The headline news isn’t good:
In the 2019 Democracy Index the average global score for democracy fell from 5.48 in 2018 to 5.44 (on a scale of 0-10). This is the worst average global score since the index was first produced in 2006. The 2019 result is even worse than that recorded in 2010, in the wake of the global economic and financial crisis, when the average global score fell to 5.46.
But to describe this as “a year of democratic setbacks” is slightly misleading. Four tenths of a percentage point is hardly a noteworthy drop, and while 62 countries showed a decline in their score since last year, another 48 recorded an improvement.*
It’s true that the larger changes tended more to be downward. Ten countries improved by a quarter of a point (that is, 2.5%) or more, but 25 fell by that amount. Even so, the overall picture is one of stagnation. That’s particularly so at the top of the table: most of the big falls were in countries that weren’t doing very well to start with.
That may be partly due to the the fact that, as I put it last year, “once the Economist has made up its mind, it doesn’t change much.” As it happens, there’s a bit more change in the index than there was last time; only 57 countries, or fractionally over a third, show no change at all in their rating. But most movements, particularly in affluent western countries, are very small.
The number of “democracies” has increased by one to 76: El Salvador and Thailand joined the group, while Senegal dropped out. Thailand’s improvement, from 4.63 to 6.32 (6.0 is the cutoff for “democracy”), was the largest recorded – based, I would say, on an unduly rosy interpretation of last year’s election. The largest fall in a rating was China, from 3.32 to 2.26, which simply raises the question of how it got so high in the first place.
Of the various components that make up the overall ratings, the only one to show an average increase was “political participation”, driven in part by the worldwide surge in popular protest. As the authors comment:
It is the growth of popular distrust in governments, institutions, parties and politicians that is driving many of today ’s protest movements. … In many places, scores for voter turnout have increased, membership of political parties and organisations has grown, and engagement with politics has improved. Despite disenchantment with democracy, and probably because of the degree of disaffection that now prevails, populations are turning out to vote and to protest.
Democracy as a whole may be stagnating and under threat, but the public is not yet giving up on it.
It’s again interesting to compare the Economist’s index with Freedom House’s survey, “Freedom in the World”. Its latest version (based on slightly earlier data and covering more countries) also shows more losses than gains – 68 as against 50 – and in broadly similar places. As its authors point out, “The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous.”
Freedom House and the Economist are nominally measuring different things. And some authoritarian rulers (and their apologists) will tell you that you can have democracy without liberalism’s guarantees of personal freedom, or that you can have a suite of important human rights without electoral democracy.
But experience does not bear them out. The notions of “illiberal democracy” and “liberal authoritarianism” have never been more than illusions. It remains as true as ever that democracy and freedom, while not identical, need each other badly, and their fates are deeply intertwined.
* On page four of the report those numbers are given as 68 and 65, with 34 unchanged, but that’s not what the figures in table 3 show.