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  • Crisis and Transition, But Not Decline
  • Philippe C. Schmitter (bio)

There seems to be an overwhelming consensus among scholars and politicians that democracy as a practice is in decline. An 18 August 2014 Google search for decline of democracy yielded more than 55.5 million results; Google Scholar, which searches only academic literature, still produced a hefty 434,000 hits. At the same time, however, it is widely accepted that the desire for democracy as an ideal—that is, self-rule by citizens possessing equal rights and having equal influence over the choice of leaders and the conduct of public affairs—has never been greater or more broadly distributed. This gap between what is promised and what is delivered has been an omnipresent feature of those long-established regimes that I have called “really existing democracies,” and it has been reproduced in newly established democracies as well. It is the source of most of the historical struggles that have periodically led to the reform of democratic institutions.

A widening of this gap between the real and the ideal characterizes the present crisis—hence the growing pressure not to dismantle or destroy democracy as such, but rather to change the way in which it is being practiced. No one seems to believe that either really existing democracies or newer democracies that have passed some threshold of consolidation will in the foreseeable future regress to their status quo ante. Moreover, there is simply no plausible alternative in sight, save for a few models (for example, Chinese meritocracy, Russian neo-Czarism, Arab monarchy, or Islamic theocracy) that are unlikely to appeal far beyond their borders. In other words (to paraphrase a line in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard), democracy will definitely [End Page 32] survive, but only by changing. What these changes will be, however, is by no means clear.

Some Misleading Evidence of Decline

Evidence for the recent crisis and decline of democracy rests on dubious conclusions from quantitative sources and selective inferences from qualitative case studies. Freedom House has served as the “definitive” source for the former, and its annual report has been featuring various versions of the “democracy-in-retreat” narrative since 2008. It has based this assertion on a decline in the average scores of its compound indicator. This is especially misleading since many so-called Free regimes have no room for improvement given the upper limits of the variables used. For example, none of the reform measures to be discussed below would increase the score of a single one of them. Many Not Free regimes have no further room for decline, and many of these are “failed states” that are locked into civil wars and have no regime at all. It is mostly the Partly Free or hybrid democracies that have shown variation—and some of that has been upward. Moreover, small changes in the average for the whole sample (which is what tends to be used as the indicator for decline) can be attributed to a relatively small number of cases, from Russia and its Eurasian former republics to Bangladesh, Fiji, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. One alternative quantitative source, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy, reports similar aggregate results, while another, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, shows no significant overall change from 2006 to 2010.

Random public-opinion surveys in both new and established democracies routinely “discover” that a growing share of citizens feel that their votes do not count and are disregarded by their leaders. Most dramatic has been the decline in trust in core democratic institutions—namely, elected politicians, political parties, and legislatures. Yet these same surveys often reveal a similar decline in trust in nonelected authorities, including the military and police, public administrators, and even scientists and physicians. In other words, skepticism has come to characterize public opinion in general, even if it is focused most intensely on the political process. Interestingly, these surveys also tell us that public interest in politics has been rising along with the sense that politics actually has a real impact on people’s lives. So the gap does exist, but so does the awareness of it and, presumably, the desire to narrow...