Ever since Brexiteers and Donald Trump won in 2016, the world’s big-picture political story has been that democracy is under siege. This summer, Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil, Narenda Modi’s Kashmir crackdown and dramatic electoral gains for the anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland in eastern Germany have only amplified widespread beliefs about the inexorable advance of the authoritarian right.
This general story line is dangerously true, but an intriguing counter-narrative may be starting to appear: Small-D democrats are starting to play offense. Not that you would know it, as American media obsess over Mr. Trump and the countless Democratic presidential candidates.
Still, a handful of remarkable political events has occurred during the five weeks since Aug. 28. That day, Italy’s hard-right hatemonger, Matteo Salvini, was outmaneuvered and ousted by his erstwhile partners, the neither-left-nor-right Five Star Movement, and the left-of-center Democratic Party.
A week and a half later, on Sept. 8, Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial grip was symbolically loosened when his party lost seats in an election for Moscow’s Duma, or city council.
Next, the upshot of Israel’s Sept. 17 election is that Benjamin Netanyahu’s histrionic hyper-nationalism, at the very least, will be curbed even if he miraculously can form a government.
On the 24th — the day that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for an impeachment inquiry — Britain’s Supreme Court declared that Boris Johnson’s five-week suspension of Parliament was not legal.
And in Austria, the center-right People’s Party and Greens made big gains in parliamentary elections on Sept. 29, at the expense of the far-right Freedom Party.
What’s more, in this spring’s European Parliament elections, an expected populist wave failed to materialize. Instead: right-wing parties in Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands collapsed; the Greens unexpectedly surged in Germany, France, Ireland and Britain; the left gained ground in Spain and Portugal; and even Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in France got a smaller share of the vote than in the 2014 E.U. elections.
The victory of Ekrem Imamoglu in Istanbul’s mayoral election in June also was a stunning sign that Turkey’s strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not invincible.
Further evidence that right-wing extremism may be waning can be found in the ascendance of centrist, internationalist and forward-looking parties that began with the victory of Emmanuel Macron and his new party, En Marche, in 2017. Last week, former prime minister Matteo Renzi launched his own new party, Italia Viva, as a putative Italian version of En Marche (even though this may hurt the Democrats, his old party). Albert Rivera’s center-right Ciudadanos (or Citizens) Party in Spain also sees itself as an alternative to the traditional or more extreme right and left. And in Britain, the centrist Liberal Democrats are benefiting from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chaotic death march toward Brexit and the Labour Party’s dalliance with Marxism (and anti-Semitism).
Back in the United States, the unfolding Ukraine scandal may finally tarnish Mr. Trump’s Teflon coating. Never-Trumpers have a majority in recent polls, which show at least three Democratic candidates beating the president in next year’s election. And support for impeachment is rising. Meanwhile, a handful of Republicans are trying to reclaim their party.
So, what’s going on? Is all this an epiphenomenon, a series of coincidences or the dream of a believer in liberal democracy?
The same problems that led to the rise of the hard right are largely still with us: immigration, resentment toward elites, globalization, the decline of the middle class and the left’s inability to figure out what to do about it.
Perhaps, it’s a new generation of leaders who see that political gridlock and the old left-right battles and endless political fighting do nothing to solve the world’s overarching problems of climate change, inequality and the tinders of class conflict, the downsides of high tech, dwindling middle-skilled jobs, adapting to a new gender landscape, and aging populations.
Messrs. Macron, Renzi and Rivera, the Lib Dems’ Jo Swinson, the German Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, and Pete Buttigieg are all roughly 40 years old. By contrast, Messrs. Trump, Putin, Duterte, Modi, and Netanyahu are all between 66 and 74.
It’s still too early for true believers in democracy to pop the champagne corks. However, it is time to pay attention to a possible change in the political winds.
Andrew L. Yarrow (Twitter: @alyarrow) has been a U.S. history professor, a New York Times reporter, a political speechwriter, and the author of five books, most recently Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.