Sarah Repucci from Freedom House joins the podcast to offer an assessment of democracy worldwide. Sarah coauthored (along with Amy Slipowitz) the most recent volume of Freedom in the World: Democracy Under Siege. We discuss the global decline of democracy, the impact of the pandemic, and highlight developments in India, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and the US.
Democracy is about more than elections. Election day is very important, but what is happening in the country every other day is an integral part to what a democracy is and if you think about the fundamental freedoms that we think of in our own democracy: free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and assembly, also things like the independence of the judiciary, these are all things that are on the civil liberties side.
Key Highlights Include
- Why democracy continues its steady decline
- The influence of China and the U.S. on global democracy
- The role of civil liberties in democracy
- Impact of the pandemic on democracy
- Discussion of democracy in India, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and the United States
Freedom House began in 1941 to promote American involvement in World War II and fight fascism. It has a special role as a human rights organization that recognizes the importance of democracy for human freedom. In 1973 it began a report named Freedom in the World. This report explains global trends affecting civil liberties and democracy, but most notably offers each country an assessment with a rating of free, partly free, or not free.
Sarah Repucci has been instrumental over the past few editions of Freedom in the World and coauthored the executive summary of this year’s report, “Democracy Under Siege.” Sarah is the Vice President of Research and Analysis at Freedom House.
Our conversation explores the state of democracy in the world. We talk about some of the big picture ideas from the report, but also pinpoint a few examples like India, Kyrgyzstan, and Sudan. Freedom House has long recognized the challenges for democracy over the past fifteen years as freedom continues to decline. But the organization always offers hope. As its latest report notes, “Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated. Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that bode well for the future of freedom.”
The Freedom in the World report is extensive so Sarah and I do not discuss every topic. There is a lot unsaid so I encourage you to join the conversation. You can leave a comment at www.democracyparadox.com where you will find a full transcript or mention me on Twitter @DemParadox. As always, feel free to email me directly at email@example.com. I enjoy receiving your emails and try to reply to every one. But for now… This is my conversation with Sarah Repucci…
Sarah Repucci, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks so much for having me.
Sarah, Freedom House has a long history as an advocate for freedom around the world, but it has also offered a rich source of information for scholars and it continues to produce high quality research about human rights and democracy. So should we think of Freedom House more as a research Institute or as an advocacy organization?
I definitely think of Freedom House as an advocacy organization, because while we do produce research that everybody knows us for, we are aiming to use that research to make change in the world and we have very specific changes that we’re trying to make. We’re trying to reverse the global decline in democracy. We’re trying to get policymakers to care about these issues. And when we are doing our research, we always have that goal in mind and, of course, we also work in the field around the world. There’s a whole part of Freedom House that isn’t our research work that is supporting human rights defenders in very diverse country contexts around the world. So that feeds into our advocacy as well.
Sarah, you mentioned about the global decline of democracy around the world. It’s been a common theme in your report, Freedom in the World, for at least a decade. Larry Diamond has even called it a democratic recession. So, can you help us unravel and maybe explain a little bit about why democracy has been in decline for 15 years?
So, as you said, our Freedom in the World report has tracked fifteen consecutive years of decline in global freedom and I think that trend has evolved over those fifteen years. So, it hasn’t always been the same kind of decline. At the beginning, we were seeing bad countries getting worse. So, dictators finding new means of repression and driving their countries into an even tighter environment. Then we had a phase of democracies that started to decline. And I think in the last couple of years, we’re seeing a mix of both of those.
The reasons behind this are, are very complex and there’s quite a number of them, but I’ll call out one, which is the role of China. I think anytime you have a global power like China is you’re going to have other countries looking to it, to see how it has been so successful. And the fact that China is one of the most severe authoritarian powers in the world has led that concept to become something that some countries are trying to emulate. On top of that, we have a situation where China is very aggressively pushing its model into countries around the world. It’s teaching about its methods of media control. It’s selling and pushing surveillance technology that allows for critics to be silenced.
It is also teaching about how you can cover up the kinds of very severe human rights abuses that it is perpetrating right now and that has become something that other countries, I don’t think, will ever perfectly copy, but have brought certain aspects into their regimes. And that is a major factor in the decline in democracy right now.
So, you mentioned China and the role that China’s played. I hear different views on the role China plays in promoting autocracy or authoritarianism. Christopher Walker has done a lot of research talking about the role of China in terms of exercising sharp power to be able to influence countries that are both democratic and ones that are less so, but there’s other scholars who’ve said that China has a more ambivalent approach to democracy. It doesn’t worry about whether a country is authoritarian or whether a country is democratic. It’s more focused on its own interests, especially its economic interests. Is China actively trying to export its authoritarian model or authoritarianism in general?
I think that China is trying to export its model, that is in China’s interests. So, it’s a mix of both of what you’re saying. Its model is an authoritarian model and that is what is in China’s interest. Democratic systems where people can speak out openly and where they can advocate for what they believe and where they can criticize those in power, they’re not good for China. Domestically, it’s also not good for China if there are people in Taiwan saying that Taiwan is independent from China or if there are people all around the world saying that there is a genocide happening against the Uighur population. So, the techniques that China uses are not necessarily to promote dictatorship, but they are promoting a model that is highly repressive and that is in China’s interests.
Now the other part to the decline in democracy involves the decline in U.S. leadership. How has the decline in U S leadership effected the state of democracy around the world?
So, I agree there has been a decline in U.S. leadership and I think it’s important to think about how that’s happened. So nearly every president since World War II, has made democracy and democratic values a key part of their foreign policy. And that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been other interests and concerns. It doesn’t mean that there haven’t been really serious mistakes, but those values have been part of how we think of ourselves when we act abroad. The decline in U.S. leadership actually started with the Obama administration, which took a more understated approach to promoting our values abroad, but it really accelerated under the Trump administration. And what we saw was a very inconsistent application of values in foreign policy, much more to serve the individual interests of the administration in a given country, rather than a consistent policy.
At the same time, what we have seen is an acceleration in the global decline of democracy and I would say that that’s not a coincidence. The United States is not the only factor in the global decline, but it is a very important factor because we are the other major global power. And when we are presenting a positive model of democracy, both in our policy, but also in our domestic policy, in terms of whether we are supporting those values at home, that helps.
Struggling human rights defenders in other countries who maybe are looking for support, who are looking for ways that they can emulate positive examples, and also simply the moral support of knowing that there are major powers in the world that support their cause. So, I think that the decline of U.S. leadership is very significant and it’s very encouraging that the Biden administration has been placing so much emphasis on democracy, both at home and abroad and we hope that that will continue and will help to reverse the decline.
Now, you mentioned that the decline in U.S. leadership began in the Obama administration. Before Obama, George W. Bush may have pushed the envelope in the opposite direction of going too far in terms of promoting democracy through the pursuit of state building within Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s been the big critique on the Bush administration. I find it interesting that Bush was the president about fifteen years ago. That the problems in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pretty much surfaced about fifteen years ago during the exact moment of the decline in democracy around the world. Are those two events linked?
That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think that the decline really started as a bit of a pendulum swing after the massive increase in freedom after the end of the Cold War. That there was such an outpouring of empowerment of individual citizens that both went with that global movement, but was also facilitated by the rise of the internet and then there was a correction on the part of repressive leaders as they realized the tools that were being implemented against them and then turned that back against their critics. So, I wouldn’t say that the George W. Bush administration sparked the global decline, but it definitely did not help the cause of democracy.
The word democracy became linked to the invasion of Iraq for better or worse and people who were critics of democracy very easily had the talking points to say, ‘It’s not that great. That’s really about war and about imposing your values on somebody else.’ That is the wrong way to think of support for democracy. When we at Freedom House talk about support for democracy, we’re talking about empowering individuals to have the tools and the resources that they need in order to set up their own system. However, many people have changed that narrative and used the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq against our own values. So, I do think there is a link there, although it’s not completely causal.
I want to ask you a few questions about the report, Sarah. When I was an undergraduate in political science, Freedom House, the Freedom in the World assessment, was literally the only measurement of democracy. All political science scholars used only Freedom House to kind of determine how democratic countries were. Today there are multiple measurements of democracy from Varieties of Democracy and Polity and others. But Freedom House has an interesting way of classifying the countries, because it doesn’t say this is a democracy and this is a dictatorship. It describes them as free, partly free and not free. Why doesn’t Freedom House use terms like democracy and authoritarian regime to classify the countries instead. Why do they use terms like free rather than democracy?
We do use those terms, but when we’re looking at Freedom in the World, this is a project that has been going on for almost fifty years. We’re approaching our fifty year anniversary next year.
When we first started the project. Thank you. So, we’re approaching our fifty-year anniversary and it has been very important to us over these years to maintain the continuity. And this is the way that the project started. But I think that part of the reason why we think in terms of free, partly free, not free is because we really are trying to appeal to a broad audience and to give people a very tangible way to understand what we’re talking about. So, when we say free, partly free, not free, everybody understands. What we hope is they will be drawn in by that nomenclature. And then they will dig in and learn about their own country, learn about other countries about what is happening in the world and will be spurred to action.
Yeah. I always find it interesting because the Freedom in the World both looks at political freedom on the one hand and civil liberties on the other, but it ties them together. And many theorists have done that in the way that they talk about liberal democracy. But I’d like to hear from you, somebody at Freedom House who is very directly involved in developing a report like this. How do civil liberties contribute to democracy?
So, I think that civil liberties are crucial to democracy, because democracy is about more than elections. Election day is very important, but what is happening in the country every other day is an integral part to what a democracy is. And if you think about the fundamental freedoms that we think of in our own democracy: free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and assembly, also things like the independence of the judiciary, these are all things that are on the civil liberties side.
If you don’t have the ability to speak out when you feel that your rights are being abused, to hold those in power to account, to gather together with other people who think like you do in order to organize, you will not have the ability to make the democratic system function fully. And when there are abuses of power, they will go unpunished. That’s certainly what we see in many countries around the world. So, the civil liberties side is really important for making sure that the system as a whole is working and not just the electoral system.
Speaking of civil liberties and human rights, the past year has been really rough on human rights. The way that the world has been dealing with the pandemic, different countries have approached it in different ways. How has the pandemic affected democracy and human rights in the world?
So, we definitely saw an acceleration in the global decline in 2020. And I would attribute that almost entirely to the impact of COVID. Some of the areas where we’ve seen the biggest declines that have really had a strong impact are on independent journalism and the way that governments have been able to say voices that were not describing the pandemic in the way that the government wanted it described were to be silenced and also using the pandemic as an excuse to go after other opposition figures, especially political figures. One of the things that we worried about at the beginning of the pandemic was that elections wouldn’t be able to be held in pandemic conditions. And we were pleasantly surprised that almost all elections that had been planned did go ahead.
However, in those campaign periods, COVID was definitely used as a pretext to arrest opposition figures to say, for example, that they were campaigning in places where there were COVID restrictions, to make arrests, to silence the media, and even more. So, what we are worried about is not what we saw happen in 2020, but the long arm that the pandemic appears to have the groundwork that was laid in 2020, that will probably set many leaders up to stay in power well past when we’re worrying about COVID. These are situations like in Sri Lanka where the government was able to rule without a legislature for many months after dissolving the legislature and new elections were postponed and then President Rajapaksa was able to consolidate his power by the end of the year, passing new constitutional amendments.
We’ve seen constitutional amendments passed in several countries where the leader was able to consolidate rule: Hungary, Kyrgyzstan. Emergency measures that were put into place and then abused and also many countries where COVID maybe took longer to arrive in the country, but where the restrictions were happening much earlier. So, we suspect that in the future, we are going to be continuing to see the long-term impacts of the restrictions we saw in 2020.
Now I want to ask you about the outcomes of some of those elections, but before I do I want to emphasize that I fully understand how dangerous it is when we see these norms change surrounding elections. A few years back Nic Cheesman and Brian Klaas wrote a really important book called How to Rig an Election where it really opened my eyes to how it’s not just about having elections, but the norms surrounding those elections is so important for the quality of those elections. But at the same time, it’s one thing to make it difficult for the opposition. It’s another thing to make it impossible for them to win the elections. Did we see the opposition succeed in many of these elections or did these authoritarian tactics just ensure that the incumbents were able to retain power?
We definitely saw many cases where the incumbents were able to maintain power through the restrictions that they were able to push through due to COVID. And I think that you’re right on the mark when you talk about changing norms, because a lot of the risk that we see around the pandemic is similar to what you saw after 9/11 with counter-terrorism measures. The population is genuinely afraid. There’s a genuine threat in this case, health, back then it was terrorism, but when their fears are exploited so that certain measures can be put in place and people don’t necessarily remember how it was before, or it’s too much trouble to think about trying to advocate for us to go back to the way it was before. So, these slowly changing norms, or rapidly changing norms, that we then live with, and get used to are very insidious.
I think, where you see COVID being used strategically these are countries where the incumbent has many threats to their power and not a lot of means of control. And that those are the situations where using COVID was most fortuitous for those who wanted to maintain their role and where they could really turn the screws.
One of the things I love most about Freedom House is that it helps us identify when we see this slow trickle of democratic erosion over time. Larry diamond wrote in the Journal of Democracy about a year ago, “Coups of the officially declared sort are not generally how democracy dies these days. Rather death occurs step-by-step through the steady degradation of political pluralism, civil liberties, in the rule of law, until the Rubicon has been crossed, as if in a fog, without our knowing the precise moment when it happened.” I feel like COVID is another one of those gradual steps. It’s a little faster than normal, but it’s still, again, one of those drip, drip, drip moments. And I love how Freedom House helps us recognize what those moments are.
Yeah. I think the analogy that I like is the slowly boiling frog where you eventually see that the frog is dead, but you didn’t necessarily see how it was happening along the way. What we see very often and I think is most scary when you think about democratic erosion is that the really skilled leaders are completely freely elected. They work within a democratic system, but then they slowly work to change the norms or to undermine very low-profile parts of the system that people may not be paying attention to or that are very decentralized. And that has the effect of taking away the checks on their power so that when they want to exercise that they can or when there’s a situation of another vote, the odds are severely stacked against the opposition.
And that’s certainly what you’ve seen in Hungary. It’s similar to what we saw in Venezuela. It’s what’s happening in Poland. It’s what we saw in Turkey and it’s definitely something that needs to make us pause about what can happen here in the United States as well, because democracy is not an end point that you achieve and once you have it, it’s secure. It’s something that constantly needs to be nurtured or will fall back.
Let’s talk about a couple of examples that you bring up in the report. One of the most heartbreaking, in my opinion, is India. You write in the report, “The fall of India from the upper ranks of free nations could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards.” Can you explain the situation in India and maybe help listeners understand why it should attract our attention?
Sure. So, I think it’s incredibly important that this very populous country in the world is largely democratic and has been. That it is a model for countries that don’t want to look to a Western or a Global North example. They want a country that. They feel is more like them and countries in Asia to countries outside of Asia India has been a really positive example. India has many, many problems, but it is a country that is very diverse, that has great income inequality, and that has succeeded to maintain a democracy despite those challenges. What we’re seeing now is a very severe backsliding in Indian democracy. Prime Minister Modi has completely taken the country in a different direction.
Illiberal is a very good word for it because he does appear to be ruling for the Hindu majority and not for the population as a whole. He has sparked policies at both the national and at the local level, his party has sparked policies, that are targeting the Muslim population in particular and that have belied the values of Indian democracy and the inclusive nature of this very large and important country.
So, as we observe what is happening there, it’s very important to keep in mind, not just the impact on the Indian population, but on people around the world who see this and may think if India can’t succeed, how can I, or might think, if Prime Minister Modi can do these things against the minority in his country, maybe I can get away with them in mine. These are the kinds of effects that democratic decline can have.
Now, Sarah, some listers may recognize Freedom in the World. It’s your most famous report. You also come out with an incredible report every year for the Nations in Transit. So, I know that the post-Soviet states are ones you really have your eye on this past year. Kyrgyzstan saw the largest one-year drop in your report. Can you tell us about what happened there?
Kyrgyzstan had the largest score decline of any country in this year’s Freedom in the World. It lost eleven points and it fell from partly free to not free and that’s really a huge drop. So, very few countries in our measures even lose three points. Kyrgyzstan lost eleven. And I think it’s important to understand Kyrgyzstan’s case, because it’s an example of how a country that showed certain democratic prospects can turn around very quickly when an aggressive undemocratic actor takes over. Kyrgyzstan was at one point a hopeful case in Central Asia. It had more space for dissent than other countries and even if the possibility was very far off, it had some of the greatest prospects for democratization.
The parliamentary elections that took place in 2020 were fraudulent. They instigated protests that were quickly coopted by criminal elements from the population and Sadyr Japarov. He’s a nationalist politician. He’d been serving time on a kidnapping conviction. He was released from jail. He seized power. He was first prime minister, and now he’s president. And you see now in April, there was a referendum. The Kyrgyz voters approved a new constitution, which greatly expands the president’s power. So, all of this sets things up for Kyrgyzstan to tilt even further towards authoritarianism and sort of fall into the fate of many of its neighboring countries.
Now before we get too depressed, you’ve got some positive examples. The most positive in this year’s report was Sudan. It saw the greatest gains in 2020. How optimistic are you about further improvements in Sudan?
So, 2020 was actually the second year of improvement in Sudan. And in 2020, it had the largest score improvement of any countries with a population that’s larger than a hundred thousand. So, the Seychelles also had a large improvement. We are, I say, cautiously optimistic. The situation is very complicated in Sudan. The people who are running the country right now, which is supposedly only on an interim basis, are among those responsible for the past atrocities that we all know about in the country. This is a country that needs serious attention to justice and accountability, so that the Sudanese people will be able to move past their really painful history and make some progress towards democracy.
So, the lesson here again is in the fragility of these democratic openings and how important it is to take the local context into account. Also, how important it is for the local people in the country to have support whether that’s financial support or moral support. Even just rhetoric on the part of prominent countries, like the United States can be really encouraging to help tip the balance and keep the momentum behind those trying to bring freedom to their country.
So, a big part of your report talks about the United States and the steep decline that the United States has seen in democracy over the past ten years. We talked earlier about the decline in American leadership for democracy promotion around the world that began in the Obama administration, but the decline in American democracy also began during the Obama administration around the same time. Can you help explain what it is that you see that involves the decline in democracy and the decline in freedom within the United States? Can you give a few examples of that and do you have hope that we’re going to start seeing a reverse of that under the Biden administration?
So, as you said, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in U.S. democracy, according to Freedom in the World, eleven points on our hundred-point scale, which is not just a lot on the global scale, but very significant among established democracies. We’ve seen slight declines in for instance, countries in Europe, but we have not seen anything under the scale of what we’ve seen in the United States. As you said, this does predate the Trump administration. It did start under the Obama administration, but it’s reflective really of weaknesses in our system as a whole. It’s not about politics. It’s not about the Democrats and the Republicans. It’s about the fundamentals of our system that need to be shored up in order to protect our democracy.
And the three areas that I would call out are around the equal treatment of all segments of the population, particularly black and indigenous populations, the political polarization that we have in this country right now, and the way that has undermined the sense that we can work together and that the system is intended to serve all people and not just those who voted for whoever won, and also the improper influence of particularly money in our political system in a way that has distorted our system. If those areas are not addressed and if people are focused too much on the fact that President Trump is out of office so things inherently should be getting better, or the idea that Trump was the cause and not the symptom, we are going to face a situation where our democracy will continue to be vulnerable.
I think that the real fear is not a return of Donald Trump to power, but the return of somebody, who is much more singularly minded, thinking about how to undermine our system and co-opt it for their own purposes. Someone along the lines of Viktor Orbán in Hungary who could really take what Trump pointed out as the weaknesses in our system and exploit them even further. So it is really important for all Americans to focus on the long-term and on what we can do to protect our system from an authoritarian minded individual in the future.
So Sarah, one of the things that bothers me right now as an American is watching not so much Trump, but watching other people within the Republican Party that turned a blind eye to things that happened, particularly on January 6th. Your report writes, “Trump’s actions went unchecked by most lawmakers from his own party with a stunning silence that undermined basic democratic tenants only a serious and sustained reform effort can repair the damage done during the Trump era to the perception and reality of basic rights and freedoms in the United States.”
One of the challenges that I grapple with when I think about democracy in the United States, is that I want to think of some of these challenges as things that both sides should do better. Things that both sides need to work on. And there are clearly instances where we can look at Democrats who’ve made mistakes and behaved in the wrong way. But it definitely has begun to feel more and more that this is a problem that’s emphasized more in the Republican Party than the Democrats. I’d like to get your sense on this. Is this something that is a problem primarily from the Republican party? And if so, can one single political party in a country really repair a democracy without participation from the other side?
So, it’s definitely crucial to have a multi-party system in order to have a well-functioning democracy. I think what we’re seeing right now is an undemocratic element that is pursuing policies that are against our democratic system. Restricting the right to vote, for example, we would say is never valid except in extreme situations of fraud that we don’t have here. I would not say that this is the Republican Party. I would say that it is an element of the party. There are Republicans who have been very principled and very outspoken in support of our democracy. It’s possible that over time, the party lines shift or we, you know, may move to more parties in our system. I don’t know.
But I think that the two crucial points are that more than one party that is a small D democratic party is crucial to the functioning of a strong democracy. And that neither party is monolithic. Both of the parties in our system have some elements that are more cooperative, more collaborative, more focused on the long-term future of our country and others that may be more focused on their own personal power and on personal gain.
Sarah, I want to take us back a few years, back into an earlier member of Freedom House. Arch Puddington wrote, “When Freedom House launched Freedom in the World during the 1970s, the democratic world was experiencing a period of self-absorption, much like today’s, but that was followed by a historic surge of democratization in parts of the world where self-government was almost unknown.” He wrote that, I think it was 2014, in one of the past reports. So, it’s been seven years. A lot has happened. Things have not gotten better. But there’s always hope for the future. So, what needs to happen to bring about a fourth wave of democratization?
I’m glad you cited Arch. He’s a mentor of mine. And I would say I’m always optimistic, despite how bad it looks. And I think that a lot of my optimism right now comes from all of the attention that people like you are paying and people like your listeners are paying to democracy. When I started at Freedom House seven years ago, democracy was still that bad word that came out of the Iraq War. When I said that I worked for an organization that supports democracy, people looked at me with sidelong glances or I even covered it up and I would say I worked for a human rights organization.
Today people are really interested in these issues. They’re worried about the decline in U.S. democracy. They’re worried about the decline in global democracy. It used to be that when I would talk about this, I would have to convince people that there was a decline. Now they’re saying, ‘Okay. We get it. What can be done?’ I think that we need support at both levels. So, we need to restore trust among populations here in the United States, but all over the world in the concept of democracy. People need to understand that democracy will bring the basic things that they want, which in most cases, for most people, is personal security for themselves and their family and economic prosperity.
Democracy is the best system to bring that, but they need to see that and not just hear that from me or from their leaders, but actually see it in their lives. They need to have real concrete examples of how the democratic system has served them. So it’s very important for democratic policymakers to make sure that the entire population is feeling that and not just their base. But it’s also important for democratic leaders to talk about democracy at the international level and to promote this idea of a strong system that can serve people from all different countries, in all different situations.
The democracy summit that President Biden has been pushing for is an important component of that, but that needs to be followed up through cooperation at the international level, among democracies through a strong foreign policy that’s based on these values and a concerted effort to show democracy as the good alternative to what China has been pushing. I think that democracies have been on the back foot. We haven’t been thinking so much about the world. We’ve been caught a little bit in our own problems and it’s really important that just as authoritarian powers band together and cooperate at the international level, that democracies do that as well.
And I do think that the recession can be turned around, but it is not going to happen by accident or by default. It is going to require real work on the part of the people who support these values and think they’re important.
Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Sarah. Freedom House is so important, not just for the Freedom in the World report, but the way that it highlights different parts in the world that I think are too often ignored, both in your press releases, your policy briefs, all the numerous reports that you produce. It brings to light real important issues for human rights and democracy that are too often overlooked and I feel like it’s one of those places that you can trust is going to be thinking about these important ideas of democracy actually in practice. So, thank you so much for the work that you do.
Thank you so much for having me and thank you to everyone who listened. Read Freedom House’s landmark report
Read the report from Freedom House Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy Under Siege
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