Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. Let's start on July 4th, 1957.
John F. Kennedy: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was then-Senator John F. Kennedy reading the Declaration of Independence, a most audacious document. To state unequivocally that governments derive their just powers not from a divine right of kings or from superior military acumen but from consent of the governed? Wooh, child. Those were fighting words in 1776, literally. A fight was raging when Kennedy read those words in 1957, a fight in the island nation of Cuba, where Fidel Castro and his socialist revolutionaries were battling the military dictatorship of President Battista.
18 months later, on January 1, 1959, the revolutionaries won and initiated five decades of rule by Fidel Castro. Now, during these decades, Castro's regime maintained that it governed by the people's consent but over the weekend, thousands of Cubans gathered in a rare and potentially historic protest of the government. Poverty and pandemic precipitated the actions, but it was the word freedom that many Cubans chanted as they marched.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Back here in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans have been quick to voice support for the protesters. Here's President Joe Biden speaking at the White House on Monday.
Joe Biden: Folks, I want to start by recognizing a remarkable protest that is taking place in Cuba. The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime. I don't think we've seen anything like this protest in a long, long time if, quite frankly, ever. The United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Perhaps this moment will prove transformative for the Cuban people by fulfilling a promise for government instituted to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed. It's worth noting that these days, democracy is struggling.
On Monday, Democrats in Texas fled the state, yes, left the state in an effort to deny a legislative quorum and therefore blocked Texas Republicans from sharply restricting voting rights. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, most congressional Republicans still refuse to support a commission to investigate January's deadly far-right insurrection and the role of the then-president in potentially inciting it. Back in November, President Biden, quoting Robert Kennedy, said this.
Joe Biden: "Democracy is sometimes messy."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Messy, sure, but these days, democracy is more than messy. It seems like it's a mess. The US-based nonprofit, Freedom House, has noted how political corruption and lack of transparency has led to declines in our democracy over the past 10 years. We're hardly alone. A report released this year, also by Freedom House, finds that 2020 was the 15th consecutive year in which global freedoms declined as authoritarian leaders gained more power in countries around the world. Maybe that's why the series How To Become A Tyrant is now trending on Netflix. All of this has us asking, "What does the future of democracy look like, and does it have a future at all?"
John F. Kennedy: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Joining me now is Amy Slipowitz, research manager for Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual report assessing the conditions of political rights and civil liberties around the world. Amy, great to have you here.
Amy Slipowitz: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Tim Sullivan, a reporter for the Associated Press, who recently wrote about the global backsliding of democracy. Tim, thanks for joining as well.
Tim Sullivan: Thanks very much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amy, how does Freedom House measure declines in global freedoms?
Amy Slipowitz: What we do is we evaluate the state of freedom as it's experienced by people within specific borders, rather than looking at government performance. How we do this is by assigning scores on a 100-point scale using a methodology that looks at various indicators covering a range of political rights and civil liberties. This includes categories like the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, functioning of government, as well as freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights. Then based on this assessment, we divide the world into free, partly free, and not free.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Where's the US stand these days?
Amy Slipowitz: The US still ranks as free. It's among the freest countries in the world, but it has really declined over the last 10 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I wanted to ask, when you look at a country, if you look at subgroups within that country. I'm wondering if it is freer for some than others, both in the US and around the world.
Amy Slipowitz: Yes, absolutely. I think one of the things that we've seen over the last few years is that there is really a majoritarian trend taking hold in many countries. We can take India for example, where the ruling party is really prioritizing its policies around the majority population and their voter base, rather than ensuring that equal rights are handed down to the whole population. I'm thinking particularly of Muslims in India, who have really been persecuted under some of the policies that are taking place there. This is happening in many other countries as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tim, you spoke with several experts for your recent piece on global democracy. I'm wondering if they pointed to some of these trends that Amy's been describing.
Tim Sullivan: Oh, definitely. You've got a decrease in the faith of democratic institutions, and people don't trust politicians as much. They don't trust the press. They don't trust civil society. Look at the attacks on the Open Society and George Soros and many countries. That leads, in the end, to just this view that democracy is not what the world thought it would be 30 years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is it that we thought democracy would be?
Tim Sullivan: I think there was this view that it was going to be an explosion of Western European/American way of life, that it was going to involve wealth, that standards of living would rise, that there would be elections that would work, there would be a functional press. Unfortunately, it just didn't take long for it to turn out that, like Bobby Kennedy said that quote, democracy is messy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Amy, I want to dig into that a little bit because part of what I hear from Tim is a combination, maybe even a conflation, of capitalist free market and democratic institutions, which perhaps historically have often gone together but are separate. Voting in elections, even if they are free and fair, doesn't necessarily bring wealth. I'm wondering if it is global poverty or economic inequality that is weakening democratic institutions.
Amy Slipowitz: Yes. I think one interesting way that authoritarians have been able to assert themselves is by saying that they have the set or system that will provide more economically when, in fact, a lot of studies have shown that democracy is the best system for stability and economic growth. It might take a while. It's not going to come overnight, but studies have shown that this is the best system. I think democratic actors are really struggling to assert themselves and show that there are benefits to democracy. This is allowing authoritarians to really step into the void and tout their own views.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tim, let's talk about some of the authoritarians. Can we begin in Nicaragua? What is particularly relevant about the politics there, relevant to this conversation?
Tim Sullivan: Part of it is just how dramatically it's happened there now. Daniel Ortega, the man who came to power, was for a time a revered revolutionary, lost power, democratically came back, and over the following years has basically turned back any dial when it came to democratic freedom. The presses has very little freedom. He's locked up most of his old revolutionary colleagues, some of whom had been against him for years. When protests broke out in 2018, he cracked down on them brutally, and now he's arresting people who had him rescued from prison when he was a revolutionary. He and his wife basically run the country as-- Dictator is a strong word and it's hard to know exactly when you should use it, but he's certainly highly authoritarian.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Give me one more nation here, because you do also write in your piece about Myanmar and the military coup there. As someone who's reported on Myanmar in the past, were there signs that the country's democracy was vulnerable before this year?
Tim Sullivan: Democracy has only been there in a very rocky way for the last six or eight years. Aung San Suu Kyi, who rose to prominence as a great believer in democracy, saw a lot of her global popularity eaten away by her lack of support for the Rohingya. When the constitution was changed, allowing this semi-democracy to come to power, the military made sure to hold on to quite a bit. It had guaranteed seats in parliament. It was guaranteed that military people would have some of the most powerful ministries.
While it was almost certainly a coup d'etat, they will tell you there it wasn't, because the constitution allows the military to take power in times of national emergency. They claimed there was election fraud and they stepped in. They actually used the constitution as an excuse to take power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That language of times of national emergency-- Amy, I wanted to come to you on this because we have been in a pandemic now globally for well over a year, going into the second year potentially with parts of the world where we may see what will feel like two years ago. How has that pandemic factored into the weaknesses of democracies?
Amy Slipowitz: The COVID-19 pandemic has really played a major role in driving the democratic decline that we've observed over the last year. It's given undemocratic leaders a real opportunity to consolidate power, and they've really seized on this. This is happening in all types of countries, from backsliding democracies like Hungary, to wavering democracies like Sri Lanka, to dictatorships like Cambodia. A common theme through all of this is that the impact of the pandemic does go far beyond justifiable restrictions in movement or assembly and is going to last long after the health crisis has passed.
Going back to Myanmar, we saw that after the military coup a few months ago, Aung San Suu Kyi and the president were charged for breaking COVID-19 rules against interacting with crowds, of course among many other charges. COVID is clearly a tool that the military was able to use to consolidate power, and many other countries and governments have been able to follow suit.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Amy, let's come back to the US a bit because there's been a lot of discussion around how President Donald Trump eroded trust in democracy or at least was indicative of an erosion of trust in democracy in the US. Freedom House, of course, noted those declines well before his ascendence to the presidency. What do you see as the most troubling US-based trends?
Amy Slipowitz: There are a number of concerns that we observed over the last year. One is the mass arrests and violence against journalists at protests. Another is this undermining of government transparency. We saw the dismissal of inspectors general and the undermining of other norms that are meant to hold government leaders accountable. I think especially damaging to US democracy were former President Trump's attempts to overturn the will of the American voters. He made many claims that the electoral system was ridden with fraud. Even after courts gave these claims a fair hearing and rejected them, it did sow doubt among a significant portion of Americans.
I think when democratic nations backslide or show weakness, this really gives authoritarian actors something to point to and space to claim that democracy is inherently inferior.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which, of course, Putin did in his meeting with President Biden, gesturing towards what appeared to be, at least from his perspective, some authoritarian trends within the US process. Tim, I'm wondering about the ways that the Biden administration has thought about strengthening democracy both in the US and globally, even if it may sometimes mean strengthening democratic processes or institutions but not getting, for example, legislative wins for themselves.
Tim Sullivan: I think right now, a lot of what the White House is thinking about is symbolic. A big part of Biden's trip to Europe was to show that America is again part of the liberal democratic world body that the Trump years saw the White House showing complete dismissiveness often to the European Union. This was Biden's way of saying, "We're back and democracy is the way forward."
It sounds a little mushy but the scholars I spoke to, a lot of them felt that part of what gives democracy strength is simply showing that it works. Between things like the economic meltdown, the tumult of the Trump years, the Brexit debates in Britain, democracy didn't look very good. Now, the Biden administration wants to make it like a good functioning system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. You have to look like your party is a place people want to go. It has to be aspirational in that way. Amy, I guess I'm not ready to eulogize democracy yet. I am still completely down for this great experiment of humans governing ourselves rather than turning it over to some either ruling class or authoritarian leader. Give me some good news. Where is democracy thriving? Is Cuba, for example, a moment of good news?
Amy Slipowitz: The major protests that have been taking place in Cuba, it is encouraging to see. I think it really is a reflection that, ultimately, people do want democracy and they do want their rights to be respected. All over the world, we have seen protests calling for some form of democracy or good governance arise even in the most repressive places. I think that just shows that it's really important for democracy's advocates to continue to work to strengthen democracy both in their own countries and to help support civil society and other grassroots actors who are pushing for change.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This language of civil society-- Tim, let me come to you on this because, of course, that was the thing that always was meant to set the US a bit apart was the robust civil society that was neither government nor simply individual households. I'm wondering if there are ways to strengthen civil societies, both within the US and globally, that maybe don't directly address any given authoritarian leader but provide that opportunity for a fertile ground for democracy.
Tim Sullivan: It's the power of civil societies that they're not just pro-democratic institutions. They're not even necessarily political institutions. They might do something as simple as be handing out masks during a pandemic. Part of what you're trying to show is that the people in a country can actually help take care of part of its problems and the government supports them in doing that, that there is this back and forth between the government and the people who create civil society.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we fail to trust our neighbors, when we're literally building walls between ourselves and everyone else, not just other nations, it is that erosion of democracy. I'm wondering, Amy, where media also sits in this, how you've seen indicators of the quality and health of the press impacting democratic institutions.
Amy Slipowitz: Media freedom has really suffered during these 15 years of democratic decline. Just to give the most recent development under the pandemic, we've seen more than half of 192 countries enact some form of media restrictions in response to the pandemic. This is really bad, especially when there is a lack of transparency that's coming from governments in COVID data and accurate information. This is when the media should be able to play a key role in delivering fact-based information to the public. It's really important to support free and independent media, and to protect access to information. As we're seeing now, not doing so can literally put people's lives in danger.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tim, I'm also wondering if we need a group project. We're going to talk a little later in the show about the billionaire space race but I'm wondering, do the American people or the people of any given nation need literally a group project to do, something we're collectively looking forward to, as part of strengthening that sense of trust and shared ties?
Tim Sullivan: It's certainly a great idea. It's sad to look at surveys about American space and democracy, and it's not very high. Despite all its problems, America is a flag of democracy around the world. Maybe that'd be the way to do it, for people to work together on something. It would certainly be nice to see. This is a time of great divisiveness in the US and something where both sides were working together, it'd be nice to see.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Maybe we could build some bridges and roads or something. Amy Slipowitz is a research manager at Freedom House. Tim Sullivan is a reporter for the Associated Press. Thank you so much to both of you.
Tim Sullivan: Thank you.
Amy Slipowitz: Thank you.
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