Daniel W. Drezner

Is democracy going melting down or growing up? [UPDATED]

Joshua Kurlantzick argues in The New Republic that despite the surface appeal of the Arab Spring, global trends are moving against the democratic system of government:  The truth is that the Arab Spring is something of a smokescreen for what is taking place in the world as a whole. Around the globe, it is democratic ...

Joshua Kurlantzick argues in The New Republic that despite the surface appeal of the Arab Spring, global trends are moving against the democratic system of government

The truth is that the Arab Spring is something of a smokescreen for what is taking place in the world as a whole. Around the globe, it is democratic meltdowns, not democratic revolutions, that are now the norm. (And even countries like Egypt and Tunisia, while certainly freer today than they were a year ago, are hardly guaranteed to replace their autocrats with real democracies.) In its most recent annual survey, the monitoring group Freedom House found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years. It pointed out that most authoritarian nations had become even more repressive, that the decline in freedom was most pronounced among the “middle ground” of nations—countries that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies—and that the number of electoral democracies currently stands at its lowest point since 1995. Meanwhile, another recent survey, compiled by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, spoke of a “gradual qualitative erosion” of democracy and concluded that the number of “highly defective democracies”—democracies so flawed that they are close to being failed states, autocracies, or both—had doubled between 2006 and 2010.

The number of anecdotal examples is overwhelming. From Russia to Venezuela to Thailand to the Philippines, countries that once appeared to be developing into democracies today seem headed in the other direction. So many countries now remain stuck somewhere between authoritarianism and democracy, report Marc Plattner and Larry Diamond, co-editors of the Journal of Democracy, that “it no longer seems plausible to regard [this condition] simply as a temporary stage in the process of democratic transition.”

Reason‘s Jesse Walker thinks Kurlantzick is making a “democracy meltdown” out of a few molehills: 

It’s a dramatic story, but it isn’t really accurate. We aren’t on the road to Planet Burma. More likely, we’re witnessing freedom’s growing pains….

Kurlantzick’s claim that freedom has “plummeted” for five years running. I’ll accept Freedom House’s ratings as a rough measurement of civil liberties and self-rule: You might quibble with their judgments on some specific countries, but the group gets the broad trends right. And those trends just don’t show a plummet. The political scientist Jay Ulfelder, former director of the Political Instability Task Force, notes that what the Freedom House figures actually describe is “a period of major gains in the early 1990s; a period of slower gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and something like a plateau to minor slippage since the mid-2000s.” He illustrates that with a chart showing the group’s average scores over the last three decades.


[T]he recent trend looks more like a stagnation than a substantial shrinkage. And with anti-authoritarian activists still marching in the Middle East and elsewhere, there’s a reasonable chance—not a certainty, but a chance—that we’re about to see another big bump in the right direction.

Jay Ulfelder has more in his blog post [Full disclosure:  Jay and I got our Ph.D.’s in political science together.  We were even officemates for a year — and Jay was the most polite and quiet officemate I ever had.]

Looking at the data, I’m inclined to say that Walker/Ulfelder win this argument.  Consider this paragraph from the Freedom House press release linked to by Kurlantzick: 

A total of 25 countries showed significant declines in 2010, more than double the 11 countries exhibiting noteworthy gains. The number of countries designated as Free fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, far below the 2005 figure of 123. In addition, authoritarian regimes like those in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continued to step up repressive measures with little significant resistance from the democratic world.

The move from 89 to 87 could be noise, and 115 is not “far below” 123.  There’s some adjectival abuse going on here.  These modest trends away from democratization across countries can be easily reversed by a successful Arab Spring — a big “if,” admittedly.  

Kurlantzick and Freedom House do make one point, however, that neither Walker nor Ulfelder rebut.   The most disturbing trend is the “lock-in” of authoritarianism in so many medium and great powers.  China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia — these are countries that have trended towards the “not free” category for many a year now, and these regimes are getting better at stifling dissent.  Walker argues that, “the know-how for building freedom is still spreading,” but the know-how for squelching it can also spread.  Indeed, the Arab Spring itself has led to genuine regime change in some countries, but in others it has been a testing ground for how to crack down. 

Even if the democratization wave continues, there are enough big authoritarian countries around that will not be transitioning anytime soon.  That is a significant change from twenty years ago, and it’s worth thinking about the implications for the future. 

UPDATE:  Jay Ulfelder responds to my point on new and improved forms of authoritarianism: 

Actually, I think the cases Dan mentions — China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — support the view that the roster of democratic governments will continue to expand. Where Dan sees regimes that are “locking in” authoritarian rule by “getting better at stifling dissent,” I see regimes that are facing still-growing pressures to expand civil liberties and hold fair elections–pressures that should eventually help tip those countries onto the democratic side of the ledger….

I think it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that any of these regimes will cede power to democratically elected governments in the next year or two. At the same time, I think it’s also evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.

I hope he’s right — but stories like these make me wonder if he’s underestimating the innovations of “smart” authoritarian institutions. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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