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Is Democracy Suffering a Global Decline?

June 23, 2021 8:00 AM | Danielle Dougall

Is Democracy Suffering a Global Decline?

The past decade has been marked by the global rise of authoritarianism and populism. While the two political approaches are not always connected, linkages are traced in happenings spanning from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, where charismatic politicians leverage the concerns of ordinary people, nationalist sentiment, and anti-elite rhetoric to take power. While in office, they systematically dismantle institutions and safeguards meant to check executive authority, particularly the judiciary, legislature, and the free press. 

Populism thrives on party division, rooting itself in opposition to the establishment - intellectuals, the academy, political leaders, and the traditional media. Fundamental facets of populist discourse include an appeal to an ethnic-kin alliance and a focus on in-group versus out-group dynamics, feelings of economic or social disenfranchisement, opposition to social change, and a desire to adhere to traditional social orders. These rapidly-changing political movements have spurred global trends in anti-immigrant rhetoric, xenophobia, and in some cases, terrifying incidents of targeted violence encouraged by politicians.

Freedom House, an independent, non-governmental organization, has been ranking countries’ democratic performance for more than seventy years on a scale from “free,” “partly free,” and “not free.” In 2020, established Western democracies faced a torrent of unprecedented events in the form of COVID-19, rising global violence, and threats to economic and physical security. In a recent analysis, Freedom House reported the fifteenth consecutive year of a global decline in democratic freedom as measured by the rule of law, protection of minority rights, and the presence of fair and free political elections. The countries undergoing democratic deterioration marked the greatest backsliding since 2006 - 112 countries experienced democratic declines, and only 62 countries made democratic gains. Among those countries, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Egypt became markedly more authoritarian, and Turkey shifted into the “not free” category as the Erdogan administration enforced more oppressive policies. 

Western Europe and the United States are not immune to the challenges of antidemocratic threats and populist uprisings. In 2017, France faced a sharply contrasted election for its future in the candidacy of Centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far right-wing Marine Le-Pen. Across Europe, new political leaders rise to seek power through majority rule but fundamentally oppose many of the central tenets of liberal democracy. Instead, they favor exclusionary and divisive politics of heightened militarism, repression of the media and minority rights, and attack pathways to immigration with a renewed tenacity. 

International relations scholars and other experts have voiced concern over these antidemocratic trends. Roberto Foa from the University of Cambridge and Yascha Mounk from Harvard University conducted a series of analyses of World Values Survey data spanning from 2010 to 2014. The survey has recorded participants’ beliefs and values about democracy in 100 countries for forty years. Their analysis revealed lower support for democracy among respondents in six liberal democracies than had been found in previous surveys. Furthermore, respondents aged 18 to 37 were more pessimistic about democratic prospects than older generations surveyed worldwide. Thirty-two percent of millennials agreed that it was necessary and desirable to “live in a country governed democratically” compared to seventy-two percent of Americans born before World War II. Globally, the authors found that most millennials surveyed believe it is essential to live in a democratic country.

While sightings of democratic decline are alarming, it is essential to maintain a balanced perspective and ask, ‘how are we measuring democracy?’ Disagreements in scholarship and the public over what constitutes a legitimate democracy and its functions are another central area of concern. It is necessary to define the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ individually to understand the significance of pairing them together. ‘Democracy’ is a Greek-derived term meaning rule by the people. The word ‘liberal’ is derived from its Latin counterpart, meaning to be free. Today, the term ‘democracy’ alone is often substituted for liberal democracy. It is correlated with expectations for countries worldwide to adopt the Western provisions of constitutional liberalism after a democratic election.

Liberalism’s varied meaning across geographical, historical, social, economic, and political contexts brings confusion. In the United States, the term ‘liberalism’ is often used to denote a progressive Democratic or Democratic Socialist partisanship and ideology that concerns itself with promoting equality in social issues and expanding the role of government. On the other hand, across many European countries, ‘liberalism’ is associated with free-market capitalism and restricting the government’s role in citizens’ social lives. Democracy focuses on who rules. The common people must be the sovereign, electing rulers who align with the public’s majority interest. 

Liberalism is not a method for selecting rulers. Instead, liberalism focuses on delineating and limiting the powers of rulers once they are in public office to ensure the protection of citizen’s rights and liberties. Democratic governments appointed by fair and free elections are not immune to the problems of authoritarianism. Democratically elected rulers often ignore constitutional limits on their power, sidestep the legislature and judiciary, and deprive citizens of fundamental rights and freedoms. “Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war” (Fakaria 1997, 42-43). Constitutional liberalism is defined by the appropriate use of state power, the rule of law, and democratic accountability that seeks to protect individual autonomy against coercion (i.e., protection of a free press, speech, assembly, religion, and property). It is also critical to note that constitutional liberalism is distinct from democracy historically and theoretically (Zakaria 1997, 22). As Fareed Zakaria describes, “Democracy is flourishing. Constitutional liberalism is not” (Zakaria 1997, 23). 

The growing global surrounding ‘democratic backsliding’ concerns the post-democratic election period. ‘Illiberal democracies’ are not monolithic; they exist along a spectrum and are thriving. The problem of democratization today is that few new and developing democracies have become liberal democracies following fair and free elections. Instead, these democracies move the other direction and settle into hybrid regimes and the non-rule of law. In these scenarios, democracy may not be backsliding. Instead, liberal democracy never grew roots, and the hybrid regimes we see mold some democratic principles into a history and structure of authoritarianism. 

Furthermore, Western democracy (i.e., constitutional liberalism) may not be the culmination point in democratic evolution, but one possible form of democratization a country could adopt during regime change (Zakaria 1997, 23). Labeling countries as democratic if they meet minimum qualifications reduces the value of the term ‘democracy’ to a descriptive category. As Fareed Zakaria astutely described, “to have democracy mean, subjectively, a good government renders it analytically useless” (Zakaria 1997, 25). It is critical to avoid a reductionist concept of democracy if it does not fit the mold of Western constitutional liberalism. Democracies can have undesirable qualities, but that does not make them undemocratic (Zakaria 1997, 25). Democracy may not necessarily bring constitutional liberalism. 

 Not all scholars believe that democracy is in decline or that younger generations are abandoning its prospects. Christian Welzel, a German political scientist at the Leuphana University Lüneburg and Research Director of the World Values Survey Association, published an insightful analysis of the state of democracy in Foreign Policy, titled “The Data Show Democracy is Thriving.” He argues not to believe the headlines on democratic decline and points to evidence that the world’s desire for self-government is growing. After analyzing decades of global public opinion data from the World Values Survey, Welzel found that underneath the chaos of transforming political and social strata around the world, a slow but steady desire for “emancipative values.” These values were not dependent on liberal democratic government, as seen in the West. Instead, they reflected a general preference for universal choice, egalitarianism, and equality of opportunity replacing authoritarian values, citing the Middle East, Ukraine, and Brazil as promising examples. While “durability” is the hallmark of institutions - democratic or authoritarian - cultural change can often create a contradiction between a regime and culture. 

Perhaps countries like Russia, Egypt, Hungary, and Poland have not become more authoritarian and instead did not achieve the longevity for fledgling democracy to take root in stable institutions. The countries ranked as “partly free” and “not free” by organizations like Freedom House have a deep history of authoritarianism before they experimented with democratic government. Western nations had centuries to millennia to test, develop, and maintain liberal democratic conditions.

While authoritarian tendencies and populist movements have emerged in Western Europe and the United States, they have been checked by institutions and met with fierce internal and public resistance. French voters rejected Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election, and from the looks of France’s recent regional elections, the far-right party is falling short of the vote once again in 2021. Le Pen made it to the second round of France’s presidential elections in 2017 and has attempted to rebrand her party in name and tone. According to Ipsos polls, the Nationally Rally, formerly called the National Liberation Front, achieved only one victory in the South of France and holds approximately 19% of the national vote. 

In the United States, Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the Electoral College victory of President Joseph Biden and the following January 6 U.S. capitol insurrection are reminders of the strength and longevity of American institutions. Out of the sixty-two election lawsuits that Trump filed, his legal team only won one suit. While the Supreme Court is stacked with a six to three conservative majority, Trump’s court appointees have proven that their traditional values do not necessarily invoke antidemocratic tendencies. During Trump’s four-year presidential term, “ninety percent of his deregulatory actions have been stopped in the courts.” 

Public opinions regarding preferences for authoritarianism versus democracy may be more reflective of economic and social conditions than deep political conviction. In the United States, most of the public is actively uninformed, misinformed, and often susceptible to division given deep political partisanship. Democratic distrust often grows in adverse conditions that dampen perceptions of upward mobility. These factors can negatively influence the opinions of young people on the merit of the democratic process. Many older voters, particularly in Western Europe and the United States, espouse traditional moral values, oppose social issues, perceive liberal cultural shifts, including LGBTQIA+ rights, and support smaller governments with more authoritarian tendencies. Researchers have also found that millennials tend to be more liberal and supportive of liberal political and cultural shifts and more fluid social norms in American politics. 

While debates over social and political culture will continue, it is critical to be mindful of longstanding histories, cultural practices, and the time it may take for enduring democratic institutions to develop. Western liberal democracy is often touted as the norm, but it does not make democracy a one-size-fits-all model. Populism’s mobilization against political and intellectual elites is more than a movement; it is also a political mood (Canovan 1999, 6). It is not ordinary, routine politics. Instead, populism relies on the chaos of revivalist rhetoric and a high degree of enthusiasm and heightened emotions that draw typically apolitical citizens into the political arena. Special attention is paid to the charismatic leader who celebrates spontaneous, unorganized grassroots action and strives to create a close, personal tie with their followers (Canovan 1999, 6). The danger of populism is that it is so far removed from the concept of liberal democracy, although it claims close ties to the people’s desires for self-government. While democracy is liberal, populism is illiberal. The populist form of democracy is uninhibited by the rule of law and exudes a “crude majoritarianism” that neglects and overrides minority rights  (Canovan 1999, 6).

In response to the rise of illiberalism and populism, contemporary politics should strive for a balance between the two faces of democracy, as the political theorist Margaret Canovan described (redemptive and pragmatic). Since populism “thrives on the tension between the two faces of democracy,” balanced policymaking is the best possible approach (Canovan 1999, 8) to addressing the shortcomings of democracies. The politics of faith stirs up a necessary enthusiasm for coercive power to accomplish its goals and places confidence in the democratic tradition of the common people to wield power. The politics of skepticism is suspicious of both power and enthusiasm and has lower expectations of what the government can achieve. Western liberal democracy is the harmony between freedom protected by the rule of law and the people’s rule. We can understand democracy and its vulnerability to illiberal democracy and “the populist challenge if we see it as a meeting point for two contrasting styles of politics” (Canovan 1999, 9). 

Works Cited

Amaro, Silvia. 2021. “Marine Le Pen’s Far-Right Party Falls Short in France’s Regional Elections.” CNBC. June 21, 2021.

American Enterprise Institute. 2019. “Democracy Isn’t Declining.” American Enterprise Institute - AEI. September 4, 2019.

Canovan, Margaret. 1999. “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy.” Political Studies 47 (1): 2–16.

Fareed Zakaria. 1997. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs Magazine. November 1997.

“Is Democracy in Decline?” 2021. Council on Foreign Relations. March 15, 2021.

Patrick, Stewart. 2021. “Democracy Is Down, but Not Out.” March 8, 2021.

Repucci, Sarah, and Amy Slipowitz. 2021. “Democracy under Siege.” Freedom House. 2021.

“The Democracy Project: Reversing a Crisis of Confidence | Bush Center.” 2018. The Democracy Project: Reversing a Crisis of Confidence | Bush Center. June 26, 2018.

“The Generation Gap in American Politics.” 2018. Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. March 1, 2018.

Welzel, Christian. 2021. “The Data Show Democracy Is Thriving.” Foreign Policy. May 24, 2021.

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