The 20th century was characterised largely by a global rise in democracy, with the number of countries which possessed basic democratic institutions increasing significantly. Britannica described more than one-third of the world’s independent countries being democratic at the turn of the century, accounting for nearly half of the world’s population. However, studies have shown that recent years have seen a gradual worldwide decline in democracy and freedom, with the non-profit Freedom House suggesting that general world democracy has been in continuous decline for over 14 years. Though implicated in such studies are countries well-known as anti-democratic, such as Russia and China, perhaps more worrying is a growing trend of anti-democratic sentiment seen in established democratic countries, especially across the West. There are two main reasons that explain this decline in democracy: a rise in populist policies across various nations primarily due to citizens’ frustration at crises, corruption and convergence between mainstream political parties; and, more topically, government’s handling of Covid-19 and lockdowns. This essay will evaluate whether these issues have actually generated a significant setback of democracy, and if the world can bounce back.
The most obvious and influential cause for the rejection of democracy is the rise of populism across the globe, especially right-wing populism. Populism is used to describe a range of political ideologies that attempt to appeal to “the people” and their struggle against “the elite”, a small group of the wealthy who supposedly place their own interests over those of the people. Populism has applied to various different stances over the years, spanning from far-right populism all the way to far-left populism.
The rise in populism has been staggering, sweeping through Europe over the past 20 years; a Guardian study conducted by Lewis et al. showed that overall populist vote share in Europe went from 8% in 1998 to over 26% in 2018, with a similar study conducted by Rooduijn et al. of the PopuList website indicated 10% in 1992 rising to over 30% in 2020. Populism in general is caused by many factors, and these have been observed in Europe. Citizens generally fed up with the convergence of mainstream political parties turn to populism as an alternative, seeing populist parties and politicians as truly understanding their problems, as opposed to the mainstream elite; an example of this was the rise of the National Rally in France, which famously blended the mainstream political parties into one in their campaigns advertisements. Support for populism has also been enlarged by crises, particularly financial; the 2008-09 financial crash, in which the carelessness of the elite resulted in devastating losses for the working-class without accountability, factored into this rise. In addition, revelations of corruption result in people turning away from mainstream parties; this was seen in Italy in the 1990s, in which bribery and widespread party corruption cleared the way for populists such as Silvio Burlesconi. More recently, for example, the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton was damaged heavily by her allegations of untrustworthiness, such as the email scandal, which her populist opponent Donald Trump took advantage of by nicknaming her “Crooked Hillary”.
Though populism is not necessarily inherently anti-democratic as an ideology, a vast number of studies have linked anti-democratic sentiment with a rise in populism. Populist leaders benefit from mistrust of the establishment in order to turn citizens against and undermine institutions such as the mainstream media. They also tend to stress the importance of traditional lifestyles, thus curbing civil liberties in order to protect these lifestyles from outsiders, such as immigrants (anti-immigration is seen as a part of right-wing populism) as well as making amends to the constitution with the backing of their supporters. Numerous studies in recent years have shown that populist leaders pose a significant risk to democratic backsliding. For example, a 2018 study by Mounk et al. showed that of 45 populist governments elected across the world since 1990, 15 of these brought about significant democratic backsliding; other reports suggest a similar corroboration between anti-democracy and populism. Early examples of such leaders were the aforementioned Burlusconi or Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, while more recent examples include Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
But perhaps the most obvious and influential rejection of democracy by populist leader of recent years came in the form of Donald Trump, President of the United States from 2017 to 2021. Taking advantage of a generation that was unhappy with the neoliberal and socially progressive policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump managed to successfully turn his supporters against the mainstream media, citing “fake news”, as well as spreading disinformation throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump’s flat-out anti-democratic sentiment came to light when, after losing the 2020 election, he denied the results and refused to concede, with his supporters citing election fraud with the slogan “stop the steal”. Eventually, this culminated in the insurrection at the Capitol building in early 2021, which some have described as a coup-d’état attempt. Though the US’s decline in democracy under his rule was not as bad as several other countries, particularly in Europe, the fact that even the most powerful country in the world could fall to right-wing populism and denial of democracy was a worrying sign for the rest of the world.
Though populism has been the biggest factor in recent years contributing to a global loss of democracy, the past year has seen another factor for its decline – the Covid-19 pandemic. Many governments, particularly in lower-income countries, have seized the outbreak of Covid-19 as an opportunity to curb on the freedoms of their citizens, which, according to the Freedom House, further exacerbated the 14-year decline of global democracy, with the world seeing more rigged elections, surveillance, censorship and police brutality. According to a survey undertaken by the Freedom House, 59 out of 192 countries saw some kind of abuse of power as a result of lockdowns and other pandemic measures. For example, in Zimbabwe, the police used force to assault nurses protesting for better wages, citing the fact that they were “breaking Covid restrictions”; in Nigeria, a journalist who covered the supposed collapse of an isolation centre was detained; even in Singapore, a developed country, the government used new laws to remove social media posts which clashed with their messaging. Elsewhere, governments used the lockdown to make completely unrelated breaches of power, with even lawmakers in the US, a country which so many others look up to as a model, taking advantage of the situation to introduce voter suppression laws. These kinds of abuses additionally disproportionately affect marginalised communities. While this data could imply that a majority of countries had their democracy improve under the pandemic, Freedom House’s study indicates that only one state did so – Malawi.
Though democracy and freedoms of citizens worldwide have been impacted negatively in recent years, it is unwise to suggest that democracy has experienced no improvements at all either. Civil rights are generally becoming more progressive across the world, with more and more states becoming increasingly socially liberal; for example, numerous countries have decriminalised homosexuality, a significant step towards achieving worldwide equality for LGBT citizens. Girls are increasingly being given the same rights as boys, with gender equality in education improving in less developed countries. The internet becoming more and more accessible makes it easier for people to access information and data from across the world. But while these changes are promising, they cannot deny the anti-democratic sentiment that is spreading across the world.
The decline in democracy in recent years has led many to consider whether this trend will continue into the future. While populism has seen a huge boom in the past 20 years and populist policies remain on the rise, it is entirely possible that in the future citizens across the world will stand up to populists. Populism thrives on pitting ordinary people against “the elites”; however, once populists get into power, it is necessary for these leaders to modify their descriptions of the elites to avoid being placed with them. This could mean that the fall of populism is inevitable, as people wake up to this fact; perhaps the first sign of this was the defeat of Donald Trump, the figurehead of Western right-wing populism, in the 2020 election. In addition, the abuses of power undertaken by so many governments during the pandemic will inevitably lead to their unpopularity and eventual demise. But it is important not to be complacent; though anti-democratic leaders will become more and more unpopular, as they curb democracy, it will become increasingly difficult to remove them from office. That is assuming they will even become unpopular; Trump, despite the flaws of his presidency, did still receive 74 million votes.
In conclusion, the rise of populist leaders and governments’ exploitation of global catastrophes have led to a worldwide setback to democracy in the past few decades; increases in dangerous populist leaders in the West and abuses of power relating to lockdown have led to widespread rigged elections, unconstitutional power grabs and violence from law enforcement across the world. It is extremely difficult to tell whether unpopularity will lead to a reversal in this decline, but improvements to technology, education and civil rights across the world will certainly help. With the figurehead of Western right-wing populism out of office, it remains to be seen what will eventually come of his European counterparts.