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Is democracy experiencing a setback worldwide?

Harry Young (Lower Sixth) - New College of the Humanities essay competition

Over the last century, an increase in suffrage, decolonisation and the collapse of Communism have drastically increased the number of democracies, ensuring that the world entered the 21st century with historically high levels of freedom. The latest edition of the Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, however, provides evidence that democracy is now experiencing a sustained setback. It gave a global democracy score of 5.44/10, the lowest recorded since the index began in 2006.[1] In this essay, I will evaluate the extent of this setback and explain why democracy is experiencing a setback from two fronts: the spread of authoritarianism and the failure of established democracies to lead by example and counter this threat. For this essay, I will define a ‘setback’ as the interruption and reversal of the process of democratisation. Furthermore, to assess why this setback is occurring globally, several countries will be referenced with greater emphasis placed on the United States, China and Europe according to geopolitical influence.

The first catalyst for the global decline in democracy is the increased influence of repressive regimes and the recent spread of authoritarianism that has reversed the trend of democratisation. The rise of China, a distinctly authoritarian regime, now poses a serious threat to the established liberal international order; this rapid increase in geopolitical influence is inextricably linked to economics. In Capitalism Alone, for example, Branko Milanovic argues that the free-market economy has triumphed as the world’s dominant economic system but through two distinct political systems: the ‘liberal’ model of the United States and the ‘political’ model of China.[2] China’s phenomenal economic growth (averaging 9.8% per annum between 1978 and 2017)[3] has afforded the un-democratic Chinese Communist Party unparalleled influence, as it invests heavily in emerging markets under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other such projects. As of March 2020, China has a truly global influence in 138 countries who have joined the BRI.[4] The empirical data suggests that this type of Political Capitalism works, economically speaking, which translates into a dangerous political lure away from democracy and an extension of Beijing’s reach.

Furthermore, the last decade has demonstrated this decline in democracy elsewhere, where it has been exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic. Turkey exemplifies a fledgling democracy that is now experiencing a pull towards authoritarianism. Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power on the back of supporting democracy while challenging the army and was offered a formal invitation to begin negotiations for membership of the European Union in October 2004. In 2016, however, a failed army coup accelerated his authoritarian approach to politics as he enacted a widespread crackdown on opposition; media was censored and over 80,000 were arrested.[5] This example serves to illustrate an emerging pattern worldwide in countries such as Venezuela, Hungary, and Poland whereby the rule of law is distorted, freedom of speech is supressed, and corruption is rife. This third political system, “demagogic authoritarian capitalism” has been propped up by the Coronavirus pandemic.[6]  To illustrate, in March 2020 one Washington Post headline read “Coronavirus kills its first democracy,” in response to the Hungarian Parliament voting to give Prime Minister Viktor Orban the authority to rule by decree in the name of combating Coronavirus.[7] The pandemic has allowed corrupt leaders to extend their powers and postpone elections, accelerating the spread of Authoritarianism.

The decline in democracy, however, has been combatted in these countries by protests, suggesting the setback is less acute. Severe backlash faced by the incumbent regimes of Belarus, Hong Kong and Thailand are all symptomatic of a wider desire for freedom and elections amongst repressed citizens. To illustrate, tens of thousands of Belarusians protested on the streets following the flawed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko. Hong Kong made headlines in 2019 when a pro-democracy movement swept through the city in response to the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill. More recently, the monarchy of Thailand was beset by opposition from the ‘Free Youth’ Movement which has drawn on “the legacy of past democratic uprisings and pop culture iconography.”[8] It must be noted that these movements have been harshly repressed by their respective governments. Despite this, they provide clear evidence of global support for core democratic values such as open elections, government accountability and open press.

Another long-term setback to democracy is the decline in leadership that Western democracies have historically demonstrated. The most glaring example is the diminishing trust in the United States, long held as a bastion of democracy, under the Trump administration. Data from the Pew Research Centre revealed a decline in the percentage of people who say that the US respects the personal freedoms of its people over the past 7 years.[9] More shockingly, the recent Capitol Hill Riots, an insurrection at the heart of US government, demonstrated a polarised nation. UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who formerly had close ties with Donald Trump, described the scenes as “disgraceful;” without solidarity and strong leadership from established democracies who are failing to set an example, it is more likely that freedom movements will succumb to authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, the ‘Freedom in the World 2020’ report found an “alarming erosion in government’s commitment to pluralism,” with India suffering “the largest democracy score decline out of the world’s 24 most populous democracies.” India was viewed by many as a potential counterweight to Chinese authoritarianism in the Indo-Pacific region, signifying yet another setback to democracy. Overall, the ‘Freedom in the World 2020’ report found that out of the world’s 41 established democracies, as of 2005, 25 have since experienced net score declines.[10] The decline in civil rights, trust, and freedom of speech in two of the world’s most important democracies contributed to this. Elsewhere, disillusionment with the established democratic neoliberal order, following the 2008 financial crisis, and the rise of populism weighed heavily on the popularity of government. These developments have now culminated into a set of established democracies which are dangerously divided and ill-equipped to counter the threat of authoritarianism.

It might be argued, however, that there is still a strong belief in democracy which should mitigate the apparent setback. In the United States, for example, the people have elected Jo Biden as president and the core institutions, including the courts, withstood Donald Trump’s effort to overthrow the election. One of President Biden’s priorities will be to counter the tide of authoritarianism and revive ties with key democratic allies. He has already proposed a summit to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.”[11] This indicates that the electoral majority still believe in the US to set a democratic example and lead the Free World. Meanwhile, in other established democracies there is evidence to suggest that while disenchantment with government may be high, there is still support for democracy. For instance, data from The Economists found that in 2019 only 32% of France had trust in the government and yet 83% still believed democracy was the best system.[12] This trust in liberal democracy is reinforced by the lack of credibility of China and its authoritarian alternative. According to Gallup polling, China’s approval rating is a median of 32% among more than 130 countries; this score has changed very little in ten years.[13] Democracy, therefore, is still widely popular in the West and envied considerably in repressed nations, as protests have shown. Globally there is strong support, indicating that the world should not be experiencing a setback. 

Events of the last decade have confirmed empirical data from multiple reports that express a clear decline in the levels of democracy experienced worldwide. Absolutely speaking, billions of citizens now have the vote but as we enter a new decade the world is experiencing a crisis of democracy and indeed severe setback. The evidence presented has revealed a popular desire for democracy. It can be concluded, however, that there is a discordance between this desire and the levels of democratic values actually exerted by governments in power. This two-faceted decline can be traced back to the spread of authoritarian governments that supress freedom and the failure of established democracies to combat this threat and set examples.



BidenHarris. ( The Power of America's Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challanges of the 21st Century. Retrieved from Joe Biden .

Blok, S. (2020, December 9). Democracy cannot function without media freedom. Financial Times.

Coughlin, C. (2020, December 23). Dictators are outwitting a fatally divided West . The Daily Telegraph.

COVID-19 Brief: Impact on Democracy Around the World. (2020, December 2020). Retrieved from US Global Leadership Coalition :

Freedom House . (2020). Freedom in the World 2020.

Gallup. (n.d.). China. Retrieved from Gallup:

Michael J Abramowitz, W. L. (2018, Januray 17). We looked at the state of democracy around the world, and the results are grim. The Washington Post.

Milanovic, B. (2019). Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Nedopil, C. (2021). Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Retrieved from Green Belt and Road Initiative Centre:,with%20China%20is%20highly%20specific.

Pew Reseach Centre . (2020, September 2). In Views of U.S. Democracy, Widening Partisan Divides Over Freedom to Peacefully Protest. Retrieved from Pew Research:

Rachman, G. (2020, December 2020). 2020: A year in protests . Financial Times .

Tharoor, I. (2020, March 31). Coronavirus kills its first democracy . Retrieved from The Washington Post :

The Economist . (2019, September 26). How bad is the crisis in democracy? (Youtube).

The Economist. (2020, September 19). Citizen's assemblies are increasingly popular . The Economist.

The Economist. (2020, January 22). Global democracy has another bad year. Retrieved from The Economist:

Wolf, M. (2020, December 22). Opinion Capitalism: The fading light of liberal democracy . Financial Times .

World Bank. (2020). GDP growth (annual%) - China. Retrieved from World Bank:



[1] (The Economist, 2020)

[2] (Milanovic, 2019)

[3] (World Bank, 2020)

[4] (Nedopil, 2021)

[5] (The Economist , 2019)

[6] Quote taken from (Wolf, 2020)

[7] (Tharoor, 2020)

[8] Quote taken from (Rachman, 2020)

[9] (Pew Reseach Centre , 2020)

[10] (Freedom House , 2020)

[11] Quote taken from (BidenHarris,

[12] (The Economist , 2019)

[13] (Gallup, n.d.)

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