Freedom House has been publishing its annual Freedom in the World report for the last 47 years, and it’s been a reliable downer for the last 15. Each year the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization assesses the world’s countries on a range of measures of political rights and civil liberties, dividing them into categories of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free. Since 2006, more countries have seen their scores decline every year than increase. Still, 2020 stands out as a particularly bad year, with 73 countries experiencing declines in freedom compared with only 28 seeing gains. It represents the worst decline since this downward trend began.
The main headline development in this year’s report, released today, is that India—often referred to as the “world’s largest democracy”—is no longer a “free” country, dropping to “partly free” thanks to the ongoing crackdown on political dissent and the free press, and the scapegoating of Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
Thanks mostly to India’s decline, less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a “free” country, the smallest proportion since 1995. India is still considered an “electoral democracy” by Freedom House, which only highlights the extent to which many of the worst setbacks for freedom are taking place in ostensibly “democratic” countries. The idea of “illiberal democracy” is decades old at this point, but it now appears to be becoming the dominant form of politics for much of the planet.
It wasn’t a great year for the United States either, with the report citing official corruption and a lack of political accountability, the heavy-handed police response to anti-racism protests, and, most of all, Donald Trump’s attempt to reject and overturn the 2020 presidential election. The U.S. is still “free,” but it declined 3 points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale in the past year and 11 points over the past decade—one of the largest declines of any country. The level of freedom in the U.S. is now comparable to that of countries like Romania, Croatia, and Panama. The U.S. actually gets off relatively easily in Freedom House’s rankings: Last year, it dropped below the “democracy threshold” on the more academic Polity index and is considered a “flawed democracy” on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index.
The trend in 2020 is especially grim given that the previous year saw a remarkable wave of protests against government corruption and authoritarianism around the world. Freedom House notes that out of 39 countries where it identified major protests in 2019, 23 saw scores decline the following year. Several countries, like Armenia and Ethiopia, which had shown promising signs of democratization in this year, suffered setbacks in 2020 due to spillover effects from armed conflict. In a very short section on positive developments, the report highlights two of the 28 countries that saw gains: Malawi—where the constitutional court ordered a rerun of a presidential election due to evidence of blatant vote tampering, resulting in a victory for the opposition—and Taiwan, which held a successful election in the face of a pressure and disinformation campaign from China, and showed remarkable success at stamping out the coronavirus without coercive authoritarian measures.
The report argues that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on global democracy, noting examples in places like Hungary, El Salvador, and the Philippines, where governments used the virus as a pretext to clamp down on dissent, consolidate power, or enforce brutal and excessive lockdown measures. I was more optimistic in a recent piece, arguing that state failures in battling the coronavirus have also galvanized civil society and anti-authoritarian movements—including in the United States—but, of course, the jury is still out on whether those movements will have a lasting impact.