On March 1, 2023 International IDEA hosted a panel at the 2023 Global Democracy Coalition Forum on Assessing the Global Democracy Landscape One Year after the First Summit, featuring experts from International IDEA’s Democracy Assessment unit, the Alliance of Democracies, Pew Research Center, Afrobarometer, and Harvard University. Using the latest datasets on democracy assessment and global public opinion, the panel sought to take stock of the state of democracy one year after the first Summit for Democracy, explore possible causes and ways of understanding changes to democracy, and work towards a shared understanding of what policymakers need to know to arrest democratic decline.
The Global Democracy Coalition is a multi-stakeholder coalition of over 100 democracy organizations from across the world, preparing for the second Summit for Democracy, co-hosted by the United States, South Korea, Zambia, the Netherlands and Costa Rica on 29 and 30 March.
What does the data say?
As highlighted in the most recent Global State of Democracy report, the data International IDEA’ Global State of Democracy Indices (GSODI) shows that democracy has been on the retreat around the world. Over the last six years, the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism is more than double the number moving towards democracy. Second, even in existing democracies, there is a worrying drop in quality, with 52 democracies in the latest dataset seeing a statistically significant drop in at least one of five of the GSODI’s measures of democracy.
This has happened during a time of significant social change – the rapid global growth of the internet and instantaneous global communication, the rearrangement of global economies and value chains brought about by the economic rise of China and the Global Financial Crisis, and the recognition of the climate crisis – that has been matched not by similar changes in our democratic institutions, but stagnation.
What do polls say?
The good news may be that international polling seems to show that this decade of democratic stagnation and autocratization has not been driven by public demand, according to public opinion research from Afrobaromter and the Alliance of Democracies. Per Afrobarometer, 7 in 10 Africans prefer democracy to any other form of government, and the Alliance of Democracies’ Democracy Perceptions Index (DPI)’s survey over of over 50,000 respondents from 53 countries found 84 percent believe it is important to have democracy in their country.
This faith in democracy is hardly credulous; large majorities in the DPI see corruption and inequality as major threats to democracy in their country, and nearly half of respondents felt their country was not democratic enough. Afrobarometer data shows that citizens across the continent understand the nuances of democracy and autocracy and accountable versus effective governments (in both cases, they prefer the former).
This nuanced view was also reflected in the Pew Research Center’s recent findings that found 57 percent of respondents in a 19 country survey agreed that social media had been a beneficial force for democracy in their country (the United States was a notable negative outlier). These opinions were held taking into consideration largely agreed-upon perceptions that social media produces polarization, reduces civility, and provides a space for manipulation of information and voters. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed argued that social media had made people more aware of current events in their country, perhaps showcasing optimism and hope for a more informed and engaged politics.
A striking consistent Afrobarometer finding was that respondents understand the distinction between the popular acceptance of military interventions in politics and military rule itself – one that often escapes Western observers that fail to grasp that shows of “relief from a system that was spiralling out of control” does not constitute support for nondemocratic governance.
The story of democratic decline and stagnation is therefore one of supply by political leaders and institutions, not one of popular demand.
What can we do about it?
Ruling out mass popular enthusiasm as the cause of democratic decline only goes part of the way to finding its cause. Are the root causes deindustrialization and financial crisis, a change in values, or the weakness of governmental and non-governmental democratic institutions? According to Harvard professor Pippa Norris, the answer to this question is not just of academic interest, as the diagnosis of the problem drives the solution. She noted the interconnected and context specific nature of the drivers of democratic backsliding. Democratic decay driven by elite-self dealing and frustration with endemic corruption should be met with the implementation and enforcement of strategies and policies that reduce corruption and rebuild public trust, whereas stagnation driven by economic dislocation mandates addressing inequality head-on, placing marginalized groups' needs front and centre, and giving youth meaningful participation in the development of policies that impact them.
The second Summit for Democracy will be a key opportunity for global democracies to work their way through these knotty problems, and develop and refine domestic and international strategies to ensure a just, equitable, and democratic future.