American democracy is in rapid decline, India is no longer a free country, and at most 20 percent of the world’s population lives in a liberal democracy.
These are a few of the sobering conclusions in the 2021 Freedom in the World report, an annual quantitative measurement of the state of democracy globally. The latest findings, released today, show a nearly unprecedented decline in the health of democracy in countries around the world-one of the biggest “we’ve ever recorded,” according to Freedom House President Michael Abramowtiz.
There are a number of reasons why the world became more undemocratic in 2020.
The declines in the world’s two largest democracies, the United States and India, can be traced to the influence of the far-right ethno-nationalist political movements that held power in those nations. The pandemic enabled authoritarian-inclined leaders in places such as Hungary and the Philippines to seize more power for themselves. China used its rising clout to undermine freedoms both inside its borders and out.
This global weakening of democracy isn’t new: According to Freedom House data, each of the past 15 years has seen some kind of decline. But 2020 is the single worst year in that entire “democratic recession,” as the organization terms it.
It’s a grim report that points to a series of grim realities. Democracy really is under attack around the world. Some really powerful countries, including China and Russia, are actively making things worse. And some of the historically free countries that should be helping save democracy – the United States foremost among them -are actually part of the problem.
The Freedom in the World ranking is one of the oldest and best-known quantitative measures of democracy. It wasn’t always entirely reliable: In the 1970s and 1980s, the rankings largely reflected the subjective judgements of one political scientist, Raymond Gastil.
But since two major rounds of methodological reform (one in 1990 and another in 2006), Freedom House’s numbers have become more trustworthy, reducing past problems such as a bias in favor of US- friendly states. To produce the 2021 report, Freedom House convened more than 150 in-house and external experts to assess a detailed questionnaire about the state of political freedoms and civil liberties in 195 countries and 15 nonstate territories with separate governments (e.g., Hong Kong).
Each question — examples include “Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?” and “Are there free and independent media?” — is answered on a 0–4 scale. The highest possible total score is 100, a perfect democracy, and the lowest possible score is 0, a perfect dictatorship. The countries that score closest to 100 qualify as “free,” the ones closer to zero qualify as “not free,” and those around the midpoint fall into a mixed “partly free” category.
In 2005, the United States was one of the best-ranking countries in the world, with a score of 94. By 2020, the US had fallen to 83 — an 11-point drop that was, according to the Freedom House report, one of the 25 largest in the world. The US still qualifies for the “free” category, but it is no longer at the top of the class. Its peers used to be Germany and France; now they are Panama and Mongolia.
Arguably, America’s downgrade isn’t even the most significant finding of the report. The decline in India, by far the world’s most populous democracy, was large enough that the country fell out of the “free” category altogether: Its status is now “partly free.” As in the United States, a far-right leader — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in this case — seems to bear the lion’s share of the blame.