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  • A Century of Progress
  • Adrian Karatnycky (bio)

In a year when freedom did not make dramatic further strides in the world, it is important to remember that—despite fits and starts—human liberty has been on an upward trajectory throughout the twentieth century. When viewed from the perspective of the century as a whole, democracy has made important and dramatic progress.

A look at the political maps of the world in 1900, 1950, and 2000 reveals monumental shifts in the number and nature of sovereign polities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were 55 sovereign polities, 55 entities that were governed by colonial and imperial systems, and 20 protectorates under the sway or protection of foreign powers. No polity enjoyed competitive multiparty politics with universal suffrage, essential characteristics of an electoral democracy. A mere 12.4 percent of mankind lived under a form of government that could be deemed somewhat democratic, although suffrage was generally limited to males. In the United States, women could not vote, and the voting rights of racial minorities and the poor were restricted. Twenty-four other countries with some form of democratic government maintained similarly restrictive democratic practices, denying voting rights to women, racial minorities, and those without property. By contrast, 55.8 percent of the world’s population lived under some form of monarchy (with 36.6 percent of the global population under absolute monarchic rule), and an additional 30.2 percent lived under colonial and imperial domination.

By 1950, the number of sovereign polities had risen to 80. With [End Page 187] colonialism on the decline, the number of entities still under colonial and imperial rule had fallen to 43, while 31 entities remained protectorates, many of them former colonies making the transition to independence. In the aftermath of World War II, there was also a significant expansion in the number of democratically elected governments. In 1950, 22 democratic states accounted for 31 percent of the world’s population. Countries with restrictive democratic practices (that is, countries with systems in which a single party exercised long-term political dominance and the role of opposition parties was limited [for example, the Philippines and Cuba in 1950] and countries in which women or ethnic minorities were excluded from the electoral process [for example, Colombia and Switzerland in 1950]) accounted for a further 11.9 percent of the world population. The middle of the twentieth century also witnessed the spread of totalitarian communism as an alternative form of government, under which a third of the world’s population then lived.

By the end of the twentieth century, sovereignty and electoral democracy both registered dramatic gains. The number of sovereign states more than doubled, from 80 in 1950 to 192 in 1999 (which includes the international protectorates of East Timor and Bosnia-Herzegovina). The end of the century has also seen the virtual elimination of colonial and imperial rule. Today, 58.2 percent of the world’s population lives under democratically elected leadership, while another 5 percent resides in states with restricted democratic practices (such as Malaysia, where the ruling party enjoys overwhelming electoral advantages and systematically works to suppress political space for opposition parties, and Mexico, whose parliament was elected in a democratic process but whose presidential election of 1994 was conducted in a less than free and fair fashion). In sum, electoral democracies constitute 120 of the 192 internationally recognized independent polities. Indeed the idea of national sovereignty has generally been accompanied by the idea of personal sovereignty within a democratically accountable state.

The trend toward democratically elected government has been accompanied by a trend toward broader political freedom and enhanced civil liberties. The adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights helped spark a growing global awareness of human freedom. Central to the spread of this awareness has been the ongoing revolution in communications technology, which has decentralized state control of information and allowed for its cheaper and more rapid dissemination.

Freedom House’s end-of-century survey of Freedom in the World finds that 85 of the world’s 192 countries (44 percent) are Free, meaning that these countries maintain a high degree of political and economic freedom and...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 187-200
Launched on MUSE
2000-01-01
Open Access
No
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