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Opinion | Biden Can’t Decide What Counts as a ‘Democracy’

The new authoritarianism fashions itself not as an alternative to democracy but as a real democracy, one in which a majority governs. The concept of “backsliding” that is so frequently used in the State Department has blinded many in the American government to the fact that a simple Cold War continuum with democracy on one end and authoritarianism on the other no longer suffices. “Backsliding,” a concept introduced by missionaries to explain how recently converted Christians “slid back” into their pre-Christian habits, confuses rather than clarifies because for missionaries, backsliders were worse than infidels.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “break the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
  • The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

The world’s liberal democracies have lost their monopoly to define what democracy is, not simply because the new authoritarians claim democratic credentials (they have won free if not always fair elections), but also because — as a recent study conducted by Pew Research demonstrated — a vast majority of Americans and French are deeply disappointed with their own political system. Some are unconvinced they even still live in a democracy. This is true for many other European countries, as well.

What has happened? I suspect that part of it is a year of lockdown and related restrictions. The perception of what constitutes democratic governance has been scrambled as societies have been infected with fear and uncertainty. The past year of battling the pandemic in many places has made democracies and authoritarian regimes less distinguishable than they used to be. One can no longer glean from a county’s regime type how well (or how poorly) it will respond to the pandemic. It is democracies like South Korea and New Zealand but also autocracies like China that have handled it successfully. Regime type also won’t predict what restrictions on citizen freedoms or what kind of economic policies a government will adopt. In the words of the political philosopher David Runciman, “Under a lockdown, democracies reveal what they have in common with other political regimes: here too politics is ultimately about power and order.”

The blurring of the border between democracies and non-democracies has far-reaching consequences when it comes to international politics. If the Biden administration is to be guided by the ratings of a Freedom House or V Dem, countries like India have no place in its alliance. Yet if it is guided by America’s strategic interests, India is of paramount importance for any Western attempt to contain China’s influence in Asia.

So, Washington has a choice. It should either hypocritically pretend that for the purpose of containing China countries like India and Turkey are democracies or rhetorically decouple its efforts to contain China and Russia from its efforts to revive global democracy. I suggest the Biden administration take the second road. In our social-media-saturated world, hypocrisy is the ultimate vice. And while the legitimacy of democratic activists comes from speaking truth to power, the international legitimacy of democratic governments comes from speaking truth about power.

Ivan Krastev is a contributing Opinion writer, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the author, most recently, of “Is It Tomorrow Yet?: Paradoxes of the Pandemic.”

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