By Bartia Cooper, World Organization Analyst; and Mitch Yoshida, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow
Headlines concerning the outlook for democracy generally lean toward two conclusions: it is in dangerous decline and the free world is under attack. At first glance, such statements are cause for concern. Will long-time democratic states like the U.S., France, and the U.K. turn authoritarian? Are democratic freedoms soon to be stripped forever? The short answer is no, the age of democracy is not over, and it is unlikely that the values that make up the common conception of democracy will disappear in an instant. While democracy has faltered in some countries over the last twenty years, it is not in significant decline.
What are democracy and autocracy?
Neither term has precise, agreed-upon definitions in academia or policy. Instead, democratic and autocratic regimes are thought to exist on a governance spectrum, varying by the extent to which institutions that maximize freedom are provided and embraced. As a result, different assessments use different but overlapping sets of metrics to assess governance. One prominent methodology for measuring democracy comes from the Center of Systemic Peace’s Polity IV Project, which codes variables that determine:
“…the presence of institutions and procedures through which citizens can express effective preferences about alternative policies and leaders….the existence of institutionalized constraints on the exercise of power by the executive….[and] the guarantee of civil liberties to all citizens in their daily lives and in acts of political participation.”
Another widely cited benchmark for governance is Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, a yearly publication that includes measures of ten political rights and fifteen civil liberties through population survey data. These approaches contrast with the Economic Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index report, which uses surveys of researchers and public opinion polls to determine democratic standing, and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute’s use of official documents and expert assessments. Despite these differences, under all four methodologies full democracies can be said to turn into partial democracies, and partial democracies can turn into partial autocracies before finally becoming full autocracies. Democracies that rank highly across all measures are typically referred to as liberal democracies.
How has democracy fared overall?
Attention-grabbing headlines do have a point: depending on the source, the number of states with democracy status have either been in consistent decline or periods of general stagnation for at least a decade. Both the Polity IV and V-Dem datasets show that the number of full and partial democracies increased during the first decade, and then stagnated from 2010 to 2018 (see Figure 1 for example). Freedom House recorded an increase in the number of full democracies from 1998 to 2008, but found a decrease from 2008 to 2018. While the Economist Intelligence Unit found no change for both types of democracies from 2006 to 2010, it recorded a decline from 2010 to 2019.
The possible drivers of this stagnation or decline are multiple. The past thirteen years have seen opposition groups facing harsher punishments; term limits eliminated in autocracies such as China; attacks on independent media; the spread and growth of anti-liberal populist groups in Europe, North America, and Latin America; humanitarian violations in relation to migrants and refugees; and disillusionment with the functioning of government. Given that political participation by citizens in many liberal democracies have long stayed at low levels, these additional changes to democratic practices have raised concern. In terms of sheer number, the count of democracies and autocracies are approximately equal when the findings of all four sources are considered. Similarly, the proportions of the world’s population living in democracies and autocracies are nearly the same.
At least eighteen percent of the world’s population that lives under autocracy, however, resides in China alone. Additionally, most of the shifts in regime status over the past thirteen years have not been from full democracy to full autocracy, but rather from full democracy to partial democracy and from partial democracy to partial autocracy. The democratic values that support the concept of freedom as an inherent right still remain; the global debate now centers on which freedoms should always be protected by the state and which can be adjusted depending on current needs.
Prospects and Implications
There is no clear consensus on the key determinants of democratic growth and decline, so the prospects for democracy, and the implications of its performance from 2000 to 2020, vary depending on perspective. Some find through survey measures that particular groups of respondents are “predisposed” to support authoritarianism. Others in recent years have adopted even more crestfallen views on the outlook for democracy, claiming it is on a path to self-destruction. However, many of these reports and studies are based on personal conceptualizations of liberal democracy that are measured by the granting and revocation of freedoms subjectively deemed most important to society.
Of the sources cited here, the Center for Systemic Peace and Varieties of Democracy are developing models to forecast countries’ movements along the full democracy-full autocracy spectrum. Further, the emerging political science literature on “democratic deconsolidation” may yield more robust explanatory and predictive models for how full democracies have, and can potentially, move in the direction of full autocracy. The Streit Council will continue to update this issue brief as these models develop and yearly snapshots are released.
 Adam Forrest, “Democracy undergoing ‘alarming’ decline around the world, study finds,” Independent, February 5, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/democracy-freedom-house-annual-report-civil-liberties-authoritarian-donald-trump-us-a8763196.html
 Rick Shenkman, “The Shocking Paper Predicting the End of Democracy,” Politico, September 8, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/09/08/shawn-rosenberg-democracy-228045
 Monty G. Marshall et al., “Polity IV Project: Dataset Users’ Manual,” Center for Systemic Peace, July 27, 2019, 14, http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscr/p4manualv2018.pdf
 Freedom House, “Methodology 2019,” 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/methodology-freedom-world-2019; For the full report, see Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2019,” 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019/democracy-in-retreat
 V-Dem Institute, “Democracy Facing Global Challenges,” 2019, 7, https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/99/de/99dedd73-f8bc-484c-8b91-44ba601b6e6b/v-dem_democracy_report_2019.pdf
 An emerging political science literature on “democratic deconsolidation” offers preliminary evidence that full democracies can move toward full autocracy. This critiques prior work on “democratic consolidation” which asserted that full or established democracies cannot backslide to the autocratic side of the governance spectrum. See Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27, no.3 (July 2016), 5-17, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/FoaMounk-27-3.pdf; and Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “Democratic Deconsolidation in Developed Democracies,” Working Paper, CES Open Forum Series 2018-2019, https://ces.fas.harvard.edu/uploads/art/Working-Paper-PDF-Democratic-Deconsolidation-in-Developed-Democracies-1995-2018.pdf
 Freedom House, “Freedom in the World,” 3.
 The Economist, “Global democracy has another bad year,” January 22, 2020, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/22/global-democracy-has-another-bad-year
 Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher, “China Moves to Let Xi Stay in Power by Abolishing Term Limit,” New York Times, February 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/25/world/asia/china-xi-jinping.html
 This is a low-end estimate for China’s population share of those living under autocracy based on the Economist’s “Democracy Index.”
 Tom Jacobs, “Authoritarianism: The Terrifying Trait That Trump Triggers,” Pacific Standard, March 26, 2018, https://psmag.com/news/authoritarianism-the-terrifying-trait-that-trump-triggers
 Shenkman, “The Shocking Paper.”
 See Foa and Mounk, “Democratic Disconnect” and “Democratic Deconsolidation.”