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These are dark times for democracy, worldwide. From the increasing power and influence of authoritarian China, to the retreat of democracy across Eurasia, to the rise of right-wing populism across the west, the signs have been ominous for some time. But there are some bright spots on the horizon for those worried about the authoritarian threat, at least in countries that retain basic democratic institutions.
Most obviously, Donald Trump lost his bid for re-election. Joe Biden is president, and notwithstanding the outrageous attack on the capitol on Jan. 6 and the widespread conviction among Republicans that the election was stolen, Biden is functioning as president, with all the organs of the state treating him as such.
No other comparable leader has been removed by the voters yet — but there are signs it might happen again. In Israel, the centrist leader Yair Lapid looks to have reached an agreement with the far-right leader Naftali Bennett to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The opposition in Hungary has formed a similarly broad left-right coalition that is polling neck and neck with Prime Minister Victor Orban’s Fidesz. Brazil’s left-wing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is polling well ahead of President Jair Bolsonaro. Even Narendra Modi’s BJP has suffered a significant drop in popularity (albeit still holding well north of a majority), and came up short in recent elections in West Bengal.
It’s possible, in other words, that broad-based coalitions will prove able to defeat right-wing populists at the polls, and that democracy can, effectively, save itself. Perhaps it took a global pandemic to do it, but whatever it took, believers in democracy will surely take it.
The question is: then what?
The opposition coalitions standing against right-wing populism are generally extremely broad, with deep disagreements about both policy questions and fundamental values. What holds them together is the conviction that they are fighting to save their countries from something akin to an existential threat. If winning a single election were sufficient to rout that threat, then one might expect politics to return to something like normal in the wake of victory — precisely what many Democrats and the fringe of anti-Trump Republicans hoped for in the wake of a Biden victory.
That hasn’t been what’s happened, though. Far from fading away, Trump has substantially increased his hold on the party he once led, and the party has gotten more brazen in its efforts to undermine democratic integrity. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who on Jan. 6 forcefully denounced attempts to overturn the election, has since acted to block any investigation into the events of that day, while state Republican parties have purged many of those who maintained the integrity of the 2020 election against attempts to undermine it. Worse, they have taken steps to increase partisan influence in future certification battles — a far more dangerous threat than curbs on absentee voting or voter I.D. laws that have also passed.
In Europe, too, right-wing populist parties have continued to do well after losing elections, and have hardly gotten less radical in opposition. Most prominently, in France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally has become the primary opposition to President Emanuel Macron. She is likely to out-poll him in the first round of voting and to earn an unprecedented vote share for her party in the second round even if she does not win. But notwithstanding her improved electoral prospects, she still voiced support for a letter from retired officers calling for a military coup. Why? Because even though the military vigorously denounced the letter-writers, the sense of fundamental crisis it implied is a winning populist stance. Meanwhile, if Macron does win reelection, it will likely be with a weak mandate that will hamstring his ability to govern. That problem is even more acute in parliamentary systems; if Likud, Fidesz, or the BJP do lose power, the governments that succeed them will be riven by deep ideological divisions, which could well paralyze their ability to make policy, and leave them extremely fragile. The defeated right-wing populists would have every reason, and surely the capacity, to hold together and fight another day.
In response to right-wing populist resilience, the pro-democracy coalitions will likely seek to strengthen the glue that holds them together. But that glue is the sense of crisis posed by the right-wing populists themselves, the sense that democracy itself is at stake, and that losing, whether through apathy or factional division, is too great a risk. That sense may well be rational; if one of the largest factions in a democracy appears to be turning against democracy itself, how can that not be a crisis? But I don’t think it’s an accident that this dynamic perfectly parallels the sense of crisis that animates right-wing populism itself, which thrives on “Flight 93”-style conviction that the nation is in fundamental peril, and that an emergency requires subordinating normal politics to something more like warfare.
Can democracy survive a sense of constant crisis shared by both major coalitions? I don’t think so. Democracy depends on accepting the alternation of parties in power as completely normal — regrettable when your side loses, but hardly the end of the world. Right-wing populist parties find it constitutionally difficult to accept defeat, since they conceive of themselves as inherently representing the “real” nation. But if the coalitions arrayed against them come to a comparable conclusion, then they can’t actually be the democratic saviors they imagine themselves to be.
These pro-democracy coalitions formed to slay the right-wing populist dragon. But if right-wing populism isn’t going away, then it must be tamed. That means the populists must accept defeat as a normal possibility in political life. But it also means their opposition must accept a populist victory as a normal possibility, one that could be reversed at the next election. Both sides must come to see coexistence as possible for them to accept the evanescence of victory. That may be hard to imagine, but it’s more imaginable than the Le Pens, Modis, and Trumps of the world simply fading away after defeat. They haven’t, and they won’t. So those who care about democracy need to figure out how to survive their continued presence on the political scene.