2024 Could Be a Very Rough Year for Democracy
Published by New York Magazine from Jonah Shepp on January 1, 2024
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, 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 Erdoğan 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 Euroskeptic 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 trying 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 was seen as a major factor in Democratic overperformance 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.