The Democratic Recession That *Still* Isn’t

Freedom House dropped its annual Freedom in the World report today, and its contents give me cause once more to bang a drum I’ve been banging for a while: democracy is not in retreat. Here are the numbers, are summarized by Freedom House:

The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2013 stood at 88, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and 40 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries decreased by two from the previous year’s report.

The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 59, or 30 percent of all countries assessed, and they were home to 25 percent of the world’s population. The number of Partly Free countries increased by one from the previous year.

A total of 48 countries were deemed Not Free, representing 25 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 35 percent of the global population, though China accounts for more than half of this figure. The number of Not Free countries increased by one from 2012.

The number of electoral democracies rose by four to 122, with Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan acquiring the designation.

So, summing up: the global shares of countries designated Free, Partly Free, and Not Free remained more or less unchanged from 2012, while the share of countries designated as electoral democracies increased two percentage points, from 60.5 to 62.5 percent.

In its own topline judgments, Freedom House looks at the data from a different angle than I do, calling out the fact that the number of declines in scores on its Political Rights or Civil Liberties indices outstripped the number of gains for the eighth year in a row. This is factually true, but I think it’s also important to note that many of those declines are occurring in countries in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East that we already regard as authoritarian. In other words, this eight-year trend is not primarily the result of more and more democracies slipping into authoritarianism; instead, it’s more that many existing autocracies keep tightening the screws.

I don’t think it’s accidental that this eight-year trend has coincided with two waves of popular uprisings in the very regions where those erosions are most pronounced—the so-called Color Revolutions and Arab Awakening. A lot of that slippage has come from autocrats made anxious by democratic ferment in their own and neighboring societies. If we notice that correlation and allow ourselves to think longer term, I think there’s actually cause to be optimistic that these erosions will not hold indefinitely, at least not across the board. Oh, and let’s not forget about China.

It may also be true, as some have argued, that the quality of democracy is eroding in long-established electoral regimes in Europe and the Americas. If that is happening, though, it’s not showing up yet in Freedom House’s data. We can argue about whether those indices are sufficiently sensitive or properly tuned to pick up that kind of variation, and given the depth of concern around these issues right now, I think that’s a debate worth having. That said, the fact that these permutations don’t yet register on measures designed to compare the scope and scale of freedoms worldwide over the past 40 years should also remind us to keep those concerns in comparative perspective.

On the whole, I think Larry Diamond nailed it in a recent Economist-hosted debate on this issue:

Concern about the health of democracy is necessary to reform and improve it. Apathy permits the decay of democracy and could eventually bring its demise. But the fear that democracy may now be in global retreat is not simply overblown, it is wrong.

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  1. Khalid R Hasan

     /  January 31, 2014

    This could be argued either way – two countries became less free, or four countries were promoted to being called electoral democracies. In the case of the latter, I’m sceptical about including Pakistan among them (the only one I’m knowledgeable about), as all that happened in 2013 was an election in which the defeated sitting government handed over power to its opponent. However, exactly the same happened in 2008, so I would argue Pakistan has been an electoral democracy for the past five years, and didn’t suddenly become one in 2013.

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