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Democracy around the world seems to be experiencing upheaval


When Liz Truss took power this week in London, she became the United Kingdom's fourth prime minister in six years. In Israel, voters are about to hold their fifth election in less than four years. And of course, here in the U.S., many Americans still refuse to accept the results of the last presidential election two years ago. All over the world, democracy seems to be experiencing indigestion. Moises Naim is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he's written extensively about the state of democracy around the world. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MOISES NAIM: Hi, Ari. Thanks for inviting me.

SHAPIRO: Obviously, there are unique circumstances in each of these countries, but is there also a common thread running through them? Are the world's leading democracies more unstable than they used to be?

NAIM: Yes, democracies are embattled both by internal factors and external shocks. People are disappointed at the underperformance of democracies. Democracies are having a very hard time fulfilling the dreams, expectations, needs of the population. And then they have to cope with external shocks that change things dramatically, what we're seeing with inflation, for example, or of course, climate change, terrorism. These are all problems. So in general, what we're seeing is a general disappointment with the performance of democracies.

SHAPIRO: I gave the examples of the U.S., the U.K. and Israel. Are there other prominent, Western democracies or just democracies in general you would mention where things seem to be way more of an upheaval right now?

NAIM: Yes, Italy is going to have an election very soon, and a candidate that has its origins in the fascist movement is likely to win. Brazil - the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has said, you know, he's questioning the system, and he probably wouldn't leave the government if he loses the election. So throughout the world, you are seeing all kinds of uncertainties about the stability, longevity of democracies.

SHAPIRO: In many of these countries, we see larger-than-life figureheads at the center of the drama - Boris Johnson in the U.K., Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Donald Trump in the U.S. Is there a connection between that kind of reality TV style leader and political instability in a democracy?

NAIM: They all are victims of the expectations they cannot fulfill by traditional methods. So they try to - you know, they have become populists in terms of stoking divisions that the country has and trying to - you know, divide and conquer becomes a requirement to survive in politics, then polarization, you know, fueling polarization and the wedges and amplifying and multiplying the wedges that fragment society - and all of these, of course, amplified by social media and the consequences it's having on our political behavior.

SHAPIRO: What does this mean for citizens of these countries?

NAIM: Well, citizens need to start thinking that democracy is not cheap in terms of real time and commitment and engagement. They're going to - you know, the voting every four years, it may not be enough. They need to strengthen their ability to detect charlatans and lies and populist behaviors. Citizens need to be more citizens and just less of the dwellers of a country.

SHAPIRO: You know, I was in Glasgow last year for the U.N. climate summit. And I remember a clean energy researcher saying to me, democracies are so unpredictable these days that to solve big, long-term problems like climate change, autocrats like Xi Jinping in China might be more reliable partners because they can set a path, choose a policy and stick with it, while the U.S. might do a 180 every time a new party takes power. So do you think that the instability in democracies that we're seeing right now makes it harder for those countries to exercise global leadership on some of the biggest challenges facing the world today?

NAIM: Yes and no because I also am seeing great political weaknesses in autocracies. The thing here that needs to be reminded is that, more and more, it's clear that we have global problems - you know, the pandemic, climate change, global inflation. None of these problems will be solved by any country acting alone, even a superpower. You need countries who work together, and if that doesn't happen, it becomes very difficult. And then it feeds into the perceptions of underperformance and disappointment that people have against the government.

SHAPIRO: That's Moises Naim. His latest book is "The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics For The 21st Century." Thank you very much.

NAIM: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.