William E. Scheuerman in the Boston Review:
Democracy seems in bad shape these days. In contrast, its global political rivals appear to be prospering and gaining confidence in their ability to offer a viable alternative. Commenting gleefully a few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, Vladimir Putin celebrated “the degradation of the idea of democracy in western society in the political sense of the word.” Su Changhe, a Chinese scholar who has praised his country’s successes under President-for-life Xi Jinping, offers approval that “Western democracy is already showing signs of decay.” Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Prime Minister, hopes that his government will soon be “closer to its people, faster, better and more responsive” than western democracy. Since the UAE’s version of democracy is deeply rooted in local society, he claims, that dream is already being realized.
Of course, autocrats always tout their achievements, or insist that their regimes rest on the will of the people. Even Nazi Germany claimed popular legitimacy, a racist and anti-Semitic Volks-sovereignty. Soviet apologists and fellow travelers labeled Stalin’s Eastern European vassal states “people’s democracies.” The contemporary narrative seems depressingly familiar. Even so, the specter of powerful autocratic states that parasitically mimic democracy, while in reality eviscerating its core, should alarm us. Are democracy’s rivals indeed gaining ground? And, what precisely is different this time?