2020 Was a Bad Year for Global Democracy

A new report paints a grim picture about the erosion of political rights worldwide.

How do you know when democracy ends? Unlike coups more common in the Cold War, many democracies in the 21st century decay more slowly, like a frog in boiling water. Freedom House, a U.S.-funded NGO, released its annual "Freedom in the World" report last week, offering a quantitative picture of global democratic erosion. The organization ranks political rights and civil liberties across the globe from zero to 100. Here are four takeaways from the exhaustive annual report: 

  1. Democracy is on the Decline Around the Globe

Nearly 75 percent of the world's population lives under a government that has become less free during 2020, according to the report.

The decline of democratic rights is a global trend transcending region, language, culture, and ideology. The report, released last week, found the decline held true across free countries, like the United States, and some of the most unfree ones, like Belarus. Others in the middle, such as India, got markedly worse in 2020 as well. Each year since 2006, more countries have declined in their score than have improved -- this past year was the widest gap ever, with 73 countries declining and 28 countries improving. 

  1. The United States is in the Same League as Struggling Democracies in Eastern Europe

The United States declined from a score of 94 in 2010 to 83 in 2020, which puts it in the top 25 largest country declines over the past decade. The group cited corruption, a lack of transparency, and harsh immigration policies as reasons for the decline. 

Freedom House has been sometimes criticized for being harsher on other countries than the United States. However, this year, it issued a stark warning that President Donald Trump’s refusal to admit defeat, the Capitol insurrection, partisanship, haphazard response to COVID-19, and violence against peaceful protesters over the summer all would damage American efforts to promote democracy for years. "Rulers and propagandists in authoritarian states have always pointed to America’s domestic flaws to deflect attention from their own abuses, but the events of the past year will give them ample new fodder for this tactic," wrote authors Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz.

Countries that get scores in the mid 90s include stable, wealthy democracies like Germany, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. Countries in the low to mid 80s include Poland, Romania, Argentina, and Mongolia -- governments that are not known for their rule of law or democratic norms.

  1. Illiberal Leaders Exploited COVID-19 Misinformation to Harass Government Critics

Illiberal leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines passed laws that made criticizing the pandemic response punishable by law. The Hungarian ruling party, Fidesz, passed a "scaremongering" law, ostensibly to fight misinformation about COVID-19. Ultimately, it was used for arrests and interrogations for individuals critical of government policies on social media. In the Philippines, the government criminalized the spreading of "false information" in March 2020. But among those arrested was a Philippine actress and screenwriter, Maria Victoria Beltran, for a satirical Facebook post critical of the government. The authors wrote, "The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a shift in norms and the adoption of problematic legislation that will be challenging to reverse after the virus has been contained."

4.India's Democracy Has Deteriorated Under Modi

In addition to the United States, one of the starkest declines has been in another populous democracy -- India. The country scored a 77 in 2016, but just a 67 in 2020, moving into the "partly free" category this year. Much of the decline is due to the Hindu nationalist government led by Narendra Modi, which, according to Freedom House, has "presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population" and cracked down against civil society and the media. Freedom House ranks the disputed region of Indian Kashmir separately, which sharply declined in 2019, from "partly free" to "not free" after the Indian government's crackdown in the disputed region.

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