“Democracy and pluralism are under assault,” read the opening sentence of its report, written by Sarah Repucci. “Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world.”
The usual suspects remain among the worst offenders. Freedom House decried China for its “totalitarian offensive” in Xinjiang and other campaigns of repression, and it warned of Beijing’s “relentless campaign to replace existing international norms with its own authoritarian vision.” It pointed to Russia’s “stage-managed elections” in 2019, in which the genuine opposition was largely shut out. Iran’s leadership, even as it sowed “discord” in neighboring countries, deployed security forces that used live ammunition to crush demonstrations last fall, killing hundreds of people.
But perhaps more disquieting is the steady erosion seen in “established democracies,” more than two dozen of which have seen net losses in their democracy rankings — calculated by Freedom House using a detailed set of ratings and metrics — since 2006. This trend dovetails with the gains and growing clout of illiberal nationalists in Asia, Europe and North America.
“Many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest,” wrote Repucci. “In fact, such leaders — including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies — are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”
President Trump is a key part of this story. Freedom House’s report, titled “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” highlighted the “pressure” Trump is exerting “on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption” in the United States. Also of note is “the decline in fair and equal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers” under Trump’s watch — something that is “worrisome for a country that takes pride in its traditional role as a beacon for the oppressed.”
Indeed, America’s waning desire to be an example on the world stage worries Freedom House all the more. “Even if the U.S. remains very free, its rhetoric can have outsize effects beyond America’s borders,” Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, told Today’s WorldView. He cited, in particular, the numerous foreign governments that have appropriated Trump’s attacks on the “fake news” media into policies or legislation that have criminalized or suppressed free speech in their countries.
Trump has been, at best, inconsistent in his defense of the democratic aspirations of countries around the world. “The administration has been strong on issues like Iran and Venezuela,” Abramowitz said, “but less strong in its rhetoric” toward autocrats and monarchs in the Middle East, or in responding to the disturbing tensions bubbling to the surface in India, the world’s largest democracy.
Freedom House was scathing in its assessment of India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Its “alarming departures from democratic norms” led to the biggest score decline among major democracies ranked in the report.
There’s evidence that a broader illiberal shift is at play. A Pew Research Center study, carried out in 34 countries and published last week, found mixed commitment or enthusiasm about democracy among citizens living in democratic societies. In India and Israel, both under illiberal nationalist governments, a significantly smaller proportion of respondents believed freedom of speech was “very important” in their societies compared with five years ago, when the equivalent poll was conducted.
But it’s not all grim tidings. The past year was marked by a wave of pro-democracy movements and political ferment, with protesters from Hong Kong to the Middle East to South America demanding greater freedoms and better governance.
“The interests in freedom, the cause of democracy, are not Western implants,” said Abramowitz. “It’s a sign that even autocrats have to be responsive to the interests of the people.”
He cited Sudan, where demonstrations unseated a long-ruling despot and alleged war criminal, “as one of the bright spots of the year,” adding that Sudan and Hong Kong — where demonstrators wary of Beijing are bravely standing up against the Communist Party’s domination — “are the kind of cases that make me feel hopeful for the future of democracy.”
But even in these cases, the gains are fragile. Sudan’s military-backed transition could easily stall. A bloody crackdown in Hong Kong could doom both its protest movement and its prospects for democracy.
“Today, as authoritarians fortify themselves at home and extend their international reach, and as some elected leaders adopt a myopic, self-serving, and discriminatory view of their official responsibilities, the world is becoming less stable and secure, and the freedoms and interests of all open societies are endangered,” the Freedom House report noted. “The tide can be reversed, but delay makes the task more difficult and costly.”