But there is always room for hope because neither autocracy nor democracy is a simple force, nor are they locked in a zero-sum struggle. The rise of autocrats since the fall of Communism has not been a unitary narrative; it has been a broad and varied collection of stories about frustrated expectations, growth of inequality, fear of new waves of immigrants, the eruption of disinformation, the rise of China, a sense of alienation, social confusion and much more.
“At the core of democratic theory and practice is respect for the dignity of the individual,” wrote Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs titled “How Democracy Can Win.” “But among the biggest errors many democracies have made since the Cold War is to view individual dignity primarily through the prism of political freedom without being sufficiently attentive to the indignity of corruption, inequality, and a lack of economic opportunity.”
The grievances that lead people to flock behind a populist leader differ broadly in their roots and passions. Countries emerging from Communist regimes in the 1990s, often lacking rudimentary democratic institutions, frequently ran into problems that left them vulnerable to ruthless political opportunists. In established democracies, like the United States, political malaise arose in large portions of the population from a sense of being left behind, or of being displaced by immigrants, as well as negative reactions to rapid social change in diversity, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and technology.
In many states of sub-Saharan Africa, politicians took to hounding L.G.B.T.Q. people, cynically fanning misguided fears in societies unprepared for the social progress of the Western world. And at every juncture and every level, China and Russia, sometimes acting in concert, fanned the flames in their determination to challenge American power.
None of this is reason for panic — nor for complacency. Democracy is going through a tough patch, and it could get worse. But the problems that drive people to elect populist strongmen are usually best fixed through the give and take of democracy. People who are driven to flee from poverty or repression yearn to reach a country where they can be free, and it’s never an autocratic state. Upholding the rule of law, speaking out without fear of reprisals and participating in selection of leaders and their policies is still the best way people have devised to organize their societies and their lives. So yes, dare to hope.