Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Impending Demise of Democracy Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

It wasn’t so long ago that democracy was an unusual way to run a political system; today it is quite common. The number of countries with some form of democracy has more than doubled since 1980 and almost quintupled since 1950. And preference for basic democratic rights, including for women, is now almost universal among the world’s population.

And yet....many fear that democracy is now endangered. The rise of populism. Duterte in the Phillipines. Putin in Russia. Maduro in Venezuela. Was democracy just a moment and we're now on the downhill slope?

As always, the way to assess such a question is to look past today's headlines and consult the available data. These data do not support a pessimistic attitude toward the fate of democracy.

For example, some might grant that democracy became more common in the years after World War II and made more gains when the Iron Curtain fell, but argue that the last decade has seen a sharp turn away from democracy. That's a common view but a wrong one. Democracy researcher Melida Jimenez points out that:
Data from the Lexical Index of Electoral Democracy show that in 2016, no less than 68 percent of the world’s countries — home to 62.2 percent of the world population — government power is determined by genuinely contested elections. That’s actually an increase from 62 percent in 2006. What’s more, 56 percent of the democracies established after 1975 have not seen democratic reversals. No country with over 40 years of electoral democracy — with the prominent exception of Venezuela — has slid back into nondemocratic governance. Democracy remains the most widespread and legitimate form of government.
The data reveal that not only has there been an increase in the number of elections being held around the worlds since 1975, but there’s also been higher quality of elections, with lower levels of fraud, manipulation and irregularities…. More and more people around the world live in places where their access to justice, civil liberties, social rights and equality are treated with respect. 
But what of Europe? Surely here it is permissible to hit the panic button. Not so fast. Political scientists Fernando Casal Bértoa and José Rama Caamaño note a number of factors that militate against such a judgement. 
[I]n a significant number of countries, the election with the highest percentage of votes for populist parties took place well before 1995, including Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
In fact, if we were to rank the elections with the highest support for anti-establishment parties in all 20 democracies displayed in the table below, we would observe that most of the elections with a record number of populist votes were in the 1930s, 1990s and 1950s, as well as in the 2010s….
Further, there’s been another change at the same time — and it may be complicating the picture. Not only have anti-establishment parties been getting a larger share of the vote; European countries have seen a parallel rise in the number of parties in the electorate.
That matters. When just one radical party (like the Communists or fascists) obtains a high percentage of votes — as happened during the 1930s — the nation is facing something quite different from when various political parties get those votes. In the first case, the radical party has a great deal of power to pressure or blackmail the government. That’s just not true when those votes are spread among many parties. Consider France, which has at least four anti-establishment political parties: National Front, France Unbowed, French Communist Party and French Arise. While the National Front has gotten the most attention, its power is less than if those anti-establishment votes gone its way.
Looking at all this information, we might ask ourselves if the current rise in support for populist parties is such a big deal. With the exception of Greece — the nation most affected by the 2008 recession — no E.U. country has had a “populist” prime minister. Most European governing coalitions — the exceptions are Norway, Finland and Belgium — do not even include a populist party.
As a result, we question the announcement of a new era of democratic doom. Are we currently facing a period of realignment? Certainly. Has the economic crisis revealed democracy’s shortcomings? No doubt. But we do not believe we are currently witnessing the collapse of European party democracy.
So there you have it. Democracy is most assuredly not on the way out, even if there are real challenges--including populism--for today's democracies to overcome. Those challenges will lead to some setbacks but the historical record and trend data indicate that democracy as a system will not only survive but become more common over time.

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