fubini8_ VINCENZO PINTOAFP via Getty Images_italian newspaper VINCENZO PINTOAFP via Getty Images

The Other Threat to Democracy

Writing in the second century BC, the Greek historian Polybius described a process that is all too familiar today. Politicians use cheap gifts and seductive talk to attract voters who don’t appreciate their freedom, because they have never experienced the abuses or repression of non-democratic governance.

ROME – The emergence of illiberal politicians across the West has led to prophecies about the end of democracy. In the United States, Donald Trump is maneuvering to return to the White House in 2025, after attempting to overturn an election that he lost in 2020. In France, not one but two far-right populists are running for president. And in Italy, Matteo Salvini of the League and Giorgia Meloni of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy will be plausible contenders for the premiership when Italians go to the polls in 2023.

Like right-wing political and media operatives in the US, Salvini, Meloni, and Marine Le Pen of the French far-right National Rally have all paid homage to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. They have made no secret of their temptation to pursue his brand of illiberalism if given the chance.

Concerns about the future tend to be molded by our most vivid memories of the past. We learned from our parents and grandparents about the threat of fascism. And in recent years, we have watched authoritarian leaders come to power democratically, only to erode constitutional norms and institutions once in office. This “electoral” model for establishing autocracy thus has come to seem like a potent threat.