10 min read

Why Democracy is Fighting For Its Life, Plus Trump, Navalny, and More

Why Democracy is Fighting For Its Life, Plus Trump, Navalny, and More

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Trump and His Family Are Fined $355 Million for Fraud—and a Lack of Remorse That “Borders on Pathological” (Slate)
  2. Europe’s elite braces for Trump, searches for back-up plans (WaPo)
  3. Alexei Navalny Wanted to Make Russia a ‘Normal Country' (Foreign Policy)
  4. They’re Supposed to Be Socially Conscious Investors. Why Are They Funding the War on Gaza? (The Nation)
  5. What Is the Paris Agreement’s Article 2.1(c) on Climate Finance, and Why Does it Matter? Key Questions, Answered (WRI)
  6. After Navalny’s death, many fear what Putin will do next (The Guardian)

Democracy is Fighting for its Life

It was a momentous few days in global politics. Trump was hit with a mega-fine for fraud—nearly half a billion dollars—and meanwhile, in Russia, Alexei Navalny perished in prison. I must have had a dozen friends call me up or stop me on the street while I was walking little Snowy and ask me: what does all this mean? I paused, and chuckled. But if you really want to know…

Let’s begin at the beginning. Trump’s fine. Navalny. Putin. Russia, the far right, the destabilization of the world. To really make sene of all this, and understand it properly, let’s go back to perhaps the most crucial single macro trend of now.

Macro Trend: Democratic Collapse. Democracy’s more than halved, from over 40% of the world, to 20%, in just two decades. It’s current rate of decline is 10% a decade, putting its twilight within recent sight and reach.

Trump’s mega-fine. What does it mean? It’s true, it begins to unravel his business “empire.” And it’s also true that it doesn’t do much to stop his ascent back to power, either. Looking at it on its own leaves us with a murky picture. A better way to understand its import is through the frame above: democracy is now fighting for its life.

I mention the macro trend above often. For a reason. Think about how momentous it is that democracy’s…in this shape. Such dire, perilous shape. The numbers above are real. I didn’t make them up—they come from Freedom House, the world’s pre-eminent source on democracy and freedom, and they put it even more bluntly than I do—they speak of an age of authoritarianism and democracy “under siege.” 

Trump’s fine is an example of democracy fighting for its very life. It’s something, at least, an impediment, a rejection, an obstacle, to prevent the rise of what’s now open autocracy—Trump openly flaunts wanting to be dictator, and masses roar in approval. So while it will hardly “stop” Trump, it’s an example of some fight left in democracy, to defend itself, institutionally, as best its able: it tells us that the rule of law still functions, on a basic level, and is aimed at keeping the fundaments of democracy if not strong, then at least viable.

But I think it’s so, so important for everyone to really understand this most basic point, which we’re about to delve into further. Democracy is now fighting for its life. Historically, as a paradigm, as an institution. The age of democracy as we used to not-even-think-about-it, but just take it for granted—this was a telos, an endpoint of history, a destiny, to which political forms evolved—may well be coming to an end. A swift and sudden end. A decline of 10% a decade at just 20% of the world still fully democratic gives us just two decade—at the current rate of implosion—before democracy is…no more. And well before then, we’ll have to ask hard questions.

If Trump soars back into power, American democracy dies—that much is certain, there’s a literal 1000 page plan to purge government, politicize the civil service, right down to making everyone working for the modern world’s largest employer, the US government, take oaths of loyalty to Trump. What does that do to “just 20% of the world is democratic?” It more or less assures that the twilight of democracy is now. That 20% drops to 15%, and more than that, the world’s most powerful is no longer a democracy at all. A second Trump Presidency, in other words, would write a coda for the age of democracy—globally, historically, civilizationally— itself.

It’s in this sense that democracy is fighting for its life. Every judgment against Trump is resistance, breath, spirit in the body of democracy. But make no mistake, the stakes are existential, and no one of these judgments alone are going to be enough to save democracy. So what could be? Does democracy still have a chance as a global institution, an aspiration, a historical force—or are the stunning declines we’re seeing permanent and irreversible scarring, whose wounds will last generations, if not centuries? What does it mean to say “democracy is fighting for its life”?

The New Contest for Global Dominance

Trump is an effect. A symptom. Of three things. Negligence on the part of America’s elites, who let the middle class implode, which also means, of course, the working class did, too, plunging the nation into despair, rage, overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal and abandonment. Atop that negligence came opportunism, from figures like Putin. And beneath that negligence lay a global social contract, an economic model, that wasn’t to work, which is what’s really undermining democracy globally.

That’s a lot, so let me try and explain it as carefully as I can.

Think of what just happened in Russia. Navalny, the leading opposition figure, who wanted to be Russia’s first perhaps genuinely democratic President, perished in prison. It’s a sign of just how high Putin’s riding. Emboldened, not weakened, he’s crushed whatever internal obstacles stood in his way, consolidated power even further, and shows absolutely no signs of backing down or letting up. Why is that?

Not so long ago, the West believed that it’s sanctions were going to wreck, decimate, lay waste to Russia’s economy, and by doing so, Putin’s reign would be brought to an end. It didn’t work out even remotely like that. Russia’s economy hasn’t been decimated—it’s in rude health. That’s a big, big problem, and a sign of just what’s wrong with the world economy. It tells us a very great deal. 

Why didn’t the sanctions decimate Russia’s economy? Even back then, I predicted that they wouldn’t, for a simple reason. Russia’s largest trading partner is…China. China needs Russia, and needs it desperately. Russia supplies everything from the timber, oil, and metals that China manufactures into goods, right down to the electricity that keeps China’s lights on.

Who does China turn right around and sell all the stuff made out of those raw materials to? The West.

If you’re beginning to see a very big problem here, you should. Here we have what’s known as a triangular trade. It goes like this. China buys from Russia the raw materials it needs to be the world’s factory floor, basically. The West turns around and buys those finished goods from…China. Unbeknownst to the West—or unacknowledged very much, at least—is a simple, harsh truth: think of all the stuff you’ve bought lately on Amazon that’s made out of plastic, for example, in China. Most of it’s made from…Russian oil. In other words, the West, China, and Russia are inextricably bound together in a triangular trade—despite their very, very different politics, goals, and objectives.

All of this is what the new global contest for power is. You see, there’s a myth in the West that somehow we can just get “rid of” China and Russia, and that doesn’t mean with violence, but just, perhaps, with soft barriers, like sanctions or tariffs and what have you. We can’t, because we’re in bed with them, intimately bound up. 

This is the global economy in the 21st century. The rich West—what’s left of the world, democratically—overconsumes. And we know one set of “externalities,” or hidden costs, that overconsumption comes with: planet-killing ones, carbon emissions. But there’s another set: what we might call political ones. The West overconsumes from a specific set of actors, the autocracies of China and Russia. Russia’s raw materials are manufactured by China into finished goods for Western households. 

And that in turn means that Russia and China aren’t just going to go away—but rather, that they wield significant global power, wealth, and clout, because they’re essential parts of the global economy. The one the West constructed. 

China and Russia don’t believe in Western values. They don’t want democracy, especially not the Western variant of it. They see the hypocrisies of the West—and it’s true that there are many. To them, Western notions of freedom and individualism are moral liabilities and social weaknesses. And they trace the prevention of their own rises as power right back to not just Western dominance, but Western hypocrisy and antagonism. And there’s more than a grain of truth there. Putin wouldn’t have emerged if the West had genuinely welcomed Russia as a nascent democracy, with, for example a Marshall Plan—instead, hedge funds wrecked its currency and economy. The West’s dubious interactions with China date right back to the gunboat diplomacy of the opium trade. China and Russia don’t believe in the Western way for a reason. Whether or not it’s a good reason is up to each of us to judge, but the point is that there is a method to their madness.

What is that method? Russia and China don’t just sell the rich West stuff. Over the last decade or two, they’ve increasingly gotten into the business of destabilizing the West, too. Russia’s influence lies behind the rise of the global far right, and of course, installing Trump into the Presidency was such a major goal that Russia’s intelligence agencies were all ordered to unite to achieve it. China, meanwhile, has gotten into the game of malign influence, spreading disinformation and misinformation—here’s a recent Washington Post report about it.

Why are Russia and China playing this game? What’s in it for them? Isn’t it enough just to…trade with the West…and get rich? Sadly, it never is. Contests for dominance erupt in every age. There was the Cold War, in the previous era of history—a soft battle between communism and capitalism. Who won that? Americans will say: capitalism won. They’re not quite right. Nobody won the Cold War. Today’s global economy is a bizarre hybrid that’d make no sense from anyone from Marx to Adam Smith: the world’s largest capitalist country buys the stuff that makes it go from the world’s largest communist country, which in turn relies on the world’s largest autocracy to supply it with raw materials. The global economy today is everything thrown together, the last remnants of yesterday’s failed paradigms, all stuck together with threadbare bits of string.

And as that weird, creaking contraption is breaking, a great contest for dominance is erupting. It’s not capitalism versus communism, this time. It’s even more brutal, rawer, simpler, aimed more for the jugular. It’s democracy versus autocracy. Authoritarianism, fascism, theocracy, outright war, open conflict. That’s the other side of the coin of “democracy is fighting for its life.” It’s fighting against something, too, which is the forces now arrayed against it, trying to destabilize and unravel it.

Why do China and Russia want a less democratic world? Here, the reasons go deep. Partly, they’re about raw power, of course. But as we’ve discussed, they don’t believe in democracy—having been injured by it so deeply for so long. Humiliated, despised, dispossessed—a certain need for psychological vengeance is at work here. A less democratic world, to them, paradoxically, is a freer world—freer of Western hypocrisy, individualism, contradictions. 

A saner China wouldn’t be destabilizing America, after all, nor would a Russia—they’d happily trade with a democratic West, grow richer, and go their own merry way politically. Trump back in the Oval Office would be disastrous for China—a trade war would erupt almost overnight, and of course, that’d go on to impact Russia’s fortunes, too. But the game here is about dominance, not material prosperity. Games like those are irrational ones. They’re about hubris, pride, conquest, territory, accolades. Going from being the humiliated one to the one who humiliates. From being the loser to the victor. From taking orders and scurrying to obey, to being the…tyrant.

This contest for global dominance is real. Sadly, the West’s liberal and center seems not to grasp it. Europe is racing to establish some level of military dominance now, but Russia’s war against it isn’t just military: it’s multimodal, informational, social, cultural, relational. The West’s liberals and left appear not to grasp just how deeply the tendrils of destabilization have already spread in these terms, and how effective they are at radicalizing their own populaces against democracy, and towards autocracy. When coupled with stagnant economies, forms of soft warfare, made possible by social media, like this, are utterly devastating—having laid waste to Western democracy after democracy at light speed, the far right igniting at light speed like a supernova.

Democracy vs autocracy. You’ll hear talk of a “new Cold War” and so forth ramping up. But it elides the truth. Today, capitalism and communism work hand in hand, and their fatal compact is what’s left of a failing global economy. Failing to deliver prosperity at the median, around the globe, this model means working and middle classes are enraged, betrayed, and feel neglected and abandoned, just like America’s. Disinformation and propaganda then turn them away from democracy and towards autocracy—devastatingly effective, all this has left democracy fighting for its life.

Will it survive? The signs aren’t good. The macro trend is incredibly, shockingly bad. What’s worse, though, is how little of all this the West’s left and liberals really understand. Democracy needs a better defense than what threadbare assurances this coalition so far offers. They don’t understand the new global contest for dominance yet, it’s parameters, stakes, consequences, realities—and the question is if and when that realization will suddenly dawn.

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