Since at least the end of World War II and the Cold War, many Americans observers have described international politics as a competition between democratic governments and authoritarian or “autocratic” ones. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world saw a large increase in the number of electoral democracies and a decrease in authoritarian governments. Many people believed that democracy as a political system had “won” and would continue to establish itself in countries around the world.
That prediction has not come true in the 21st century, though. The number of democracies worldwide stagnated, then began to decrease, a process known as “democratic backsliding.”
In this lesson, students will learn about what factors are causing democratic backsliding across the world, with a particular focus on the rise of Viktor Orbán, the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister of Hungary. From this base of knowledge, students will be asked to consider the threat of democratic backsliding in the U.S.
In small table groups or with the person next to them, have your students chew on the following two questions:
- What is democracy? How does it differ from other political systems that you know of?
- What is one element of American society (a law, a tradition, an organization, a shared belief) that sustains or supports democracy? How does it do this?
Watch the following video about threats to democracies across the world before having your students answer three questions in groups. You need only to watch the first 4m:50s. Click here for a transcript.
It may be easier to print out the questions and have students jot down thoughts as they go along before sharing out.
- According to Miriam Kornblith, is Latin American democracy being threatened by forces within the political (party) system or forces outside of it? In your opinion, is it worse for democracy to be attacked outside the system, or by elected politicians themselves?
- Name one of the many factors that Helen Kezie-Nwoha says are undermining democracy in Africa. Do similar problems exist in the U.S.? What do you think?
- What is one way that Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, has weakened the opposition to his control of Hungary’s government?
Since the above piece aired in 2021, Orbán won election to his 4th term in office, continuing to strengthen his grip on the Hungarian government. Since then, he has become an ally of the American far-right (some conservative Republicans).
For example, Tucker Carlson, conservative Fox News host, produced a full-length TV special about Orbán and Hungary. For their part, extreme-right conservatives in the U.S. would deny that Orbán is undermining democracy.
The following video details Orbán’s appearance at CPAC in 2022, one of the largest yearly gatherings for American far-right conservatives.
Have your students watch the video then respond to questions.
- Viktor Orbán said that his values are “the nation, Christian roots and family?” Why do you think he makes these appeals central to his politics?
- Orbán gave some advice to American far-right conservatives at the CPAC 2022, saying the following: “In order to win, it is not enough to know what you are fighting for. You also have to know how you should fight. My answer is, play by your own rules.”
- Considering what you learned about Orbán in the previous video, what do you think he means by this? In what ways is the American political system set up to prevent politicians from playing “by their own rules”?
- Are Orbán’s electoral victories legitimate, according to Kim Lane Scheppele?
- What branch of government (executive, legislative, judicial) does Scheppele say could help create a “legalistic autocracy” in the United States?
End the activity with the following pair of discussion questions, either as a full class or in groups:
- Do you agree with PBS’ characterization of Orbán and his government’s policies as anti-democratic? What makes them anti-democratic, or if you don’t think they are, how are they part of a healthy democratic system?
- Based on what you have learned, do you think that there are ways American democracy is “backsliding” or could become a “backsliding democracy”?
Have your students complete the following activity if interested and if time allows.
- Personal computer/phone/tablet with internet connection
- Students should follow this link to Freedom House’ complete list of countries, along with their “global freedom score.”
- Have students choose any country they want that is described as “partly free” and pursue 5-10 minutes of internet research about that nation. They should look to answer the following three questions in 1-2 sentences.
- Who is the current president/prime minister/leader of your country? How long have they been in power?
- Why is this country in Freedom House’s in-between category of “party free”? Has it gotten more democratic (i.e. a dictatorship that has become a more stable democracy) or less democratic (i.e. a strong democracy that has become unstable) over time?
- Do a quick search for news stories about this nation and its democracy. Do you expect it to get more or less democratic over time?
Leo Kamin, a sophomore at Amherst College and 2022 summer intern with PBS NewsHour Classroom, wrote this lesson with editing by Victoria Pasquantonio.
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