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Report: 2020 was the worst year for democracy in recent history

New data suggests a worldwide “democratic recession” deepened in 2020, with notable declines in the US and India.

Protesters Demonstrate In D.C. Against Death Of George Floyd By Police Officer In Minneapolis
Members of the DC National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on June 2, 2020, in Washington DC, as demonstrators protest against the police killing of George Floyd.
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The health of American democracy is in rapid decline, India is no longer a free country, and at most 20 percent of the world’s population lives in a liberal democracy.

These are a few of the sobering conclusions in the 2021 Freedom in the World report, an annual quantitative measurement of the state of democracy globally. The latest findings, released today, show a nearly unprecedented decline in the health of democracy in countries around the world — one of the biggest “we’ve ever recorded,” according to Freedom House President Michael Abramowtiz.

There are a number of reasons why the world became more undemocratic in 2020.

The declines in the world’s two largest democracies, the United States and India, can be traced to the influence of the far-right ethno-nationalist political movements that held power in those nations. The pandemic enabled authoritarian-inclined leaders in places such as Hungary and the Philippines to seize more power for themselves. China used its rising clout to undermine freedoms both inside its borders and out.

This global weakening of democracy isn’t new: According to Freedom House data, each of the past 15 years has seen some kind of decline. But 2020 is the single worst year in that entire “democratic recession,” as the organization terms it.

Courtesy of Freedom House

It’s a grim report that points to a series of grim realities. Democracy really is under attack around the world. Some really powerful countries, including China and Russia, are actively making things worse. And some of the historically free countries that should be helping save democracy — the United States foremost among them — are actually part of the problem.

What the Freedom House report found — and why it matters

The Freedom in the World ranking is one of the oldest and best-known quantitative measures of democracy. It wasn’t always entirely reliable: In the 1970s and 1980s, the rankings largely reflected the subjective judgements of one political scientist, Raymond Gastil.

But since two major rounds of methodological reform (one in 1990 and another in 2006), Freedom House’s numbers have become more trustworthy, reducing past problems such as a bias in favor of US-friendly states. To produce the 2021 report, Freedom House convened more than 150 in-house and external experts to assess a detailed questionnaire about the state of political freedoms and civil liberties in 195 countries and 15 nonstate territories with separate governments (e.g., Hong Kong).

Each question — examples include “Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?” and “Are there free and independent media?” — is answered on a 0–4 scale. The highest possible total score is 100, a perfect democracy, and the lowest possible score is 0, a perfect dictatorship. The countries that score closest to 100 qualify as “free,” the ones closer to zero qualify as “not free,” and those around the midpoint fall into a mixed “partly free” category.

In 2005, the United States was one of the best-ranking countries in the world, with a score of 94. By 2020, the US had fallen to 83 — an 11-point drop that was, according to the Freedom House report, one of the 25 largest in the world. The US still qualifies for the “free” category, but it is no longer at the top of the class. Its peers used to be Germany and France; now they are Panama and Mongolia.

About a third of the US’s long-term decline — three out of the 11 points — came in 2020 alone. The past year’s “politically distorted health recommendations, partisan infighting, shockingly high and racially disparate coronavirus death rates, and police violence against protesters advocating for racial justice over the summer all underscored the United States’ systemic dysfunctions and made American democracy appear fundamentally unstable,” Freedom House’s Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz write in a report summarizing their findings.

Repucci and Slipowitz’s description of Trump’s election interference campaign, which clearly played a significant role in America’s democratic downgrade, is one of the more striking passages in the report:

President Trump’s attempt to overturn the will of the American voters was arguably the most destructive act of his time in office. His drumbeat of claims—without evidence—that the electoral system was ridden by fraud sowed doubt among a significant portion of the population, despite what election security officials eventually praised as the most secure vote in US history. Nationally elected officials from his party backed these claims, striking at the foundations of democracy and threatening the orderly transfer of power.

This assessment doesn’t even include the Capitol Hill attack, which happened January 6 and fell outside the scope of the 2021 report. Yet it uses language one would expect to hear in reference to a weak democracy that had just transitioned from authoritarian rule, not a country that styles itself “leader of the free world.”

Arguably, America’s downgrade isn’t even the most significant finding of the report. The decline in India, by far the world’s most populous democracy, was large enough that the country fell out of the “free” category altogether: Its status is now “partly free.” As in the United States, a far-right leader — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in this case — seems to bear the lion’s share of the blame.

Then-President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on February 25, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

“Last year, the government intensified its crackdown on protesters opposed to a discriminatory citizenship law and arrested dozens of journalists who aired criticism of the official pandemic response. Judicial independence has also come under strain,” Repucci and Slipowitz write. “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all.”

These notable declines, in the world’s oldest democracy and its largest, are hugely significant. They represent a serious democratic erosion for a combined 1.7 billion people, which translates into large-scale human suffering and restrictions on freedom.

It also means that both the world’s current hegemon and one of its most important rising powers are less willing to fight for democracy outside their borders, which is especially important given the report’s other findings. Many of the countries that experienced declines in freedom were smaller nations in the “partly free” category — governments potentially more amenable to diplomatic pressure from major powers. Undemocratic countries such as China have become increasingly willing to throw their weight around in support of friendly autocrats.

“Beijing’s export of antidemocratic tactics, financial coercion, and physical intimidation have led to an erosion of democratic institutions and human rights protections in numerous countries,” Repucci and Slipowitz write. “The mechanisms that democracies have long used to hold governments accountable for violations of human rights standards and international law are being weakened and subverted, and even the world’s most egregious violations, such as the large-scale forced sterilization of Uighur women [in China], are not met with a well-coordinated response or punishment.”

The link between a country’s domestic regime and its foreign policy isn’t always straightforward: Democracies, including the United States, have a long track record of supporting human rights abuses abroad as well as committing them. It’s important not to whitewash that.

But at the same time, it’s fairly clear that the decline of democratic protections inside a country’s borders makes it less likely to protect and promote democracy on an international scale.

In that sense, the struggle against anti-democratic forces in the United States — the Trumpist faction of the GOP foremost among them — isn’t just an American issue. It affects people around the world.