff. But you’re studying something that is like happening now, and it affects your life too, as much as it affects anyone else’s.
And, I’m curious, you know, as a scholar, how does having such a personal stake in the thing that you have devoted your professional life to studying, how does that impact you? Like what makes you feel optimistic about the future, given all that you know?
Emilie: Courtenay and I both work in the realm of violence. And we have for decades.
And that is really hard because every day I read and I write and I teach, as does Courtenay, on violence. And that involves death and torture and all kinds of things that are really, really hard.
But the answer to your question, Lindsay? Is that at the end of the day, I believe people are really good. I believe in humanity. I have faith in humanity.
My own perspective is that people who engage in these bad behaviors, they’re not, they’re not evil, they’re probably not bad people. They’re doing it because they’re operating in an environment that creates incentives for them to behave that way. And if that’s true, if you believe what I’m saying, then that’s actually very hopeful. Because then it means, if you change the incentives, then the behavior goes away.
It’s not that the person is bad, it’s that they’re doing stuff because they believe it’s what they need to do to survive. Or to be in power or whatever it is. I’m actually extremely hopeful and I have so much faith in humanity and in people,
Courtenay: You know, I think, and I say this, with some privilege for a person who lives in a liberal democracy, I think each generation, you know, Emilie mentioned that she and I both study human rights and violence, I think we’re seeing the expansion of rights, more rights for more people, and I think that’s a really positive thing.
I also think, you know, I have two small kids and two teenagers, and they give me a lot of hope for the future, and I mean that in a really tangible way. In some of the things that weren’t seen as acceptable, and some of the ways in which people were exclusionary and rights weren’t respected when I was young, they take for granted, that those rights are now something that they should respect, when I sort of, you know, talk to my teenagers about things like LGBTQ rights in the United States, things are very different now than they were when I was in high school. Right. And so I think there’s a lot of hope that I have in not just changing things today, but in changing the way that we’re talking to younger generations and hoping that, you know, they will, if we don’t make the institutional changes that, that they actually might as a function of the conversations that we’re more able to have today than we were a generation ago.
Lindsay: Courtenay Monroe, Emilie Hafner-Burton, thank you so much for being with us on Talking Policy. It’s been a pleasure talking with you guys.
Emilie: It has been an extraordinary pleasure. Thank you so much.
Courtenay: Yeah, thank you so much, Lindsay. This has been a really great conversation. Thank you.
Will this year’s historic elections ultimately prove to benefit democracy, or contribute to its undoing?
As Emilie said, the biggest threat to democracy may be democracy itself. But the opposite is also true: the only thing that can save democracy is democracy. And it’s up to us, which path we choose.
In the next – and final – episode in this series, I’ll sit down with one of the founders of IGCC and our current advisory board chair, former California Governor Jerry Brown, to talk about how we move forward given the challenges at hand.
Thanks for listening to The State of the World, a special miniseries from Talking Policy. I’m your host, Lindsay Morgan.
This episode was produced by Anna Van Dine. Production manager, Gabriela Montequin. Mixing and sound design by Alex Brouwer. Our production partner for this series is CitizenRacecar.
Talking Policy is a production of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Archival audio used in this series is from NPR; the University of California, Irvine, audio recordings collection; Freesound.org; the Internet Archive; the Library of Congress; and the United States Government. Used with permission, where applicable. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.
The UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) is a research network comprised of scholars from across the University of California and the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories that conducts policy-relevant research to mitigate conflict and promote a more peaceful world order. Our focus is on challenges that have the potential to lead to wide-scale conflict, and that can benefit from global cooperation to solve. Our portfolio includes both traditional security issues—defense innovation, strategy and deterrence, nuclear weapons policy, and security cooperation—and emerging and non-traditional challenges such as climate change, geoeconomics and great power competition, and threats to democracy. In each of these areas, IGCC builds diverse, multidisciplinary research teams that analyze the causes and consequences of global conflict—and help develop practical solutions.