ADAM MAIDA / GETTY / THE ATLANTIC

Trump Is Gone, but Democracy Is in Trouble

A new report reveals that democratic governments are in retreat around the globe.

After November 3, I allowed myself to dream that the battered troops of democracy would regain their courage and go on the offensive.

For a decade or more, authoritarian populists around the globe had won one upset victory after another. They rose to power in India and Brazil, in the Philippines and the United States. And though Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte were at first mocked as incompetent leaders who would soon lose power, they have proved surprisingly shrewd at maintaining their popularity or concentrating power in their own hands. Over the past 10 years, examples of populist politicians being thrown out of office in free and fair elections have been few and far between.

Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump finally changed that. For the first time in a decade, the citizens of a powerful democracy took a close look at populist politics and decided that they had seen enough. It felt as though the tide might finally be turning. The democratic fightback was about to begin.

It is still eminently possible that this optimism will ultimately be vindicated. But in the months since the election, two important developments have made me more pessimistic.

The first is domestic. Trump and his allies have managed to convince a worryingly large share of his base that the election was stolen from him. And while Trump has somewhat faded from public view, the Republican Party, for now, remains under his firm control. As his triumphal reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference demonstrates, he remains his party’s only real star.

In a country with two major parties, democracy is safe only if both care more about preserving the political system than about beating their opponents. But one of America’s big parties is now willing to break the most basic rule of democracy: that free and fair elections should determine who gets to govern, and that those who lose must accept the legitimacy of their successor.

The danger for American democracy is far from over. Until the Republican Party banishes Trump and drops his big lie, every presidential election will be a potential extinction-level event.

The second reason for pessimism is international. With the exception of Trump, dictators and their admirers have had a very good year. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are more self-confident than ever. Alexander Lukashenko, in Belarus, and Nicolás Maduro, in Venezuela, appear to have weathered potent challenges to their reign. Looking around the world, I see depressingly few democratic bright spots.

Now a new report by Freedom House quantifies just how dire the situation is.

Larry Diamond, one of the world’s leading scholars on democracy, pointed outin 2008 that the world had entered a “democratic recession,” a claim based on the think tank’s meticulous annual reports about the state of more than 200 countries. Every year, more countries are moving from democracy to autocracy than from autocracy to democracy.

According to Freedom House’s latest report, that democratic recession is now entering its 15th consecutive year, and the decline has accelerated to a record pace. In 2020, 73 countries became less democratic; only 28 moved in the right direction.

The retreat from democracy was especially stark in some of the most populous democracies. Brazil and Indonesia, for example, have both witnessed serious attacks on their institutions in the past 12 months.

Worse, India has crossed a crucial threshold. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi resoundingly won reelection in 2019, he has intimidated critics, subverted the independence of the judiciary, and adopted discriminatory policies against the country’s large Muslim minority. Because of the ever more repressive nature of his government, Freedom House has now, for the first time since 1998, classified the country as only “partly free.”

The other striking thing about the report is just how few reasons for hope it finds. The Arab Spring has long since turned into a bitter winter. In the Middle East, only the citizens of Israel and Tunisia retain substantial democratic freedoms. In Ethiopia, a new president who presented himself as a democratic reformer has started to oppress the opposition and oversee deadly atrocities. And in countries from Georgia to Myanmar, politicians who had once seemed serious challengers to entrenched powers are now in jail or under house arrest.

The most remarkable thing about this year’s report, in fact, is how far it has to go in a valiant attempt to include some semblance of a good news story. According to the think tank, the brightest spots for democracy in 2020 were Malawi, a country of 19 million people, and North Macedonia, a country of 2 million people. With the world’s most populous democracy careening toward authoritarianism, and only a few democracies making hesitant steps toward democracy, it is little wonder that fewer than one in five people around the world now lives in a free country.

None of that, however, is a reason to throw in the towel.

The United States has, for now, pulled back from the brink. And although the current state of the Republican Party is deeply worrying, the party’s next presidential nominee may yet turn out to be a conventional conservative.

In the meantime, the new administration is doing its best to reestablish America’s claim as the leader of the free world. The years in which naked attacks on democracy would earn foreign leaders an especially warm welcome at the White House are, for the time being, over.

Even in countries that are sinking more deeply into autocracy, the appetite for democracy remains as strong as ever. The longer populists and dictators are in power, the more obvious their flaws, and the more awe-inspiring the courage of their steadfast opponents, such as Alexei Navalny in Russia and Bobi Wine in Uganda.

I have not given up on my dream. The 2020s may yet turn out to be the decade in which democracy regains its strength. But for that to happen, a lot will have to change.

Two years ago, the city of Stockton, California, did something remarkable: It brought back welfare.

Using donated funds, the industrial city on the edge of the Bay Area tech economy launched a small demonstration program, sending payments of $500 a month to 125 randomly selected individuals living in neighborhoods with average incomes lower than the city median of $46,000 a year. The recipients were allowed to spend the money however they saw fit, and they were not obligated to complete any drug tests, interviews, means or asset tests, or work requirements. They just got the money, no strings attached.  

These kinds of cash transfers are a common, highly effective method of poverty alleviation used all over the world, in low-income and high-income countries, in rural areas and cities, and particularly for households with children. But not in the United States. The U.S. spends less of its GDP on what are known as “family benefits” than any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, save Turkey. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program spends less than one-fifth of its budget on direct cash aid, and its funding has been stuck at the same dollar amount since 1996—when the Clinton administration teamed up with congressional Republicans to turn it into a compulsory-work program. Those changes sliced into the safety net, allowing millions of people to fall through.   

Most adults without children have no program to help them keep gas in the car and a roof over their head, no matter how poor they are. Most families with kids don’t have one either. In the United States, poverty is used as a cudgel to get people to work. We got rid of welfare for poor families’ and poor individuals’ own good, the argument goes. Give people money, and they stop working. They become dependent on welfare. They never sort out the problems in their life. The best route out of poverty is a hand up, not a handout.   

Stockton has now proved this false. An exclusive new analysis of data from the demonstration project shows that a lack of resources is its own miserable trap. The best way to get people out of poverty is just to get them out of poverty; the best way to offer families more resources is just to offer them more resources.

The researchers Stacia Martin-West of the University of Tennessee and Amy Castro Baker of the University of Pennsylvania collected and analyzed data from individuals who received $500 a month and from individuals who did not. Some of their findings are obvious. The cash transfer reduced income volatility, for one: Households getting the cash saw their month-to-month earnings fluctuate 46 percent, versus the control group’s 68 percent. The families receiving the $500 a month tended to spend the money on essentials, including food, home goods, utilities, and gas. (Less than 1 percent went to cigarettes and alcohol.) The cash also doubled the households’ capacity to pay unexpected bills, and allowed recipient families to pay down their debts. Individuals getting the cash were also better able to help their families and friends, providing financial stability to the broader community.  

“It let me pay off some credit cards that I had been living off of, because my household income wasn’t large enough,” one recipient named Laura Kidd-Plummer told me. “It helped me to be able to take care of my groceries without having to run to the food bank three times a month. That was very helpful.” During the study, Laura also experienced a spell of homelessness when the apartment building she was living in had a fire. The Stockton cash helped her secure a new apartment, ensuring that she could afford movers and a security deposit.

The researchers also found that the guaranteed income did not dissuade participants from working—adding to a large body of evidence showing that cash benefits do not dramatically shrink the labor force and in some cases help people work by giving them the stability they need to find and take a new job. In the Stockton study, the share of participants with a full-time job rose 12 percentage points, versus five percentage points in the control group. In an interview, Martin-West and Castro Baker suggested that the money created capacity for goal setting, risk taking, and personal investment.

“The big change was how it helped me see myself,” Tomas Vargas, another recipient, told me. “It was dead positive: I am an entrepreneur, I think of business ideas, I make business choices, I want to be financially stable.” When the program started, he worked in logistics. Now, in addition to nurturing his side projects, he is a case manager for individuals on parole.  

He noted that receiving the money had made him more civically and politically engaged, if also more infuriated at the country’s scorn toward low-income households. “It’s like it’s a big game,” he said. “These people are living with a silver spoon, talking—but how about you walk this life? Have you ever even seen it?”

Finally, the cash recipients were healthier, happier, and less anxious than their counterparts in the control group. “Cash is a better way to cure some forms of depression and anxiety than Prozac,” says Michael Tubbs, a former mayor of Stockton, who spearheaded the project. “So many of the illnesses we see in our community are a result of toxic stress and elevated cortisol levels and anxiety, directly attributed to income volatility and not having enough to cover your basic necessities. That’s true in the public-health crisis we’re in now.”

More work, less destitution, more family stability, less strained social networks, less stress, fewer incidences of homelessness, fewer skipped meals: This is what welfare could give the country.

And it just might. America’s welfare politics have shifted radically of late, in part because of the economic pressures felt by Millennials, the first generation in recent U.S. history likely to end up poorer than their parents. Two once-in-a-lifetime recessions, persistent wage stagnation, wild wealth and income inequality, the student-debt crisis, housing shortages, and a broader cost-of-living crisis have made redistributive policies much more palatable to them—and they’re now the country’s largest voting bloc. The pandemic has shifted U.S. welfare politics too, emphasizing the need for child-care benefits and demonstrating the power of cash as stimulus.

Right now, Democrats are pushing to send low- and middle-income parents $300 a month for each child younger than 6 and $250 a month for children ages 6 to 18 as part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief package. The program would be temporary, but there is wide support for making it a permanent entitlement. Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, has put forward a proposal to eliminate TANF and replace it with a straightforward child allowance. A number of state, local, and nonprofit efforts are getting going too.

The Stockton demonstration project is ending. But a group Tubbs founded, called Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, is extending the initiative nationwide, with cities from Compton to Gary to Newark making plans to send low-income residents cash.

These policies are being described as child allowances, guaranteed incomes, and universal basic incomes—not as welfare—thus dropping some of the racist freight attached to TANF. But they are, in fact, a kind of welfare. Both as a policy and a concept, it is what so many Americans need.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.

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