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The Fight for Open Societies Begins Again

For decades, democracy and human-rights advocates have operated on the assumption that a growing number of governments around the world were embracing freedom and its rules and norms. But the recent sharp reversal of a generation of progress is forcing advocates and activists to reconsider their models of change.

NEW YORK – Democracy is back on policymakers’ minds. US President Joe Biden plans to host a summit on the theme, and invitations to a host of events on democracy and human rights fill my inbox.

This renewed focus is not good news. Rather, it reflects the erosion of both democracy and respect for human rights in recent years. Freedom House reports that less than 20% of the world’s population now live in what it categorizes as fully free societies, the lowest share in more than a quarter-century. Many countries are drifting steadily toward authoritarianism.

Freedom is in trouble for well-known reasons. In many countries, increasing inequality and marginalization of different groups has fueled an embrace of right-wing (and in some cases left-wing) authoritarianism. As the world grapples with rapid technological change and economic restructuring, many are far from convinced that democracies have the edge in terms of adaptation and forward-looking policymaking. The pandemic – which many democracies mishandled – deepened these doubts.

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