The authoritarian wave reaches the west

The resurgence of authoritarian attitudes and practices that first manifested itself in young democracies, such as Russia, Thailand and the Philippines, has spread into western politics. Poland and Hungary have governments with authoritarian tendencies. The most dramatic development is the election of a US president who regards the free press as “the enemy” and has little respect for an independent judiciary.

This authoritarian wave threatens to undermine comfortable assumptions about how politics works. The belief that the politics of the rich, established democracies of the west are fundamentally different from those of Latin America or Asia may need to be rethought. The idea that the middle-class and the young will always be the most stalwart supporters of democracy is also looking increasingly rocky.

The erosion of democratic values in the west was outlined last year in a much-discussed article by the academics Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, writing before the election of Donald Trump. The article highlighted the rise of anti-democratic sentiments in both the US and Europe. One of their more eye-catching points is that one-in-six Americans now think that it would be a good idea for the “army to rule” — up from one in 16 in 1995. And while more than 70 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s think it “essential” to live in a democracy, only 30 per cent of those born in the 1980s agree. There has been a similar, if less marked, decline in faith in democratic institutions in Europe. Mr Foa and Mr Mounk conclude that “over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliament or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe”.