Is democracy dying? According to a recently released report, the answer might be ‘yes.’ Freedom House’s democracy rankings for 2020 were released last week, and the findings were shocking! In this episode we’ll talk about their conclusions, how Freedom House is able to assess democracy, and discuss why democracy might be struggling!

2021 Freedom in the World Report

What is Democracy?

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Vocabulary List

To collapse (v) – to suddenly fail, be unable to continue or work correctly

The Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s

Unprecedented (adj) – never having happened or existed in the past

Unemployment has reached an unprecedented level 

Reliable (adj) – someone or something that is reliable can be trusted or believed because he, she or it works or behaves well in the way expected

Is your watch reliable? Or is it a little slow?

Unstable  (adj) – not solid and firm and therefore not strong, safe, or likely to last 

That chair looks really unstable!

Deterioration (n) – the fact or process of becoming worse

We’ve seen a deterioration in relations between the countries 

Secretive  (adj) – people or organisation who are secretive hide their feelings, thoughts, intentions and actions from other people

He’s being very secretive about his new girlfriend 

Surveillance (n) – the careful watching of a person or place, especially by the police or army, because of a crime that has happened or is expected to happen

More banks are now installing surveillance cameras

To enforce (v) – to make people obey a law

It isn’t always easy for the police to enforce speed limits

Bribery (n) – an attempt to make someone do something for you by giving the person money, presents, or something else that they wanted

Some cultures consider tipping waiters bribery, while in others it’s considered an insult if you don’t leave a tip

Is democracy dying? Twenty years ago, the answer to this question would have been a strong ‘no’. If anything, the opposite was true. All around the world, more and more countries were moving towards democracy. A majority of former colonies had become independent, former dictatorships in Latin America were holding free and fair elections, and the Soviet Union and Eastern European communist states had collapsed! There was such confidence in the victory of democracy over all other forms of government in the late 1990s. If you have ever studied political science or history or another related subject, you might have heard of Francis Fukuyama’s famous book from 1992 “The End of History and the Last Man.” In the book Fukuyama argues that American style liberal democracy was so strong, and all other alternatives to democracy were so weak, that the world had reached its final stage of political development. Democracy was now unbeatable. 

That was twenty five years ago. In 2021, the answer to the question “is democracy dying?” might actually be ‘yes.’ According to the Freedom House’s newly released 2021 Freedom in the World report there has been an unprecedented decline in the health of the world’s democracies. Freedom House is an organisation which produces an annual evidence based survey into the levels of democracy and freedom globally. I’ll talk more about how they do this shortly! 

2020 experienced the biggest decline in the history of Freedom House’s reports. According to their report, the strength of American democracy is falling rapidly, India is no longer a free country, and only 20 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a liberal democracy. In the rest of this episode, I’ll discuss how they decide on their ratings, talk about some of Freedom House’s major findings, examine why democracy has been struggling recently, and hopefully finish on a more optimistic conclusion!

First, who are Freedom House, what is the Freedom in the World ranking, and how do they decide the results? As I previously mentioned, Freedom House is an organisation, founded in the USA, which attempts to assess the levels of democracy and freedom globally. They are not the only organisation to do this, but their Freedom in the World report is one of the oldest and most famous quantitative measures of democracy. What does quantitative mean? Quantitative data is data that can be counted, measured or expressed using some kind of numbers! So Freedom House’s report is based on this kind of quantitative data. An alternative way of measuring democracy, or any kind of research, would be by using qualitative data! Qualitative data is descriptive and conceptual. I’ll give you an example. I did some research on voting behaviours a few years back. I was looking at whether the type of school you attended affected the way you vote in the future. An example of a quantitative approach to researching voting behaviour would be looking at the voting statistics and data of voters education background. A qualitative method would be interviewing a few people and recording their answers!

Although Freedom house wasn’t always the most reliable ranking, major reforms in 1990 and 2006 have made the organisation much more trustworthy. Old problems such as a bias towards the USA and their allies have been reduced considerably. To produce the 2021 report, Freedom House brought together more than 150 experts to assess a detailed questionnaire about the state of political freedoms and civil liberties in 195 countries and 15 non state territories with separate governments (e.g., Hong Kong). Questions include “Are there free and independent media?” and “Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?” They are then answered by giving a score between 0-4 (0 is a strong negative answer and 4 is a strong positive answer). 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. Finland, Norway and Sweden tied for top spot in the recent rankings with perfect 100 scores, while the territory of Tibet and Syria scored only 1/100 at the bottom end of the scale.

Now we know how the Freedom in the World report works, what were the main findings of the report? Before I go any further, I just want to be clear that I am just reporting the findings of this report. They are not my opinions, but the opinions of Freedom House and their experts. If you come from a country that might be criticised, please don’t take it personally. If you disagree, that is perfectly fine, and I’d actually be interested to hear your reasons why you disagree!

First, one of the most shocking conclusions is the falling position of the USA. In 2005, the US scored 94, making it one of the best performing countries in the entire world. By 2020, the US had fallen 11 points to 83/100. This is one of the largest drops out of any country. The US is still in the “free” category, but they are now closer to Poland, Romania and Mongolia than the UK, Scandinavia, and Western Europe! The USA lost 3 points in 2020 alone. Why? Reasons include the problems with Trump’s refusal to concede the election, confusing public health recommendations, political arguments, the massive coronavirus death rates, as well as police violence against protestors. The report claims all of these demonstrated the weaknesses in the US system and made American democracy appear unstable! Moreover, this report only covers events in 2020, so doesn’t even include the violence at the US Capitol building in early January this year!

While America’s decline is shocking, it probably isn’t the most significant finding of the report. India, the world’s largest democracy, has declined so much that the country fell out of the “free” category. It is now only ranked as “partly free.” As with Trump in the USA, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes a lot of the responsibility for this deterioration. Journalists who criticised the country’s pandemic response were arrested, while the country’s independent legal system was under pressure from the governments and protestors have been treated harshly!

Not surprisingly, China was one of the lower scoring countries. However, the report highlights China’s influence as one of the reasons for the declines in other territories. In areas like Hong Kong and Tibet, which are counted as territories with some degree of autonomy by Freedom House, this influence is very direct and obvious. In addition, the indirect influence of China in interfering with other countries’ politics, being overly secretive during the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and in stopping international organisations from fighting human rights abuses around the world, has also been significant! Many of the countries declining in the rankings are small “partly free” nations who have turned to China over the last few years as the USA stepped back from the international stage!

The report shows coronavirus was one of the biggest challenges to democracy in 2020. Both democracies and dictatorships used a lot of surveillance, prevented the freedom of assembly and movement, and sometimes used violence to enforce their rules! Lies and fake news caused people to be confused and distrust their governments. In Hungary, for example, a series of emergency measures allowed the government to take more power despite the fact that there were hardly any coronavirus cases until Autumn. 

Ethiopia had made democratic progress in recent years, as new prime minister Abiy Ahmed lifted restrictions on opposition media and political groups and released imprisoned journalists and political figures. However, a conflict in the region of Tigray has damaged their demcoratic score. The government asked for support from the neighboring Eritrean dictatorship, elections were postponed, and many civilians have died.

I’ll include a link to the Freedom in the World report in description of the podcast and also in the blog post. It is not the easiest thing to read, but it is fascinating and concerning! There are also profiles on each place so you can see how your country did. 

It seems clear that in many parts of the world democracy is in decline. Why is it in decline? If you listen to the powerful authoritarian regimes in the likes of Russia and China, it is declining because democracy doesn’t work. Freedom House disagrees with this. Instead, they argue it is because the strongest and most powerful democractic states are not doing enough to protect global democracy. Over the last 5 or 6 years, the USA, the UK, and European countries have been distracted with their own political problems. Countries which used to rely on the west for support have had to turn to China, Russia, and the Middle East instead! They argue the democractic governments have a responsibility to work together to support democracy around the world. They also must make sure that their own politics and democracy is strong and successful. 

This episode has not been the most positive. I’m talking about the decline in democracy, after all. However, it has not been a completely negative year for democracy. There were some bright spots in the darkness of 2020. The Freedom in the World report points to the African country of Malawi. The country’s constitutional court resisted bribery and political pressure to order a new election in 2020, which was won by the opposition party. The case of Malawi shows that independent and democratic institutions can stop the abuse of power!

Freedom House also highlighted Taiwan as an excellent case of democracy. Taiwan has probably been the most successful place at dealing with coronavirus, and did so while respecting people’s freedoms! They also held demcoratic elections last year, and have been given a score of 94/100 (higher than my country the UK)!

Finally, I started off talking about the decline of the USA. In 2021, however, there is a new government in America and a new president. The Biden administration is trying to repair the damage caused to the USA’s democracy and reputation by Donald Trump. Hopefully, with US leadership and successful coronavirus vaccines, 2021 will be a much more democratic and free year!

Final Thought

What do you think about the 2021 Freedom in the World report? Do you think it is possible to measure democracy? What about your country? How did they perform in the rankings? Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of democracy?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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