Democracy Is Not Fading Away

On September 15, the U.N. observed the International Day of Democracy, an occasion meant to encourage reflections on the state of democracy around the world and ways to promote and consolidate it. Many of the reflections I saw stuck with a theme that’s been sounded a lot in the past few years: democracy is on the defensive. In its annual Countries at the Crossroads report, for example, Freedom House asked if recent uprisings in the Arab world were producing a global swing toward democracy and good governance and concluded that they were not. “Declines far exceeded improvements” in the 35 countries the report covers, “in both number and scale.” That pessimistic conclusion echoed the tone of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2012 report, which warned of a “continued pattern of global backsliding.” According to their data, 2011 was “the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines [in their political rights and civil liberties scores] outnumbered those with improvements.”

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: best I can tell, these pessimistic assessments are mistaking predictable dips in the road for the slope of the longer route, which continues to point uphill. Advocacy groups like Freedom House are rightly concerned with making and then protecting gains in as many cases as possible, but I think that mission makes their analysis of recent churn more alarmist than the evidence warrants.

To see why recent reversals don’t necessarily mean that democracy is on the decline, we have to widen our lens. Looking back over the past few centuries, as Xavier Marquez and I both did in recent blog posts, the spread of democracy is breathtaking. Even when we narrow our lens to the past century, the gains are remarkable; a system of government that only appeared in some of the world’s richest countries before World War II is now the dominant form worldwide.

Of course, those long-term trends don’t necessarily mean that recent reversals aren’t the start of a long decline—past performance does not guarantee future returns and all that—but I’m pretty confident they aren’t. To see why, we need to narrow our vision even further, to the last 25 or so years. Take a look at the chart below, which plots annual counts of transitions to democracy (blue) and autocracy (red) in countries worldwide.* At this time scale, the most notable pattern is the cluster of transitions to democracy in the early 1990s, what many have called the “fourth wave” of democratization in the world.

Because the risk of democratic breakdown is not zero, any cluster of transitions to democracy is likely to produce a cluster of reversals. Other things being equal, a jump in the number at-risk individuals should eventually result in a jump in the number of “deaths.” From analysis of the survival of democratic regimes over the past half-century, we know that the risk of breakdown increases over the first decade or so of a new democracy’s lifespan, and most attempts at democracy end within about 15 years of their start. Knowing this about their life expectancy, we can predict that the cluster of democratic reversals should start arriving several years after the wave of transitions to democracy begins, and it should then recede once the more vulnerable of those new democracies have succumbed.

Looking back at the chart above with that information in hand, what surprises me is that the number of transitions to autocracy in the past 10-15 years hasn’t been higher. If anything, the incidence of democratic breakdown has been lower than we would have expected in the wake of that blue wave in the early 1990s, which significantly increased the stock of democracies at risk of failure.

We can see this more clearly by looking at annual event rates instead of raw counts, using the number of each event type in the numerator and the number of countries at risk of that event type in the denominator. The chart below does just that, with dots marking the annual observations and a line that smooths out some of the year-to-year variation. Here, it’s clearer that the rate of democratic breakdown has been lower in the post-Cold War period than it was during the Cold War, while the rate of transitions to democracy has held fairly steady. As Freedom House observes, the rate of breakdowns has risen a bit in the past several years, but it’s still remained much lower than it was in the 1960s and early 1970s. More important, some countries continue to transition to democracy each year, and the democracy bin continues to fill up just about as fast as it empties.

I understand where the advocates are coming from, and I realize that their regular ringing of the alarm may even be contributing to the positive trends these charts show. I also know that trends don’t last forever, and the patterns we see when we take this long view aren’t necessarily irreversible. I just think those patterns are more encouraging than we realize when we focus our attention on the worst and most recent stuff, as advocates are professionally inclined to do.

* The data set used in this post is on the Dataverse (here). The R script used to make the charts is on GitHub (here).

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