It was called, among other things, “the end of history,” which was to say, the ultimate triumph of the western liberal, market-based democratic ideal around the globe. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989 and communist control of Eastern Europe soon collapsed. The Soviet Union almost simultaneously embarked on a monumental breakup and independence for its constituent republics, soon holding its own democratic elections featuring a peaceful (and astounding) transfer of power in 1991.
Like a benevolent tsunami gathering up everything in its path, a loudly proclaimed optimism for a new world order made government watchers and freedom lovers (and capitalists) around the globe almost dizzy with anticipation.
Even South Africa and its brutal apartheid system, which nearly everyone agreed would inevitably require an epic bloodbath to finally root out, managed a peaceful transition to multi-party rule through the early 1990s that included its black population for the first time.
Carried along with that tide was what seemed the nearly miraculous elevation of 26-year-political prisoner Nelson Mandela to his nation’s presidency in 1994.
Yes, authoritarianism was on the run, routed by humanity’s unquenchable and finally triumphant need for liberty. If there wasn’t dancing in the streets of every major world capital, it was only because too many people, including myself, were preoccupied shaking their heads and repeating,
“I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it…”
Sounds quaint today, doesn’t it?
Freedom House is an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to analyzing and advancing the state of democracy and freedom around the world. Founded in 1941 by a group led by Eleanor Roosevelt and failed Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie, the organization uses an exhaustive and carefully elaborated methodology to provide an annual “Freedom in the World” report that includes narrative evaluations and numerical scores rating the degree of 1) political freedom and 2) civil liberties found in the 210 countries or select territories it covers around the globe.
Rulers and propagandists in authoritarian states have always pointed to America’s domestic flaws to deflect attention from their own abuses, but the events of the past year will give them ample new fodder for this tactic…
A combined score of 100 from those two categories represents a perfectly free society, and then the scores descend on a spectrum through “Partly Free” and “Not Free.”
In 2020, only the Scandinavian nations of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, often derided as “socialist” and therefore oppressive by people who have no idea what they are talking about, obtained scores of 100.
Close behind were New Zealand at 99, then Canada,
The Netherlands, and surprisingly, Uruguay (who knew?) at 98.
We will discuss the score obtained by the United States below, but on the more macro level, let it be noted here that 2020 was not an uplifting year for democracy worldwide, the promise and outright giddiness of 1989 now a distant memory. Freedom House’s report covering the period from January 1 through December 31 was titled “Democracy Under Siege,” and it led off with this:
“As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity and violent conflict ravaged the world, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”
A little further down in the text:
“These withering blows marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration  outnumbered those with improvements  by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006. The long democratic recession is deepening.”
Perhaps even more forebodingly, the report indicated that less than 20% of the world’s population lives in a country classified as “free.”
Also note that the report did not include the events of what will now forever live in infamy as “January 6,” nor the breathtaking fall of Afghanistan this past week. That beleaguered country rated a score of 27 (“Not Free”) last year but, given what the Taliban has told us in word and deed about who they are, it is sure to fall even further when the 2021 report is released next year.
Václav Havel was a Czechoslovakian playwright who first got himself into political hot water when he actively opposed the invasion of his country by four Warsaw Pact nations led by the Soviet Union in 1968. The invaders were looking to establish firm communist rule and crush the liberal reforms that were just taking hold after the “Prague Spring” earlier that year.
Havel, noted for his withering critiques of authoritarianism via his absurdist plays and other writings, was soon banned from pursuing his livelihood in the theatre and began enduring regular interrogations and prison terms (the longest occurring between 1979-1983). His final arrest, on October 27, 1989, was followed two months later by his election as the 10th president of Czechoslovakia.
Another two months after that, on February 21, 1990, he was addressing a rare Joint Session of the United States Congress, describing his odyssey from artist to dissident to prisoner to statesman. As noted above, it was a dizzying time.
In that congressional speech, Havel sounded appreciative notes on how twice in the darkest times of the 20th century, the United States had stepped in to turn the tide of world wars and help depose aggressive authoritarian regimes. Then, by holding the Soviet Union at bay in the “bipolar” world of the Cold War, the U.S. “may have contributed to the salvation of us Europeans, of the world and thus of yourselves for a third time.”
He then went on in hopeful terms, suggesting that America would perhaps no longer have to bear the burden of such interventions in a new world order that included the Soviet Union’s “irreversible but immensely complicated road to democracy.”
“Immensely complicated” that road has certainly been, though a good part of its complication has been severe doubts, in the Putin era, about the “irreversibility” that Havel had proclaimed.
Probably more complicating and dispiriting for the world, however, is the condition of the United States in its own democracy. Freedom House assigned it a score of 83 in its 2020 ratings, down from 86 the previous year. Far worse is the longer-term 11-point decline from its 94-point rating in 2010, a devolution Freedom House ascribes to multiple factors, including:
• Partisan pressure on the electoral process
• Bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system
• Harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers
• Growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence
• Political corruption and conflicts of interest
• Lack of transparency in government
Citing the false claims of election fraud and severe challenges to the outcome by departing President Donald Trump and much of his Republican Party, Freedom House did emphasize that, “Though battered, many US institutions held strong during and after the election process.” This included the courts, much of the media, and state election officials, many of them Republicans.
Still, the U.S.’s long-term decline and stunning failure to effect a peaceful transfer of power in 2020 has grave implications for the future not only of its own democracy, but of its role as a bellwether for democratic norms around the world. Says Freedom House:
“The enemies of freedom have pushed the false narrative that democracy is in decline because it is incapable of addressing people’s needs. In fact, democracy is in decline because its most prominent exemplars are not doing enough to protect it. Global leadership and solidarity from democratic states are urgently needed…Rulers and propagandists in authoritarian states have always pointed to America’s domestic flaws to deflect attention from their own abuses, but the events of the past year will give them ample new fodder for this tactic, and the evidence they cite will remain in the world’s collective memory for a long time to come.”
Certainly, the chaotic events of this past week in Afghanistan have only added to the doubts the free world has, and the fodder authoritarian states can cite about America’s role as a beacon of democracy.
So: Where do we go from here?
As always, the best course in every circumstance of failure is to own up, clean up the mess as best we can, and set a new course in full acknowledgment of our mistakes, our values, goals and constraints, and our commitments to learn and move forward from them.
Not by memory-holing them, as so many already want to do with the January 6 insurrection and the serial disasters of the Trump years.
The utterly shocking scenes of the insurrection (“How could this be happening here? I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it…”) and the fact that a good portion of the Republican electorate and congressional delegation still cleaves to the person who incited it and projects him as a candidate yet again in 2024, tells us that our democracy project remains on wobbly if not deteriorating ground, and that we, along with Freedom House, have continuing reason to be alarmed.
True, we’re still a long way from China (Freedom score: 7) and Russia (20), but oppressors are always patient and relentless. Their menacing role on the world stage simply underscores what the stakes are in an anything-but-assured effort for the world’s still most powerful democracy to get its house in order and prevent any more slippage in the freedoms we take for granted only at our great peril.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Berlin graffiti by Trey Ratcliff, Queensland, New Zealand, https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/
Reaching hands by Greg Rosenke, British Columbia, Canada https://unsplash.com/@greg_rosenke
Vaclav Havel by Levan Ramishvili, Tbilisi, Georgia https://www.flickr.com/photos/levanrami/