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  • The Myth of Democratic Recession
  • Steven Levitsky (bio) and Lucan Way (bio)

A near consensus has emerged that the world has fallen into a “democratic recession.” Leading observers and democracy advocates characterize the last decade as a period of democratic “rollback,” “erosion,” or “decline,”1 in which new democracies have fallen victim to a “powerful authoritarian undertow.”2 In an article entitled “The Great Democracy Meltdown,” for example, Joshua Kurlantzick claims that global freedom has “plummeted.”3 Another observer suggests that “we might in fact be seeing the beginning of the end for democracy.”4

The gloomy mood is made manifest in Freedom House’s yearly reports in the Journal of Democracy. Summarizing Freedom House’s annual survey of freedom, Arch Puddington warned in 2006 of a growing “pushback against democracy,”5 characterized 2007 and 2008 as years of democratic “decline,”6 claimed that the democratic erosion had “accelerated” in 2009,7 and described global democracy as “under duress” in 2010.8 Following a brief moment of optimism during the Arab Spring, Freedom House warned of a democratic “retreat” in 2012 and an “authoritarian resurgence” in 2013.9

This is a gloomy picture indeed. It is not, however, an accurate one. There is little evidence that the democratic sky is falling or (depending on your choice of fable) that the wolf of authoritarian resurgence has arrived.10 The state of global democracy has remained stable over the last decade, and it has improved markedly relative to the 1990s. Perceptions of a democratic recession, we argue, are rooted in a flawed understanding of the events of the early 1990s. The excessive optimism and voluntarism that pervaded analyses of early post–Cold War transitions generated unrealistic expectations that, when not realized, gave [End Page 45] rise to exaggerated pessimism and gloom. In fact, despite increasingly unfavorable global conditions in recent years, new democracies remain strikingly robust.

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Table 1.

Mean Democracy Score for the World According to Four Surveys

The Empirical Record

A look at the empirical record suggests little or no evidence of a democratic recession. We compared the scores of four prominent global democracy indices: Freedom House, Polity, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Bertelsmann democracy index.11 Table 1 shows each index’s mean level of democracy (on a normalized scale from 0 to 1) from 2000 to 2013. All four indices’ mean democracy scores remained the same or increased during this period. According to leading democracy indices such as Freedom House and Polity, then, the world is more democratic today than it was in 2000 (and considerably more democratic than it was in 1990 or any year prior to that). Even if we take the mid-2000s—often cited as the beginning of the democratic recession—as our starting point, three of the four indices show either no change or a slight improvement.12 Only Freedom House shows a decline between 2005 and 2013, and that decline (from .63 to .62) is extremely modest.

If we examine the overall number of democracies in the world, the data similarly suggest stability rather than decline. Table 2 shows the four indices’ scores for the absolute number of democracies as well as the percentage of the world’s regimes that were fully democratic between 2000 and 2013. Again, Freedom House and Polity show an increase in the number of democracies since 2000. Only if we look at the 2005–13 period do we see any decline, and that decline is very modest. Freedom House shows a drop-off of one democracy between 2005 and 2013. The pattern is similar with respect to the percentage of democracies in the world: Both Freedom House and Polity show a decline of one percentage point between 2005 and 2013.

As an additional measure, we examined all cases of significant regime change—defined as countries whose Freedom House scores increased or decreased by three points or more—between 1999 and 2013. [End Page 46] Whereas 23 countries experienced a significant improvement in their Freedom House score between 1999 and 2013, only eight experienced a significant decline. Even between 2005 and 2013, the number...