“Misappropriation of the word is a testament to democracy’s appeal,” write Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz in the recent Freedom in the World Report. The current democratic recession is different from those in the past. During previous autocratic waves, opponents of democracy openly attacked democratic governance. Both monarchists and fascists saw their model of government as antithetical to liberal democracy. However, the allure of democracy is so strong today even authoritarian nations like Russia and China claim to represent different forms of democracy. Jie Lu and Yun-Han Chu write, “Given the popularity and supremacy of democracy in contemporary political discourse, the hotly debated and discussed crisis of democracy is puzzling.”
Christian Welzel believes democracy still has a strong future ahead. However, he acknowledges, “In order to be stable and liberal, democracy must be understood and appreciated by its citizens.” Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether citizens in established democracies truly appreciate the values of democracy. Far too often citizens elect and reelect leaders with autocratic tendencies. Writing about the 2022 elections in Hungary, Kim Lane Scheppele writes, “Presented with a united opposition that could have ousted an autocrat, most conservative voters took a pass.” Voters rarely set their ideological preferences aside even when democracy is on the ballot.
At the same time, it’s difficult for many to understand how elected leaders can threaten democracy from within. The greatest threats to consolidated democracy often come to power through free and fair elections. Hugo Chávez, Viktor Orbán, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were all elected in free and fair elections. Moreover, the United States has seen election laws and enforcement politicized in recent years. Democracy is a lot more than the mere presence of elections. Ultimately, citizens must demand more than the faux democracy that authoritarianism offers.