Freedom House Study: Democracy at a Crossroads?

This Map of Electoral Democracies (shown in blue) reflects the findings of Freedom House's 2006 survey. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

By Michael Covin

A recent study by Freedom House showed that in 2018, less than half the world is free and less than half the world lives in a free country.

Forty-five percent of the world lives in a free country and 39 percent of the global population would be classified as free. These statistics could lead one to think about conversations first in America, a country that is free but might not be “the Land of the Free” as the national anthem speaks to when we think about our history and our current debates.

Those pair of statistics also lead one to think about countries around the world like Syria, where civilians are bombed and attacked by their leader, or places like South Sudan, where citizens worry about many of their rights.

Going deeper beyond those statistics and thinking about this topic, the study frames democracy facing its most serious crisis in decades based on the basic elements of a democracy like freedom of the press, free and fair elections, rights and protections for minorities, and the general rule of law.

All of these elements have been under attack around the world. This was the 12th consecutive year of a decline in global freedom. Twice as many (71) countries saw net declines than countries (35) that saw net increases.

One of the glaring declines was America, which has traditionally been a country of hope with progresses and protecting those core tenets of democracy.

Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz outlined:

The challenges within democratic states have fueled the rise of populist leaders who appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and give short shrift to fundamental civil and political liberties. Right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017. While they were kept out of government in all but Austria, their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the right and left. Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron handily won the French presidency, but in Germany and the Netherlands, mainstream parties struggled to create stable governing coalitions. Perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished among many, contributing to a dangerous apathy.

While all this is going on, countries like China and Russia have taken steps to only further repress their citizens under leaders who have worked to grow their power within their own countries and beyond.

Abramowitz speaks to why free countries and an expanded democracy in a country and overall in the world are so important: “When more countries are free, all countries—including the United States—are safer and more prosperous. When more countries are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances crumble, nations and entire regions become unstable, and violent extremists have greater room to operate.”

Democratic countries and societies are not just governments making rules but also engaging with and allowing citizens to be involved. When we see marches and rallies and other ways citizens push back, it speaks to the state of a country’s democracy in the eye of its citizens and their ability to exercise their freedoms largely when thinking what embodies the First Amendment in America.

One of the highlights of the study showed by a graph looking at free, partly free, and not free countries points to the progresses made in each decade between 1987 and 2007 that were reversed in the last decade.

More countries are not free while less places are free and partly free. While there is a long list of countries to focus on, the fact that America declined is of concern as it abandoned some of its traditional views and approaches to governing both domestically and internationally.

The combination of the president’s business background that has intertwined with his current role along with the proximity of multiple family members to this administration have created some red flags.

Beyond that, there have been continued attacks on the media and free press and words and actions directed towards minorities. Also, the questions that are linked to a special counsel investigation and if the president truly represents the rule of law further complicate what America’s status as a democracy currently is.

There have been questions about an election that helped elect the president and questions around future elections and court cases related to gerrymandering. All the tenets listed earlier are related to all of what has just been listed and again can lead one to wonder if America is still honoring those important parts of a democracy.

It opens up a possible conversation about if America has declined because of a lack of addressing and upholding them and if that is important to enough people in our country.

While America might be seeing some setbacks compared to where it could be, it is still in a better place than many other countries when thinking about how they can be graded as a democracy and are evaluated overall. America is not like Syria or South Sudan, two countries embroiled in civil wars and much destruction.

There are humanitarian crisis problems on multiple continents that warrant much attention and speak to the decline of democracy globally. It again expands two different conversations worth thinking about and having when it comes to first looking at the state of America and then looking at the state of the world and several countries where democracy is not only in decline but in a low state of affairs where individuals are not free.

As Abramowitz looked to the future outline with America, he stated, “The media and the judiciary—both of which have a long history of independence—face acute pressure from the Trump administration, whose smears threaten to undermine their legitimacy.”

As this study shows, there is much work to be done. There are regressions that are worth fighting back in favor of progresses especially in America as it affects those around us and what type of present and future citizens would like to see in America.

The decline seen in America can be reversed based on the actions of citizens and looking to our elected leaders to address concerns.

That involvement is what has been important for a democracy to function and thrive. It has been part of the progress America has seen. That involvement is what can be seen in gatherings, marches, and other engagement.

The energy that is displayed and utilized is part of addressing what problems exist. What actions lie ahead by both citizens and elected leaders ultimately will shape what changes are made that increase democracy in America. How America, along with other countries, react to atrocities and crises in non-free countries will be some of the greater calls of action in defense of democracy globally.

Is democracy at a crossroads? Has there been worse times in history with as many countries or more countries facing democratic concerns? Addressing these questions and upholding the tenets of a democracy will impact what the next study provides. Especially when thinking about America and the democratic experiment that it is has represented for over 230 years.

About Michael Covin 7 Articles
Michael Covin is a graduate of Rutgers University with degrees in political science and history. He has worked on campaigns on multiple levels in multiple states as well as spent time working with a government relations firm in Washington DC, a state legislator in New Jersey, and has written about politics for several years in New Jersey.