2024 Will Be Crucial for Future of Democracy

John Gast: American Progress // Public domain

Magda Melnyk: In 2024, citizens in 76 countries will head to the polls, with over half of the global population choosing and deciding their future.

Katarzyna Pisarska: This year will undoubtedly be crucial for the future of democracy. As Professor Timothy D. Snyder, specializing in this area, says, it could be a year of either a breakdown and further prolonged recession of democracy worldwide or a breakthrough and the defense of these democracies. They will manage to confront the growing populism, disinformation, and tremendous pressure from authoritarian systems.

Interestingly, in recent decades, the number of liberal democracies has remained more or less unchanged, while the number of countries we call autocracies is rising rapidly. They maintain only a facade of democracy – elections are held, although it is known from the beginning who will win them. Today there are three times as many of these countries as there are liberal democracies, so surely this pressure is enormous.

The United States is crucial to this process because for decades they have been a good example of how democracy should function. They set democratic standards that were widely aspired to. Meanwhile, for almost a decade, we have been observing a process of deterioration and weakening of democratic institutions, primarily in favor of populism.

The November elections will decide not only the fate of the United States but will also have a huge impact on how political systems will look in the future, and above all – how stable the world will be. The previous system with a large number of democratic states allowed us to maintain a liberal order, which was based on principles of international law and thus guaranteed peace. With its collapse, we can expect growing local conflicts, which will de facto turn into theaters of a wider war between the greatest powers, including primarily the United States and China.

Magda Melnyk: What can we say today about the upcoming elections in the United States?

Katarzyna Pisarska: We know for sure that if it depends on Republican voters, the nominee for their party’s candidate will be Donald Trump. Joe Biden has already been designated as the candidate of the Democratic Party. If legal procedures do not prevent Trump from running in these elections, it is very possible that there will be another clash between both politicians. However, what will be the outcome? We do not know that.

In recent months, several polls have been conducted indicating that in key states (so-called swing states) Trump’s lead is growing very quickly and already exceeds the results that Biden receives in them. This is very disturbing, but there have also been surveys showing that if the Democrats had nominated someone other than Joe Biden, Trump would not have had a chance in those states. At the last moment, such a change has a chance to occur although it is a less probable scenario.

However, it is important to remember that voters who today claim to choose Trump in a Trump-Biden clash may opt for the more certain and stable policy of Joe Biden if they actually face such a dilemma. This does not mean that the current president does not have many weaknesses. Currently, the issue of the immigration crisis is particularly swelling. It is estimated that last year the number of migrants illegally crossing the border increased fivefold, exceeding 4 million people. This is a very serious challenge for the Biden administration in the upcoming elections.

Magda Melnyk: In a sense, Trump and his actions are like looking through a lens at what the process of democracy’s decline looks like, namely the deterioration of democratic values, the rule of law, individual rights, and minorities. Can this year’s elections be interpreted as a confrontation between voters defending democratic standards and citizens seeking simple populist solutions?

Katarzyna Pisarska: This is a clash between Americans who believe in the functioning of democratic institutions and have trust in them and those who feel that effectiveness is only possible through strong authority. I am talking here particularly about less educated, hard-working voters who lack any social safety net. For them, the current reality is often difficult to understand and, at the same time, very unfavorable and harmful. This causes frustration.

Trump’s popularity initially stemmed from the fact that he said things that no one dared to say. This deeply moved many Americans as they saw that there were important issues that the establishment preferred not to address. The problem is that Trump gave people the sense that both the sources of their problems and their solutions are simple, blaming specific social groups and relying on conspiracy theories.

This is a characteristic pattern for authoritarian states, where one cannot trust or believe that institutions will solve anything because they are usually extremely corrupt, and in such a situation, one must turn to a person who has the greatest power and trust that he will save the situation. The fact that similar patterns are beginning to emerge in mature democracies is undoubtedly a big surprise.

Magda Melnyk: Why is this happening?

Katarzyna Pisarska: Partially, it is due to the revolution in the information space, where many conspiracy theories penetrate wide social masses, simultaneously undermining trust in institutions. Often politicians from both sides of the dispute ruthlessly use these instruments. This process is certainly deepening. Year by year the foundations of democracy are becoming increasingly fragile. It is more difficult for us to reach a consensus, we lose faith that we operate within a certain institutional space, over which the Constitution as the supreme law protecting every social group watches.

In the United States, racial and immigration issues are currently playing a crucial role, as well as identity and social changes associated with them. White Americans fear that they will become a minority in the future. This is a phenomenon of a global nature, which resonates very strongly today in the United States. Who are we as Americans? Will we still be such a society, with the identity we have? Hence, I think that ‘Make America Great Again’ as a political movement with a strongly undemocratic ideological background will outlive Donald Trump, and the United States will have to constantly deal with it.

Magda Melnyk: The United States is probably the only country in the world whose internal situation directly affects the global order. What impact can current regional conflicts (Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, China-Taiwan) have on the course of the election campaign in the United States? Can they somehow weaken Biden as the incumbent president and strengthen Trump?

Katarzyna Pisarska: Contrary to appearances, all election campaigns I have observed (perhaps except for those following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2004) were not based on issues related to foreign policy and what is happening in the world.

Even when George W. Bush Senior conducted a model intervention in the early 1990s to oppose the violation of international law, successfully defending Kuwait against Saddam Hussein, it did not significantly affect his chances of winning. He lost to Bill Clinton because he, with his motto “It is the economy, stupid,” focused on the economy. In every election campaign, the majority of Americans primarily look at their wallets. The issue of low unemployment is crucial for every president to win reelection. Americans must believe that development awaits them and that the coming years will bring economic opportunities.

Although we live by them and they depend on the situation in America, foreign policy issues can only influence certain groups of voters in the United States. We see this in the case of Israel and Palestine, where there has been a significant departure of traditionally democratic Muslim groups, which constitute a few percent of voters. Of course, the youth is also angry with the Biden administration, but primarily at Israel for its brutal crackdown in Gaza on Hamas, for which Palestinian civilians are paying the price.

But when it comes to facing the dilemma of whether to vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden during elections, I am convinced that there will be a great mobilization in favor of the current president and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not fundamentally affect the election outcome. The only thing that could happen is that they will not go to the polls, but the threat of the Trump administration, especially for the left-wing electorate, is so serious that Joe Biden will likely receive the support of these groups (although it will be tainted with a great deal of reluctance).

Magda Melnyk: Is America starting to tire of this constant rivalry and bipolarity? Is there room for some third political force?

Katarzyna Pisarska: At this point, I do not see such a possibility. I think it is worth observing what is happening in Great Britain. We will have another elections this year, which, with almost sixteen years of high probability, the Tories will lose. After a long hiatus, the Labour Party will return to power. For many years, especially before and after Brexit, it was said that the existing duopoly had no chance of surviving there and, both on the right and the left, other parties were significantly strengthening.

However, ultimately, there was no scenario in which these two parties would lose their key significance. Of course, the British system is a bit different from the American one and coalitions are more natural there, but the duopoly still applies. The situation is different in Germany, where we observe a clear collapse of the two-party system of CDU-SPD. Although these parties will still play key roles, it will be very difficult to return to a duopoly. SPD and CDU still take turns at the helm, but they are no longer able to govern without coalitions with other parties.

In the United States, not only is there no tradition of smaller parties, but at this point, it is very difficult to imagine space for their emergence. Currently, we can observe the entire Republican Party’s transition to Donald Trump’s side. Even though there are still many Republicans who would like to avoid the progressing radicalization and rally around Nikki Halley, who in February 2023 expressed her willingness to run in the upcoming elections, everything is happening within the Republican Party. There is no trace of any divisions. In 2024, we will rather observe the same duopoly, only with progressing radicalization within both parties, which will affect especially Republicans regarding their political agenda.

Katarzyna Pisarska is one of the four founders of the Kazimierz Pułaski Foundation and the Chair of the Foundation’s Council since 2005. In the years 2015-2020, she was the Program Director of FKP’s flagship event, the Warsaw Security Forum, and since 2021, she has been serving as the Chair of the event. She is also the founder (2004) and Chair of the Board of the European Academy of Diplomacy Foundation. In 2022, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she, along with a group of Ukrainian activists, founded the International Center for Ukrainian Victory. She is also the Vice-Chair of the Austrian European Forum Alpbach and an expert on the World Economic Forum in Davos.

She also engages in academic and educational activities daily. She is an associate professor and lecturer at the Warsaw School of Economics. She specializes in the foreign policy of the European Union, Eastern Partnership, EU-Russia relations, and public diplomacy. She is the author of the monograph “The Domestic Dimension of Public Diplomacy – Evaluating Success through Civil Engagement” (Palgrave 2016).

The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/mamy-nieproporcjonalnie-wieksza-zaleznosc-od-stanow-niz-stany-maja-od-swiata-wywiad-z-katarzyna-pisarska/

Translated by Natalia Banaś

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