Is Democracy Expanding in the World Today?
Katherine Ashley Chen
November 2, 2022
In today’s world, the word “democratic” has evolved into an inherently positive abstraction, a buzz-word used by many organizations and groups to describe themselves. Although there are many definitions, at the most fundamental political level, democracy is a system in which power belongs to the people and can be exercised through participation, competition, and liberty. Along with this definition comes a logical corollary that a democracy must include a semblance of equality among its constituents, so that power is distributed somewhat equally among its people. Thus, although democracy in name has expanded due to the need to keep up with the concept’s rising popularity, true democracy, which encompasses liberty, participation, competition, and relative equality, has not increased in recent years due to the growing proportion of illiberal democracies, extreme polarization, and enlarging social inequality.
The 20th century saw a massive surge in democratic regimes, from less than 20 to almost 100, as seen in the graph below (Roser and Herre). In this era, most alternatives to democracy suffered political, economic or military failures that lessened the appeal of their regime types (“Government and Society”). After the Allies won WWI, systems of monarchy, aristocracy, and oligarchy—mainly authoritarian regimes—lost much of their legitimacy, and after the military defeat of the Axis powers in WWII, the legitimacy of newer fascism was also diminished. Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union created greater repulsion towards Soviet-style communism. (“Government and Society”) The data defines democracies as the combination of both liberal and elected democracies, but fails to take into account the way in which democracy is implemented, which is explored later in this essay.
As democratic principles such as individual liberty gained traction in their worldwide expansion, the full essence of democracy, as mentioned in the intro, failed to spread throughout national governments at the same rate. Because so many countries tried too quickly to transition from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones, the overnight implementations of these brand new governments have resulted in markedly imperfect systems that enable corruption and anti-democracy.
For example, Russia and Mexico, although technically democracies in name, possess Freedom House scores of 20 and 62, representing “not free” and “partly free” regimes, respectively (“Mexico: Freedom in the World” and “Russia: Freedom in the World”). Russia itself represents the new era of illiberal democracies masquerading behind a facade of individual freedoms in order to gain legitimacy. In reality, it's an authoritarian system of government that concentrates power in the hands of Vladimir Putin, who is able to manipulate elections with the help of loyalist security forces, subservient judiciaries, controlled media environment and a legislature consisting of a ruling party (“Russia: Country Profile”). In truth, Russia’s legitimacy is not derived from the populace, but from tradition, nationalism, military, economic/foreign policies, and (domestically) Putin’s cult of personality(“Sovereignty, Authority, and Power”).
Mexico, on the other hand, represents the unstable and corrupt democracy resulting from an rushed transition of regime, where severe rule of law shortfalls limit its citizens’ political rights and civil liberties. (“Mexico: Country Profile”) The rampant violence and human rights abuses by both state and nonstate actors, paired with widespread impunity are some of the indicators of Mexico’s lack of democracy (“Mexico: Country Profile”). Although Mexico technically has an independent judiciary, many of its decisions are influenced by the politicians who wield power in that particular moment, making it similar to Russia in the sense that the judicial system serves to legitimize the agenda of the government (Mont). However, one difference is that Mexico’s legislature has collectively worked towards creating greater independence for the judicial system, demonstrating at least the partial spread of democracy (Mont). Additionally, Mexico’s source of legitimacy stems from multi-party elections, nationalism, and previous revolutions, which is another reason that the government takes its authority via popular elections and civil liberties more seriously than Russia (“Sovereignty, Authority, and Power”).
Another definition of democracy via Schmitter’s What Democracy Is… And is Not, is simply a system of governance where rulers are held accountable by their citizens, who act indirectly through competition and cooperation of their elective representatives. Users of this definition argue that democracy has expanded throughout the world, and cite the greater number of nations with elections and elected officials. Although this definition of democracy isn’t wrong, it also is important to take into account the way in which rulers are held accountable by citizens, and whether the method is transparent, fair and effective. Again, it is imperative to note that a mere expansion of the name democracy or the presence of elections does not necessarily mean an expansion of the democratic essence, as elections can be staged or rigged.
Furthermore, the growing socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor has resulted in unbalanced representations of individual opinions in regimes that actually hold fair elections (Levin-Waldman). Although it is shakier to postulate that a broadening socioeconomic gap results in fewer upheld democratic principles, it is nonetheless one to consider. For example, as seen in the graphs below, the UK’s socioeconomic gap (O’Neill) has been inversely correlated to voter turnout (Clark), where increasing inequality happens at the same time as decreasing voter turnout. It is impossible to cite a causal relationship in this scenario, but even so important to note that increasing inequality generally leads to a misrepresentation in voter demographics, which can contribute to elected officials that do not represent their constituents in aggregate, but rather a selective portion of the electorate, resulting in undemocratic election outcomes (Levin-Waldman).
Similarly, the widespread use of social media has created a political climate of extreme polarization, where only the most extreme voices are proliferated (Bale and Centola). Extreme polarization possesses a similar effect on election outcomes as economic division, pushing officials to campaign for excessively uncompromising opinions, and consequently distorting the opinions of their constituents (Bale). In climates of extreme inequality and polarization, it becomes infeasible to hold elected officials accountable, resulting in less democratic societies (Lewis-Waldman).
To determine the true state of democracy worldwide, it is essential to probe the practical implementation of the government and look into whether it upholds the essence of democracy. This is seen through the way factors swaying outcomes of votes are accounted for, and the equality of voting. From analyzing illiberal democracies, socioeconomic inequality, and polarization in the media, it can be determined that elections do not necessarily protect the crux of what democracy is built on. Governments increasingly seek the validation coming from the appearance of a democracy without ensuring that all citizens collectively decide on policy, and are able to hold their elected officials accountable. The essence of the democratic spirit has been buried and overlooked in favour of nationalistic “propaganda”, resulting the modern era of democracy that is true only in appearance.
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