When it comes to the threats to global democracy, the call is coming from inside the house.
U.S.-based NGO Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, released Monday, found that for the 13th straight year, global freedom has declined. (The report scores countries on 25 indicators—factors like rule of law and freedom of the press—and categorizes them as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”) For much of this period, which political scientist Larry Diamond has called the “democratic recession,” the declines show non-democratic governments, particularly in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, are becoming more repressive.
But Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, says that the drivers of the decline are starting to shift. “What you’re seeing the last year or two is more established democracies suffering declines in institutions and norms, particularly countries that had been improving had heading toward stronger democracy heading back,” he says. According to the report, “Of the 41 countries that were consistently ranked Free from 1985 to 2005, 22 have registered net score declines in the last five years.”
The poster child for this trend is Hungary—which thanks to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s attacks on the free press, independent NGOs, academia, and the rights of migrants—dropped from “free” to “partly free” in this year’s report, making it the first non-free member of the European Union ever recorded. Serbia, an EU candidate state, also dropped to partly free. Slovakia and Montenegro both saw significant declines in their scores. Brazil’s election of Jair Bolsonaro, late last year, is another example of this trend, though one that happened too late to have had a major impact on the score.
The report contains a particularly scathing section about the United States, which did not see a change in score this year but has been on a downward trend for about eight years. In other words, Donald Trump may be more the symptom than the cause of America’s democratic decline, although the report faults him for “straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system” with his “attacks on essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.” The U.S. score on the report is now significantly below that of democratic peers like Canada, Britain, Germany, and Japan and is more in line with countries like Belize, Croatia, Greece, and Mongolia.
Abramowitz told me that America’s democratic decline is more than just an American problem. “The U.S. is still the most influential country in the world. What happens in the U.S. is really important for the cause of global democracy,” he said. “It’s very difficult for the United States to make the case to other countries that they should respect the freedom of the press or the rule of law if we are not respecting them at home.”
If you’re looking for reason to be optimistic in the report, there were a few glimmers of hope. While more countries declined than improved, the ratio improved dramatically: The number of improved countries jumped from 35 in 2017 to 50 last year. Abramowitz says that the general trajectory is still downward, and it’s too soon to know if this marks any sort of turnaround. Two of the most notable improved countries last year are Malaysia, which saw a surprise transfer of power from a longtime ruling coalition in last year’s election, and Ethiopia, which saw the lifting of a long-running state of emergency and some tentative democratic reforms.
Freedom House also highlighted the degree to which authoritarian states are promoting their values abroad. “Everyone’s critical of democracy promotion, but there’s also authoritarianism promotion going on as well,” says Abramowitz, pointing to examples including Russia’s tampering with foreign elections and China’s exporting of surveillance technology to other autocratic regimes. The report also highlighted 24 authoritarian countries, including Russia, China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, that have targeted dissidents abroad with tactics “including harassment, extradition requests, kidnapping, and even assassination.” The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was the best known example of this growing trend, which I wrote about in October.
Freedom House’s index is a useful tool for activists and scholars, but the major themes of this year’s report shows that the organization’s three neat categories leave something out. From the separation of families to mass surveillance, there are abundant examples of antidemocratic abuses happening in countries that still have elections and a free press. Citizens in democratic countries are increasingly using their freedoms to elect leaders with contempt for democracy. Meanwhile, authoritarian leaders increasingly don’t feel that borders should constrain their authority to control and punish their citizens. The line between the free and unfree world is getting very fuzzy.