Many scholars have argued that democracy — particularly in the United States — is under threat. Examples include Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s analysis of democratic backsliding and Yascha Mounk’s stringent critique of whether American democracy truly represents its citizens.
Our newly released 2018 Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project report rates the state of democracy across 178 countries, offering the most updated, comprehensive assessment of where things stand.
A year ago, in 2017, we found that democracy was on the decline — but not as much as many pundits believed. Today, we are less optimistic than we were a year ago. Our new report shows that democracy’s decline is gaining momentum: One-third of the world’s population lives in a backsliding democracy.
This is how we did our research
These conclusions are based on new data released by the V-Dem Project, the largest-ever social-science effort to measure democracy around the world.
The survey asks more than 3,000 scholars and other country experts to evaluate each of 178 countries on the quality of core features of democracy. These experts distinguish between de jure and de facto democratic countries. For example, most countries today hold elections, but some of these elections are free and fair while others are severely rigged.
V-Dem usually asks five experts to evaluate each country on many features that characterize democracy. V-Dem then aggregates the expert assessments using a custom-built statistical model, including an estimate of uncertainty. When we speak of “significant” changes, we refer to changes that are notable even after taking this uncertainty into account.
Here we focus on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI), which assesses whether there are free and fair elections; whether leaders are constrained by the rule of law and oversight by parliament and the judiciary; and whether civil liberties are protected.
Here are three takeaways.
Democracy is declining worldwide
At the end of 2017, most people in the world lived in democracies. But since then, one-third of the world’s population — or 2.5 billion people — have lived through “autocratization,” in which a leader or group of leaders began to limit those democratic attributes and to rule more unilaterally. The current autocratization trend is visible across the world — and affects Europe and the whole American continent. Only sub-Saharan Africa shows some democratic improvements on average.
And for the first time since 1979, the same number of countries (24 in total) are backsliding on democracy as are advancing. In the United States, weakening constraints on the executive branch have resulted in a significant decline of liberal democracy.
What’s more, only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where everyone, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status, has roughly equal access to political power. Women enjoy at least somewhat — but not fully — equal access to political power in most Western countries, including the United States, as well as other countries such as Costa Rica, Rwanda, Ghana and Benin.
People with average levels of income have almost as much influence on politics as rich people in many Western countries — but not in the United States. On this indicator, the United States scores lowest among all Western countries, ranking 75th globally. One in four people, or almost 2 billion people, live in countries where the more economically well-off have gained more political power in the past 10 years.