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Democracies Are Not “Backsliding”

With a democratic recession underway in many countries, one now commonly hears talk of democratic “backsliding” on a global scale. But not only is that term misleading; it also breeds fatalism, diverting our attention from potential paths out of the new authoritarianism.

PRINCETON – It seems that 2023 will be another dismal year for democracy. There have been several coups in Africa. Tunisia – long touted as the Arab Spring’s one democratic success story – has seen the consolidation of an authoritarian (and xenophobic) regime. And Donald Trump appears on course to secure the Republican nomination for the 2024 US presidential election.

How we describe such developments matters. After all, words have consequences. Unfortunately, some of the language used to analyze the global democratic recession is having precisely the wrong effect. The term “backsliding” – which has contributed to a curious passivity among pro-democracy forces – is a case in point.

The world is not moving “back” toward some regimes familiar from the past, nor even toward dynamics and circumstances that we have seen before and can easily comprehend. The conventional wisdom has long been that, while democracies make mistakes, they also learn from those missteps and adjust accordingly – a feature that sets them apart from all other political systems. But authoritarians have now shown that they, too, can adapt, learning from their own mistakes, those of their antecedents, and their peers.