Last week, the White House’s second Summit for Democracy convened government officials and democracy defenders from across the world. The cause is urgent: New research by the V-Dem Institute shows that 42 countries are currently in the process of “autocratizing,” and Freedom House has found that, globally, it is the 17th consecutive year of democratic backsliding. At the summit, representatives pinpointed and pored over these worrisome trends as well as other important threats to democracy—from Russia and China to corruption and the threat of unregulated digital spaces. These conversations are necessary, but they are far from sufficient.
Rather, the democracies at the summit would benefit from an urgent assessment of their own civic health, as well as an honest analysis of the forces pushing democracy backward. While it’s easy to point fingers at foes, it’s much harder to call out friends. An aggressive Putin regime and an emboldened Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping do represent pernicious threats to global democracy. But as Americans know all too well, even established democracies are not immune to autocratic maneuvers.
Democracy is a journey, not a destination.
Uzra Zeya, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights
Most recently, governing parties in Israel, India, and Mexico have all taken steps to undermine institutions central to the functioning of a healthy democracy: an independent judiciary, a free press, and strong electoral institutions.
Threats to legal checks and balances in Israel
As the latest salvo in a series of actions undermining democracy and the rule of law, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition allies—holding a bare majority of Israel’s Knesset—are attempting to ram through a drastic overhaul of the judicial system.
Dubbed a “majoritarian nightmare,” the proposed changes would gut the power of Israel’s courts to act as a check on executive and legislative power, a role that has been institutionalized with decades of precedent. In particular, the changes would undermine the independence of judges, remove channels to hold public officials and ministers accountable, and threaten basic rights protections—particularly for minority groups such as Arab-Israelis. The legislative package would effectively remove any constraints on the power wielded by 61 of the 120 members of the parliament. It would also further increase the vulnerability of millions of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians because the Supreme Court, acting as high court, is their only available legal path to contest decisions taken by the Israeli executive branch.
This radical, unpopular, and self-interested agenda brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in protest and led to widespread strikes in an unprecedented and broad-based rejection of the government’s agenda. Netanyahu eventually struck a deal to delay the vote until the Knesset’s summer session to mitigate civil unrest and allow for a “dialogue.” Yet this was only after street protests escalated exponentially and Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for publicly acknowledging the threat the judicial overhaul posed to Israeli security.
The pause, however, is far from a reversal of the coalition’s agenda. In exchange for agreeing to the delay, Netanyahu has agreed to create a national guard under the control of the extremist national security minister—who has been convicted of ties to a terrorist organization, proposed legislation to revoke citizenship for non-Jews, and sacked the Tel Aviv police chief for being too “lenient” with protestors.
Attacks on press freedom in India
While the recent expulsion of Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi from parliament generated protests and international headlines about the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party’s heavy-handed efforts to stifle dissent, it is hardly the only example. India now ranks 150th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, which has designated Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “predator of press freedom.” Indeed, government officials in India have pressed news outlets to fire journalists critical of Modi, harassed editors, investigated dissenting journalists, beaten and jailed journalists, and subjected female journalists to online abuse. Journalists in Muslim-majority Kashmir and Jammu are at particular risk.
The people protesting in the streets of Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Mexico City understand that these are not mere technical issues; their vote and their democracy are at stake.
Meanwhile, late last year, a billionaire close to the prime minister bought a majority stake in New Delhi Television, which many see as the last remaining voice critical of Modi’s agenda in mainstream television news. And in early 2023, BBC offices in India were raided by tax officials after the broadcaster aired a documentary series that probed Modi’s role in deadly sectarian riots that left more than 1,000 people—mostly Muslims—dead when he was governor of Gujarat. The government also accused the BBC of bias and propaganda, invoked emergency laws to ban clips of the documentary from dissemination on social media, and arrested students who set up screenings.
All this while, India has fashioned itself as the “mother of democracy” as it leads the G-20 this year.
Erosion of the electoral institution in Mexico
In Mexico, after an attempt at constitutional reform failed, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his allies in Congress pushed through—in less than three hours—sweeping measures to overhaul the country’s National Electoral Institute (INE). As the organization in charge of organizing and protecting the integrity of elections, the INE has served as both midwife for and guardian of Mexico’s democracy for the past three decades. The legislative changes—which are currently suspended as Mexico’s Supreme Court hears constitutional challenges—would slash INE’s budget and staff, diminish its autonomy, and limit its ability to hold politicians accountable to electoral laws.
As if harking back to Mexico’s autocratic past, these measures are part of an effort by López Obrador to undermine the independent institutions that have served as a counterbalance to executive authority and remain the heart of Mexico’s still nascent democracy.
In February 2023, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Mexico City and cities and towns across the country to visibly and vocally defend their fundamental right to vote. The stakes are high not only for the Mexican people but also for the United States and the entirety of Latin America, as the vibrancy of Mexican democracy is vital in a region rife with democratic backsliding.
The people protesting in the streets of Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and Mexico City understand that these are not mere technical issues; their vote and their democracy are at stake. While the Biden-Harris administration has not been silent on these disturbing developments, more boldness is required. Netanyahu, Modi, and López Obrador were all invited to and provided prime-time speaking slots at the Summit for Democracy.
If America really wants to support democracy defenders globally, a new kind of foreign policy is required—one that truly reflects our values and pursues our interests.
Uzra Zeya, U.S. undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, acknowledged at a summit kick-off event that “democracy is a journey, not a destination.” There may be U-turns and potholes along the way, but no country gets to rest on its laurels. They all must confront the internal forces—from deepening economic inequality to populism and political greed to racism—that can throw democracy off its course.
Although there is a long road ahead, the United States has begun that painful process. But if America really wants to support democracy defenders globally, a new kind of foreign policy is required—one that truly reflects our values and pursues our interests; is rooted in solidarity and unafraid to hold all governments accountable when they take steps back; and is not afraid to admit that we are still on the journey ourselves.
The authors would like to thank Dan Restrepo and Joel Martinez for their contributions to this column.