Democracy in Retreat?

Democracy Index 2017

The above map shows the state of democracy in the world as of 2017, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The results are based on 60 indicators that span five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each country is classified as one of four types of regime:

Full Democracies (11 countries, 4.5% of the global population) – Civil liberties and political freedoms are respected by governments and reinforced by social and cultural norms. Governments function adequately, if not efficiently, and are subject to a valid system of checks and balances. There is an independent judiciary whose decisions are enforced, and news media that are diverse and independent. These nations have only a few limited problems in democratic functioning.

Flawed Democracies (57 countries, 44.8% of the global population) – Elections are generally fair and free and basic civil liberties are honored, but there may one or more issues constraining democratic functioning, including but not limited to: infringement on media freedom, an underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics (such as low voter turnout), and inefficient or deadlocked governance.

Hybrid Regimes (39 countries, 16.7% of the global population) – There is a semblance of democracy – such as elections and news media – but they tend to be unfair, unfree, and highly constrained. Hybrid governments typically play lip service to democracy, but apply pressure on political opponents, judges, and officials who do not toe the line. There is widespread corruption, pressure on the media, little to no rule of law, and more severe faults than flawed democracies, such as a lack of a political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and chronic government inefficiency.

Authoritarian Regimes (52 countries, 34% of the global population) – There is little to no political freedom, and often not even a façade of democracy as in hybrid regimes. These nations are usually absolute dictatorships, though some may conventional institutions of democracy but with no real power (such as “rubber stamp” legislatures that approve everything the despot says). Civil liberty violations are the norm, elections are either nonexistent or stage-managed, the media is typically state-owned or controlled by allies of the regime, the judiciary is not independent, and censorship is omnipresent.

The world’s healthiest democracies are as follows:

Full Democracies

Unsurprisingly, we see many of the same countries that perform favorably in other measures of socioeconomic prosperity, such as the Human Development Index.

The United States (along with South Korea, Japan, and Italy) only barely fell out of the full democracy range.

Flawed Democracies

At the very bottom is North Korea, followed closely by Syria, Chad, the Central African Republic, and the (aptly named) Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to EIU’s report, political freedoms are in retreat worldwide, as the average global score (on a scale of 0 to 10) fell from 5.52 in 2016 to 5.48. Eighty-nine countries – nearly half the world’s total – experienced a decline in their total score compared with the previous year, which is more than three times as many as the countries that recorded an improvement (27), the worst performance since 2010-11 in the aftermath of the global economic and financial crisis. Another 51 countries stagnated.

A somewhat “glass half full” interpretation suggests that while democracy is on the retreat, it is still far more widespread than ever before. Consider that the first democracies (really republics) emerged only two centuries ago and were very restricted in political participation (e.g., only propertied white men were enfranchised). Today, far more people than ever have some degree of political representation, and even authoritarian states feel some obligation to at least pretend to be democratic, which in a sense is progress. (Obviously this is easy for me to say from the comfort of Miami, Florida, USA, but it is nonetheless a fact.)

What are your thoughts?

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