No one claims that democracy is perfect or full of wisdom, “said Winston Churchill in 1947, leading to one of his most famous aphorisms:” Democracy is the worst form of government except for all these other forms which have been tried from time to time. time.”
Churchill was understandably upset, having recently been elected Prime Minister after leading Britain to victory in World War II. Yet the British leader’s bitter comment provides a useful setting for President Joe Biden’s virtual summit for democracy, which will take place December 9-10 and will bring together leaders from more than 100 governments, as well as leaders from civil society. and business, to focus on the growing challenges facing democracies.
There are several reasons to question the usefulness of the summit. But there is no reason to question Biden’s belief that liberal democracies face their greatest threats since World War II.
“We are in a contest, not with China per se [but] with autocratic governments around the world on whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly evolving 21st century, âBiden said at a press conference in June.
In other words, can democracies that value free elections and individual rights still be beneficial to the people? Or, unlike Churchill, can autocratic regimes like China offer more to their audiences?
These questions can hardly be answered amid the cacophony of a massive summit – or in the planned follow-up and second summit a year from now. But at least the questions will be asked.
In fact, the most useful aspect of the summit may be to put the issue of democracy back on the global agenda – and in public discourse here.
“The liberal West has backed down and the advocacy for democracy has been absent,” says Steven Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracy Dies” and government professor at Harvard University. âThe summit is a first step in putting the promotion of democracy back on the agenda.
I hope this means an open summit debate on internal threats to democracy in the United States.
The dangers posed by the GOP’s continued attacks on the basic constitutional principle of free elections should be obvious. They certainly are for our Democratic allies abroad, for most Democrats, and for principled Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney.
But in a right-wing bubble, where Fox News hosts praise January 6 insurgents, where Donald Trump is still campaigning on the big lie of a stolen election, and where the GOP is trying to secure the reign of the minority through legal manipulation, the truth is on its head.
Hopefully the summit will clarify how America’s image as a (flawed) bastion of global democracy has been tarnished by the GOP’s war on democratic principles. As a November Pew Research poll shows, few people in other developed countries – or the United States – now see American democracy as a good example for other countries to follow.
Some reasons will become evident at next week’s meeting.
For example, the spotlight could be on the GOP’s fascination with Hungary – a country uninvited from the summit because of its increasingly authoritarian leader, Viktor OrbÃ¡n, who has restricted political and press rights. He boasts that Hungary now has an “illiberal” democracy.
Yet former Vice President Mike Pence recently joined OrbÃ¡n at a “family values” conference in which OrbÃ¡n attacked Western liberalism. OrbÃ¡n is also a favorite of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump.
In fact, as the summit should point out, the very term democracy is being questioned on a global scale.
The Chinese and Russian ambassadors, in an astonishing National Interest article, attacked the summit for not respecting their “democracies” (neither country was invited). China is an “integral socialist democracy” and democracy is the “fundamental principle” of the Russian political system, the article proclaims. The article dealt with democratic elections and claimed that the Chinese and Russian “democracies” were better able to deliver “human progress” to their people.
This is the kind of claim that was easily debunked during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But given the GOP leaders’ fascination with backward democracies – and Trump’s romance with autocrats and contempt for Democratic allies – it’s unclear whether any major U.S. party still believes liberal democracy is the best choice.
The Democracy Summit at least has the potential to distinguish between liberal democracy and its alternatives. Discussions should also focus on the danger to democracies posed by an ugly policy of the kind we see daily in our country.
Xi Jinping made it clear that he believes democracies are so divided inside that they can no longer compete with autocracies, especially China. “He [Xi] is extremely serious about becoming the largest and most consistent nation in the world, âBiden told reporters. “He and others – the autocrats – believe that democracy in the 21st century cannot compete with autocracies because it takes too long to build consensus.”
When it comes to the United States, right now Xi is looking straight at money – and the fate of our system will reverberate in other democratic countries. âWe have to prove that democracy still works. That our government still works – and can deliver for the people, âBiden said in March.
The Democracy Summit could show Americans what they will face if our democracy fails.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers can write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, PO Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by e-mail at [email protected]