But what shocked Nemat the most was the speed of her nation’s descent into a theocratic regime in 1979. Within a matter of months, she and her fellow Iranians lost the limited rights they had enjoyed under the country’s previous government, itself a repressive monarchy.
When Nemat dared to protest against the new regime, she was arrested and sent to the notorious Evin prison, where she would spend the next two-plus years, released just shy of 19 — alive, but deeply broken. From that traumatizing time, she says she learned “those of us who have experienced what the loss of basic rights looks and feels like have an obligation to speak up.”
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon was already four years old when she first met her father, Ko Mya Aye, a democratic activist who had been sent to prison for leading a peaceful protest against the military dictatorship in Burma (now known as Myanmar) in 1988.
Though at first she thought he was being treated well, the iron bars that prevented her from embracing her father soon jolted Wai Hnin to reality. In that moment, she says, a child became an aspiring voice for human rights, one who would speak out over the nearly three decades since that meeting — as her father was repeatedly imprisoned, most recently after the military’s February coup.
Wai Hnin, now living in exile, writes that her father’s “commitment to helping build a lasting democracy in Burma has taught me that an equal and just political system is not a guarantee. It requires hard work.”
Evan Mawarire never got to experience freedom in his country. By the time he turned three, Robert Mugabe had become Zimbabwe’s prime minister — and for the next 37 years, the dictator would run the country with the full weight of the government and military behind him, claiming that “only God” could remove him from power.
In 2016, Mawarire, now a pastor, concluded that the status quo in Zimbabwe could not stand. Corruption was rampant, deflation had replaced hyperinflation, and free and fair elections were long gone.
His decision to post a video, in which he draped himself in the country’s flag while giving an impassioned lament for the current state of Zimbabwe, was a huge risk. Still, Mawarire tells CNN, he got to the point where he realized “no one else is going to fight for this country with as much passion and commitment as I am.” He was later imprisoned for his political activism and, like Nemat and Wai Hnin, now lives in exile.
Mawarire, Nemat and Wai Hnin are among the 21st century’s freedom fighters — people who have risked their lives and liberty in a battle for democracy that is being fought globally. In this series, “Voices of Freedom,” 13 dissidents from around the world are telling their stories and making the case for supporters of democracy to fight for restoring and protecting the rights to speak freely and vote in honest elections. They are active participants in the Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI), a nonprofit dedicated to promoting democratic values at home and abroad.
Decline of global freedom
The stakes could not be higher. Freedom House, a nonprofit research organization, put this battle in almost apocalyptic terms in its annual report on liberty. “As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny,” wrote Freedom House’s Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz. “Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists—lacking effective international support—faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings.”
The organization labeled 2020 “the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom” and determined that less than 20% of the world’s population now lives in truly free countries. Among the countries where democracy is under assault is the world’s longest lived modern democratic government: the United States.
On Jan. 6, 2021, hundreds of insurrectionists stormed the citadel of US democracy — the Capitol — in an effort steal the 2020 presidential election from Joe Biden. For the first time in modern American history, a small but violent group of US citizens refused to accept the peaceful transfer of political power — and they showed how willing they were to go to extreme ends to try and keep then-President Donald Trump in office.
Five people died that day, including one Capitol Police officer. And, according to a Department of Justice filing, the rioters caused an estimated $1.5 million in damages to the Capitol building.
Though their efforts ultimately failed, the threat of another insurrection looms large over future US elections. A March poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found that 15% of Americans believe that “patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
Equally alarming is that, according to a late summer CNN poll, 51% of Americans believe it’s “at least somewhat likely that an election in the next few years will be overturned by elected officials because their party lost.” When Americans do not have faith in the integrity of their elections, the impact worldwide can be devastating, says Gambian dissident Fatou Jaw Manneh.
As she has struggled to build a young democracy in her home country, Manneh writes, “it wasn’t just American influence that made me demand better from the Gambian government — it was knowing that America was there that made me believe that I could succeed.” Imperfect and as unequal as it may be, she says, the United States “is still the most potent global force for freedom, and without it the world… faces a dark future.”
Compounding problems, economic forces — including growing inequality — and the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic have put new stress on nations struggling with the challenge of autocracy. China and Russia are among the nations that are seeking to demonstrate that their systems of governance can reward citizens with improved prosperity — and without the freedoms taken for granted in the west.
However, the Chinese government rejects the authoritarian label. In September, the Chinese Ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, gave a speech claiming China had a “whole-process democracy,” a system he said was built on the tenets of the Chinese constitution, which “prescribes that all power belongs to the people. The people have the right to election, and they can be broadly involved in national governance according to law.”
These words follow a familiar pattern from Chinese officials who, for years, have made misleading claims about the true nature of Beijing’s political system, Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks, a China-focused research firm, explains to CNN. Though the Chinese government does hold elections, they are neither free nor fair nor representative of the will of the people, finds a 2021 Freedom House report, which also documented how Chinese President Xi Jinping used the pandemic to further expand his party’s surveillance of the Chinese people.
There is a point to this game of political semantics, says Stone Fish. It forces a debate within the US and other western democracies about something that should be obvious — that China’s government does not meet any internationally accepted definition of democracy. It also helps to distract from allegations of human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, censorship of the press and crackdowns on civil society (all of which the Chinese government denies).
But this debate does not negate a reality that many leaders of western democracies are acutely aware of — a growing dissatisfaction with their own form of government. At his first press conference in March of this year, US President Joe Biden remarked, “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies…We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
The hallmarks of democracy
There is one feature all democracies share in common — they give power to the people, whether directly or through some form of elected representation. For activist and RDI chairman Garry Kasparov, who has been on the frontlines of battling Russian repression for over three decades, that’s a system worth fighting for — even if it comes at great cost.
He writes, “Hailing from the Soviet Union… a precursor to [President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, I have always understood that democracy is a privilege — one that must constantly be defended.” Whether protesting the sentencing of Putin’s critics or taking to the streets of Moscow to demand free and fair elections, Kasparov, now living in exile, believes that democracy is an active sport that requires all of its citizens to participate.
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, tells CNN that an active citizenry is a hallmark of democracy. She argues that strong democracies have robust civil societies capable of engaging in the kinds of collective action Kasparov initiated in Russia but was arrested for partaking in.
Simply put, citizens living in democracies should be able to express their dissent without risking retribution. And, Berman explains, they have multiple mechanisms to do so — whether by voting in elections in which two or more political parties are on the ballot, bringing lawsuits before an independent judiciary, writing or calling their elected leaders or taking to the streets in protest.
Beyond the political characteristics that define a democracy, there are the social and economic factors that are critical to its success, says Berman. A real democracy must provide some form of social equality to all of its citizens, regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity.
For Wai Hnin, social equality is one feature that has been sorely missing from Myanmar’s government, even as it instituted some democratic reforms prior to this year’s military coup.
The most obvious example is the horrendous treatment of the country’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya. In late 2016, the Burmese military began carrying out the “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, according to the United Nations human rights commissioner — driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya survivors into neighboring Bangladesh. (The Burmese military has largely denied these allegations.)
Though Myanmar’s 2008 constitution forbids discrimination against any religious or ethnic minority, it also includes a section recognizing the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.” This ambiguity in the wording — combined with the power and influence of the Buddhist nationalists — has meant that minorities like the Rohingya have never been treated equally in civil society and have never had adequate representation in government under this constitution.
But just as important as social equality is economic equality, which — when secured — gives citizens the opportunity to focus on other pressing issues. Unfortunately, according to Thomas Carothers, senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, over the last four years, economic inequality and stagnation have been driving factors of protests across the world — from Argentina to Egypt, France to India.
He and former Carnegie fellow David Wong write that this backlash is “a late-stage warning gong for capitalism,” arguing that public anger over various market failings, including the “dislocation and insecurity in the middle class” are behind the protests. And if democratic governments continue to let economic inequality grow, they will contribute to a growing sense that democracy cannot deliver for the people — leaving an opening for radical leaders to step in, Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel, associate professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, explains to CNN.
In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who might not have been competitive otherwise, was able to capitalize on the economic unrest in his successful bid for the presidency in 2018. As the country sunk deeper into a recession that began in 2014, and as a major corruption scandal plagued his predecessor’s administration, Bolsonaro positioned himself as a viable alternative. However, Stuenkel says, Bolsonaro did not necessarily win “because people thought he had better [economic] answers, but because part of the population didn’t have much to lose.”
The battle for freedom
Bolsonaro’s campaign was built on one of the biggest criticisms of western democracy today — that even though citizens may still freely vote for their elected leaders, many of those leaders are self-serving elites who are out of touch with the economic and social needs of those they supposedly serve. That logic, Stuenkel explains, “makes putting a radical who…lacks any qualification to govern a more appealing option.”
It goes far beyond Brazil. Across the world, far-right and far-left leaders have exploited people’s dissatisfaction with political elites and their maintenance of the status quo, Michael Abramowitz, President of Freedom House, tells CNN.
Hungary offers a powerful example. In the 2010 election, Hungarians voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, kicking out the socialist government which had run the country for eight years. With unemployment creeping into the double digits and the economy contracting over the previous year, the conditions were ripe for Orbán to offer a different vision — one in which Hungarians could prosper.
And, according to several metrics, Orbán has addressed some of these dire economic realities. As of 2018, when he was elected for a third time, Hungary’s official unemployment figures and government debt had fallen, its credit rating had improved and its budget deficit had been approximately halved.
Any economic gains have not come without a high political price, though. Since Orbán became prime minister, he and his party have chipped away at Hungarian democracy, pushing through a series of significant constitutional and legislative changes that have expanded his control of many of the country’s independent institutions — including its judiciary.
More recently, his government “has moved to institute policies that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who criticize it or whose perspectives it otherwise finds unfavorable,” says a Freedom House analysis. Though once a highly-rated democracy, according to the latest Freedom House rankings Hungary is now classified as partly free — and stands to drop further in the rankings if it continues on its current course.
The threat of misinformation
Dissatisfaction with the status quo isn’t the only factor undermining democracies today. Abramowitz explains there have been dramatic changes in our “information environment.” In the early days of the internet and social media, activists were quite adept at using new information technologies to serve their democratic causes. But, in recent years, dictators and those who aspire to be them have learned how to use these technologies to serve their political agendas.
One recent example is Russian attempts to impact democratic elections abroad with digital disinformation campaigns. Steven Wilson, an assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University, writes that these digital campaigns — often run across social media platforms — “exploit existing political fault lines like race and regionalism to increase polarization and disaffection with the political system.” The consequence is an erosion of citizens’ trust in institutions and each other. And without trust, he argues, democracy cannot thrive.
One country where the impact of these kinds of campaigns has been felt is the United States. According to a declassified US intelligence report, Trump was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pick for US president in 2016, and Russia used a two-part disinformation strategy to persuade the American public to vote against Hillary Clinton. As the report details, the Kremlin combined covert cyber intelligence operations targeting individuals and parties associated with the US presidential election, as well as overt efforts by Russian government agencies, third party intermediaries and paid digital trolls targeting American citizens.
And while Trump’s 2016 electoral victory cannot be entirely credited to Putin, it appears Russian efforts succeeded in both undermining some Americans’ faith in US democracy and in giving Putin a disinformation playbook he could apply “to future influence efforts in the United States and worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes,” according to the report.
Indeed, the US intelligence community assessed that Putin, although unsuccessful in swaying the election in Trump’s favor, tampered in the 2020 US presidential election. But the same assessment revealed an even more disturbing trend — Russia was not the only regime waging information warfare in the US. Iran, Venezuela and Cuba each tried to sway American public opinion during the same election cycle. (All countries deny meddling in US elections.)
According to Abramowitz, this is part of a dangerous pattern of copycat behavior among autocrats — learning worst practices from each other and using them to undermine trust in democracy.
This web of digital disinformation has only exacerbated Americans’ loss of faith in government and institutions, which had already been on the decline even before the 2016 election, according to the Pew Research Center. And while trust in government tends to be higher among the party which controls the US presidency, even in April of this year Pew shows that only 36% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they trusted in the US government. That number dropped dramatically to 9% among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.
The clearest driver of distrust in US democracy is Trump’s lie that he really won the 2020 election. Despite any evidence of systematic voter fraud, Trump and his loyalists continue to sow doubt about Biden’s victory in the minds of the American people — at in-person rallies, through sham audits, in television appearances and in public statements. According to a CNN poll from August and early September 2021, they are achieving some degree of success. 36% of Americans — and a startling 78% of Republicans — now believe Biden did not win enough votes to be the legitimately elected president.
Turning the tide on authoritarianism
At the Oslo Freedom Forum in October, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López argued that the world did not have to settle for a dark future. Those who believe in the fundamentals of freedom could win the war against dictatorship — but they need to be united and organized, and they require assistance from leading democracies like the United States.
This is no easy task. Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, explains to CNN that democracy is only as strong as people’s commitment to it, and that commitment has waned in recent years. However, civic institutions — from schools to houses of worship to social clubs — can play a key role in strengthening democracies at home and abroad.
Fundamentally, democracies demand that citizens accept they may not always get the electoral outcome that they want. Civic institutions, where people begin to encounter individuals and ideas they may disagree with, can teach the values of negotiation, compromise and even acceptance of a less than desirable outcome, she says.
Linda Chavez, a conservative political commentator and RDI board member, believes the most important civic institution may be schools. In the US, she tells CNN, many students have received a “comic book version of history with superheroes and supervillains,” but without a deeper understanding of the struggle to expand American democracy to more and more citizens.
It’s no surprise, Chavez says, that low voter turnout has become a defining feature of the 18 to 29-year-old demographic in the US (though 2020 did see an eight point rise in voter turnout among this cohort). If students spend time reading through the original documents that shaped American democracy — from the Federalist Papers to the US Constitution to the 1964 Civil Rights Act — Chavez reasons that students will not simply bemoan how unequal the US has historically been, but take pride in the multi-century struggle Americans have endured to expand civil rights and liberties. And perhaps they will feel more motivated to take part in that democratic struggle moving forward.
Proving democracy works
While civic education is a critical piece of the democratic puzzle, there are additional efforts that must be taken to strengthen US commitment to democracy. And one of them must target the many Americans who have come to believe Trump’s election lies.
Chavez says that conservatives must lead that effort. “The Constitution — which conservatives have always claimed to owe allegiance to — is under attack. Trump’s tenure was marked by his flouting of the rule of law and separation of powers, and now he is being aided by those who previously claimed to [be] champions of those very principles,” she writes to CNN. Chavez hopes that Republicans like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, though in the minority, can serve as models for speaking truth to Trump and his allies’ dangerous assertions of power.
Beyond outreach to disbelieving Republicans, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, tells CNN that democratic activists must tap into the American population which does not vote or participate in the political process at all.
In the 2020 US presidential election, which saw record voter turnout, about 80 million eligible voters still stayed home. According to 2020 US Census data, there are several reasons people cite for not voting, but chief among them is feeling disinterested in the political process. A 2020 Medill/NPR/Ipsos poll supports the census findings — almost a quarter of nonvoters said they were uninterested in politics and almost a third of nonvoters said they had not even registered to vote. According to a NPR analysis of this poll, these nonvoters “are disengaged, disaffected and don’t believe politics can make a difference in their lives.”
Ben-Ghiat explains that voter registration and mobilization efforts must target these potential voters — and must do a more effective job at explaining how their votes can translate into concrete actions by elected representatives.
Carothers says one way to plead this case is to show proof of concept. When Congress and the White House are able to work together to solve pressing issues facing the American public — such as economic inequality or aging infrastructure — they can argue that a system of governance, often plagued by gridlock, can also be a force for good in people’s day-to-day lives.
And while this may seem an impossible task against the backdrop of America’s fractured politics, it is urgent that the nation’s elected leaders and citizens model the kind of behavior befitting a democracy. After the events of Jan. 6, RDI began hearing from activists and dissidents about the need for the US to quickly change course and set a worldwide example for true freedom. They wanted to “remind us of the importance of America’s founding values to our own success and to the global community as a whole,” Uriel Epshtein, Executive Director of RDI, tells CNN.
In response, RDI launched the Frontlines of Freedom project. It features an open letter, signed by 53 dissidents from 28 countries, in which they argue, “If the world’s leading democracy doesn’t believe in its own values, why should dictators even bother paying lip service to them? We must defend these principles that inspire advocates of liberty and provide a crucial check on tyrants.”
Beyond a firm commitment to secure voting rights and uphold democratic election results, those principles include protecting free speech and free press rights. As the signatories explain, we cannot defeat “illiberalism with illiberalism,” but rather with the creation of a space where ideas and opinions, however controversial or provocative, may be shared and debated.
Inspiring bold citizens
As democratic legislative bodies debate the parameters of these freedoms, they can still invest time and resources in strengthening civil society. And while a robust civil society is critical to the maintenance of democracies, it is perhaps even more critical in countries where activists are trying to lay the foundations of democracy.
For example, retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a whistleblower during the Trump administration, and Belarussian dissident Andrei Sannikov write that for Belarus to succeed in moving away from an autocracy that has governed its country for over 25 years, it “will require the collective action of other western nations committed to the values and principles of basic human rights and freedoms.” The United States could take lead on this by “providing material and ideological support to the country’s pro-democracy elements.”
This kind of aid is far more practical, explains Roland Rich, an assistant teaching professor at Rutgers University and former Australian diplomat. Government-to-government aid, especially when one of the parties involved is not a democracy, is often highly ineffective in bringing about tangible change. However, he argues, “people-to-people aid” can empower citizens and civil society to organize and push for the freedoms they deserve.
For Mawarire, who continues the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe, Rich’s thinking mirrors his mobilization efforts on the ground. He explains that one of his country’s democratic slogans has become, “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold.”
And while international support for democratic efforts can often play a critical role, Mawarire believes that much of the push for freedom must come from within countries where citizens are struggling against the weight of autocracy. The beauty of his advocacy work, he says, is helping fellow Zimbabweans recognize their agency in the political process and then driving them to say, “I’m not going to sit in the terraces or bleachers to watch other people [build democracy]. I’m doing it myself.”
Democracy does not blossom overnight. Mawarire compares it to growing a garden and waiting patiently for the seeds of freedom to blossom. It may take time, but “there’s going to be a generation that’s going to harvest the fruits of democracy,” he says. Until then, all those who believe in the values of a free and open society must tend to the garden, watering, cultivating, and, when necessary, removing the weeds of autocracy that threaten to compromise its growth.