The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What if the crisis of democracy is (mostly) in our heads?

A polling station at Desert Breeze Community Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 8, 2022. (David Becker for The Washington Post)
5 min

Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, advanced as the Cold War came to a close, is a pundit’s favorite punching bag. The sense of democratic optimism, security and confidence that defined the 1990s has clearly diminished. In the past decade, Western global influence declined; great-power competition surged; societies polarized and populist leaders rose.

But Fukuyama’s basic interpretation of the Soviet Union’s collapse — that it left liberal democracy as the “final form of human government” with widespread appeal and prestige — has proven surprisingly resilient. A new research paper challenges the avalanche of popular and academic commentary declaring that, especially since 2016, the world has faced a systemic crisis of democracy.

In “Subjective and Objective Measures of Democratic Backsliding,” the political scientists Andrew Little of the University of California at Berkeley and Anne Meng of the University of Virginia find that the post-Cold War expansion of democracy in nations around the world has, on average, held. “Recent studies that find evidence of global backsliding,” they observe, “rely heavily if not entirely on subjective indicators” — such as asking experts to rate, based on their own judgment, the extent to which an election was “free and fair.”

Little and Meng instead measure democracy based on quantifiable factors less susceptible to individual bias. They find, for example, no overall decline in electoral competition. Across the world, “The rate of leader and ruling party turnover has remained fairly constant since the late 1990s,” the paper says. “If anything, the vote shares of incumbent leaders in executive elections and incumbent parties in legislatures have decreased in recent years.”

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They also measured the prevalence of constraints on national leaders, such as term limits. From 2000 to 2018, according to the paper, 60 leaders sought to evade term limits, and 34 succeeded, but the rate was “fairly constant” over time. In an attempt to objectively measure press freedom, the authors analyze data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s a mixed picture: Murders of journalists have been declining since 2008, but the number of journalists imprisoned has been rising since 2000.

The authors created their own democracy index reaching back to 1980, relying on hard inputs such as the share of a population eligible to vote, rather than subjective interpretation by experts. “The index in 2020 is nearly as high as it has ever been,” they conclude.

Some countries, such as Hungary and Venezuela, have grown more authoritarian, but those declines have been balanced by more-democratic processes in other countries. When democracy scores are weighted by a country’s population, the index does show a recent downturn, but that essentially disappears when India and China (which has hardened its authoritarianism under Xi Jinping) are excluded.

Reports of a global democratic retreat might partly be driven by a feedback loop between media and experts, where Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency prompted greater attention to democratic health in the press, a focus that prompted experts to rate political systems more stringently in surveys. Those surveys, in turn, generated more media coverage.

Another study out this month helps explain the divergence between democratic perceptions and realities. The author, James D. Bryan, a doctoral candidate at American University, analyzed the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey between 2010 and 2022 to track how citizens’ understanding of democracy evolved under different political circumstances. His “findings suggest one’s conception of democracy can be a fluid attitude that citizens mold to match their partisan self-interest.”

To summarize and simplify: Democracy, at least liberal democracy, means both that the winning side must be allowed to govern and that the losing side’s rights must be respected. Sometimes, the two are in tension. When citizens support the party in power, Bryan found, their definition of democracy focuses on that party’s right to govern — or “obeying authority.” When citizens oppose the party in power, their definition of democracy focuses more on the protection of their own rights as a political minority.

This helps explain how all manner of political structures can be justified with appeals to democracy — strong courts, weak courts, strong executives, weak executives, the free flow of information or restrictions on “misinformation.” Each may appear more democratic or less democratic, depending on whose partisan interests are served.

In that sense, the sanctification of democracy as a polarized society’s highest ideal can be self-undermining. The majority and minority’s definition of what democracy requires may grow increasingly out of whack. For the party in power, democracy becomes a justification for state coercion; for the party out of power, it justifies resistance to the government. That can heighten the perception that democracy is in crisis, even when the public’s commitment to democracy remains strong.

Fukuyama was more right than he has been given credit for about the popular and intellectual triumph of democratic philosophy. But a world where democracy is dominant may be more volatile and unpredictable than we understood.