Is democracy in decline? If you talk about the quality of democracy the answer is clearly yes. The US, the world’s first and most important democracy- although at the beginning a limited democracy for white men only- is in trouble. President Donald Trump has brought old problems to the surface- the money that buys candidates and policies, gerrymandering, an increasingly polarised electorate and a deadlocked Congress. He has added his own negatives- misusing his power to threaten his opponent, Hilary Clinton, with jail, waging a war against the media and attempting to make it clear that he has the sole power to use nuclear weapons and that he will use them against North Korea, even if North Korea has not used its.
If we talk about quantity the report issued today by the American organisation, Freedom House, that has monitored the rise and fall of democracy for decades, should make us worried. It reports that in the first ten years after the end of the Cold War the number of countries that can be described as politically “free” shot up, but in the last decade it has begun to fall. Moreover, it says, we can see the growing incidence of poor performance in young democracies when we look at the issues of the practice of good governance and the rule of law. Within a significant number of democracies there has been a lack of vigorous policy implementation and good public administration. Africa’s most populated and wealthiest country, Nigeria, is a good example of this. Despite 20 years of vigorous democracy, corruption and mismanagement in the oil industry, which provides most of government revenues, remains a running sore.
However, according to Marc Plattner, writing in a new book, “Democracy in Decline?” there is not so much to worry about if we can detach ourselves from the raw arithmetic of Freedom House. We need a greater sense of history in order to put the recent decline in perspective. Democracy began to make significant gains in the years 1975-85, starting in Southern Europe and Latin America. It then advanced at a prodigious rate in 1985 to 95. That period saw the end of the Communist Soviet Union and the apartheid government in South Africa- two great milestones which were worth more than 50 democratic transitions elsewhere in the world.
Growth peaked in the early 2000s. Since then there has been a small but steady decline. However, most of the countries that have regressed are fairly small- for example Nepal, Honduras and Sri Lanka, whereas the number of bigger countries regressing is but a handful, for example Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. Even among these six, democratic elements remain in play. They are not dictatorships.
Dictatorship is not doing well either. There is hardly a dictatorship in the world that looks stable for the long run- and that includes China where a population that is increasingly well educated and well off will push for more representation as time goes on.
In the Arab world where dictatorship and authoritarianism have been common we have to remember that the total population is small and that there are many much more sizeable Islamic populations that live under democratic rule, albeit sometimes precarious- Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Nigeria.
Dictatorship may seem unmoveable but authoritarianism is not. The fast change all over Latin America from 1980 onwards from authoritarianism to democracy showed what can happen. Besides, many democratic states- Japan, Denmark, Germany and France- created modern bureaucracies under authoritarian conditions. Those that went on to become democracies inherited meritocratic state apparatuses.
Today democracy is not in significant decline but in some countries it is in crisis, often corrupted by money, oligarchs, the hijacking of the legal system and parts of the media, and the abuse of power- not just in the US but in a string of other important countries: Venezuela, Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Iran, Malaysia, South Africa, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
After the extraordinary events in 1989-91 many of us mistakenly thought that the advance towards democracy would continue unabated. We were wrong, but this should not be a cause for pessimism and gloom. Globally, average levels of freedom have ebbed a little bit, but not calamitously. Even where there has been regression as in some African countries the urge to return to democracy is very pronounced among the populace- hence the displacement of warlords by democrats in Liberia. This was confirmed by last month’s successful election.
I return to the US. A red flag needs to be hoisted. If Trump gets his way over the next three years or possibly seven the cause of democracy is bound to be undermined all round the world. The US still sets the pace.