Many observers believe democracy is in danger — both globally and in the United States.
Worldwide, free government is said to be in “recession,” “decaying,” “in retreat” or “beleaguered.” Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright considers fascism “a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.”
Closer to home, commentator Andrew Sullivan sees the U.S. system turning into “the kind of authoritarian state that America was actually founded to overthrow.”
How serious are the challenges to democracy today? One way to assess this is to examine historical experience, using the best global data available. Doing this, I find a picture that — although hardly inspiring — is less dire than much commentary suggests.
Scholars use a number of ratings to classify countries’ political systems. I examined four common ones — those of Polity; Freedom House; Boix, Miller, Rosato; and VDEM. All code which states in a given year are democracies or, in Freedom House’s case, “free” countries.
Far from suggesting a major retreat, all four sources show the global proportion of democracies at or near an all-time high.
For instance, Polity’s measure — which combines assessments of political competition, constraints on the executive, and openness of executive recruitment — put the proportion of democracies in 2016 at 59 percent, up from 50 percent in 2000. Each of the other three was within 4 percent of its all-time peak.
One gauge of democratic quality — the proportion of countries earning Freedom House’s top political rights score — has dropped from 32 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2016. But it only fell to its level in the 1990s, a time when Western commentators were declaring the triumph of liberal democracy.
Progress has slowed or even halted. But that’s not surprising after the dramatic surge between 1975 and 2005. During those 30 years, according to Polity, democracy spread from 25 percent to 58 percent of countries.
Can U.S. democracy fail?
Previous scholars found — and I have confirmed — that certain types of democracies are more likely to fail. Breakdowns are more common in countries that are poor, that have had less experience of democracy and that are in economic crisis. By contrast, no democracy has ever failed while its citizens had a per capita income above $22,000 or after surviving for 65 years.
Using a statistical model, I estimated how often democracies with particular income levels, growth rates and political histories have become dictatorships. I also included the average Polity score of neighboring countries, since democracies tend to cluster.
Of course, such estimates should be taken with a grain of salt. Exact predictions depend on details of the model, and the pattern could change. Still, they provide a useful baseline. The figure shows the annual probability of democratic breakdown in the United States, estimated using the Polity data.
The model suggests the risk was significant in the 19th century — up to almost 1 in 25. That makes sense; breakdown did come close during the Civil War. After that, the rate declines, rebounds a little during the Great Depression, but then falls consistently. By 2016, the estimated probability is less than 1 in 3,000.
For comparison, the risk in Weimar Germany in 1932 — based on its income, growth rate, political history and politics of its neighbors — was 78 times higher. In 1972 Chile, before Pinochet’s coup, it was 203 times higher.
No democracy has ever failed with a figure as low as the United States has today. It’s possible — but highly unlikely.
Norms and public opinion
One worry about U.S. democracy is what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss as the erosion of norms of tolerance and fair play in Washington. That’s alarming in itself.
Such norm erosion makes for deadlock and bitter clashes. But evidence that it leads to dictatorship is thin. For instance, norms weakened in Latin America in the 1970s. But what actually killed democracy was the readiness of anti-democratic military officers to stage coups.
So far, no one thinks U.S. generals are planning any.
Another fear is that public support for democracy is falling in the United States, especially among the young. But, again, there’s little evidence that such opinion shifts — in themselves — cause regime change.
In any case, average support for representative democracy in the United States is not low. A 2017 Pew survey found 86 percent of Americans favored it. That was 10 points above the average among other democracies.
Why the dark view?
If global democracy is near an all-time high, why the perception that it’s on the ropes?
In part, some countries are just more salient to Western observers. Backsliding in Hungary and Poland gets generous news coverage, as do President Trump’s seemingly anti-democratic pronouncements. Democratic victories in less strategic countries get much less. Few realize, for instance, that the proportion of democracies in Africa has more than doubled since 1999, according to Polity.
Of course, improvements in Africa will hardly reassure Americans alarmed by Trump’s behavior. Even where institutions themselves haven’t changed, political trends look ugly. From the United States to Turkey, incumbent politicians are attacking judges and the press and denying the patriotism of opponents. The rise of xenophobic populists invites comparisons to the 1930s.
But history suggests that countries as rich and democratically seasoned as the United States have powerful resources to combat such challenges.
The democracies that crumbled in 1930s Europe were young and fragile. Germany in 1933 had been democratic for just 15 years. These countries faced a crushing economic depression before fully recovering from a devastating war that left borders disputed.
Despairing about democracy’s future is something democrats do regularly. At taxing moments, it’s easy to forget the system’s resilience. In 1982, French columnist Jean-Francois Revel mused that Western freedom was “a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.”
He wrote just as democracy’s third wave was about to explode, overturning Latin American juntas and tearing down the Iron Curtain. Of course, no similar surge may lie ahead today. Indeed, things may get worse. But in rich, experienced democracies, liberal forces have a way of striking back.
Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.