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Democracy in Decline?  Unpacking Global Trends

A report on the Global Struggle for Democracy, presented at the 35th annual Frank Church Conference, Thursday, October 18, 2018, Boise State University.

“America, long he world’s most principled nation, have strayed in recent years from that tradition. But there is a shining promise for this nation now, as there was in the beginning: fed nations have our capacity for self-redemption.  Because we are a free and open society – a determined to remain so -our errors can be examined soberly and corrected in time.” Senator Frank Church, “The Sacred Fire.” Angi Press, 1975

Steven Feldstein, Associate Professor, Frank, and Bethine Church, Chair, of Public Affairs, Boise State University; Former Deputy, Assistant Security of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Steven Feldstein

Kenneth Wollack, former President, National Democratic Institute (NDI).

NDI President Kenneth Wollack Presents the W. Averell Harriman Democracy y Award to then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Director, Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security.

Dr. Andrea Kendall-Taylor

Peter Fenn, President, The Fenn Communications Group.

Peter Fenn

According to Steven Feldstein, today’s struggle for democracy is a natural result of globalization, compounded by digital tactics to accelerate feelings of doom and gloom, and even female candidates running for office.

Is democracy in trouble? 

Peter Fenn argues that the recession in a democracy is real and authoritarianism is growing.  However, he urges the taking of a long view of the issue and argues that demand for democracy still exits.  Such a demand, he points out, is not driven by a need for housing, etc. but by a need for democratic forms in governance.  Fenn notes that autocrats use sophisticated means to clamp down on resisters, including rigging systems in advance of elections. The failure of democratically elected individuals to deliver on their promises creates discontent and may result in undemocratic populism and authoritarianism, he asserts.

Dr. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, in a bit of comic relief, says that not many people say “Gee, I want to live like the Russians.” She warns against exchanging freedoms for economic growth and points out that authoritarianism does have staying power. She notes that after World War II two governance choices existed: Democracy and Communism. Current polarization, economic crisis, the weakening of democracy has powered authoritative forms of government.  These problems, when compounded by unrest and instability after the Cold War (1947-1991) created fears and a desire for storing powerful leaders (authoritarianism).  She points out that when democracies like the U.S. are strong, authoritarianism declines.  Conversely, when strong democracies decline, authoritarianism rises.

Fenn adds that we are in an era of declining democracies driven by information distortion, fake news from the Command in Chief (Trump). His debasement of legitimate news is worrisome, he argues, suggesting that the rise of the internet brings about the need for immediacy in the news which may not always be accurate.  “Mark Twain,’ Fenn points out said, “A lie tracks half-way around the world before the truth puts on its shoes.” “Attacks on a free press is dangerous to the1st amendment”, Fenn says.

On human rights.

Kenneth Wollack, NDI’s past president, told attendees that human rights are now part of every Ambassador’s portfolio, but there is no doubt that what the President says has an impact. Human rights have been a congressional initiative, he says. The problem, Wollack suggests is that some regimes feel that they have a license to kill and the U.S will not intervene.

Dr. Kendall-Taylor points out that democracies have failed through coups.  Even those individuals elected under democratic forms have eroded democratic norms.  They go after the media and attempt to control the narrative. They go after and politicize the judiciary which they use to enhance their control over society, she points to gerrymandering that makes it difficult for (opponents) to vote, as examples of anti-democratic controls. “It’s hard for the left to stop the erosion in democracy,” she says.

The First Amendment issue.

Fenn pointed out that when the Internet first formed, there were those who felt it would increase democracy through free speech.  However, he notes, the Russians, Chinese, and other rouge actors use it to generate fake news. Congress and other countries must deal with the First Amendment issues, he said.  Fenn urged the use of fact checking to expose bad actors but cautioned against going to far in restricting First Amendment rights.  He suggested reading “Is Democracy Dying,” in the Atlantic, a series that attempts to answer that question.

Wollack urges individuals to challenge media companies that think they are simply platformed organizations. “It may come down to the courts,” he said. “The Russians,” Wollack said, “challenges Democracy with discourse.”

“What worries you,” Feldstein asked Kendall-Taylor?  “Russia and the Chinese believe democracy undercuts their regimes,” she responds adding that “Russia is willing to take the fight to democracies on ways not seen before.” She continues, “They view undermining the West as being in their own interest.” She told the audience that Russia convinces other regimes that the West is out to get them. They [the Russians] offer their own tools, and anti-west regimes emulate Putin’s tactics.  Russia, she said, spreads propaganda and claims a moral equivalence with democracies. 

“Russia,” Wollack add uses disinformation and misinformation where democracies protect the integrity of information.  Democracies are motivated to protect, not undermine information.

Fenn added that the NDI and the Republican equivalate the International Republican Institute (IRI)  promote democratic values, not a polemic.


Fenn notes that both voter suppression and too much money in politics are serious problems. He suggests that when listening to other people, ask yourself where they get their facts.  

Kendall-Taylor expressed her concerns about the use of court packing and gerrymandering to dismantle democracy.  She points out that while our democracy is strong, we must be aware of what is happening.  

Wollack argues that people monetizing their government participation by leaving and becoming lobbyists is problematic. He points out that once elected politicians to have little integration with their community which creates a crisis in confidence.  Wollack expressed his concerns about election rigging and warns that it must be exposed.  He argues the need for elections to legitimize democracy and supports legitimate election monitoring.

The immigration issues.

Wollack arguers that we have both a duty to receive immigrants and create changes in other countries.  He points out that a diverse population creates economic growth greater then homogeneous countries. 

He asks rhetorically: “What drives women and children to walk hundreds of miles,” [to democratic countries]. 

Kendall-Taylor suggests that we have a responsibility to open boarders but points out that migration drives rise in far-right populism. “What is the solution that does not trigger right wing populism,” she asks?  

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threats to democracy
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Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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