This Is How Democracies Die in the 21st Century

The death of Venezuelan democracy seems to be replicating in many other countries. How are democracies dying today? A new book by María Puerta Riera explains the diverse and incremental ways this is happening

Democratic Backsliding

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Democracy around the world isn’t having its brightest moment. Just in the last few months in the Americas, Daniel Ortega has continued to jail his political opponents as the Nicaraguan presidential election approaches; Nayib Bukele, in El Salvador, has faced rising protests and outcry from the international community because of his authoritarian behavior; in the United States, a recent poll showed that a third of voters think the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent. Cuba is starting to release some of the thousands of people the security forces detained after the pro-democracy protests of July 11th, only to force them into exile. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the country continues its never-ending discussion about the lack of electoral conditions as the November regional elections approach. 

This crumbling of democratic conditions isn’t exclusive to our region or institutionally weak countries. Research suggests that it’s happening all over the world, even in countries that have the reputation of being stable democracies, like France, Germany or the United States. Surprisingly, just 15 years ago, scholars were celebrating that 55% of the global population lived in democracies. It was the highest it had ever been. However, that number was 47% in 2019—a steep decline of almost 10% in a relatively short time. Around the world, democracy is facing a recession but not in the ways we traditionally think about it. Violent coup d’etats that seize power and shatter democracy are at an all-time low. Democracy is no longer shattering in one violent event, but rather eroding in slow, incremental, and often legal processes that slowly turn democratic institutions into authoritarian governments. 

These processes are what political scientists call democratic backsliding. 

This is the new way democracies are collapsing. Democracy no longer ends with the echoes of the military marching in the capital announcing they’re in charge, or the images of rebels seizing government buildings by force. It ends slowly, with constitutional reforms and legislations that aren’t technically illegal and that little by little turn institutions into dictatorships. 

If it sounds familiar to Venezuelan audiences, it’s because it is. There have been extensive discussions about how the collapse of Venezuelan democracy is a case of democratic backsliding and research around this topic is expanding rapidly in the world of political science as this problem emerges in other regions around the world. 

The Post Democracy Threshold

A concerning characteristic of democratic backsliding is that it happens slowly and incrementally. Venezuelan democracy, for instance, didn’t collapse in one day. While some academics like Juan Carlos Rey were concerned by democratic backsliding as early as 1991, the backsliding of Venezuelan democracy was a years-long process that happened so slowly that, for some, it was very hard to notice. Now that this topic is getting more attention, it’s important to understand and identify components of democratic backsliding in governments before it becomes too late to act. 

To address this pressing issue, I reached out to Dr. María Isabel Puerta Riera, a political scientist and professor at Valencia College in Florida. Dr. Riera specializes in the study of democracy and autocratization. Her book Crisis de la democracia: ¿En el umbral de la posdemocracia? (The Crisis of Democracy: oj the Threshold of Post Democracy?) was released in Spanish in August 2021, and is expected to be released in English later this year. In her book, Dr. Puerta explores and synthesizes the works that authors throughout history have produced around democracy and the crises that it has faced. 

The first important lesson from Dr. Puerta is that democratic backsliding is very difficult to define. There isn’t a universal pattern of how democracies erode. They all do it differently. Hence, it’s important to understand the different historical contexts of each country we are looking at. 

There are two important places to look at to detect it: the Executive Branch and elections. Dr. Riera highlighted some conventional cases of backsliding, such as Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, in which the political systems have been torn down from the inside by the ever-increasing powers of the Executive Branch. This leads to branches of government that no longer respond to the people, but rather their anti-democratic government. This type of democratic backsliding is being called “executive aggrandizing” in the academic world. We often see this when elected leaders limit the checks on their power and modify institutions to their benefit. Dr. Riera’s description of what is happening in El Salvador is an example of this: “The president is tailoring his checks and balances in a country that’s institutionally very weak. He’s using institutions and bending them to damage the Rule of Law and favor anti-democratic leaders.” 

There are ways to spot it before any sweeping legislation comes to pass. According to scholars Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, the movement towards executive aggrandizing is often accompanied by rhetoric from political leaders that involve questioning elections or constitutions, the delegitimization of political opponents, the endorsement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil rights.

However, it’s not enough to look at the Executive Branch. Democratic backsliding is happening in the realm of elections. Recent trends suggest that blatant election day voter fraud methods like ballot-stuffing and count falsification are decreasing globally. Nevertheless, we are witnessing an increase in sophisticated mechanisms to modify the electoral panorama. For example, Dr. Riera mentioned the increase of laws in multiple states that, according to activists, severely hinder people’s ability to vote, especially minorities. According to Dr. Puerta, restricting access to the ballot box for Black, Latinos, Native Americans, and people with disabilities is a clear sign of deterioration of U.S. democracy. In addition, political opponents being barred from running is also becoming more common—just like we’ve recently seen in Nicaragua or Venezuela during the controversial 2018 presidential election. 

In many cases, like those I mentioned before, all of these instances of executive aggrandizing or election tampering aren’t illegal. Not every component of democracy is written down in constitutions and laws. A lot of democratic health relies on political norms: the codes of behavior and traditions that are key to democratic health. This is how democratic backsliding can happen slowly and often go unnoticed. Not every small move is illegal or inherently wrong, but they move the entire political ecosystem in the wrong direction. Because of this, it’s important to raise the alarm when democratic traditions start crumbling. Dr. Riera mentioned Republicans’ recent behavior around the 2020 election and their voter suppression efforts by stating that the Republican party “is damaging democracy by ignoring the Rule of Law. That’s a huge problem because that’s the basis of any social contract. It’s commitment, but the problem is that you can’t just trust commitment when people are not willing to follow rules and that is what is happening.”

Democratic backsliding especially becomes dangerous when we take into consideration the polarized media environment and the emerging post-truth era where facts have lost relevance in politics.

The damage isn’t limited to the emergence of autocracies. It also means that leaders can capitalize on inaccurate information to further hold on to power. They do so by pushing policies that contradict the scientific consensus or that don’t address immediate emergencies like what’s happening with the politicization of the pandemic response or the issue of climate change in the U.S.

What do we do with this information? I think it’s important to stay vigilant and act. Dr. Puerta said something that stuck with me: “We have to become excited about democracy to protect it,” so it’s important that we rekindle our love for democracy, and watch attentively to raise alarms when threats of election tampering or executive aggrandizing appear on the horizon. But we also need to rethink how we approach political norms. Dr. Puerta thinks that we “have to reward good behavior, but also punish behaviors outside of the rules and norms of the system,” to ensure that our political institutions survive the current democratic recession.