Has the Worldwide Trend toward Freedom/Democracy Slipped?

Dartthrowingchimp has built a simple but informative graphic charting the growth of civil and political rights over the past four decades as indexed and reported by the Freedom House index. You can click through to see it and read how it works; and if charting democracy around the globe is your bag, I highly recommend it–it’s way better than looking at country counts and line graphs.

DTC says that he thinks he “can see the slippage that Freedom House emphasizes in its recent reports, too.” I’m not sure that’s what I’m seeing.

What I think I see is the explosion of Democracy optimism that swept over the world in the wake of the Soviet collapse. When the Soviet Union collapsed several states regained independence and several states were newly formed. Some states both regained independence and then fractured and collapsed into new states which roughly coincided with old world dutchies and clan-based borders.

In most of these instances the newly (re-)formed states claimed a nominal dedication to democratic principals. Many of them wrote constitutions affirming this direction. Several states that underwent civil wars and came out as newly formed democracies were never formal satellites of the USSR. In Africa several states spent the Cold War with their internal conflicts stifled by either the US or the USSR–typically by funding dictatorships that, once left alone, were unable to maintain order.

In any case, these states used democratic rhetoric, passed democratic laws, and sometimes, maybe, possibly, actually had a passion to move in a democratic direction. Unfortunately, these commitments—whether sincerely held or not—were beset by the obstacles we knew in advance exist between power of the one and power of the many. These democratic gains were never consolidated, democratic institutions never gained the legitimacy or capacity to repel its assailants,  and ultimately both proved illusory.

In other words, whether these states were ever truly democracies remains an open question.

Freedom House (and Polity) both set for themselves a difficult task. Attempting to understand the political context of a state, from a distance, and in (more or less) real time is virtually impossible. Once ranked, that’s the rank. It is not subject to historical revision (historical revision comes with its own problems).

But my assumption is that these states were not democracies in any meaningful sense. Democracies are only democracies when, as Linz and Stepan said “democracy is the only game in town.” Before that, the true policy is somewhere in anocratic region…leaning toward democracy, maybe, but not a “a democracy” yet.

FHI is not measuring “democracy” directly, but in offering an indexed score of civil and political rights, it is, I think subject to the same criticism. A law and nominal protection to certain ideals is fine but how robust are they? How quickly can they decay? What level of trust in those institutions is there? The FHI has a great methodology, utilizing several types of experts with a variety of interests and knowledge about the countries they report on. But that does not free them from being victims of the zeitgeist. The Democracy optimism of the mid-90s wasn’t isolated to the US–it couldn’t have been. Democratic movements in the Eastern bloc and elsewhere were also, often, popular movements. Victories are perceived as victories, probably most of all by those that fought. So I don’t think FHI was “wrong” to record them as democracies (free). I just think that real time measures, although important, especially for prognosticators like DTC, are also deeply flawed. I think the freedom recession of the last decade or so is more a reflection of this methodological flaw.

That’s not to say there weren’t real gains made at this time, nor is it to deny there have been real losses since then. I just don’t think that in reality global freedom reached as high as it is reported by FHI, thus the recession we are in now would look less startling if that peak were modified.