Freedom’s Uneasy Condition

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Senior Vice President for Research

In recent commentaries on the bleak state of global freedom, analysts have used a series of labels to describe the trajectory of democracy: “stagnation,” “erosion,” “recession,” and even “decline” for those who view the trends with alarm.

One label that has not been applied to current conditions is “reversal.” This is worth noting. In his influential study of the democracy revolution of the late 20th century, The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington devoted considerable space to the reversals in political freedom that came on the heels of the first and second waves of democratization. Huntington paid special attention to the communist takeovers in Eastern Europe after World War II, and setbacks that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s: Latin American coups, military dictatorships in Asia, and the snuffing out of constitutional government in Africa’s postcolonial societies. This second-wave reversal was of such magnitude that global democracy in the mid-1970s was in a worse state than in the immediate postwar period.

Huntington, who died in 2008, refused to predict a similar disaster for third-wave countries, though he believed that such a development was a real possibility. As of now, at least, it would be premature to declare that an outright reversal has arrived. An overall assessment of the data from Freedom in the World, focusing on shifts between the three broad categories of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, shows no obvious pattern of gain or decline between 2000, when the stagnation set in, and 2013. In that period, 17 countries were upgraded—from Partly Free to Free, or from Not Free to Partly Free—and 16 countries declined—from Partly Free to Not Free, or from Free to Partly Free.

However, underlying the annual report’s general freedom designations are more detailed numerical measurements. An examination at this level of scoring can reveal patterns in changes that may not have triggered a shift in category.

And the more subtle trends are indeed cause for serious concern. Some 99 countries, over half of the global total, have a lower aggregate score in 2013 than they did in 2006, and for each year of that span, the number of countries suffering score declines exceeded the number registering improvements. To be sure, some of these states were stable democracies that experienced small setbacks, or entrenched dictatorships that simply grew worse. Yet in country after country, including many third-wave states, declines in civil liberties, pluralism, and the institutions of democratic governance are now far more common than gains.

The data thus show that the apparent stagnation since 2000 masks a consistently downward trajectory over the past eight years. While freedom is not in pell-mell retreat from the enormous achievements of the third wave, it is under serious duress, including in parts of the world where, not so long ago, the institutions of democracy seemed reasonably secure.

The sense of backsliding is increasingly palpable, leading many to ask, like the Economist, what’s gone wrong with democracy? A complete list of disheartening phenomena over the past several years would be a long one, but here are a few:

  1. The lack of major breakthroughs: Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring has met with a grim fate across the Middle East, with antidemocratic forces dragging the region even deeper into repression and violence. Other persistent blocs of Not Free countries, covering much of Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, remain overwhelmingly authoritarian, despite significant ferment on their margins.
  2. Worsening conditions in major authoritarian states: In 2000, many anticipated change for the better in China. Instead, political freedom remains a remote prospect, and civil liberties have been further curtailed. Russia was ranked as Partly Free in 2000; it is now firmly in the Not Free category. Nor have things improved in Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, and the situation has gone from bad to worse in Venezuela.
  3. Strutting dictators: Where previously a country’s democracy deficit would elicit apologies and pledges to institute reforms, today’s autocratic leaders, led by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, categorically reject democratic values and speak with disdain of Euro-American gridlock and decadence.
  4. The economic factor: The democratic sphere’s clear superiority in growth, prosperity, and technological modernization played a huge role in discrediting both communism and military dictatorship during the late 20th century. While developed democracies remain atop the roster of prosperous countries, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has shaken their peoples’ confidence and—coupled with a continued boom in China—changed the calculation in many developing societies.

​​The current situation can be viewed in two ways. It is not as bad as it may seem, in the sense that the great gains of previous decades have not in fact been erased. But it could be a sign of things to come, the cusp of a major reversal. To prevent a negative outcome in matters of such consequence, it is always best to prepare for the worst.

Photo Credit: Bartosz Brzezinski

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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