Is There a Global Democratic Recession? A Contrarian View

When I hear generalizations about the entire planet, I sometimes think of Hamlet’s admonition to Horatio- “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

That said, this particular morsel of conventional wisdom is not devoid of statistical evidence, since it is based on data about political rights and civil liberties compiled by Freedom House over nine years. Jay Ulfelder, however, uses Freedom House’s own data to argue that democracy has not been discarded.

By using statistical “heat maps”, he finds that while political rights today look a lot like 2005, they remain clearly better than 1995 and nothing like the equivalent maps for the 1970s or 80s. The number of electoral democracies actually increased in 2014 to 125, an all-time high. Although the slowdown in progress on political rights and civil liberties is worrisome, Ulfelder demonstrates that most of those declines have occurred in countries already under authoritarian rule.

Support for this observation is highlighted by William Dobson in The Dictator’s Learning Curve. Dobson focuses on how authoritarians such as Chavez in Venezuela learned from their mistakes. Twenty years ago most dictators didn’t even know what NGOs were, and now they are often targets of repression. Dobson also, however, writes about exceptionally well organized international organizations that support democracy such as the Albert Einstein Institution and Otpor, founded by a group of Serbians who helped overthrow Milosovic.

My own work is based on the assumption that the growth of civil society in general, and democratization NGOs in particular is having a slow, but steady impact on democratization, in spite of governmental repression. The leaders of these organizations “import” democratic ideas from other countries, such as participatory municipal budgeting from Brazil, and from the past through their reading of Enlightenment thinkers. They also recover local democratic traditions. For example, democratization NGOs in Tajikistan work with local community organizations called Majlis and encourage them to include women. Although Importing Democracy focuses on South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, democratization NGOs are an ignored global trend, surviving, if not always flourishing in many other countries. A major challenge is whether such organizations can build ties with pro-democracy street protests

The statistics tell two different, if not opposite, stories about the present. The future may depend on what happens to civil society organizations in general and democratization NGOs in particular. It seems likely that they will continue to flourish in flawed democracies such as South Africa and Argentina, since democratization gives people hope for the future, despite poverty, inequality and corruption. Continued repression in authoritarian countries, however, will require innovative international thinking, based on what creative democrats are already doing in their own countries.

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