Why The Villains Of The World Are On The Rise

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bringing us images of murdered civilians, bombed maternity wards and the horror of urban warfare, we really have to wonder about the human race. How come 145 million Russians allow someone like Putin to rule over them?

The answer to this question of course has everything to do with Russian history and politics, but an even more worrying point is that Putin is not alone. The world today is plagued by authoritarians, nationalists and dictators – tinpot and others. And they are on. In fact, you could argue that we are heading for unprecedented anti-democratic hegemony.

Forget the “dark forces rising” in Lord of the Rings or “winter is coming” in Game of Thrones. These are real things, happening in our lives. Without sounding alarmist, something even bigger is afoot than Russia invading Ukraine – a war between civilization and humanity’s worst impulses.

The implications for businesses and economies are myriad, but I would identify two key points. First, to some degree it represents a transition, it brings uncertainty, and we will know how much Mr. Market hates it. Second, authoritarianism and its evil twin, corruption, produce poor results for everyone except the unscrupulous few. Autocracies are not in the business of the rising tide.

What about World War II? It is true that 80 years ago Hitler, Mussolini, Imperial Japan and their puppets fought a brutal world war. It’s also true – for now at least – they were generally deadlier. But the Axis powers controlled a much smaller share of the world’s population than today’s authoritarians.

When it comes to today’s autocrats – Putin, Xi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Orbán, Khamenei and dozens more – it’s a mix of leaders. Some are military dictators, some are elected by the people, and some control by force of personality. What they all share at the very least is a disdain for globalism, and in most cases much more than that; the suppression of human rights and the media (a chilling source here), the imprisonment of political opponents, murder and, finally, acts such as the invasion of Ukraine.

Let’s look at the 10 most populous countries: China, India, United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia and Mexico. My colleague Max Zahn and I turned to a 2021 study by the V-Dem Institute (Varieties of Democracy), a Swedish NGO that analyzes and ranks nations according to their democratic characteristics (i.e. home country Sweden has the strongest democracy and Eritrea the worst – below even North Korea.)

As for the 10 most populous nations, only four; the United States, Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil (which has “undergone substantial autocratization” over the past decade, according to the V-Dem report) and Indonesia are among the top 50% of nations democratic. (Mexico barely made the cut.) The others are all below the line, highlighted by China at No. 172 out of 179 countries and Russia at No. 151.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China February 4, 2022. Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

V-Dem finds that 70% of the world, or 5.4 billion people, live in autocracies, up from 49% in 2011. The report also found that only 15 countries are democratizing – covering 3% of the world’s population – the lowest number since 1978. (Another source here is Freedom House, which notes that the number of countries becoming less free has outnumbered those becoming more free for 16 consecutive years.)

Why does this happen?

“On some levels, it’s a return to the norm,” says Erica Frantz, associate professor of political science at Michigan State. “There was such a surge of democracy after the end of the Cold War, maybe we are settling into a new normal. At the same time, it is important to remember that democracies always outnumber dictatorships. Frantz also thinks that Putin’s invasion could ultimately backfire and slow the progress of authoritarianism.

Another perspective comes from Joseph Wright, a political science professor at Penn State. Wright argues that underlying much of this shift to autocracy is our demand for resources.

“This kind of aggressive behavior from people like Putin – we’ve seen it in the past with Iran as well as, to some extent, Venezuela – is driven by oil and gas prices,” he says. “As these prices rise, dictators whose states own assets in these sectors are consolidating their power at home, trampling on remnants of democratic institutions that could constrain their behavior. This emboldens their actions internationally, as we see now with Putin. The why now of the why attack in February 2022 – part of this is due to rising oil prices in 2021. The decarbonization of Western economies will limit the reach of authoritarianism.

As for Wright’s last point about decarbonization, I’m not so sure. I just don’t think the world going all solar would put an end to the megalomaniac urges of human beings.

Speaking of which, Frantz and Wright both refer to another tendency known as “personalism”, which, as Wright explains, is when “oligarchs are able to amass enormous fortunes, finance of the parties they create or support”. He notes: “In Benin, an oligarch created a party; in El Salvador, the president created a party; Brazil did the same. In Hungary, the president was able to consolidate power over the party with the help of the oligarchs. Georgia and Serbia are countries that have experienced it recently.

“We know that personalist dictatorships are more likely to be aggressive in foreign policy, more likely to initiate conflict, to provoke conflict with democracies,” Frantz says.

Hmm, does the personalism sound a bit familiar to you? Now might be a good time to point out that the United States only ranks 29th on the V-Dem list – between Japan and Latvia – and worse, like Brazil, has “undergone autocratization substantial” over the past decade. (Freedom House corroborates this, citing illegitimate attempts to nullify elections, an increase in political intimidation, violence and discrimination against racial and ethnic groups in the United States)

We have every right to be outraged by Putin and his obnoxious mob and to condemn them, but we better make sure to keep our own house in order. Investors, voters — and freedom lovers everywhere — will be watching.

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on March 12, 2022. Get the Morning Brief delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @server

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