While many young Russian political scientists are optimistic about democracy as a theory, many are skeptical of its efficiency. What can the United States do to improve its image of democracy?
Democratic Decline: Thinking Globally
Despite the widespread concept of Western democracies countering so-called hybrid regimes and preserving genuine liberal values, the democratic decline is a global process affecting the contemporary world as a whole. Democratic institutions erosion and, hence, popular dissatisfaction with the democratic ruling is marked both in established democracies and in rising ones. According to the Freedom House report, by 2019 electoral and civil liberties had been shrinking for 14 years worldwide, with the negative patterns making the most visible impact on the states near the top and the bottom of their “Freedom in the World” ranking. The study of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg comes to the same conclusions - it professes “the third wave of authocratization”, emphasizing that for the first time since 2001 autocracies (92 countries) represent the world majority, that rising G20 powers with large-scaled hard and soft power potentials - such as Brazil, India, and Turkey - move back to electoral democracy and even electoral autocracy, and that Eastern Europe with Poland, Hungary and Serbia returns authoritarianism to the Old World.
The United States, as one of the established democracies and as a state traditionally regarded as free and liberal, has followed the same trend. The United States has fallen from 94 in 2009 to 86 in 2019 in the “Freedom in the World” ranking. Freedom House’s interpretation of the US democratic decline is debatable - it claims, inter alia, military cooperation with Saudi Arabia to be an illustrative benchmark of losing interest in human rights promotion, ignoring strategic issues of the United States. Nonetheless, their analysis leaves room for meaningful institutional indicators such as clashes between the president and the Congress, the presidential administration refusals to comply with “a host of congressional reporting requirements, information requests, and subpoenas on various oversight matters” and new voter identification restrictions adopted in particular states. These facts prove the existence of structural problems with democratic rule efficiency and transparency in the United States.
Structural challenges are exacerbated by the negative perception of the democratic performance among the electorate. This tendency can be regarded as a considerable threat to democracy since the negative perception is able to transform to low trust in democratic institutions and, as a result, low public motivation to secure democracy through political participation. Pew Research Center survey conducted in 27 states reveals that a median of 51% are dissatisfied with the way their democracy is functioning. Considering that the survey was taken in democracies of seven world regions, including the Middle East and Eastern Europe, these data can be regarded as representative and indicating a global tendency of democratic pessimism. The US follows this general tendency likewise - their level of dissatisfaction with democracy has surged from 51% in 2017 to 58% in 2018.
Russian officials mentioning the democratic crisis in the United States and the decline of the “liberal world” exist in the same discourse and are affected by the same global processes that shape their worldview. Thus, their declarations are based not on the desire to undermine American democracy but on the tendencies modern political leaders and activists cannot ignore. Even if we make a suggestion that these officials are trying to contrast “unstable” liberal democracy in the US (and in the Western states in general) with the “stable” illiberal democracy in Russia in favor of the latter, it will mean the reflection of the same discourse and emphasizing American domestic dissatisfaction with its democracy that puts the US soft power under threat - since the proposed alternative for Western-style democratization turns to be not original and reversive in Samuel Huntington’s theory terms.
Young Political Experts: Two Images of Democracy
Russian officials' speeches generally reflect the global status quo and the mindset of the third wave of authocratization era leaders. Nonetheless, the structural processes in the field of democratization and the worldviews of policymakers and analysts mutually affect each other. A positive attitude to the idea of democracy itself can simplify restoring transparent and efficient democratic institutions, while the perception of the state system as integrative, stable, and able to reestablish itself after crises can contribute to the international environment beneficial for democratization and re-democratization. The mere idea of democratization waves is closely linked with the cumulative effect of emerging democracy popularity proved by foreign political practice. In this context, to forecast the prospects for global democracy and American democracy as its integrative part, it is crucially important to analyze the next generation's perception of democratic ideas and American democracy's future. Even more important is to understand the worldview basis of future political leaders and experts who will contribute to democratization processes and their popular perception in their state.
For this reason, we have conducted a survey among political science, international relation, area studies, and related subjects students of leading Russian universities both in Moscow (MGIMO University, MSU) and in the other regions (SPBU, Higher School of Economics, Southern Federal University, Crimean Federal University). The respondents have demonstrated a high level of awareness about American problems - 6,7% monitor American news once a week, 54,7% get acquainted with them several times a week, 28% follow American news daily. The surveyed have also shown a high level of motivation to develop their political analysis skills - 77,3% of them are continuing their studies as masters in different political science branches.
The young political science specialists have demonstrated strong support for the general idea of democracy. 82,7% of the polled have agreed with the statement that any authority must be replaceable, while 86,6% have accepted the notion that democracy represents more than merely a decision-making process. The given figures show that the surveyed are attracted to the idea of the power alternation which is at the core of the democracy concept and that they perceive democracy as an encouraging and motivating idea or as an instrument of good governance not reduced to the task of power changes. The latter conclusion is proved by the fact that 84% have accepted the contention that democracies possess a more attractive image on the international scene.
However, the democratic optimism represented is constrained by the critical perception of democracy as a real-existing institution - 64% of the polled have disagreed with the idea that the majority makes the right political decisions. These data fit the fact that only 34,7% firmly shared the idea that referendums are the best forms of decision-making. That paradox leads us to the notion that young Russian political scientists highly value the idea of democracy but are discouraged by its implementation in real-life political systems.
The given discouragement leads to the skepticism about “radically democratic” notions privileging democracies in comparison with other regimes - in particular, only 16% have agreed that the violence against an authoritarian regime is justifiable, while 25,3% accepted the idea that democracies should have more rights on the international scene than autocracies. As for placing democracy above other values - in particular, security and economic prosperity - the situation is more complex. 30,7% have found it difficult to accept or the contentions that civil liberties protection is more important than public safety and that it is better to live in a poor democracy than in a rich autocracy. As for proportions of clear agreements and disagreements, security-prioritizing and prosperity-prioritizing answers still prevail - with 40% and 44% respectively.
The findings presented demonstrate that young Russian political scientists divide two types of democracy - democracy as a concept and democracy as a mechanism, and, while being attracted by concept, they are highly skeptical of the mechanism's efficiency and, thus, prefer security and prosperity guarantees above civil and political liberties - since, the latter cannot be provided by democratic institutions for sure, something else should be probably guaranteed instead. The perception of the concept can become a basis for democratic optimism and a positive attitude to the states that have images of democracies. Nonetheless, the skepticism towards democracy as a real-existing mechanism can constrain particular domestic and foreign political skills.
The Prospects of American Democracy: The Russian View
The United States is a real-life political system, not a democratic idea incarnation. For this reason, their assessments of the American democracy are as critical as ones of democracy as a mechanism. In particular, Russian political scientists are skeptical about the representativity of the American political system and of its peaceful and mediating character - 42,7% disagree with the contention that political violence is mostly an exception for the United States (only 32% agree), while 40% reject the notion that the US political system ensures representativity and allows everyone to peacefully defend their rights (the share of the polled who accepted this notion is 30,7%). Nonetheless, the skepticism is combined with a high level of indecisiveness - 25,3% and 29,3% respectively have found it difficult to agree or disagree. It can be linked with the dynamism of the American political system as well as with contemporary events - mass BLM demonstrations, Donald Trump disputing the election results, the Capitol storming - widely described as a row of crises.
Among young Russian political scientists, these events are equally perceived as crises - primarily, systemic ones. 64% accept the notion that the 2020 elections are an indicator of the American political system destabilization. In their opinion, the negative outcomes of this destabilization are closely connected with a lowering efficiency of democratic rule - 45,3% agree that political violence will be more common in the US since democracy (in the form existing in the United States) does not solve the country's pressing problems. The concept of democratic rule in this context is closely connected with the idea of representativity - 49,2% accept the assertion the BLM has reflected that American democracy is based on unequal access to power and suppression of particular groups. The American democracy lowering efficiency is regarded by young Russian political scientists as a driver of the United States' international authority decline - 53,4% agree that the international respect to America is being lost while its democratic institutions prove their weakness.
Despite such critical assessments, young Russian political scientists are still optimistic about the United States as a state that has deeply implemented democratic values into its political culture and, thus, is able to reestablish new, more representative, and resistant mechanisms of governance. 68% accept the contention that there is a strong democratic tradition in the US. The polled also understand the benefits the United States gains from being an example of a successful democratic state - 82,3% suppose democracy to be a significant factor of the US soft power. For this reason, young Russian political scientists still give American democracy a chance - 53,7% reject an opinion that the United States won’t be able to restore the level of freedoms and liberties established before.
What can be done?
The global democratic decline has not made the next generation of Russian policymakers and experts totally pessimistic about democracy - they continue supporting the idea of democratic rule as a basic form of good governance and as a concept closely linked with civil liberties guarantees. It is existing, real-world, not ideal democracies that make them skeptical to democracy as a ruling mechanism in general and to its proper functioning in the United States in particular - and continuing institutions erosion and lack of representativity (since representativity and stability are important for them to indicate the democracy efficiency) in real-world democratic systems may deepen their pessimism.
What can the United States do? First of all, it can stop ignoring foreign criticism and perceiving it as an attempt to disrupt its democracy - today we live in a world where even established democracies are stagnating and that is why need to be criticized just to react to the contemporary challenges. The criticism from Russia is also a criticism because it exists in common global discourse and transmits the ideas already shared, for instance, in Europe. The next step is to make democracy inside the US more representative - it comes not only to the BLM movements but also to the other groups that frequently face prejudices and are underrepresented in the US political system - just like Russian Americans. It will bring American political mechanisms closer to the ideal of democracy.
Finally, the United States needs to be ready to talk with the new generation of Russian political scientists about building, restoring, and developing democracy - they are really attracted by its idea and still believe it is America’s soft power component.
Daria Matyashova is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).