Not so very long ago, many astute observers thought that liberal democracy was in decline globally. Enlightenment values of individual rights, liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, and constitutional government were outmoded, irrelevant to the needs of modern society, and threatening to long held beliefs and traditions. Populist authoritarianism was in ascendence and providing a new model for the world. Counties like Russia and China were increasingly seen as providing a more efficient mechanism for “getting things done” without all the messiness of individual choice and democratic rule.
Yet, if one looks around the world today, authoritarianism is being challenged everywhere. The struggle for – and desire for – liberty is seeing a rebirth.
In Ukraine, a liberal democracy, admittedly flawed but fundamentally embracing ideals of liberty and self-determination, has proven more than a match for the authoritarian behemoth that invaded it. The Ukrainian success, of course, owes much to western aide and Russian incompetence. But the ultimate key to the Ukrainian fortitude we are witnessing in the face of hardship and atrocity has been the belief that they are fighting for freedom and independence. Compare that to Russian conscripts forced to fight for a system that they neither care about nor cares about them.
Meanwhile, women and others have risen up in Iran in the wake of the death of of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student likely murdered by the regime’s infamous morality police. The authorities have responded with brutal force, arresting thousands, and killing more than 300. Yet, the protests have continued for nearly four months, if anything growing larger, under the slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom.”
Even in China, long considered the epicenter of the authoritarian alternative, is now experiencing unprecedented protests that have sprung up across the country. The protests, small by international standards, have not been seen since in China since the 1989 protest in Tiananmen Square. These latest protests started in opposition to the country’s draconian “zero COVID” policy, but now the demonstrators are calling for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and “the democratic rule f law.” Some have even called for President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to relinquish power.
Of note, in this country, voters in the midterm elections largely rejected the most extreme candidates and delivered a strong rebuke to those who flirt with anti-democratic norms.
Of course, to differing degrees, all these pro-liberal movements may fail. It seems unlikely but Russia could get its act together enough to complete its conquest of Ukraine. The Iranian protests may fizzle out the way others have in the past. China’s demonstrations are almost certainly not going to topple Xi. In the US, troubling strains of extremism remain among both political parties. New threats to freedom will arise, and old ones will have their triumphs.
Yet, successful or not, we are seeing that the desire for liberty is unquenchable. We should have understood this. After all, we’ve been through dark times before. We’ve fallen short of our ideals and seen liberty stumble and be momentarily eclipsed. But always the spark has rekindled.
We should remember. We should continue to fight the good fight and to support those who share our struggle. And we should be optimists. In the end, liberty will triumph.