Brazil’s recent election of soon-to-be President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrated that far-right populism and authoritarian promises to restore law and order remain a potent and growing force in global politics. Bolsonaro’s campaign drew from a familiar playbook, placing at its heart an authoritarian and xenophobic vision of Brazilian society. He declared that he would not accept election results if he lost; defended Brazil’s decades-long brutal military dictatorship; threatened to shoot supporters of the opposing Workers’ Party; and vowed to pack the country’s supreme court with sympathetic jurists and persecute media critical of him. Like many right-wing populists around the world, Bolsonaro embraced racist, homophobic, and misogynist rhetoric, achieving a level of provocation so incendiary that the country’s attorney general charged then-candidate Bolsonaro “with inciting hatred and discrimination against blacks, indigenous communities, women and gays.”
We’ve seen this before. Bolsonaro’s rise to power is only the latest chapter in a global resurgence of right-wing, illiberal populism. Far-right populist parties across Europe have seen a surge in public approval, making parliamentary gains in 15 of the 27 EU member countries over the past two election cycles. Far-right parties made the most significant gains in Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Estonia, winning 5 percent more in vote shares. Additionally, the right-wing Fidesz party cemented its control over Hungarian politics with 49.3 percent of the vote shares in their April 2018 election, even though their vote share only increased by 4.4 percent from 2014 to 2018. Simultaneously, public support for democracy in many countries has declined—with the exception of Western democracies, where support has rebounded in recent years.
Far-right parties and authoritarian demagogues that have succeeded in gaining power at the national level—such as in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines, the United States, and, now, Brazil—have wasted no time in undermining democratic institutions and norms. Unsurprisingly, according to V-Dem Institute’s 2018 liberal democracy index, these countries are among those that have seen the greatest democratic backsliding in the past few years.
It is entirely possible—and even expected—that right-wing populists will seek to roll back democratic norms and institutions once in power in order to entrench their authority and quash political opposition. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Law and Justice party, and even U.S. President Donald Trump have already demonstrated this. Once this degradation of democracy has been set in motion, it is a steep and slippery slope from illiberal democracy to outright authoritarianism. President Erdogan’s wholesale purge of the civil service and judiciary and his extended rule by decree under state of emergency illustrate how this is already occurring in Turkey.
The rise of openly illiberal candidates and parties in democracies and the decline in support for democracy—particularly in younger democracies—represents a major global crisis that requires sustained U.S. commitment and international cooperation to reverse. This is particularly notable when combined with the fact that there has been a disturbing increase in democratic backsliding around the world, including in the United States. This should be a huge wake-up call for liberal democratic leaders.
Global and U.S. security is at risk
This democratic backsliding is a threat to global security. Nondemocracies are more prone to violence and war; more likely to stoke crises and confrontation; and, in many cases, more fiercely opposed to collective global responses to shared concerns such as climate change and migration. This is especially the case for far-right, illiberal regimes, which typically thrive on xenophobic paranoia, bellicosity, and a disavowal of any form of global cooperation in favor of a blunt, country-first approach to international affairs.
The rise of far-right, illiberal populism across the world is an affront to core American values and a challenge to U.S. global leadership. In order for the United States to advocate effectively for democracy and human rights on the global stage and maintain an advantage in great power competition with authoritarian states such as China and Russia, its government will need to adopt bold new policies that help vulnerable democracies resist authoritarian influence and strengthen a growing global democratic community.
The United States can accomplish this in three ways. First, instead of shunning efforts to promote democracy and human rights, the United States should put its democratic values at the heart of its foreign and security policy. This should entail building and strengthening relationships with democratic states and devoting more resources to aid democracies. Second, democratic political leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and the free press should call out and confront illiberal leaders’ efforts to undermine democratic institutions and processes. Third, and most dauntingly, pro-democracy advocates need a clear, alternative economic agenda to counter those advocated by populists and to push back on populist scapegoating of minority populations.
Only by banding together to realign their domestic and foreign policies with their democratic values can the United States and its democratic allies successfully confront the growing illiberal tide across the world.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Carolyn Kenney is a senior policy analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center. Trevor Sutton is a fellow at the Center.