Putin's war and the battle for democracy: How this conflict raises the global stakes

Autocratic leaders are growing ever bolder, as Putin and Xi demonstrate — but Ukraine has changed the equation

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published April 3, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. (ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. (ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Shortly before the Ukraine invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which both posed as leaders of democratic nations. That gaslighting makes a certain kind of sense in historic terms, since the outward trappings of democracy have universally become almost mandatory since the end of the Cold War. While there's been an alarming erosion of democratic governance over the last 20 years — especially since 2011 — what's been called the "third wave of autocratization" has, until recently, largely camouflaged itself, relying on the gradual erosion of democratic norms and practices rather than violent power-grabs. 

But just as Putin went to war, the V-Dem institute issued its 2022 report, "Autocratization Changing Nature?", citing a constellation of warning signs that this wave of the "autocratization" process is starting to resemble earlier ones, as autocratic leaders become increasingly emboldened. Most dramatically, the five military coups and one "self-coup" in 2021 represent a  dramatic departure from the average of 1.2 coups per year since 2000. The report also cites increases in misinformation and polarization — which tend to reinforce one another — along with attacks on formal aspects of democracy, adding attacks on  election management bodies, or EMBs, to attacks on the judiciary and the legislature.

While the Jan. 6 coup attempt in the U.S. has largely been buried in denial (a move recently made more difficult by Rep. Mo Brooks), these other features obviously apply to America as well. Trump's "Big Lie" about winning the election, the flood of false narratives supporting it, and the attacks on secretaries of state and local election administrators that followed are all domestic examples echoing worldwide trends. It's unmistakable: What's happening around the world is happening in our own backyard as well. While elements like polarization and misinformation are to a large degree rooted in human nature, it's also clear that autocrats and would-be autocrats benefit from them, and bear disproportionate responsibility and blame for their spread. 

RELATED: We didn't start the fire — Trump and Putin did. But we've got to put it out

"A war began in Europe," the report begins. "This war is the doing of the same leader who triggered the third wave of autocratization when he began to derail democracy in Russia 20 years ago. The invasion seems like a definite confirmation of the dangers the world faces as a consequence of autocratization around the world." Yet the fact that Putin and Xi declared democracy (as well as peace) to be "a universal human value" speaks to the enduring power of democracy as an ideal, and the degree to which that still restrains the process of democratic erosion that has surged so dramatically in recent years. 

The V-Dem report finds that the "level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to levels last registered in 1989," effectively eradicating the last 30 years of democratic advances since the end of the Cold War. Last year saw a record number of nations degenerating into autocracy, a condition now found in 33 countries that are home to 2.8 billion people, or about 36% of the world's population. 

Since 2011, 33 countries in the world have become more autocratic, while only 15 have become more democratic. The U.S. is in that first category.

Marginal shifts are even more widespread over the past decade. V-Dem's Liberal Democracy Index, or LDI, seeks to measure the health of electoral institutions, legislative bodies and judicial systems, as well as the rule of law and individual rights. Countries with the highest scores are considered "liberal democracies," with others ranked, in declining order, as "electoral democracies," "electoral autocracies" or "closed autocracies." A table comparing scores in 2011 to 2021 highlights 33 countries that have become more autocratic (including the U.S.) and 15 that have become more democratic. Of the 18 nations ranked in the top 10%, only four became more democratic over the course of that decade. There are other signs of intensified autocratization as well:

  • A record 35 states suffer from significant deteriorations in freedom of expression at the hands of governments, and 10 years ago that number was only five.
  • Deliberative aspects of democracy grew substantially worse in 32 countries, a signal of "toxic polarization," and a massive increase from the count of five a decade ago.
  • Governments in 25 countries blatantly undermined the autonomy of their electoral management bodies (EMBs) over the past 10 years.

The most general measure of democracy at the nation-state level is regime type, of which V-Dem counts four, as noted above.  The decline in "liberal democracies" has been precipitous, from a peak of 42 in 2012 to just 34 in 2021, a level not seen since 1995. Just 13% of the world's people live in liberal democracies, which are now the common regime type, heavily concentrated in Western Europe and North America, where 98% of the population lives under them. Only 4% of people in the Asia/Pacific and Latin America/Caribbean regions live in such democracies, while the number is close to zero in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and literally zero in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. 

RELATED: Democracy vs. fascism: What do those words mean — and do they describe this moment?

On the other extreme are "closed autocracies," meaning countries without elections, that are effectively dictatorships. There were only 20 such governments in 2012, but that jumped to 30 in 2021. "Electoral autocracies" are states that hold elections, but with little or no real effect on who holds power. This is the world's most common regime type, governing 44% of the global population, or about 3.4 billion people. A total of 70% of all humans on the planet live under autocratic regimes of these two types, up from 49% in 2011.  

"Electoral democracies" are defined as countries that hold have free and fair elections and permit universal suffrage and freedom of expression and association, but are deficient in one or more features of liberal democracy. The United States under Donald Trump was clearly in danger of falling into this category, and still may well be. 

Salon posed V-Dem a series of questions about the changing nature of autocracy and autocratization, as well as how defenders of liberal democracy are responding. Dr. Kelly Morrison, a postdoctoral research fellow at the V-Dem Institute, and Dr. Vanessa Boese, an assistant professor there, responded by email on behalf of the team. We began with the most dramatic data point: the recent spike in coups.

In your new report, you write, "The worldwide wave of autocratization is deepening, engulfing more countries, and seems to be changing nature." The first sign you point to is the five military coups and one self-coup in 2021, compared to an average of only about one per year this century. What's the significance of this? Why do you take it to be more than a statistical outlier?

At this point it is too early to say for certain whether the increase in coups last year will be the start of a broader trend. But we are concerned about the increase for several reasons. First, until last year coups were very rare during the third wave of autocratization, compared to previous waves of autocratization, when they were more common. So, the spike is something unusual that we will keep an eye on. Second, we know that coups are associated with a greater likelihood of autocratization and, once autocratization has begun, a greater likelihood of democratic breakdown

RELATED: Is America the "world's greatest democracy"? In 2022, we don't even crack the top 50

So while coups are not always associated with autocratization, in general they increase the likelihood that the quality of democracy will decline. Finally, many of the coups we saw in 2021 resulted in the downgrading of a country's regime type from electoral autocracy to closed autocracy. This happened in four of the coup cases: Chad, Guinea, Mali and Myanmar. This autocratic regression is also a new trend in the third wave of autocratization.

You report that polarization and government misinformation are also increasing — and that they are interconnected. "Polarization escalates towards toxic levels in 40 countries," you write. But what counts as a "toxic level"?

In the Democracy Report, we define "toxic" polarization as polarization that has increased substantially (>.5 on a 0 to 4 scale) and significantly (the confidence intervals do not overlap) during a 10-year period. So these 40 countries are cases where polarization has increased significantly and substantially between 2011 and 2021. Low or moderate levels of polarization are not harmful to a democracy — rather, they can even benefit a country by providing a range of diverse perspectives. However, at toxic levels of polarization, society becomes divided into "us" versus "them" camps that increasingly tend to demonize each other.

What are the warning signs?

In a highly polarized context, people will support candidates with antidemocratic values if they belong to one's own camp or tribe.

Recent research shows that in highly polarized contexts, individuals are willing to support candidates with antidemocratic values as long as they belong to one's own political camp or tribe. So this prioritization of political identity over other values is one indicator for toxic levels of polarization. In general, when people tend to view political opponents as lacking moral legitimacy or as a danger to the nation as a whole, this is a sign that polarization is becoming toxic.

What happens when this gets really bad?

When polarization gets to toxic levels, polarization and autocratization can form a mutually reinforcing vicious cycle. At these toxic levels of polarization, people begin to care more about supporting their group than supporting democracy. They demonize opponents and question the moral legitimacy of those who do not belong to their political camp. They are thus more likely to choose a candidate based on their partisan affiliation even if that candidate promotes antidemocratic ideas or values. Thus, toxic polarization often contributes to the electoral success of anti-pluralist and antidemocratic candidates and parties.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

How does government misinformation tie into polarization? How do they reinforce each other?

Toxic polarization and misinformation can also form a mutually reinforcing, vicious cycle. In a highly polarized context, anti-pluralist leaders can more easily spread misinformation about their political opponents because people already have negative views about out-groups and are less likely to question messages from in-group leaders. They are more likely to believe misinformation that casts opponents in a negative light. Then the cycle continues as people use misinformation to inform their (increasingly negative) views of opponents, thus feeding back into increasing polarization and autocratization, in turn.

The report cites the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as an example of this process. Does understanding that event in those terms shed more light on what happened and why?

This mutually reinforcing cycle between polarization and misinformation is clear in the U.S. case. The American public is increasingly polarized, as political beliefs form a critical piece of individuals' identities and they are increasingly likely to demonize opponents. This distrust of opponents was what made many Republican voters susceptible to lies about voter fraud from the Trump administration. Primed to demonize and distrust Democratic leaders, many Republicans were willing to accept baseless claims that Trump had actually won the election. One could see this building spiral linking polarization and misinformation as culminating in the storming of the Capitol. Fueled by misinformation and prodded on by hatred of opponents, pro-Trump rioters took the political process into their own hands through violence.

RELATED: How democracy dies: When it comes to Jan. 6, the American people can't handle the truth

You also cite the growing number of countries where critical, formal aspects of democracy are eroding, such as election management bodies, or EMBs. How do the attacks on election administration in U.S. states fit into this international picture?

Our data registers significant and substantial declines in EMB autonomy in the United States, starting in 2019 and continuing into 2021, when comparing current scores to the scores 10 years before. So, the United States is one of these growing number of cases where incumbent parties are attacking the autonomy of bodies that are supposed to administer elections impartially. 

Reporting from the Brennan Center summarizes these patterns and explains how polarization and misinformation fuel attacks on the EMB in the United States. In part stemming from rising polarization, election officials are facing pressure from the incumbent to manipulate results, as when President Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to manipulate election results in Georgia. Disinformation from political elites (in the form of the so-called "Big Lie") made it harder for members of the EMB to carry out their work. 

In a more constructive mode, you report on the initiation of the "Case for Democracy." Briefly stated, what's that about? 

Democracy has intrinsic value, but also offers extrinsic benefits: better education, more transparency, more public goods, lower emissions, less violent conflict, better health outcomes and superior economic growth.


Our Case for Democracy project collates scientific evidence for the positive dividends of democracy. Our position is that democracy of course has intrinsic value, in allowing for a wide range of political positions to be represented in government. In addition, with this project we demonstrate that democracy has extrinsic benefits. Our policy briefs show that democracies provide more education, more transparent data, more public goods (water, immunization, electricity), lower CO2 emissions, lower levels of violent conflict, better global health outcomes (life expectancy, cardiovascular deaths, infant mortality, health care provision), social protection policies for the poor, egalitarian gender attitudes, economic growth and economic development. 

You also propose that it's time to build an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focused on democracy.

We believe that relevant political reactions to current global autocratization trends need to build on scientific evidence to make a substantial and credible case for democracy. This is the time to build an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for democracy: the International Scientific Panel on Democracy. The ISPD will provide policy makers with regular scientific assessments on democratic developments, their implications for fact-based dividends (and limitations) of democracy, as well as to put forward scientific guidance on democratic resilience and protection to serve the needs of the international community of policymakers, practitioners and the public. Therefore, the goals of the ISPD are to:

  1. Provide a scientific consensus on the state of democratic institutions.
  2. Build an evidence base on the dividends (and limitations) of democracy.
  3. Provide global, regional and country-specific guidance.

You note that the invasion of Ukraine began on the day you were finalizing your report, and was started by "the same leader who triggered the third wave of autocratization" 20 years ago. Putin's war has both caused confusion within the Republican Party and produced more bipartisan support than the U.S. has seen since before Donald Trump's election. Do you think that there's a broader potential for this conflict to trigger a reversal of the current wave of autocratization? What could be done to make that more likely?

Indirectly, I suppose this is possible. At least the renewed unity from Europe and the United States in opposing Putin's aggression shows the potential for increased collaboration among the world's democracies. We do see some recent signs that the international community is moving democracy promotion to the top of its agenda, so this is a hopeful development. Of course, agreement about the importance of democracy is only the first step, and only time will tell whether international collaborations in support of democracy continue and whether they achieve meaningful progress.

*  *  *

Reversing "autocratization": What is to be done? 

The crucial fact noted above that democracy produces better outcomes should be front and center to any response. When democracies fail to deliver, it's not because democracy itself doesn't work, but because particular democracies are flawed in various ways. Autocratization is a process of compounding those flaws — particularly in the case of an established democracy like the U.S. The question of how best to combat it is a challenging one, particularly when polarization takes off, fracturing a country's fundamental sense of self.

An important first step toward finding answers can be found in a paper cited in the V-Dem report, "Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and Opposition Strategies." The paper distinguishes between groups that wish to restore the status quo ante, by returning to a "prior set of political arrangements and rules" and reincorporating "political (and social) actors who were excluded by the polarizing incumbent" (called a preservative goal), and "groups who wish to create a new social contract, or bring some fundamental change" (a generative goal). 

A straightforward logic follows from there: "The actors pursuing a preservative goal can be expected to choose reactive counter-polarization strategies, while those pursuing a generative goal can be expected to choose proactive counter-polarization strategies." Each strategy can take two forms: polarizing and depolarizing. The preservative or reactive polarizing strategy, called "reciprocal polarization," involves "an action-reaction cycle that ends up reinforcing the cleavages" that already exist, and deepens the polarization that is "characterized by mutual dislike and distrust among the partisan camps." Furthermore, its possibilities of success diminish over time as incumbents become more entrenched. 

RELATED: The future of democracy: It might be a lot brighter than you think

The depolarizing alternative, "passive depolarization," is a strategy that seeks to refrain from making polarization worse, "either as a normative choice or out of weakness," but does not question existing polarization or actively try to shift its axis. That comes with obvious risks: It "may fail to mobilize the opposition's own base enough to defeat the incumbent in elections, and it may be seen as too soft and legitimizing the incumbent's divisive and antidemocratic behavior." (If that sounds something like the Democratic Party's current strategy, it should.)

The generative and proactive strategies seem more likely to be successful. First comes the polarizing strategy, which aims to defeat the Manichean line emphasized by the polarizing incumbent by shifting toward a form of polarization that is more flexible and programmatic, such as one based on democratic or social justice principles. In this sense, it "re-polarizes" with the goal of generating fundamental change, shaping politics around a stark choice between the proponents and opponents of such change — for example, a renewed social contract that aims to address the underlying grievances that gave rise to severe polarization in the first place. One example would be the "race-class narrative" developed by Anat Shenker-Osorio and Ian Haney López with the support of Demos, which shifts the axis of polarization from race to class exploitation (not simply class).`

Second, there's the depolarization variety , which seeks to dismantle the cleavages that result from an oversimplified politics of "us versus them," and actively seeks to create social and political action amenable to pluralist democracy. One example of this can be found in Jane Kleeb's "Harvest the Vote" (Salon interview here), which shifts focus away from culture-war topics and Beltway-defined politics and reorients toward the practical concerns of rural communities.

Neither of those strategies is a magic bullet, of course. But this analytic framework helps us understand them better in historical terms, and also helps clarify how people differ in what they're trying to achieve and why, as well as what they have in common. The goal of democratic politics, after all, is to provide a way for people to bridge their differences and find ways to work together. If we can make that happen, democracy may once again start working as it should.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Authoritarianism Autocrats China Democracy Interview Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping