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How to defend democracy

The battle for Ukraine is part of a larger struggle to defend democracy against increasing aggression by authoritarian leaders.

Thousands of protesters gathered in Budapest to demonstrate against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 26. Hungary’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has nurtured close political and economic ties with Russia for more than a decade. But following Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Hungary's neighbor, Orban is facing growing pressure to change course.Justin Spike/Associated Press

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a frontal assault on democracy. This should come as no surprise. The Russian president has long declared democratic values “obsolete” and human rights an instrument of Western imperialism. Welcome to the New Cold War.

Putin has acolytes in the West also working to destroy democracy. In Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has hijacked Hungary’s democratic institutions and created a Putin-lite autocracy inside the European Union bolstered by newly created oligarchs. In the United States, Donald Trump has mounted a campaign to undermine democracy by manipulating the electoral process and attacking the rights and civic responsibilities of Americans.


It’s time to fight back.

The people of Ukraine are warning Europeans and Americans not to take democracy for granted and to come to its defense before it’s too late. The brutal attack on Ukraine cannot be repelled by strengthening democracy in the United States and the EU, but winning the long-term struggle against authoritarianism depends on it.

Putin was emboldened by what he perceives as weaknesses in Western democracies as they confront external challenges and internal resistance. Russia’s increasing alliance with China threatens Western military and economic security. In the United States, the Jan. 6 insurrection on the US Capitol and Donald Trump’s attack on the electoral process were seen by Putin as signs of democratic disintegration. Britain’s exit from the EU and the rise of Euroskepticism were taken as signals of impending EU deconsolidation.

Putin’s authoritarian model has been embraced by his European and American acolytes. Orban, Trump, and other far-right transatlantic nationalists are sowing division and stymying efforts in the EU and the United States to reaffirm democratic values. The EU has been unable to prevent Orban’s rejection of EU principles by a member state. The US Congress has been blocked by Trump and his supporters from enacting legislation to protect the right to vote, the engine of American democracy.


The way to defend democracy is to mobilize the public. Fortunately, Americans support democratic values far more than the current climate of toxic and divisive politics suggests. This remarkable revelation can be found in a series of national polls in a forthcoming study of democracy and human rights in the United States. These national surveys were conducted for our team of Harvard researchers by a leading nonpartisan polling organization, the National Opinion Research Council at the University of Chicago.

The polls show that 80 percent of Americans across the demographic and political spectrum believe that “without our rights, America is nothing” and that “Americans have more in common than many people think.” They blame polarization on politicians: 90 percent say that “politicians are intentionally dividing our country.” By overwhelming margins, they endorse voting rights, freedom of speech and the press, equal protection, racial equality, due process of law, and other basic democratic rights. A comparable study of 14 European countries conducted in 2019 by the Pew Research Center found comparably high levels of support in Europe for democratic values.

Contrary to common belief, a majority of Americans have a nuanced view of their rights, linking values with practices that create social solidarity in a democracy of unprecedented size and diversity. For example, a majority claim the coronavirus pandemic has brought Americans closer together and increased their respect for each other. Similarly, a majority view is that the right to personal freedom is not absolute and does not stand in the way of requirements to protect public health. The balancing of individual rights and public interests extends to other areas as well. For example, a majority believe that police can protect the public from crime while also being held accountable for violations of civil rights. And a majority believe the right to bear arms should not prevent the regulation of weapons to protect public safety.


The challenge is to mobilize European and American majorities who support democratic values to to take inspiration from the people of Ukraine and organize their own defenses at national, state and local levels to resist the hijacking of democracy. The battle for Ukraine is part of a larger struggle to defend democracy against increasing aggression by authoritarian leaders. Putin’s authoritarian offensive against Ukraine must be repelled, and attacks by his acolytes in Europe and the United States must be thwarted as part of the ongoing struggle for democracy.

John Shattuck is professor of practice in diplomacy at the Tufts University Fletcher School and coauthor of the forthcoming “Holding Together: The Hijacking of Rights in America and How to Reclaim Them for Everyone.”