Fukuyama famously declared in his 1992 book “The End of History” that following the end of the Cold War there would be no more ideological conflict and that liberal democracy had established itself as the “victor” in it’s conflict with communism. He has since then denounced his statements and realized that in fact, there are more rivalries to liberal democracy than simply communism. As we look through the lens of a global pandemic which has had a lasting impact on democratic rights, it is our responsibility as residents in democracies and elsewhere to critically review how our “golden standard” has been doing in this new millennium. With the help of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s yearly “Democracy Index” and “The Global State of Democracy in 2021” from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) I will try and highlight how democracy has evolved during the global pandemic.
As it stands in 2020, about half (49,4%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort. While this sounds reassuring, it must be noted that only about 8,4% of the total population lives in what the Economist labels a “full democracy” as you can see in Table 1. To bring a tangible example: The United States has consistently fallen under the category of “flawed democracy” since 2016. However not all is grim: Full democracies have grown by 2,7% since 2019 as several Asian countries have been upgraded. However, the global population has felt the strain on their rights due to the pandemic: “This [2020 report] is by far the worst global score since the index was first produced in 2006. The 2020 result represents a significant deterioration and came about largely (…) because of government-imposed restrictions on individual freedoms and civil liberties that occurred across the globe in response to the coronavirus.”
For the first time in a decade the average regional scores have worsened in every single region of the world. Almost 70% of countries recorded a decline in their total score compared with 2019, with only 22,6% seeing an improvement. The biggest declines were seen in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa with Mali being the worldwide country to decline the most. However, Asian countries, namely Japan, South Korea, and especially Taiwan have skyrocketed and now fall into the “full democracies” category. This stark decline is obviously in response to the pandemic. Lockdowns dominated 2020, how could we ever forget that year? Everybody experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever during peacetime and maybe even during wartime.
Early in the pandemic, China imposed hard lockdowns, ahead of time however still late. With their approach it is estimated that China confined 760 million people to their homes. The lockdown in Wuhan went on for 76 uninterrupted days and liberal democracies shook their heads and denounced the Chinese methodology. However, while much of the data published by Beijing is subject to scrutiny, denying the efficiency that China was – and still is – able to use would be unwise. I will not get too political about my view on lockdowns etc. but one must admit that as undemocratic as it was, East Asian countries were able to combat the pandemic quicker and more effectively than the West. Nonetheless in a matter of months almost everybody followed the Chinese example: The European Union started closing borders even between themselves, and new travel guidelines have become the absolute norm today, PCR tests just to name one. The table below interestingly enough shows how in “full democracies” there was less of a feeling of freedom than in “flawed democracies” (Chart 2).
While part of the solution to retaining rights is exiting the current pandemic, it would be foolish to assume these trends to be the exact same everywhere. Truth is liberal democracy is getting less and less popular even outside of the pandemic (figure 1). The data presented may seem daunting, however it is a democratic pillar that I am able to present this data: freedom of press. Leaving “the other countries” to deal with an undemocratic approach is not feasible anymore, since everybody has been affected by a democratic decline. And as protests have started huge civil movements everywhere, it is through support systems that even people who are not involved in politics, there are means on how to support them. Social media is typically the easiest and most accessible medium, democracy is decided at the voting booth. I encourage everybody, regardless of point of view towards democracy, to voice their opinions in peaceful political discussion. Because that is the true beauty of democracy: the freedom to disagree.