Democracy is under threat around the world. Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, one of the most exhaustive measures of multidimensional democracy, states that today, 72 percent of the world’s population lives in authoritarian states, while only 13 percent live in liberal democracies, with 42 countries practicing Dictatorship — and distance from democracy — over the past year.
However, this approach is only a snapshot of current characteristics, fails to acknowledge the different ways regimes have become undemocratic, and produces quixotic attempts to move regimes toward democracy.
Some regimes do not respond because they are platypus.
In biology, phenotypic classification assumes that we can look at different organisms and classify them based on a snapshot of their characteristics: birds have beaks; mammals are lactate; reptiles can be venomous. The platypus, however, has a beak, produces milk, and is poisonous. Phenotype classification does not always work.
In contrast, the branching, or evolutionary, approach traces the branching tree that started with single-celled organisms and became contemporary birds, reptiles, and mammals. The platypus may have some of the characteristics of birds and reptiles, but its evolution followed a path that branched off to become mammals, so the platypus belongs to the mammalian family.
When thinking about institutions, we are best off tracing evolutionary paths. In particular, the branching trees to consider are the left or right estates of different governments.
The ideal quintessential leftist government comes from a revolutionary and anti-colonial history, empowered through commitments to redistribute wealth and improve the poor, tied to labor and other lower social movements, and opposed to racial, ethnic, gender, and other patterns of exclusion.
The ideal typical right-wing government traces its origins to colonial powers, gains power through commitments to support international capital and its local allies, links to business associations and land elites, and supports dominant group identities against minority populations.
Countries don’t randomly follow one path or another. The history of regimes is traced by critical moments and decision points when social forces came together to institutionalize the choice of left or right evolutionary branches.
Countries that reject the leftist path do so because workers, farmers, women, indigenous and minority groups come together around anti-colonial and transformative projects. Countries that reject the right path do so because colonial elites, domestic elites, and dominant identity groups switch to the right evolutionary branch.
Some of these governments may evolve over time and produce similarly undemocratic features. This tempts us to describe them as equally undemocratic and to react similarly, but their divisions at critical moments in the past matter when considering how to free them from today’s undemocratic rule.
For example, our increasingly precise measures tell us that countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Philippines are flawed or undemocratic, as was South Africa under apartheid.
Phenomenological approaches observe common features such as unfair or uncompetitive elections, restrictions on civil society, and attacks on the media, and may even argue that they are similar in their degree of undemocracy. However, it would be a mistake to approach them with a similar response.
I mention apartheid in South Africa on purpose because many people use this situation to support the idea that widespread sanctions and international isolation can work.
Yet widespread sanctions and international isolation have not pushed Cuba toward democracy, even after more than 60 years of a brutal embargo. The United States currently imposes extensive sanctions on more than 35 other countries, causing enormous humanitarian suffering without democratizing.
The reason is that the apartheid system in South Africa traced its roots and embarked on the correct evolutionary path. Sanctions isolate the regime precisely from the very communities that defined its evolution: Western governments and capital, domestic elites, and dominant white ethnic groups.
By contrast, while broad sanctions have devastated the economies of places like Cuba and Venezuela and caused needless death, isolation from the West has had no impact on the democratization of those countries. They may exhibit similarities to right-wing authoritarian regimes, but their evolutionary paths lie on the left branch, and the policies need to be complex enough to know the difference.
Non-democracies that originate on the right evolutionary path can be pushed toward greater democracy if their Western benefactors stop supporting them, but non-democracies that originate on the left cannot.
Attempts by the United States and other Western governments to isolate countries that originated on a left-wing evolutionary path play into the hands of leaders who use sanctions to bolster their anti-Western image even after they have long since stopped leading the anti-colonial struggle. Furthermore, they can point to the isolation of the West as the cause of economic collapse and the misery of its people, even though they have long since ceased to represent the poor.
Many times, the United States mistakenly believes that the path to democratization lies in shifting from a left-wing evolutionary path to a right-wing evolutionary path. However, the platypus never evolved into a reptile. A non-democratic country that originated on a left-wing evolutionary path will not democratize by turning to the right.
A country that strays from the evolutionary path of the left democratizes by deepening its program of change and embracing the underclass groups that place it on the path of the left. International solidarity can support these societal forces, calling for deviations from left-wing evolutionary paths and mobilizing the core constituencies that are a source of legitimacy for such governments. This bolsters movements that are really popular in these countries and pushes them back to the evolutionary left and to democracy.
Unfortunately, this rarely happens for two reasons. First, part of the blame must be placed on the international left, which is reluctant to criticize governments that trace their origins to the left’s evolutionary path, even if they have veered off course. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a lesson – the international left needs to be sophisticated enough to criticize both the US imperialist plans to encircle and threaten Russia, and the immediate genocidal Russian imperialist plans to seize territory from Ukraine.
A second part of the blame lies with the U.S. government and foreign policy establishment, which are too afraid of left-wing popular movements and too easily seduced by potential right-wing allies.
Take Nicaragua, for example. Once a beacon of revolutionary change, the Nicaraguan government now exhibits the worst characteristics of a hereditary authoritarian regime. The 2018 uprising of students, women, farmers and workers opposed attempts to limit pension benefits and could push the government to the left and toward democracy.
Yet the movement quickly captured the imagination of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which saw in the protests an opportunity to set Nicaragua on the right path. As a result, the Nicaraguan government responded with a crackdown and painted the opposition as lackeys of the US empire.
The U.S. government can play a role in bringing government back to democracy, but only for regimes emerging from the correct evolutionary path. For these governments, U.S. sanctions and pressure will remove vital support and potentially push them back toward democracy. This is what happened in South Africa; the apartheid country allied with the US suddenly lost the support of its main donor. Similar democratizing pressures from the United States may play out in other countries already on the right path, such as Poland, Israel, and the Philippines.
Instead of pressuring left-leaning countries, causing severe humanitarian damage, the United States should focus its democratization efforts where its support plays a key role, such as those countries that are on the right track.
There’s no way the platypus could have turned into a bird, but it might have become more like other mammals.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.