V-Dem Director Lindberg: If Trump Is Reelected, Democracy in the US Might Not Survive

Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute.

V-Dem’s Director Staffan I. Lindberg expresses his concern: “I am deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump being reelected. In the current context, I believe that if Donald Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive. He has been explicit about his dictatorial intentions, even going as far as labeling Democrats as vermin, a term that evokes disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Such statements must be taken seriously, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Expressing deep concern over the potential reelection of Donald Trump in the upcoming November elections in the US, Professor Staffan I Lindberg, Director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, warns, "In the current context, I believe that if Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive." Highlighting Trump’s explicit dictatorial intentions, Professor Lindberg points out his divisive rhetoric, such as labeling Democrats as "vermin," drawing disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Lindberg emphasizes the seriousness of such statements, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide.

In an exclusive interview, Professor Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at V-Dem Institute, share their analysis of the recent V-Dem report and discuss current political developments worldwide. While Lindberg underscores, "It’s premature to declare the end of democracy," he remains hopeful for the perseverance and strengthening of democracies, with a vision for more people to enjoy democratic rights, human rights, and freedoms in the future. Dr. Nord adds that their examination of data suggests an era of instability, noting that “while autocratization is frequently reversed, so too is democratization.” Therefore, she underscores the importance of shifting the focus of democracy promotion towards democracy protection.

Professor Lindberg sheds light on the pervasive trend of autocratization, spanning almost 15 years, during which the share of the world’s population residing in autocratizing countries has outstripped that in democratizing nations. He identifies key drivers such as China’s anti-democratic stance, Putin’s influence in former Soviet republics, and Saudi Arabia’s support for non-democratic ideologies, underscoring the gravity of these global shifts. The interview also delves into Israel’s departure from the liberal democracy category, reflecting on the constitutional crisis that precipitated this shift.

Additionally, Professor Lindberg emphasizes that according to their criteria, neither India, Hungary, nor Turkey qualify as electoral democracies anymore. He states, "They now fall below that threshold and are classified as electoral autocracies. Turkey has held this classification since around 2016 or 2017, while Hungary followed suit after 2018-19, and India shortly thereafter. Consequently, they rank among the worst offenders in terms of autocratization globally over the past decade and a half."

Amidst the concerning trends, Dr. Nord emphasizes the importance of resilience and defiance against autocratization. Drawing from their research, she delineates five key factors driving democratic resurgence, ranging from large-scale protests to international democracy support.

The interview with Professor Lindberg and Dr. Nord offers a profound exploration of the complexities and challenges facing global democracy. The interviewees unveil the challenging landscape of global democracy, marked by concerning trends and crucial insights that demand attention and action. Their arguments offer valuable insights into strategies for combating autocratic tendencies and illuminate the path forward, urging concerted efforts to defend democratic ideals and uphold the rights and freedoms of people worldwide.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Staffan I Lindberg and Dr. Marina Nord with minor edits.

Far-Right Nationalists Is Undermining Democracy with a Shared Recipe, Diverse Flavors

Professor Lindberg and Dr. North. Thank you so very much for joining our interview series. I want to start right away with the first question. One of the basic findings of your 2024 report, which was published last month, is the level of democracy enjoyed by the average person in the world in 2023 is down to 1985-levels; by country-based averages, it is back to 1998. Since 2009 – almost 15 years in a row – the share of the world’s population living in autocratizing countries has overshadowed the share living in democratizing countries. How do you explain, broadly, the trend of autocratization, what major factors have accelerated this trend?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I suppose that’s a billion-dollar question these days. The first thing to note is that we lack a scientific, rigorous answer to that specific question. While there are some certainties about factors contributing to this trend, the scientific community is still debating many aspects. It’s widely acknowledged that China has been working against democracy since at least the mid-1990s. They expressed dissatisfaction with the third wave of democratization, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the global movement toward democracy and human rights. Similarly, Vladimir Putin, upon assuming power in Russia, exerted influence over many former Soviet republics. His recent illegal invasion of Ukraine and involvement in disinformation campaigns and support for radical right-wing, nationalist movements across Europe undermine democracy.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has long supported the spread of a Salafist version of Islam incompatible with democracy and human rights, which has gained significant ground globally. Moreover, there is a global rise of far-right nationalist, reactionary, and anti-pluralist political parties, leaders and movements, evident not only in Europe and America but also in other regions. These movements, whether Hindu nationalists in Modi’s India, Muslim nationalists in Erdogan’s Turkey, or Christian nationalists in Hungary, among others, share a common recipe, albeit with different flavors, undermining democracy in their respective countries.

 

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

One of your findings in the report is ‘the decline is stark in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia.’ What went wrong in Eastern Europe and South and Central Asia? How do you explain this downward trend?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I’m not entirely sure what to say about that. I believe there are factors present in Eastern Europe and across Central Asia, beyond those I mentioned. Additionally, I think there are individual country-level factors that vary from one nation to another, making the local context crucial. In Europe, one could at least speculate, although it’s challenging to claim we have concrete evidence. It’s suspected that in countries where the transition from a common ideology occurred before the end of the Cold War, followed by a rapid shift to a market economy and a more liberal political sphere, there might have been expectations of significant improvement. However, when this transformation didn’t lead to the anticipated results, many individuals were financially and otherwise harmed in the process, potentially triggering reactions. However, I wouldn’t generalize this to be the same situation in South and Central Asia. Different processes are at play there, and each country may have its own set of contextual factors influencing the situation.

Israel No Longer Falls within the Category of Liberal Democracy

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

Another finding of the report is ‘Israel falls out of the liberal democracy category for the first time in over 50 years.’ Can you please elaborate on Israel falling out of liberal democracies league as it was often referred to the only democracy in the region?

Marina Nord: For many years, Israel stood as the sole liberal democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, in 2023, there was a significant decline in the indicator measuring the transparency and predictability of laws. This decline was largely attributed to the constitutional crisis that unfolded in 2023 when Netanyahu’s Government passed a bill stripping the Supreme Court of its power to declare government decisions unreasonable. The crisis persisted for several months, marked by widespread protests against the change. Eventually, in January 2024, the bill was revoked. Nonetheless, since we only measure indicators for 2023, Israel no longer falls within the category of liberal democracy for that year. Without knowledge of events in the current year, we cannot predict whether it will regain its status.

In the report, you argue that: ‘Almost all components of democracy are getting worse in more countries than they are getting better, compared to ten years ago. Freedom of expression remains the worst affected component of democracy and is worsening in 35 countries in 2023.’ What is the underlining factor in this finding both globally and domestically?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I think you need to put yourself in the shoes of a would-be dictator. What’s one of the first things you’d aim to undermine? It’s freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the media. When you’re in power, you don’t want people freely writing about your actions, voicing opposition against you, or communicating the true facts instead of the disinformation you’re trying to spread. You seek control over the media sphere, as well as the ability of civil society and other actors to speak openly and freely. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, or to anyone, that we observe many countries moving in the wrong direction, towards autocratization, with freedom of expression being the most affected area, often targeted first.

You also underline in the report: ‘The wave of autocratization is notable. Autocratization is ongoing in 42 countries, home to 2.8 billion people, or 35% of the world’s population. India, with 18% of the world’s population, accounts for about half of the population living in autocratizing countries.’ But you also argue that ‘There may be signs that the autocratization wave is slowing down but one should be cautious with that interpretation.’ What are the signs that show the autocratization is slowing down and why one should be cautious about it?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: It primarily originates from the new methodology adopted for this year’s report, which has been evolving over the past few years. With this methodology, the number of countries experiencing autocratization appears to potentially decrease from 47 to 42 in recent years. There’s a slight uptick in the number of countries democratizing. However, because this new methodology sets high standards for a country to qualify as autocratizing, requiring statistical significance and substantial meaning, it can take 2-3 years after a country starts declining before it qualifies as an autocracy according to this rigorous criteria. Therefore, the decrease from 47 to 42 is accompanied by 25 countries that have begun to decline, termed as "near misses" that have not yet met the criteria. While not all of them may ultimately qualify, it only takes a few to meet the criteria to potentially raise the count from 47 to 42 or even higher. Thus, while the trend has shown a slight decline in the past couple of years, this may change in the next one or two years. Consequently, one should exercise caution when interpreting this specific graph as proof or conclusive evidence that the wave of autocratization is slowing down.

Five Key Factors for the Resurgence of Democracies

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

In your report, you highlight "Defiance in the Face of Autocratization," showcasing countries that have managed to reverse democratic decline. Can you delve into the key factors that contributed to these countries bouncing back, and how can their experiences inform strategies to combat autocratization globally?

Marina Nord: We conducted a similar analysis last year, examining the factors primarily responsible for the resurgence of democracies. We identified five key factors. Firstly, large-scale protests, often referred to as "magic protests" in the literature. These instances, such as the mobilization of millions in places like South Korea, demonstrate a powerful force against autocratization. Secondly, unified opposition, which frequently aligns with civil society movements. Thirdly, judicial independence emerged as a significant factor, with courts resisting executive overreach, as described by Nancy Burnell as "executive aggrandizement." The fourth factor encompasses critical elections or other major events, like the end of two-term limits. Finally, international democracy support and protection played a crucial role. While not all these factors guarantee a reversal of democratization, they have consistently influenced outcomes in numerous cases. These are the primary elements we believe could contribute to countries reversing autocratization and rebounding. However, further research is essential. To provide some statistics, our ongoing research indicates that approximately 70% of countries have managed to reverse autocratization trends within a maximum of five years after the autocratic regime ended. Thus, we hold optimistic prospects for many countries currently experiencing autocratization, as we anticipate eventual rebounds.

Academicians like Prof. Steven Levitsky of Harvard University and Prof. Kurt Weyland of Texas University argue that the findings of V-Dem are ‘exaggerated’ and they underscore the resilience of democracy globally. How do you respond to this criticism?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: There are various ways to approach this. One way is to emphasize that we’re simply reporting on the data. V-Dem stands as the largest dataset on democracy globally, comprising 31 million data points, and our analysis reflects the trends revealed by this extensive dataset. So far, there hasn’t been any substantial argument challenging the accuracy of the data from individuals like Steven and Kurt.

Another perspective to consider is the broader context. Steven has presented an argument alongside Lucan Way regarding the resilience of countries that democratized during the third wave of democratization. However, this viewpoint only captures a fraction of the overall picture. It’s essential to recognize that there are numerous countries currently experiencing autocratization during the third wave that were not part of the democratization wave. For instance, India serves as a notable example. When we adopt a global perspective and assess the development of all countries since the late 1990s, the outlook for democracy appears rather grim, as evidenced by various indicators. Marina, would you like to contribute further to this discussion?

Marina Nord: I would like to add briefly that it’s a major question of how we measure certain things, such as democratic breakdown or democratic backsliding. Many papers only measure the transition from democracy to autocracy, overlooking the potential decline in the quality of democracy itself, which is also a concerning trend. Secondly, there is a moral obligation for us as researchers to be confident in the claims we make. If Steven Levitsky claims that there is no decline in democratic practices worldwide, it sends a troubling message to those striving to protect democracy globally. This is particularly worrying given the observed declines in media freedom even within democracies. While resilience in terms of democratic survival may endure, liberal democracies may not be affected, but many countries are experiencing a decline in democratic quality, and this is indeed worrisome.

Turkey, India and Hungary Are Electoral Autocracies

Your research has shown worrying trends not only in autocracies like Russia and China but also in countries classified as electoral democracies, such as India, Hungary, and Turkey. Could you elaborate on the factors driving democratic decline in these countries, and what measures can be taken to reverse these trends and strengthen democratic institutions?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Let me start by stating that neither India, Hungary, nor Turkey qualify as electoral democracies anymore according to our measures. They now fall below that threshold and are classified as electoral autocracies. Turkey has been classified as an electoral autocracy since around 2016 or 2017, while Hungary followed suit after 2018-19, and India shortly thereafter. Consequently, they rank among the worst offenders in terms of autocratization over the past decade and a half globally. What measures can be taken to reverse these trends in these specific countries? I’m not entirely certain. It would likely require a substantial shift in public opinion, as these autocrats and their parties still enjoy significant popularity among large segments of the population. Perhaps, as seen in Turkey’s recent local elections, there’s a diminishing support for these leaders. However, it would also necessitate the independence of institutions such as electoral management bodies, which have been compromised in recent years. Furthermore, it would entail creating more freedom in the media space and fostering freedom of expression more broadly, along with relaxing restrictions on civil society. This would require significant effort on their part, along with potential international pressure. Nonetheless, experts who specialize in studying these countries in detail would be better positioned to provide more specific recommendations on reversing these trends.

I am sure you followed local elections in Turkey that were held on March 31 and which Erdogan badly lost. In your last report, you categorize Turkey as ‘electoral autocracy.’ Do you see his defeat as a venue for Turkey to bounce back from authoritarian politics?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Maybe, maybe not. I haven’t been keeping up with developments in Turkey over the past week or so. The initial reports I saw indicated that the opposition was prevented from assuming power or winning in at least one of the major cities they had secured. This suggests some potential vulnerability or weakness. However, we are unsure of the extent to which Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are willing to go to maintain power; the future will reveal that. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate the existence of a substantial opposition in Turkey, which could be considered a prerequisite for initiating a turnaround.

Trump’s Statements Embolden Autocrats Worldwide

In the interview you gave to Democracy Paradox, you talk about the possibility of Donald Trump to get re-elected. How concerned are you about the possibility and how do you think a possible re-election could galvanize autocrats globally?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: I am deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump being reelected. I have expressed this concern on multiple occasions in various public settings. In the current context, I believe that if Donald Trump is reelected, democracy in the US might not survive. He has been explicit about his dictatorial intentions, even going as far as labeling Democrats as vermin, a term that evokes disturbing parallels with Nazi Germany from the late 1930s to 1945. Such statements must be taken seriously, as they could embolden autocrats worldwide. During his previous term, Trump demonstrated a willingness to cozy up to dictators in North Korea and Putin in Russia. They understand what they could expect from him. We can extrapolate the potential consequences for NATO collaboration, support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. In summary, it presents a bleak outlook not only for the United States but also for the world as a whole.

V-Dem Democracy Report 2024.

You highlighted the role of nationalist reactionary narratives in driving autocratization, citing examples such as Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, and Erdogan’s Turkey. How do you think these narratives interact with existing socio-political tensions within societies, and what strategies can be employed to counteract their influence?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Once again, this is a difficult and complex question, and I believe it’s incumbent upon us to acknowledge that social science may not yet have all the answers. However, what we do know is that there is a growing body of literature utilizing various methodologies, including experimental evidence such as experiments with people, survey experiments, and lab experiments, as well as more traditional opinion surveys. These studies increasingly demonstrate a clear relationship between individuals who perceive social and economic relative deprivation. Typically, these perceptions are gauged through questions such as "Do you think your children will be better or worse off than yourself?" or "Do you feel that you yourself are better or worse off than your parents?" Individuals who perceive themselves or their children as worse off economically or socially are much more likely to vote for far-right nationalist or reactionary political parties and leaders, who often drive autocratization if they come into power. Therefore, there is mounting evidence of a link between sociopolitical or socioeconomic tensions and autocratization.

In your article, ‘A Third Wave of Autocratization is Here. What is new about it?’ you argue that “As it was premature to announce the ‘end of history’ in 1992, it is premature to proclaim the ‘end of democracy’ now.” Do you still think the same or do you have a more somber view about the global nature of democracies?

Staffan Ingemar Lindberg: Of course, it’s premature to declare the end of democracy. We remain hopeful that democracies will persevere, regain strength, and that more people will enjoy democratic rights, human rights, and freedoms in the future than they do today. However, this hopeful outcome is not guaranteed, and it will require continuous efforts from leaders worldwide as well as grassroots movements advocating for democracy. We hope to see such efforts emerge both from leaders and people on the streets standing up for democracy. What are your thoughts on this, Marina?

Marina Nord: I agree with that assessment. It holds true in many respects. In our upcoming article, set to be published at the end of this month, we examined some data and observed that we seem to have entered an era of instability. Notably, autocratization is frequently reversed, but so too is democratization. Therefore, the focus of democracy promotion should now shift more towards democracy protection. This is a crucial perspective to keep in mind moving forward.

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