Published: 3.23.2018
Level 4   |   Time: 4:56
Accent: American
New York Times (1.24.2018)

For years, the number of democracies in the world had been on the rise, but recently the trend has stalled. Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, journalists for the New York Times, explore why some democratic countries have backslid, while others never made it.


triangle Directions

  1. REVIEW the vocabulary / background.
  2. WATCH the video.
  3. ANSWER the questions.
  4. CHECK your answers. (Show Answers)

triangle Vocabulary

  • take over [exp] - gain control
  • democracy [n] - government by voting
  • setback [n] - backward steps, problems to overcome
  • pick back up [exp] - continue forward
  • turn out [v] - surprising result
  • established [adj] - not new
  • measure [v] - judge, understand scientifically
  • dictatorship [n] - government by force (one ruler)
  • pattern [n] - repeated activity
  • backslide [v] - go backwards
  • rule of law [exp] - rules and laws are more powerful than people
  • civil society [exp] - connected society, people agree and act together
  • insitutions [n] - structures or forms in society
  • building blocks [n] - ways to build
  • add up to [v] - result in
  • authoritarian [adj] - system of power
  • the will of the people [exp] - people's choice
  • violent oppression [n] - using force to control (violence)
  • coercion [n] - force
  • play-book [n] - plan
  • handful [n] - a few
  • seemingly [adv] - seems to be
  • coup [n] - rebels take over the government
  • invasions [n] - another country takes over the government
  • strongman [adj] - strong personality
  • dismantle [v] - take apart, destroy
  • accrue [v] - gain, collect
  • constrain [v] - force to do something
  • when the dust settled [exp] - at the end
  • unchecked [adj] - free to do anything
  • chaos [n] - total disorder
  • tactic [n] - strategy, plan
  • bit by bit [exp] - slowly
  • polarization [n] - people becoming divided, separated, enemies
  • exploit [v] - use for personal advantage
  • nefarious [adj] - evil
  • populism [n] - trying to become popular with normal people
  • doomed [adj] - sure to fail, end
  • inevitability [n] - sure to succeed

triangle Questions

  1. How many democracies are there in the world?
    more than 20
    less than 10

  2. What happened 15 years ago?
    Democracy started spreading.
    Democracy stopped spreading.
    Democracy doubled.
    Democracy continued spreading at the same rate.

  3. What is the current state of democracy? (check all that apply)
    It might not spread any more.
    Some places that seemed democratic, actually are not.
    Established democracies might even be in trouble.
    The U.S. is no longer democratic.

  4. Which statement according to the graph is true?
    Generally, as countries become democratic, they become richer.
    Generally, as countries become democratic, they become poorer.
    Generally, as countries become richer, they become more democratic.
    Generally, as countries become richer, they become less democratic.

  5. Why did people think China would become democratic? (Check all that apply)
    They built a system of laws.
    They built a civil society.
    They built a good voting system.
    They built some institutions.

  6. Why did they build those things?
    To keep the people happy
    To build a foundation for democracy
    The will of the people forced them to build them.
    To reward the people

  7. What strategy does the government use when it feels like it is losing control? (Check all that apply)

  8. Why are some countries sliding back towards dictatorship?
    The leaders have more money.
    There have been some government take-overs.
    There have been some invasions.
    The leaders have an effective plan to take down democracy.

  9. How did Hugo Chavez gain power in Venezuela?
    People believed he was the only one who cared for them.
    People thought he was a good speaker.
    He forced his way into power.
    People believed he was the most experienced politician.

  10. Which things did the people support Chavez doing? (Check all that apply)
    changing the laws
    gaining power
    putting the opposite side in jail
    destroying democratic institutions
  11. What are the warning signs of democracy's fall? (Check all that apply)
    distrust of institutions

  12. What do they say about democracy at the end? Check all that apply)
    It has been here for a long time.
    It has been here for a short time.
    It will always be here.
    It may be too short to be a trend.

triangle Discussion

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of democracy? dictatorship?
  2. What type of government is best for the nations of the world?
  3. Do you think democracy will last forever? Do you think it will disappear?

triangle Script

This is the idea that took over the world. First there was one democracy. Then 10. Then 20. There were some setbacks but people really seemed to want democracy and eventually most of them got one. But 15 years ago, democracy stopped spreading and it might not pick back up again. Even some places that seemed safely democratic turned out not to be. And people are even getting worried about established democracies like the U.S. So, is there something wrong with democracy? I’m max Fischer. I’m Amanda Tao. We’re journalists at the New York Times and this is The Interpreter.

We can measure democracy kind of like a health score. Over here there are full democracies like the United States and over there are dictatorships like North Korea. So, the further left a country is the less democratic it is and the further right a country the more democratic it is. Now let’s see what happens when we add how rich the countries are. The higher on the graph, the richer the country. And the lower on the graph, the poorer the country. Generally, countries have moved up and right as they got richer they became more democratic. You got your Englands, your Latvias, your Indonesias. You see a pattern: countries getting richer: countries getting more Democratic. But look at countries like China and Saudi Arabia. They got Richer but never got more Democratic. Look at Russia and Venezuela: they got democratic but then backslid, which wasn’t supposed to happen. So, what’s going on?

China looked exactly like places we thought would become Democracies next. They built the rule of law, civil society, and some institutions. Normally those are the building blocks that eventually add up to democracy. But they were really designed to make citizens just happy enough to protect the authoritarian system from the will of the people. And whenever the government feels like it could lose control, it uses the other side of its strategy: violent oppression and coercion.

We are seeing this in more places where dictators are learning how to stop democracy from forming. And at the same time, some elected leaders are developing their own play-book for pulling democratic systems down from within. A handful of seemingly established democracies are sliding back towards dictatorship. These countries didn’t have coups or invasions. In each case voters elected strongman leaders who dismantled their democracies from within.

Venezuela had been democratic for 40 years; then Hugo Chavez rose on a message that only he spoke for the people.


People cheered as he accrued power for himself, jailed his opponents and tore down the democratic institutions that constrained him. When the dust settled, Chavez was unchecked. Society descended into chaos that is getting worse every day. Other elected leaders are using similar tactics but always bit by bit in ways that aren’t obvious and might even be popular at the time.

One of the most powerful forces that can turn people against democracy is polarization. When people feel scared enough of their political opponents it feels more important to protect their side than it does to protect democracy. Leaders can exploit that fear. So, if you’re Russian and you support Putin, you might blame society’s problems on gay people or nefarious Western Plots. You’re Turkish and support Iran, you fear the secular elites will impose a military rule. And we’re seeing that kind of polarization and fear start to take hold in established democracies.

Could it happen in the United States? It still feels impossible. And it might be. So far, the system is resilient. But the warning signs are here: polarization, populism, distrust of institutions, a desire for strongmen leaders to smash the system.

[Music] [Applause]

These things don’t necessarily mean that democracy is doomed, but they show that in times of social stress even a free people can dismantle their own democracy without realizing they’re doing it. Democracy is still a pretty new system of government. That century long trend might not have been a trend at all. Just a few one-time moments that we mistook for inevitability. We want to believe it will last forever, but we can’t be sure. [Music]

Thank you.