Has Democracy Regressed Back to 1986?

Democracy Regressed Back to 1986
Berlin Wall on 16. November 1989. Photo by © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA.

By Justin Kempf

Democracy Regressed Back to 1986?

The recent report from the Varieties of Democracy made a stir with some of its headline findings. Perhaps the most controversial is their finding that global democracy has regressed back to the same level as 1986 for the average citizen. It raised many eyebrows, because this sets democracy back to the Cold War Era. It erases notable gains from the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This was an era where apartheid existed in South Africa and military dictatorships governed Chile, Indonesia, and South Korea.

Naturally, some well-respected political scientists raised questions about the data and V-DEM’s approach. Beginning with Thomas Carothers’ critique at the launch of V-DEM’s report, many felt this finding simply “doesn’t correspond to reality.” Lucan Way was absolutely incredulous and Adam Przeworski called the entire report “a publicity stunt.” Ultimately, the debate is not so much about the finding itself, but the accuracy of the data. Some have even questioned whether the entire approach is flawed.

For my part, I believe any attempt to measure democracy has its limitations. It will inevitably overlook regime philosophies and cultural narratives that shape political attitudes. However, it does offer an important way to think about democracy. Moreover, it allows us to verify or even discover relationships that would otherwise get overlooked entirely. It’s a bit premature to throw the baby out with the bathwater especially when most of those reacting have not looked closely at the data to better understand what this finding really means.

The Data

Before we can trust V-DEM’s finding we need to decide whether we trust the data. Most political scientists have valued V-DEM’s data more than the other democracy indices available. Part of the reason is the sheer wealth of information they provide. They use somewhere around 500 different indicators to produce six different democracy indices. The name Varieties of Democracy acknowledges the different notions of democracy. Their high level indices include the following

  • The Liberal Democracy Index
  • The Electoral Democracy Index
  • The Liberal Component Index
  • The Egalitarian Component Index
  • The Participatory Component Index
  • The Deliberative Component Index

While many of these different indices are correlated, they do provide important distinctions that provide nuance to discussions about democracy. Moreover, the different indicators they measure make it possible for researchers to study specific aspects or parts of democracy. It’s a project that has provided a wealth of data and information to researchers on democracy that is unparalleled.

Moreover, V-DEM also provides historical data that makes it possible to track the evolution of democracy over time. The only other attempt to measure democracy throughout history is from Polity. However, Polity offers a single measure of democracy for each country year. Moreover, it’s coding is often questionable. For instance, they give the United States a perfect democratic score in 1829 despite the presence of slavery and significant limitations on the franchise for women and racial minorities. Despite all this they consider America today as significantly less democratic than in 1829. V-DEM, on the other hand, shows a more consistent evolution of democracy throughout history that matches natural expectations.

The Usual Suspects

Nonetheless, many have raised questions about V-DEM’s coding in this latest report based on their headline finding. How has democracy regressed back to 1986 unless they have overestimated recent episodes of democratic backsliding? It helps to recognize this is an average. Some countries are far more democratic today than in 1986 such as countries who democratized during that period like South Korea, Chile, and nearly all of the former communist countries. Some well-known democratic backsliders such as Hungary and Poland remain far more democratic today than in 1986. Even Russia is slightly more democratic today than in 1986 according to V-DEM. It’s Liberal Democracy score is 0.071 compared to 0.036.

However, many countries have substantially regressed. Venezuela has declined from 0.588 to just 0.064. Turkey has declined from 0.289 to just 0.118. Even the United States has fallen from 0.8 to 0.741. However, the most important decline comes from India. It went from 0.524 in 1986 to 0.306 today. This is a notable change, because India accounts for about one sixth of the world’s population. Moreover, its population has grown as a share of the world’s population from 16.2% in 1986 to 17.8% in 2021.

Anyone who takes the time to compare the V-DEM scores from 1986 to today might find some reasons to disagree. However, it generally matches widespread consensus in the literature. The countries with large gains generally match our expectations. Conversely, the countries with significant setbacks generally match our expectations as well.

Population Effects

The variable that people have overlooked is the effect of population on democracy in the world. This is a controversial approach. V-DEM argues “it matters how many people are enjoying democratic rights and freedoms around the world.” However, it inevitably means the democratic trajectories of some countries will matter far more than others. Comparisons across time exacerbate these effects because populations change within countries. So, the relative weights of countries in 1986 are different than they are today.

I, more or less, replicated the V-DEM findings for population weighted measure of global democracy for 1986 and 2022. Four territories got left out because I could not find reliable populations for 1986. However, they are small and likely did not have large effects. My population weighted measure of libdem was effectively the same as the one in the V-DEM report (0.300). However, my measure for 1986 was slightly lower (0.288). I found a small but noticeable effect from demographic changes. If populations remained static at 1986 levels, global democracy would have been slightly higher (0.313). It’s about a 4.3% difference.

However, the more significant effect comes from one single country. I’ve already mentioned India holds about one sixth of the world’s population. Moreover, it has experienced significant democratic backsliding. Removing India does not effect the level of democracy in 2022 much at all, because it’s effectively at the average level already. But its absence shifted the libdem rating in 1986 from 0.288 to 0.241. This amounts to a 16.3% shift in democracy from India alone.

What Does this Mean?

The recent V-DEM report shows continued declines in democracy around the world. Democratic backsliding is not confined to one country alone. It is a global phenomenon that has affected countries on every continent. However, the headline finding is a bit misleading. It gives the impression that all the democratic gains around the world are lost. This is not the case.

When we weight democracy based on population, it allows large countries to have a disproportionate effect. Consequently, democratic backsliding in India will have an inordinate effect on global democracy with this approach. Moreover, demographic shifts will also have a small but noticeable effect as well. Declining birth rates in wealthy democracies mean they have less influence on population weighted measures of global democracy today than in the past.

Still, the single largest factor remains widespread declines in democracy throughout the world. Declines in liberal democracy in countries like Hungary do not need to fall below levels in 1986 to bring the average down in 2022. Every democratic index has shown widespread declines in democracy around the world. Even minimal definitions of democracy show more breakdowns than breakthroughs in recent years. Nonetheless, whether democracy has regressed back to 1986 levels is rather arbitrary. It’s not much better if the year is 1992 instead. It’s an acknowledgment of democracy’s setbacks over several years now. Hopefully, the next report shows a genuine turning point rather than more disappointment.

About the Author

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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