Sometimes it seems like democracy is in danger all around the world. The rise of authoritarian leaders in countries as disparate as Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, and the Philippines—not to mention an American head of state who regularly shows contempt for democratic norms—can create the impression that the concept of a free society is increasingly threatened.
A new study confirms that disheartening diagnosis. It finds 2.5 billion people—about a third of the world's population—live in nations where democracy is in retreat.
"Media autonomy, freedom of expression, and the rule of law have undergone the greatest decline among democracy metrics in recent years," lead author Anna Lührmann, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburn in Sweden, said in announcing the findings. "This worrisome trend makes elections less meaningful around the world."
In the journal Democratization, Lührmann and her colleagues present evidence of a growing trend toward "autocratization"—that is, nations backsliding away from democracy and toward autocracy. They analyze data from the Varieties of Democracy data set, which tracks more than 400 democracy-related variables, including human rights, the rule of law, and corruption.
The researchers report that, in recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number "registering significant change toward autocracy" has increased. Even worse, "the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy"—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—"far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries."
"A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization," they write. "This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms."
It's important to note that creeping autocracy usually does not involve canceling elections. Indeed, "electoral institutions and practices remain robust, or have even improved" in most of the backsliding countries, the researchers report. "It seems that aspiring autocrats looking to enrich their power have embraced elections as a way to placate citizens and the international community. Meanwhile, they find ways to undermine their meaningfulness by limiting freedoms of expression, the independence of the media and civil society, and the rule of law."
"We find that most negative developments occur in ways that are less conspicuous," they explain. "Government censorship of the media and harassment of journalists can occur gradually and by relatively hidden means [such as intimidation]. Such tactics lead naturally to increasing levels of self-censorship and less explicit criticism of the government."
This trend is evident in India, the most populous democracy, which has seen "infringements on media freedom and civil-society activities following the election of a Hindu-nationalist government." To date, "the core electoral aspects of democracy do not show significant decline" in that nation, but the trend is worrisome.
Closer to home, the researchers conclude the U.S. "is significantly less democratic in 2017 than it was in 2007." They find "measures of effective oversight" of the executive branch have declined, along with that branch's "respect for the constitution."
"The principal issue testing the resiliency of American democracy concerns the role of Congress in holding the executive [branch of government] responsible for following the constitution, and adhering to the law," they conclude.
Despite these troubling trends, It's worth remembering that more than half of the world's population still lives under democratic rule. Moreover, experts disagree on how big a problem we're facing. Using the same database as this study, along with three others, political scientist Daniel Treisman recently concluded the outlook for democracy isn't as dire as many think.
But being alert to subtle erosion of our freedoms seems a highly prudent course. Elections, without those other foundations of democracy, are pretty meaningless. If you doubt it, ask your average Venezuelan.