Democracy is under fire, but also underrated

Why We Wrote This

The behavior of federal paramilitary forces in Portland has raised rule-of-law questions that go to the heart of democracy. They also point to another issue: that democracy ultimately depends on more than just rules and regulations.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Federal officers deploy tear gas and crowd control munitions at demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Some of the officers' disregard for the normal rules of policing has raised questions about the rule of law.

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Video from Portland, Oregon, showing federal paramilitary forces detaining protesters and driving them away in unmarked cars has aroused some disturbing memories from my past as a foreign correspondent in places such as South Africa, Lebanon, and Iran.

The U.S. agents are not death squads. But they don’t always wear unit insignia, they don’t identify themselves, and some of them are clearly disregarding the usual standards of identification, accountability, and redress that apply to civilian police.

That raises questions about the rule of law, but it also suggests that the underpinnings of democracy, based on common assumptions of what behavior is acceptable, are weaker than they once were, both at home and abroad.

International democracy watchers say that autocracy is on the rise, from India to Hungary, and that the majority of the world’s governments are now autocratic. But at the same time, ordinary citizens support democracy by large margins, even if they are disappointed by the way it works in practice.

To misquote Mark Twain, reports of democracy’s death may prove to be exaggerated.

Of all the scenes of anger and confrontation from the ongoing street battles in Portland, Oregon, one video in particular has hit home for me: footage of a pair of federal agents in full camouflage gear detaining a solitary, unresistant protester, bundling him into an unmarked minivan and taking him away.

It aroused almost visceral echoes from my years as a foreign correspondent: memories of marauding Syrian “peacekeeping” troops on the streets of Beirut, South African forces in the sprawling black township of Soweto under apartheid, or the pasdaran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, in the early years of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic.

The circumstances in Portland are different. Nobody has disappeared, and the paramilitaries in Portland are not death squads. The myriad issues their behavior has raised since they were deployed under an executive order by President Donald Trump to protect federal buildings are still being debated and litigated.

But this much is clear from the minivan scene and other videos that are, for me, eerily reminiscent. It’s that the men in camouflage, whatever their other role or duties, have been acting as a de facto police force, and that some of them are disregarding the usual standards of identification, accountability, and redress that apply to civilian police.

Their unit insignia are often unclear and sometimes, it seems, nonexistent. They wear no body cameras. They answer no questions. Such personal interaction as they’ve had with the citizens they’re policing seems to have been overwhelmingly nonverbal. In another viral video from Portland, a middle-aged U.S. Navy veteran can be seen trying to engage several of the troops in conversation. He is beaten with a baton and pepper-sprayed.

There are those who see all this as a departure from a fundamental tenet of American democracy: the rule of law. One of the millions who viewed the video of the protester being taken away in the van was Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. He tweeted: “Authoritarian governments, not democratic republics, send unmarked authorities after protesters.”

Twilight of democracy?

But the events in Portland have highlighted another issue, one that has echoed recently in dozens of countries around the world. It goes beyond the specific legal framework with which the U.S. and other democracies circumscribe policing and the maintenance of public order.

It is that democracy ultimately depends on more than just rules and regulations. Equally important is the web of accepted norms built up and embedded in people’s minds over time. They define, by political and popular consensus, what is accepted as proper or seen as simply not done.

That’s the lens that may best clarify the events in Portland and beyond. Because this unwritten underpinning of democratic government is proving increasingly fragile.

This is a development explored in a new book by journalist and historian Anne Applebaum. Called “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” it’s a personal reflection on how some of her fellow center-right conservative thinkers have come to accept and support the erosion of democratic principles, whether in Poland or Hungary, Spain or the United States.

A range of explanations has been suggested for why populism, and specifically the recent authoritarian strain of populism, has erupted now. Among them: the economic strains and dislocations of globalization; waning trust in established political parties and institutions; the relentlessly, angrily adversarial use of social media.

Ms. Applebaum observes, darkly, “given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

In my experience, very few of the people I’ve met in the countries I’ve reported from would voluntarily choose to live under authoritarian rule rather than enjoy individual freedoms. But I think part of what Ms. Applebaum’s book is getting at is this: Democracy is not the natural political order of things. It can be messy. It involves give and take. It rarely delivers quick fixes. It is incremental. Also, it is often frustrating.

Autocrats rise, democrats fight back

What is undeniable is that the recent trend has been toward norm-busting populist leaders. Two measures of democracy around the world – taken by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Swedish-based V-Dem organization – have discerned a global shift toward more autocratic government.

The EIU report’s “average global score” for democracy in 2019 was the lowest since the group began its surveys in 2006. V-Dem’s Democracy Report 2020 rated a majority of countries as autocracies for the first time since 2001. It listed its first European Union state – Hungary – as nondemocratic, terming it an “electoral authoritarian regime.”

V-Dem still defines the U.S. as a democracy, but groups it with countries experiencing “significant and substantial autocratization.” The EIU has dropped the U.S. from its list of full democracies, downgrading it, along with Hungary and Poland and around 60 other countries, to a “flawed democracy.”

The EIU report, however, does make a telling observation: People may be unhappy with the way democracy works in practice, but they have not lost faith in the ideal.

Citing surveys from the Pew Research Center, the EIU notes that “global attitudes toward democracy have … revealed a disjuncture between still-high levels of public support for democracy across the globe and deep popular disappointment with the functioning of democracy.”

And V-Dem points out that while authoritarianism, autocracy, and assaults on independent media and academic freedoms are all on the rise, so is the global number of pro-democracy demonstrations. “The share of countries with substantial pro-democracy mass protests rose from 27 percent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2019,” it reports.

Indeed, like so much else in the increasingly fluid tide of contemporary world politics, the two democracy studies, Ms. Applebaum’s book, and even the confrontations in Portland suggest that the final word on democracy has not yet been spoken.

Or, to misquote Mark Twain, that reports of its death may prove to be exaggerated.

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