Nearly half of the world’s countries experienced a democratic regression in 2016, according to the new Democracy Index. A notable member of the 72 declining democracies is the United States, which fell into the “flawed democracies” category.
“This has been a long-term trend and one that preceded the election of [Donald] Trump as U.S. president in November 2016. By tapping a deep strain of political disaffection with the functioning of democracy, Mr. Trump became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which U.S. voters hold their government, elected representatives and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation,” according to the report, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The U.S. has been teetering on the brink of becoming a ‘flawed democracy’ for several years, and even if there had been no presidential election in 2016, its score would have slipped.”
Regions that are home to some of the oldest democracies – Europe and North America – saw significant declines. Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa also dropped on the index.
The report – titled Revenge of the “deplorables” in a nod to Hillary Clinton’s notable campaign remark – points to growing opposition to political elites, driving forces behind Trump’s election and the Brexit vote in the U.K. The authors criticized Trump and Brexit opponents, arguing that they failed to examine the underlying political changes taking place domestically and globally. Both votes exposed some problems with 21st-Century representative democracy, according to the report, and increasing political participation made a difference, pointing to increasing desire for greater democracy.
“The predominant response among political elites to the events of 2016 has been to rue the popular backlash against the democratic order and to interpret it as a threat to the future of liberal democracy,” the report stated. “Some have even questioned whether ordinary people should be trusted to make decisions about important matters such as the U.K.’s membership of the EU. Yet the popular backlash against the established order can also be seen as a consequence, not a cause, of the failings of contemporary democracy.”
The Democracy Index scores countries on a scale of 1 to 10 on areas including political participation, electoral process and civil liberties. Full democracies must score an average of 8 or higher. Only 19 countries met that threshold, with Norway, Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand respectively at the top. Flawed democracies are the next designation, followed by hybrid regimes and authoritarian governments.
In eastern Europe, public sentiment is turning against democracy, and represented “the most dramatic regression” of any region since the index’s inception in 2006. The inability to establish a democratic political culture or encourage broad political participation prompted the authors to raise questions about the established democratic institutions in countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovenia.
There are some encouraging signs coming out of Sub-Saharan Africa, but overall scores are not improving. The regional trend for the past five years has shown that most countries are improving on political participation and political culture, with a few exceptions. Curtailed civil liberties and the breakdown or decline of some federal governments are keeping some countries from improving their democracy score.
Asia is seeing stagnation after years of improvements on the index. Latin America is headed in a different direction from its European and North American counterparts as it emerges from what the authors call a “populist hangover.” Center-right, pro-market candidates are taking over after years of leftist populist rule. Elections in Peru and Argentina are two examples of that transition in 2016.
The Middle East is still dealing with the fallout from the Arab Spring. Countries cracked down after popular uprisings. Even Tunisia, the lone success story from the Arab Spring, saw its ranking in the index fall by 12 places.