Sound an Alarm?

Image from Freedom House

The October 2018 issue of The Atlantic , the venerable American monthly, is titled “Is Democracy Dying?” and contains a series of articles which, by and large, answer this question in the affirmative. Their authors though come to the rescue by suggesting ways the demise of democracy might be prevented.  These accounts of democratic decline do not appear in isolation. Following the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and the British decision to Brexit, writers on both sides of the Atlantic have offered various pessimistic assessments of democracy’s prospects. The mood of optimism following the end of the Cold War has been replaced by such depressing accounts as contained in How Democracies Die, How Democracy Ends, The People Vs. Democracy. And a warning issued by former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, in her best-selling volume Fascism , worries about a return to a politics of hyper-nationalism and popular demagoguery as overtook her native Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe in the 1930s.

Is all this gloom warranted? Fortunately, we have the means to answer this question without relying on anecdotes and crystal-ball gazing. Freedom House, a non-partisan research institution, produces a report on an annual basis Freedom in The World which assesses the status of civil liberties and political rights in 195 independent countries and territories. The measures Freedom House employs are based on the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Based on these indicators Freedom House then labels each country as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. (For an account of the methods employed see https://freedomhouse-world-2018/methodolgy.) Measured on a yearly basis the report permits readers to evaluate the trend in the status of freedom around the world over an extended period.

In its 2017 Freedom in the World account analysts report that slightly more than 45% of the world’s 195 independent countries and territories warranted the designation “Free”; while slightly over 25% were classified as “not Free”. The remaining states (29.8%) were labelled as “Partly Free”. The commentary accompanying these figures reflect the Freedom House’s view that the level of civil liberties and political rights is on the wane throughout the world. But, is this really true?

If we consider country scores from the previous year’s report (2016), the answer is clearly ‘yes’. Far more countries had lower freedom scores than higher ones in 2017. Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Tunisia, and Venezuela were among the major losers. But it is possible to place these results in a wider time frame.

Fortunately, Freedom House also provides its results for earlier decades. Its Freedom in the World account for 2007 identifies 46.6% of countries as “Free” (with 22.3% as “Not Free” and 31.1% in its intermediate category). In other words, using Freedom House’s own calculations, over the 2007-2017 decade the percentage of democratic countries throughout the world has declined by about 1.5%. For those who believed that the march of democracy was irreversible this may be distressing news. But for those observers who regard democratic rule as difficult to create and maintain, Freedom House’s findings are really reassuring.

This is especially the case when we consider the particular countries that fell from the “Free” category. By and large these are countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East whose historical experiences made the maintenance of democracy exceptionally difficult.  None of the long-standing democracies of Western Europe, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, nor South Korea nor Japan suffered serious declines in their citizens civil liberties and political rights.

What some of these countries have experienced in recent years — Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States – is a growth in electoral support for right-wing populist parties  which appeal to nativist sentiments linked to immigration, fears of Islamist terrorism and anxieties about the consequences of globalization. For many of us, these may be troubling developments but the surge in popularity of these parties still fall within the realm of democratic discourse. If we consider year-to-year declines (2016-2017) in the Freedom House scoring Serbia, Hungary, Malta, Poland, and the United States all experienced declines in their democratic performances. These certainly are related to the rise of right-wing populism often involving attacks on press freedom, judicial independence, and the political ‘establishment’ in general. But despite these challenges posed by a resurgent Right, none of these countries lost their status as ‘Free’. Turkey and Venezuela were the only countries to fall from the ranks of the ‘Free’ (to ‘Partially Free’). In neither case did the rise of right-wing radicalism at the polls nor on the streets play significant roles in the troubles their political systems.

Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and the Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. See his profile here:

© Leonard Weinberg. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).