Europe Inside Out

Can Europe and the United States Reimagine Democracy?

Episode Summary

Richard Youngs and Rachel Kleinfeld analyze the state of democracy in the United States and Europe and look toward the future of international democracy support.

Episode Notes

Extreme polarization, populism, and political violence are plaguing American democracy, while fragmentation and governance issues are challenging Europe’s. Such political turbulence not only raises questions about the health of democracy at home but also about how democracy support is coordinated abroad. 

Richard Youngs and Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellows in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program, analyze the state of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic and discuss ways to protect democracy around the world.


Jennifer McCoy and Benjamin Press (May 5, 2022). Reducing Pernicious Polarization: A Comparative Historical Analysis of Depolarization. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Richard Youngs (October 7, 2021), Rebuilding European Democracy: Resistance and Renewal in an Illiberal Age. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Richard Youngs and Ken Godfrey (November 3, 2022), Democratic Innovations From Around the World: Lessons for the West. Carnegie Europe.

Rachel Kleinfeld (2022), A Helsinki Moment for a New Democracy Strategy. Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

Richard Youngs et al., (June 14, 2022), Supporting Democracy After the Invasion of Ukraine. Carnegie Europe.

Richard Youngs (July 20, 2022), Autocracy Versus Democracy After the Ukraine Invasion: Mapping a Middle Way. Carnegie Europe.

Richard Youngs (September 27, 2022), A Democratic Roadmap for Ukraine. Forum 2000.

Judy Dempsey (November 8, 2022), Europeans Must Prepare for the Post-Biden Era. Carnegie Europe.

Episode Transcription


[00:00:00.760] - Richard Youngs

2022 is shaping up to be a crucial year for global democracy. Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war there have intensified the challenges facing democratic countries. Western leaders have framed the war as a battle between democracy and autocracy. Many analysts suggest that democracy's future will hinge on what happens in Ukraine. 

But while Western leaders talk in very stirring terms about defending Ukraine's democracy, democracy in Europe and the US have been in poor health in recent years. US democracy stands at an especially pivotal moment. And beneath all the new Western commitments this year to redouble efforts to support democracy around the world, many analysts fear democracy is still on a long-term path of structural decline. 

So how badly afflicted is US democracy? What's the state of European democracies? Can the West really continue to support democracy around the world despite its own internal shortcomings? And are Western leaders genuine when they frame the Ukraine war as being about the defense of democratic values?


[00:01:23.440] - Richard Youngs

Hello and welcome to Europe Inside Out, a monthly podcast from Carnegie Europe about the continent's greatest foreign policy challenges. 

My name is Richard Youngs. I'm a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance program at Carnegie.


[00:01:39.750] - Richard Youngs

This episode of Europe Inside Out is about democracy, what is happening with democracy in the West and around the world, and how these trends relate to the big strategic issues on the EU agenda. We are talking today to Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow in Carnegie's Democracy, Conflict and Governance program. Rachel works on polarization, violence, corruption, poor governance in the United States and beyond. Rachel, welcome.

[00:02:08.620] - Rachel Kleinfeld

Wonderful to be here, Richard.



[00:02:10.840] - Richard Youngs

Let's start with a look at American democracy, the state of which matters greatly here in Europe. Not least because changes in domestic US policies could have quite a profound effect on the war in Ukraine and European security order and indeed, on President Biden's promise to lead a new international effort to protect democratic norms globally. 


US democracy has clearly corroded in the last several years and seems to be especially precarious right now. Rachel, you've just written about the very profound challenges of reforming US democracy. Take us through the reasons why you think US democracy is in such a fragile state at the moment.

[00:02:56.740] - Rachel Kleinfeld

American democracy is having a rough moment. It's really a perfect storm. We're facing extreme polarization. My colleagues Jennifer McCoy and Ben Press looked at the last 50 years of data and found that no consolidated democracy has been so polarized for as long as the United States. That used to not matter because, of course, polarization is only important if other things follow. And in America, it used to be that there was a lot of overlap between the governing agendas of the two parties. But now the parties are extremely far apart. There's almost no overlap in governing agendas. That's not because Americans are so far apart on policy, by the way, there's actually a lot of agreement on abortion, immigration, even gun control. But the parties play to their bases. And so these extreme policy agendas, combined with the polarization, make things feel like life or death. And then institutionally, control over Congress is very close. It used to be that one party would control Congress for decades at a time. The last time it was this close, was during Reconstruction. Also a bad time for the United States' democracy. And a winner-take-all-system is more prone to violence and intimidation because just moving a couple of votes changes the entirety of Congress. So for all these reasons, the US is really in a fight to the death right now.

[00:04:17.510] - Richard Youngs

I think a degree of polarization and sharp contestation is not inherently bad for democracy. But what's happening in the US is so severe that these sharp differences actually represent a threat to the whole system as such.

[00:04:33.710] - Rachel Kleinfeld

That's exactly right, Richard. Polarization, famously, in the 50s, political scientists wanted more of it. They wanted more party differentiation. But what we're seeing in the United States is not policy differences. It's real hatred, affective polarization, where one party just hates the other. What that's doing in America, is: it's opening the door to antidemocratic tactics because partisans are willing to tolerate that kind of antidemocratic action to lock in majorities because they're so afraid of the other party governing. Partisans in both parties are expressing willingness to do this, but the Republicans are actually doing a lot more of it. And we've seen massive turnover in the Republican Party. So this is not Reagan's party. This is not even Liz Cheney's party, of course. There's been more than 45% turnover since Trump took office in Congress, 75% since the 2008 Tea Party Revolution. Combine that with 90% of congressional seats being safe for one party... And that means that a set of politicians fear only primary challengers from their own side, not from the general election, and that feeds further polarization and real extremism. Race is playing a role. I'm sure Europeans have heard about that. But it's really an alignment of identities, race, gender and so on that's fueling this sense of a zero-sum hierarchy.

[00:05:58.330] - Rachel Kleinfeld

And then if you look at the voters, they really want to blow up the whole system. When experts like myself talk about democratic challenges, I talk about things that I've just mentioned to you. But when you ask voters, they actually see the main challenge as corruption. And by that they mean legal corruption. They mean a system that feels rigged against them. They're worried about plutocracy, they're worried about the strength of the upper middle class, and they want to really blow up the system. So what that means is Trump was not a blip. He was a symptom of really deep problems in our system, as well as a catalyst for further personalization of government and an acceptance of authoritarian tactics. And he's going to last. 

The last thing I want to point out that Europeans might be less aware of is the religious aspect of this. You know, America is prone to these religious revivals. We're a much more religious country than most of the European nations, and Christian nationalism is playing a very strong role in driving the real base of support for some of these authoritarian tactics. There's a new set of beliefs among some Christians that using the state to lock in Christianity in a kind of theocratic way is a positive thing, that God would be on the side of doing that. We all know that theocratic revolutions are dangerous revolutions.

[00:07:15.640] - Richard Youngs

So quite a lot to worry about inside America. I wonder, Rachel, how much of all this is likely to ripple out beyond the US and impact Europe specifically.

[00:07:28.310] - Rachel Kleinfeld

I hate to say this, Richard, as an American, it's embarrassing. But the US is an unstable partner right now. One hand on the tiller is old and reliable. Europeans have known Joe Biden, of course, for many, many years. But the other hand is driving a political realignment in America. We've had political realignments before: Andrew Johnson, Jackson, who ushered in the first populist period in the 1830s... What we're seeing right now is the Republican Party trying to move from a big business, internationalist party of the post World War II era to a working class, anti-large corporation, pro-small business party that would also be anti-foreign entanglements. That old internationalist party is disappearing. And of course, Democrats have never been quite as internationalist as the Republicans, certainly not as pro-military. So I think Europe should understand that there will be a whipsawing foreign policy depending on who's in power. But if Republicans gain the upper hand, and they might, especially if they further their state electoral advantages and the Supreme Court tilts in their favor, there will be a fight within the GOP between the internationalist wing and the newer wing. But I wouldn't bet on internationalism. It's always been a fairly elite foreign policy. It's never had the support of a lot of Americans. It's sort of out of step with the populist public. War used to bring more rally round the flag effects, but after the losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's less likely right now.

[00:09:09.040] - Richard Youngs

It's very interesting. Some European states have stepped up to support Ukraine, but the Russian invasion also seems to have reinforced the US' preeminence in at least some elements of security policy. You're saying some of this could really be in danger?

[00:09:26.960] - Rachel Kleinfeld

Yes. I think specifically for Ukraine, you'll see a lame duck Congress that will try to lock in aid. And the Biden administration certainly will try their best. They understand the stakes. But Europe should seriously consider expanding on the effort it's already put into building its security abilities. I wish I could say otherwise, but if I were in Europe facing a flailing Russia and a US that looked like this, I would invest in my own security. It's pretty dire stuff, and I don't want to sugarcoat it. I don't think the US is going to disappear from the map. It's a rough period. We've been through rough periods before, under Jim Crow after Nixon's Watergate. But it sure would be nice to consider slightly less dire problems for a change.


[00:10:14.890] - Richard Youngs

We spent some time talking about the state of US democracy, which is so determinant for global politics. We also need to consider the state of democracy here in Europe. Rachel, I wonder how Americans see current European political trends. I think here we follow the US in great detail and worry how the state of US democracy might affect European interests. Are Americans seized of Europe's democracy problems? How are they seen from the US?

[00:10:48.260] - Rachel Kleinfeld

So, first, Americans don't pay a lot of attention to countries outside of their borders the way that Europe does. We don't even pay enough attention to the countries right on our borders, like Mexico. But to the extent that foreign policy elites, business elites and so on are, they often conflate the democratic declines in other consolidated democracies, as if the electoral upsets recently in Sweden and Italy were akin to the Trump wave. Experts, of course, are worried about Hungary especially given its effects on the EU and on NATO and Poland is of course concerning. So, I would say that there's a hope of sort of misery-likes-company, and I think many are hoping that Europe is as dire as America. But this is really your area of expertise. Richard, how do you view Europe's challenges with democracy?

[00:11:38.110] - Richard Youngs

It's quite a lot of variation across Europe in terms of political trends. In some states, democracy is clearly in a worse state than it is in the US. A number of states have suffered slides further into authoritarianism. In others, the problems are not as bad. In fact, democracy scores have even improved in recent years in a handful of European states. So I'm not sure there's any single trend. We've seen this in very recent elections, for example in Sweden, Denmark. In Sweden - a far-right party gaining ground and leverage -, but the equivalent to Denmark actually losing ground. And we see a reorientation there of politics more to the center ground. So lots of differences across European states and different kinds of problems, I think. I don't think in many European states we see the kind of very sharp US style two party polarization. We see more fragmentation between different parties as the number of parties represented in most European parliaments has increased in recent years. In some ways this is healthy for democracy: there's more choice there for European voters. But it also means that political parties have to work very hard now to form governing coalitions, and that alliances shift constantly across the political spectrum. So, it's problems of governance there in most European countries and then. Clearly some European states have the specific issue of the far-right and here the difference with the US is that the risks to democracy are not coming from one of two very traditional parties, but from newer challenger parties, with the question of how more established parties should respond to these threats coming from outside the mainstream political system. This is a very, very complex question of how far these trends on the hard right actually threaten democracy as such. There's probably no clear-cut answer to that. We're about to see this tested in Italy. But, as a final issue, I think it is worth recalling we talk a lot in Europe about the dangers, the threats of populism and the hard right that are clearly there and very, very severe. But it's worth recalling that most of the declines in democratic quality we've seen over the last decade have come about not because of populist, but because of incumbent mainstream governments chipping away at civil liberties, judicial independence, the right to protest and the like. These are not dramatic problems, but they're there and they are problems that need to be taken seriously. And it means, in a way, the tests that European democracy is under should not be reduced simply to the problem of hard right populists.

[00:14:33.990] - Rachel Kleinfeld

So, Richard, that was really interesting, and I think your point about the threat coming from incumbent mainstream leaders is a very important one. Now, the Fidesz party in Hungary is one of those mainstream parties, and I'm interested in the transnational aspects of that and other more extreme parties. For instance, we know there's been a lot of coordination between Fidesz and the Republican Party. Orbán spoke at the last Conservative National Conference. The prior conference of that sort, which is the premier Republican conference, was held in Hungary. And then my understanding is that the AfD party, of course one of the far-right parties, has applied for German funds used by parties to support ideological counterparts in other countries. So I'm wondering whether you're talking about mainstream parties moving more authoritarian or more extreme parties of the right. How great a threat to democracy do you see these transnational activities in other countries as well as what they're doing in their own?

[00:15:34.180] - Richard Youngs

It's a good point. The hard right parties are certainly beginning to coordinate more across borders, but actually there are quite significant differences in their respective political identities. Some are clearly an overt and direct threat to democracy, but many of them claim to be democratic and concerned actually with reworking and improving democratic practices. They're all certainly illiberal, but how much of a systemic threat to democracy as such, each of them represent? I think it's a more difficult question in practice. There's a long, long-standing debate in Europe about whether other parties should cooperate or ostracize these parties. The evidence is not compelling on this, both these strategies, inclusion or exclusion, actually failing to dampen support for hard right parties. But I think we do have to accept this is not a new challenge anymore. These hard right parties are now part of the political context in Europe, they’re set to continue to be a significant part of the political spectrum. At the moment, every time one of these parties does well, it generates many speeches and articles about the end of democracy. But I sometimes wonder if we actually need to flip this debate around to some extent. And focus not just on second guessing how much these kinds of parties threaten democracy, but rather also think about how the weaknesses in democracies that are already there at the moment are actually part of what is driving support for these hard right parties. And, arguably, these parties are as much effect as cause of democracies' problems across Europe.

[00:17:30.880] - Rachel Kleinfeld

That's so insightful, Richard. Of course, sickness has a hard time taking hold of a healthy body, and the same is true of a body politic. And we've been focusing on the negative. But what if we flipped the script a little on our side and look at the great deal of positive occurrences happening in European democracy? There are all sorts of efforts in America to catalog more democratic budgeting, citizen assemblies, how future generations are being given a role in the governing process, and other innovations that seem very hopeful. You've written a book highlighting a number of these civic innovations in Europe, and your recent piece with Ken Godfrey and the European Democracy Hub talks about democratic innovations around the world. So could you share some of the bright spots that might be shoring up democracy?

[00:18:16.480] - Richard Youngs

Yes, I think it's understandable that most journalism and analytical writing focuses on the threats to democracy, because these are clearly very severe and dramatic in many countries. But there is this more positive side to political trends in recent years. This is not to downplay the severity of the risks that European democracy faces, but the very severity of these risks and threats have actually given rise to a much more dynamic range of efforts to defend and revive democratic practices in many countries. We see a whole new generation of democratic protests spreading across Europe, quite a large number of new civil society initiatives as well. There's been a thickening of the civic sphere, the emergence of grassroots community organizations in most places across Europe. Especially very interesting, especially in the wake of COVID. This has really led to a qualitative change in the way that societies organize themselves. Many local authorities across the continent have begun running more citizen assemblies and forms of consultation that try to involve ordinary citizens. There's a whole layer of new digital activist organizations aiming to reclaim the internet for democracy as well. Many new star political parties focused on democratic renewal, trying to harness the spirit of social movements and social organization within the structures of new political parties. And then, of course, at the EU dimension, lots of new ideas to get citizens engaged in the European level as well. Of course, this is something, going back to our original conversation, that is distinctive in Europe compared to the US level, that in Europe we need to look at the relationship between national level of democracy and the European dimension as well. So there are things going on that are more positive. I wouldn't overstate the impact of all this. These initiatives still have a long way to go if they are to have any major political impact. Many of them are still fairly embryonic at the moment, but I don't think they should be neglected. I don't think the script, the storyline is only one of threat to democracy. The kind of issues and trends that tend to capture media attention. And I think there is a lot there to build on for the future. I don't think any one set of innovations or reforms are going to rescue or save European democracy. Democracy is not like that. It's always under strain and in need of correction. But I think these hundreds and thousands of small acts of democratic engagement do make a difference and they will make a difference over the longer term.



[00:21:15.190] - Richard Youngs

Let's finish off then with a look to the future. A key question is whether we stand at a turning point for global democracy. Some observers certainly feel that the war in Ukraine has shaken democratic nations, western nations, out of their lethargy and made them realize just how much more effort they need to make to protect democracy internationally and indeed reform it domestically. Unsurprisingly, others disagree with this interpretation. They feel it's more a moment for realpolitik that actually has very little to do with any rivalry between different types of political regime and that Ukraine's war is actually not likely to be the decisive factor for democracy. And of course we know that the fallout from the invasion is clearly putting many European democracies under greater strain as they seek to manage the cost-of-living crisis and the energy crisis. 

So there is this emerging debate, I think, about whether the moment we stand at now is likely to have a positive or negative impact on global democracy. The US administration, the Biden administration is actually preparing a second summit for democracy that is due to be held in March 2023. The EU is drawing up its own defense of democracy strategy. So we are hearing a lot of new talk about US-EU coordination on international democracy support. Rachel, you've been looking at previous moments when such democratic coordination did seem to make a difference, did seem to move political trends in a positive direction. Do you think we're at such a moment right now?

[00:23:04.890] - Rachel Kleinfeld

Well, I certainly think we're at a moment where we need greater democratic coordination and a real step up, not just in more aid, but in a rethinking of how we do it. You know, we've been through a few distinct stages in democracy aid. We had the Marshall Plan - kind of aid 1.0 - countries that really wanted to be democracies by and large and just needed a little help. Then we had 2.0, which was really covert aid with polarized populations, where we tried to put a thumb on the scale to support the EU, among other things. That was really discredited as a strategy. And now we're really at model 3.0, which was pioneered by the Germans Stiftungs, that local people had to win their own democracies and what the international community could do is support the endeavors of local civil society where they wanted democracy, totalitarian governments were trying to stop it. Many people didn't have strong feelings but were generally on the side of greater freedom. And our aid was really designed for that world. It was a world of the Soviet Union. We're facing a different moment right now. You know, it's still possible to mobilize for democracy, but if you look at that massive hit song that was driving the protests in Iran... It was about freedom, but little freedoms, life freedoms. Not the big abstract ideas of democracy, but ideas of corruption, the desire to have a working economy, just wanting life to be more normal. The old linkage that was assumed between democracy and many of these life freedoms is gone. In Latin America, democracy brought a vast increase in violence. In much of the world, economic growth was assumed to go hand in hand with democracy, which helped the democracy cause quite a bit at the end of the Soviet Union... What many countries got instead, as you've written about, was privatization or some descent into almost oligarchic systems. So democracy itself is not as strong a driver as before. And second, when people are polarized, when populations are polarized... People-fueled revolutions need real care because you can use tactics to further polarize, as Russia is doing against democracies. And finally, we don't see unidirectional flows in terms of democracy being aided abroad and no pushback. Autocrats are actually pushing back quite a bit. And they're doing it - and frankly -, in some ways that are smarter. They're not distinguishing between a consolidated democracy and a newer democracy. They're simply seeking to undermine democracy by pushing on polarization or pushing on misinformation. The pro-democracy community, meanwhile, has laws that make it more hamstrung in collaborating across consolidated and newer democracies. Donor aid is really gummed up in that way so that the US can't say "Boy, we need some help here: what is the Hungarian opposition doing". That's much harder. So we need a rethinking. And frankly, you've written about the need for major new aid and rethinking aid. So what do you think Europe should do to innovate its aid.

[00:26:38.510] - Richard Youngs

I think I agree with your assessment, Rachel. Certainly on the European side, EU institutions, member state governments are actually still doing quite a bit in support of democracy internationally, even as democracy has had a rough time within Europe itself. Many governments still spend quite significant amounts of money on democracy and human rights projects internationally, and they've put some rethinking into how this democracy aid is used. They're spending these resources with more flexibility to try and get through to local actors who have greater political legitimacy within their national context. They're talking about more variation in different kinds of democratic practices that are supported across the world. But I think you're right, Rachel: there's still quite a lot going on, but most of it has not really had much political bite, or much political impact in recent years for the very reasons you outlined. The EU is still not very political in the way it approaches these issues of democracy and human rights. It doesn't like using sanctions for democracy purposes. It tends to eschew any kind of harsh conditionality. Around 80% of its development aid actually still goes to non-democracies, interestingly. Most of its new trade accords that have been signed in recent years have actually been with non-democratic countries. So for me, what's actually needed is a slightly more political focus, because, as you say, the EU may be spending quite significant amounts of money to support democratic activists in many countries, but regimes are learning how to neutralize the impact of these kinds of support programs. So I think there have been some efforts to try and rethink the tactics of democracy support on the ground, but clearly these efforts have not sufficed to turn back this authoritarian surge we've seen in recent years. And it's not clear to me - I think this is the crucial point - it's not clear to me that democracy support is really a geopolitical priority for European governments, yet, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. I think mostly democracy support is a kind of second order priority, and it's still not really at the forefront of how the EU thinks about its geopolitical challenges. So I think given that your breakdown of the challenges we face of doing democracy support more effectively are actually very helpful. I think they provide us with a useful menu for this crucial moment for thinking about how Western governments, beyond all their rhetoric, can actually implement democracy support programs in a more effective way, in a way that actually has an impact on the ground. 

And I think here, Rachel, we agree in conclusion, that there are still some major problems to be addressed. There's a lot of quite upbeat rhetoric at the moment about this representing a turning point for democracy across the globe. But I don't think "Yeah, we're really at this positive inflection point for democracy". Although leaders in both the US and Europe insist they are increasing their commitments to supporting global democracy. I still think we need to see concrete evidence that they're committed to doing this in practice. So thank you Rachel for sharing your ideas and some of the reflections you've been expressing in your recent work.

[00:30:24.860] - Rachel Kleinfeld

Thank you, Richard. It's always such a pleasure to get to talk with you.

[00:30:28.210] - Richard Youngs

For those of you interested in learning more about these issues of democracy, I encourage you to follow Rachel's work on Twitter @Rachel Kleinfeld "spelling". And you can find me @YoungsRichard. Thank you for listening to Europe Inside Out, a podcast by Carnegie Europe. Let us know what you think of the show by reaching out to us on Twitter at @Carnegie_Europe. Our producer is Midori Tanaka. Our editor is Alexander Damiano Ricci of Bulle Media. Sound engineering and original music was from Jeremy Bocquet.