Democracy Could Bounce Back in 2019

By William A. Galston (WSJ)

Dec. 31, 2018 6:23 p.m. ET

The old year saw some troubling setbacks, but things could have worked out far worse.


Twenty eighteen wasn’t a good year for democracy, but it could have been worse. Established autocracies showed few signs of democratic opening, backsliding among newer democracies continued, and established democracies struggled to regain stability after the shocks of recent years. Nonetheless, comparisons to the interwar years remain far-fetched, and it is hard to spot a potential Weimar Republic among democracies that existed before the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Vladimir Putin continues to play a weak hand well, at home and abroad. He has used energy revenues to sustain social programs and rebuild Russia’s military—both popular measures. The national debt remains low, and prudent reserves have buffered the government from fluctuating energy prices. Mr. Putin’s entente with the Russian Orthodox Church has bolstered his standing among tradition-minded Russians, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, and he has advanced his country’s long-held aims in Crimea and Syria at modest cost in blood and treasure. There are few obvious openings for democracy-minded dissidents to exploit.

Twenty eighteen will go down as the year when even optimists abandoned hope that China’s economic development and growing middle class would create pressure for political liberalization. Despite signs of concern among Chinese elites over President Xi Jinping’s assertive trade and military policies, his grip on power remains firm. During the next few months, he may strike a deal with President Trump to de-escalate trade tensions, but he shows no signs of moderating either his claims in the South China Sea or his broader strategy to weaken the U.S. position in the Asia-Pacific region. If this conflict continues to intensify, as seems likely, nationalist sentiments in China will make it hard for democratic reformers to gain traction.

With the exception of Poland, where elections and European Union pressure have slowed illiberal forces, the news from countries retreating from democracy is mostly bad. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues to tighten his grip on the media, judiciary and civil society. New democracies in Central Europe regard him as their leader.

Playing on the conservative sentiments of Turkey’s small-town and rural residents, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once the poster boy for Islamic democracy, has parlayed a narrow majority into quasi-autocratic power. Mr. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited longstanding disputes with Turkey’s Kurdish minority to put himself at the head of nationalist sentiments. In Brazil, a left-wing government’s corruption and inept economic management opened the door for the election of right-wing populist-nationalist Jair Bolsonaro. The new president, who took office Tuesday, makes no secret of his nostalgia for the era of military rule.

Political turmoil prevails in all the major democracies. The struggle over Brexit has all but paralyzed the U.K. French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity continued to plummet amid weeks of destructive street riots. In Germany, aftershocks from the latest election induced Chancellor Angela Merkel to yield the leadership of her Christian Democrats, but there is no evidence that either they or their Social Democratic coalition partners have an effective response to the forces that have weakened their hold on their country’s politics. Italy’s populist coalition managed to avert a clash with the EU over fiscal policy, but it has no answer to the chronic slow growth and high unemployment that have eroded Italians’ confidence in the future.

In the U.S., President Trump’s insistence on funding for his controversial wall along the southern border led to a partial government shutdown, and prospects for significant legislative accomplishments before the 2020 election are dim.

Yet there are few signs democracy itself is at risk in these countries, or in others where democratic institutions are long-established. Although democracy, like every other form of government, is judged by results, dysfunction remains below the levels that would spark a systemic crisis. Slow economic growth is disappointing, but it is far from the Depression, which endangered democratic institutions in the 1930s. The political impact of immigration, which became explosive in 2015, appears to be abating.

In the U.S., the press, though under incessant attack, remains vigorous and free. The judiciary retains its independence, and Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to resist its politicization. Civil society is, as always, diverse and robust. The classic instruments of political mobilization produced a massive outpouring of voters in November—and a significant rebuke to the president and his party.

Democracy remains on the defensive, and 2019 will be a time of testing, not least in the U.S., where oversight by a new congressional majority will reinforce the efforts of special counsel Robert Mueller. But in 2019 there are grounds for hope that the democratic recession may be slowing.