This month Freedom House released its annual report on global freedom and democracy called Freedom in the World. They have released an annual report with detailed evaluations on every country in the world since the 1970s. Everybody who thinks, reads or writes about democracy reads this report. This is the oldest comprehensive measurement of liberal democracy and it is updated annually. The Polity IV database and the Varieties of Democracy have their advantages. For instance, they both track democracy into the 18th century. But Freedom House has been relentless and systematic in its approach every year for almost fifty years. The changes in their assessment are deliberate but timely.

The title to this year’s report is Democracy in Retreat. Last year’s report was titled Democracy in Crisis. For the past 13 years, Freedom House has warned about democracy’s decline. Every year for the past thirteen years, they have continued to sound the alarm. Every year democracy has regressed.

Freedom House has long been used as a measurement of democracy. But the name of the organization is Freedom House. Their index of democracy is known as the Freedom House Index. Technically, it is a measurement of liberal democracy. The measurement is a composite between political rights and civil liberties. This has been a measurement of democracy because there is a strong belief that democracy requires both political rights and civil liberties. A country needs both political rights and civil liberties to be considered free which is synonymous with a democracy.

Unfortunately, this creates a scenario where extensive civil liberties make up for a lack of political rights. A nation without any political rights but perfect civil liberties is “partially free.” They can be considered more democratic than a nation with a balance of some political rights and civil liberties without the presence of elections.  Of course, most theorists doubt a nation could gain a perfect score in civil liberties without the presence of any political rights. The two are correlated. The presence of political rights leads to greater civil liberties. The presence of civil liberties leads to political rights.

The relationship between political rights and civil liberties is supposed to be self-reinforcing. Greater political rights lead to greater civil liberties which lead to even greater political rights. But this is not what has happened in the twenty-first century. Democracy has lost ground. A loss in civil liberties has begun to lead to a loss in political rights. The cycle has reversed. It remains self-reinforcing but has led to a democratic recession.

The fundamental challenge for the Freedom House Index is to account for the role of civil liberties in democracy. Elections are present in many nations labeled autocracies because the elections are considered neither free nor fair. Nonetheless, elections have proven capable of producing regime change in inhospitable conditions. Recently, Felix Tshisekedi was elected President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the election is considered a fraud. The real winner was considered too hostile to the previous regime. Because their loss was obvious, they gave the Presidency to a new candidate. This is the strange world of competitive authoritarianism.

A theory of democracy must go beyond the presence of elections. But it is not enough to demand the inclusion of civil liberties in democracy. A theory has to explain how civil liberties fit into democratic theory. Not why they are protected but why they are fundamental to the presence of democracy. Some rights seem self-evident like the freedom of opinions championed by John Stuart Mill. But others are less obvious. There has never been a clear explanation for why human rights supersede the will of the majority. It is not enough to say these are our values. This translates to Western values. Instead, human rights must become a part of the construction of democracy. This is the Democracy Paradox.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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