Report Finds More Democracies Are Backsliding Than Ever Before

The Global State of Democracy 2021 report shows that the number of countries undergoing ‘democratic backsliding’ has never been as high as in the last decade. The US was on that list for the first time.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signs SB 202, a voter suppression bill, into law at the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta on March 25, 2021. This sparked a resounding backlash, leading to 700 corporations speaking out in support of voting rights. (Source: Kemp’s Twitter Account)

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signs SB 202, a voter suppression bill, into law at the Georgia state Capitol in Atlanta on March 25, 2021. This sparked a resounding backlash, leading to 700 corporations speaking out in support of voting rights. (Source: Kemp’s Twitter Account)

Carson Markley completed his undergraduate at Youngstown State University and is pursuing a graduate degree at Richmond University. 

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has labeled the United States as a democratic backsliding country for the first time. However, the United States is not alone in this backsliding. According to this same report: “the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a trend of increasing authoritarianism across the globe, with many countries sliding back down the democratic scale.”

The report goes on to outline the global scale:

“The Global State of Democracy 2021 shows that more countries than ever are suffering from ‘democratic erosion’ (decline in democratic quality), including in established democracies. The number of countries undergoing ‘democratic backsliding’ (a more severe and deliberate kind of democratic erosion) has never been as high as in the last decade, and includes regional geopolitical and economic powers such as Brazil, India and the United States.”

The IDEA report and similar publications raise an essential question, “Is democratic sliding universal?” and subsequently, a follow-up question, “Is there anything that can prevent backsliding?”

Samual P. Huntington, in his work, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” explores the history of democracy and the causes of backsliding. Huntington first concludes there are periods of democratic growth and collapse. This means that our current period isn’t unique but part of a larger trend. That idea lays the groundwork for the notion that backsliding is universal but periodical. The further conclusion from this work is the identification of six modern causes of democratic backsliding, including weak support for democracy, economic setbacks, political polarization, weakening of progressive movements, authoritarian promotion, and finally, a snowballing effect. The causes of backsliding appear to be universal within their own right further suggesting a universal consequence for all democracies.

Weak support for democracy is characterized by indifference or anti-democratic sentiments. It allows institutions to collapse and, in more extreme cases, enable dictators to win elections. Support for democracy has declined around the world. In 2020, a study of 27 democracies (approximately a third of global democracies) found that 51% are unsatisfied with democracy, while only 45% continue to support democracy. Additionally, individuals that lose faith in a democracy are unlikely to regain confidence during their lifetimes. That means every coup, every allegation of fraud, every scandal can be permanently damaging without the necessary counterbalance.

Economic setbacks force people into a state of desperation where they are willing to vote for undemocratic leaders in exchange for promises of economic relief. Democracy, in theory, supports compromise and can take time to pass legislation which is not a promising characteristic for people who need assistance immediately.  A study found that democracies, when faced with economic challenges, are more likely to deviate from optimum recovery compared to their authoritarian counterparts. The world has faced major economic setbacks since 2000 including the 2008 recession, and the COVID-19 recession. Both situations had a global impact.

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In the political sense, polarization is defined by increased opposition among political parties. This drives people apart, creating a toxic political environment that makes power-sharing impossible. A study of the topic in Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey, and the United States found that the process is virtually the same globally. That means that polarization is likely to happen everywhere in spite of: culture, religion, geography, government systems, and numerous other variables. Moreover, a disturbing trend is that social media platforms are exacerbating polarization.

Progressive movements generally support social and political reform that benefits the common citizen while weakening the elite. The weakening of progressive movements results in disenfranchisement among voters, specifically in women, youth, and minority groups. In principle, Democracy is supposed to be representative of all people and political groups. To limit progressive groups’ involvement goes against the very principles of democracy. Additionally, it creates a political environment where the silencing of other political options can become commonplace.

Progressive movements mean different things in different contexts. So to evaluate its universality the same way as other causes will always be inconclusive. However, something to consider is the success of progressive movements following the Great Depression and World War II compared to progressives’ successes following the 2008 financial crisis and the Global War on Terror.  On a surface level, progressive movements within the past decade appear to have weakened.

Authoritarian promotion is the process of authoritarian governments supporting or creating other authoritarian governments. Dictators tend to find company simply because it’s easy to work among like-minded people. This includes working with authoritarian wannabes in democratic countries. International election interference is at an all-time high, with approximately 80% of the last decade’s cases occurring after 2016. Interference can help prompt up dictators or, at the very least, weaken democratic institutions. With the rise of China and the reemergence of a more confrontational Russia on the international stage, authoritarians now have more resources than ever to pursue authoritarian promotion, allowing them to target every democracy.

Lastly, the snowball effect is undoubtedly universal. Democracies similar to the authoritarians above like to work with like-minded states. NATO and the European Union are examples of this relationship. So as democracies worldwide collapse, the strength of Democratic international organizations also collapses. They leave behind a smaller number of weaker democracies to fend for themselves. Even the most perfect democracy will experience backsliding if its partner states are backsliding themselves.

These six causes of democratic backsliding in combination appear to affect countries around the globe, leaving no democracy safe from the processes of democratic backsliding. Leading democratic theory supports this idea of universal backsliding. However, the theory also suggests that it is periodic, meaning that one-day the era of democratic backsliding will end. The issue is that previous peaks and troughs of democracy have been caused by power disrupting events, like World War II or the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both of which resulted in massive casualties. Additionally, another concern is that there is no set length between waves. Therefore, the age of backsliding could last 100 years or longer. This is not a pretty picture for people who wish to live in a democracy.

The alternative is to fight back against all of the causes of backsliding. Countries need to invest in civic education to increase democracy and decrease polarization. Election agencies should persuade more transparent election systems to encourage the freedom of all movements, including progressives. Democracy promotion programs, including voting rights protections, need to be implemented to counter rising authoritarian promotion. If these programs are pursued on a massive international scale, it may be enough to prevent the snowball effect and rebuild a democratic era. Leading democracies like the United States have a lot of work to do if they want to survive.

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