2024 Could Be a Very Rough Year for Democracy

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Having triumphed in the global conflicts of the 20th century, liberal democracies entered the new millennium with every expectation that the wins would keep on coming. Europe would continue to integrate and strengthen its liberal supranational institutions, as expanding the European Union, the Eurozone, and NATO had no downsides. Participation in the global economy would force China to democratize as its growing middle class demanded greater freedoms. Growing prosperity would also strengthen young democracies in India, South America, and post-Soviet Russia. A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would stabilize the Middle East and pave the way for reform in the Arab world and Iran. The internet would disseminate liberal culture globally, creating a smaller, more enlightened, and more harmonious global community — led by a United States that would never turn its back on the free world.

Needless to say, none of this happened according to plan, and nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, liberal democracy is playing defense while authoritarianism is making gains. The past year has brought no shortage of bad news on this front: In March, China’s National People’s Congress unanimously granted president Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term, setting him up for a likely life tenure. In May, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan also won a third term, continuing his 20 years in power first as prime minister and then as president. A spike in migration of asylum seekers to Europe has driven right-wing nationalists and populists to election victories in several countries, including the Netherlands, where the Party for Freedom, led by the provocative Eurosceptic and outspoken Islamophobe Geert Wilders, won the most seats in November’s national elections.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive against Russia’s war of aggression failed to recapture much territory, leaving Europe’s most consequential conflict since 1945 in a stalemate, with Ukraine at risk of losing entirely if its international backers grow weary of arming and bankrolling it — an outcome Russian president Vladimir Putin is counting on. Despite taking a significant economic toll, international sanctions in response to the war have not undermined Putin’s regime as many hoped and expected; Russia’s economy is growing again, and Putin remains safely ensconced in the Kremlin.

Of course, one can’t discuss 2023’s threats to democracy without mentioning the megalomaniacal, antisemitic billionaire who bought Twitter and turned it into a haven for disinformation peddlers, conspiracy theorists, and neo-Nazis. He also happens to control a key piece of global telecommunications infrastructure, enabling him to make unilateral decisions with direct implications for the war in Ukraine.

There were some bright spots: In Brazil, former president Jair Bolsonaro’s January 6-style coup attempt failed and he actually faced consequences for attempting to cling to power after losing an election. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party lost its majority in October elections, an outcome driven by women voters seeking to overturn a highly restrictive abortion law the party enacted in 2020. In a similar vein, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment protecting the right to abortion (which Republicans are already trying to undermine), and the backlash to the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade were seen as a major factor in Democratic over-performance in special elections last year. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to claw power away from the country’s independent judiciary was met with months of widespread protests — but these came to an end with the massacre carried out by Hamas on October 7 and the ongoing war in Gaza that followed.

Overall, however, 2023 was a grim year for democracy across the globe, and the dangers that lie ahead in 2024 paint a frightening picture of a world in which the world’s richest and most powerful democracies no longer agree on the importance of upholding those traditions at home or abroad.

Of course, the greatest looming threat to democracy is the prospect of Donald Trump winning November’s election and becoming president again. Despite the charade of the Republican primary, Trump will undoubtedly be the Republican nominee, just as President Joe Biden will assuredly be the Democratic nominee. Despite the many criminal charges he is currently facing, Trump is unlikely to be taken out of the running by any possible verdict in time to prevent him from running and potentially winning in November. And while Trump is unlikely to win a majority of the national popular vote, current polls have him running close enough to Biden to obtain an electoral college victory.

If Trump does win, he has already told us exactly how he plans to govern, and those plans are a veritable wish list for enemies of democracy and the rule of law in the U.S. and around the world. He intends to stack agencies with hardcore loyalists, purge the civil service of any opposition, and weaponize the Justice Department to persecute his enemies in the government and the media. He coyly flirts with the notion of assuming dictatorial powers to close the U.S. borders and remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the country. On the international scene, he will almost certainly stop U.S. aid to Ukraine, effectively aligning the U.S. with Putin’s Russia against our erstwhile European allies. Trump has even threatened to withdraw the U.S. from NATO, effectively disbanding the cornerstone of mutual defense among western democracies. And most troublingly, if Trump becomes president again, there is no guarantee that the U.S. will continue to hold free and fair elections, especially if Republicans also take and maintain control of both houses of Congress.

The U.S. is by no means the only country with a consequential election coming up in 2024, however, and several of these votes have global ramifications.

India, the world’s largest country and democracy, will hold general elections in April and May. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to maintain its hold on power, thanks in large part to Modi’s personal popularity and the lack of a unified opposition. The BJP performed well in recent state elections, which are usually predictive of national polls. Modi’s victory will enable him to continue his agenda of Hinduizing the Indian state, alienating Muslims and other minorities and increasing the risk of violence against these groups.

In Europe, the new generation of the populist right is expected to continue its ascendency, propelled by inflation, immigration, and fatigue over the war in Ukraine. Right-wing parties are poised to make significant gains in Portugal and Austria, but the polls to watch are the continent-wide elections to the European Parliament in June, where right-wing nationalists and Eurosceptics are expected to pick up dozens of seats — not enough to challenge the governing centrist coalition, but enough to scare European moderates into taking their own hard lines on migration. An agreement finalized last week to change the EU’s rules on migration is meant to neutralize anti-immigrant politics and discourage member states from taking matters into their own hands, but it won’t come into effect until 2025 (and may not have much effect at all), by which time the European right will have had plenty of time to capitalize on public discontent with the massive ongoing influx of asylum seekers.

Vladimir Putin is also up for reelection in March, but he will not face any real opposition. Instead, the Russian president will be watching the polls in the U.S. and Europe for signs that western resolve to support Ukraine’s defense is collapsing. Right-wing lawmakers have already held up aid packages in Congress and the European Council, and Americans are already chafing at spending what looks like an awful lot of money to help out a country they may or may not be able to find on a map. European publics are much more supportive of Ukraine, but if American aid is cut off, Europe has no hope of filling the gap, even if political and procedural obstacles didn’t get in the way.

The collapse of international aid to Ukraine could quickly change the course of the war and lead to a Ukrainian defeat. Putin is now signaling that he is open to a ceasefire, but with Russia holding onto all the Ukrainian territory it now occupies. That condition is a nonstarter for Kyiv — but Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy may face major pressure from his western backers to make a deal, even a terrible deal, if it will end the fighting. Whether Russia obtains a partial or total victory, Ukrainians in the Russian-occupied territories will continue to suffer, while Putin may be encouraged to pursue additional irredentist adventures in other former Soviet countries, such as Georgia.

A Russian victory in Ukraine would also send signals to other autocrats with territorial ambitions, particularly China with regard to Taiwan. Xi, the Chinese president, has escalated his rhetoric toward the island as well as his military provocations. Beijing is using disinformation to interfere in Taiwan’s upcoming election to promote the more China-friendly Kuomintang over the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which takes a harder line on cross-strait relations. Part of this campaign is to amplify fears that a DPP victory would raise the risk of war — which it just might, if Xi chooses to escalate tensions in response.

The main element holding China back from invading Taiwan, however, is the implicit guarantee that the U.S. would intervene to protect the island’s sovereignty. If the U.S. appears unable or unwilling to do so, that could change Xi’s calculus. If the U.S. and its allies can’t stop a second-rate power like Putin’s Russia from winning a war of conquest at the EU’s doorstep, what chance do they have at standing up to the might of Beijing?

The other war now on everyone’s mind is, of course, Israel’s highly destructive incursion into the Gaza Strip with the goal of destroying Hamas in response to the militant group’s shocking October 7 attack. Regardless of the merits of Israel’s casus belli, images of flattened apartment buildings and dead Palestinian children are unhelpful to its image as a beacon of democratic enlightenment in the Middle East. The war may spell the end of Netanyahu’s political career, but that doesn’t mean Israel is about to turn dovish and rekindle its interest in a two-state solution. On the contrary, Israeli politics continue their rightward drift, and the left has little hope of making a comeback when public attention is laser-focused on security and prospects for peace seem as distant as ever. Indeed, if Netanyahu falls, the leaders that come after him may be even worse, taking the lesson from October 7 that his draconian policies in Gaza and the West Bank failed because they were not draconian enough.

So, all in all, 2024 is not shaping up to be the year liberal democracy gets its groove back. With so many dark clouds on the horizon, it’s easy to become demoralized or even disenchanted with the whole project of trying to build a peaceful, pluralistic society with liberty and justice for all. And reactionary movements like Trumpism feed off disillusionment with liberal ideals. Turning back the tide of authoritarian-friendly right-wing populism won’t be easy.

The good news is that Americans have a great deal of power to stop or significantly slow this runaway train, much as we helped set it in motion by electing Trump in 2016. As the battle lines are drawn around the world between democratic and authoritarian philosophies of government, the biggest wild card is whether the U.S. will remain on the side of democracies, or will throw in its lot with the dictators for whom Trump can’t seem to stop expressing admiration. American voters — specifically the few tens of thousands in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania whose votes matter the most in presidential elections — will decide much more than who will live in the White House for the next four years. In a real sense, this election will set the trajectory of global politics for the next generation or more, for good or ill. Whether they are aware of it or not, this relatively small group of Americans are about to be given tremendous, potentially world-changing power. Let’s hope they use it wisely.

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