In 1972 Freedom House published its first annual report known as Freedom in the World. It codes nations in the world on a scale from 1 to 7. While Freedom House describes countries as free, partly free, and not free, many use the report as a measure for democracy. Indeed, even Freedom House uses freedom and democracy interchangeably in its reports. So, the first few decades of the report saw a noticeable increase in freedom in the world year after year. The third wave of democratization brought about democratization in many countries around the world. The decline and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union accelerated democratization efforts even further.
However, over the last sixteen years Freedom House has observed declines in global freedom. Moreover, they are not alone. Other surveys and reports on democracy from Varieties of Democracy, The Economist Intelligence Unit, Polity, and show a similar trend. Larry Diamond calls it a democratic recession. Others call it the third wave of autocratization. It is a disturbing trend that raises many questions. Why has democracy lost its appeal? How can we reverse the trend? Did democracies somehow lose their ability to effectively govern?
At first some questioned whether Freedom House and others were simply wrong. The different surveys all rely on humans to measure levels of democracy and democratization. So, they all contain potential for human error. They also pose some risk of recency bias. For example, Polity recently coded the United States below the threshold for democracy briefly after January 6th. It’s difficult to understand how America is less democratic today than in 1829 when suffrage was limited and slavery was prevalent in the South. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the shift away from liberal democracy particularly in recent years.
A Critique of Democracy Measures
The more substantive critique of democratic measures questions their approach or rather the methodology rather than their findings. Democracy measures typically examine observable characteristics. Varieties of Democracy examines 470 unique indicators in its different measures of democracy. However, they all involve observable traits rather than underlying features. It’s reminiscent of biology before genetics. Biologists classified species based on observable traits into species, genus, and so on. The discovery of genetics and DNA sequencing completely revolutionized traditional taxonomies.
It’s difficult to imagine how political science might make the kind of leap genetics provided for biology. A better approach may never exist. However, I imagine it might have something to do with the people rather than the structure of the regime itself. Democracy does depend on institutions, but it also relies on citizens to navigate those institutions. The 21st Century has enabled greater levels of participation through social media and ability due to increased levels of education. At the same time, traditional means of civic engagement have declined due to the professionalization of civil society. In other words, the decay of formal democratic institutions is likely a symptom rather than the disease.
What we need to learn is whether democracy was never as healthy as we once believed. It is possible the success of democracy was somewhat overestimated, while its subsequent decline is now overstated. At the same time, many countries really did adopt liberal democratic practices during the third wave of democratization. However, democracy is perhaps most easily reduced to a government of the people. So, the presence of formally democratic institutions and practices is not really enough. As Christian Welzel puts it, “In order to be stable and liberal, democracy must be understood and appreciated by its citizens.” Unfortunately, social scientists still struggle to measure this hidden dimension of democracy.
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