The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. listed as a ‘backsliding’ democracy for first time in report by European think tank

A violent mob loyal to President Donald Trump tries to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. (Julio Cortez/AP)

The United States for the first time was added to a list of “backsliding democracies” in a report released Monday by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

“The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale,” the International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy 2021 report said.

The study, which analyzed trends from 2020 to 2021, found that more than a quarter of the world’s population now lives in democratically backsliding countries, which International IDEA defines as nations seeing a gradual decline in the quality of their democracy.

“The world is becoming more authoritarian as nondemocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression and many democratic governments suffer from backsliding by adopting their tactics of restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, exacerbated by what threatens to become a ‘new normal’ of covid-19 restrictions,” the report found. “The number [of countries] moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times the number moving toward democracy.”

International IDEA classes countries as democratic (which includes those backsliding), “hybrid,” and authoritarian, the latter two of which it considers to be nondemocratic. It bases its analysis on 50 years of democratic indicators tracked in about 160 countries.

The report found that some of “the most worrying” democratic backsliding happened in some of the world’s largest countries, including Brazil and India. It also highlighted “concerning democratic declines” in the United States and three European Union members: Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.

The report’s U.S. assessment centered on developments during President Donald Trump’s administration. It called Trump’s factually baseless questioning of the legitimacy of the 2020 election results a “historic turning point” that “undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process” and culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Trump’s tactics had “spillover effects, including in Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar and Peru, among others,” the report concluded.

An October 2020 study by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Freedom House found that democracy and human rights had worsened in 80 countries since March of that year, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

Despite the declines, the International IDEA report highlighted some counter-backsliding, pro-democratic trends.

“Protest and civic action are alive and well,” the report said, noting that three-quarters of countries had protests during the pandemic. “Pro-democracy movements have braved repression around the world, and global social movements for tackling climate change and fighting racial inequalities have emerged.”

“Democracy is resilient,” it concluded.

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