See that pic above? Today we’re going to discuss one of the most important charts in modern history. There are charts, and there are charts. Those that tell the story of eras in history, point to great transformations, and illustrate great macro trends in our world. Let me say it again: what you’re looking at is one of the most important charts in modern history.
What does it show? Let’s first discuss where it comes from. It originates from Freedom House, which is one of the world’s pre-eminent think tanks that studies democracy. In a sophisticated and intelligent and cutting-edge way: not just the superficial exercise of electoral mechanics, even, but as a set of values, rights, and freedoms. Freedom House has been perhaps the world’s foremost authority on democracy for many decades now, and though most haven’t heard of it, they should have—think of how we all know the crackpot right-wing think tanks which have become household names, and yet few of us are even aware of the good guys.
So. Why do I say this is one of the most important charts in modern history? It shows what Freedom House calls “democracy under siege.” Even that, I think, is an understatement. Look at it carefully, and you might see what I conclude: you can literally see democracy imploding around the globe.
Let’s discuss a few key findings that should jump out at you.
The share of the world’s population living in “free environments”—aka democracies—has imploded. From 46%, to around 20%. In other words, the democratic world has more than halved, or declined by over 100%.
How much of the world was ever democratic? We in the rich West often have a sort of confirmation bias, but what the chart shows us, in no uncertain terms, is that less tha half the world was ever democratic. That is, democracy was always not just a luxury, but a tenuous, fragile achievement.
Worse, perhaps most dire of all, the chart appears to show us that democracy has peaked. That doesn’t mean permanently, but it does mean exactly what you can see: the green line, which is “free environments,” have cratered, and democracy as a global institution appears to have peaked around the turn of the century, around 2005 or so.
Let me summarize those, because these are facts everyone should know. And yet few of us do. Our media does a frankly terrible job of covering the world at a civilizational level—American media, in particular, is obsessed with politics as celebrity coverage, British media’s a joke at this point. We’re left—the average person’s left—totally illiterate with simple facts about the world, and so of course disinformation and conspiratorialism flourish in this vacuum.
So. These are facts everyone should know. Child, adult, mother, father. Aren’t we all to be aware of how democracy’s doing? One: democracy’s imploded by over 100%. Two: democracy was always something less than half the world enjoyed to begin with. Three: democracy appears to have peaked around the turn of the century.
These are the minimal set of facts we should all know—because, of course, the context is the authoritarian wave that’s swept the globe, and continues to. Let me now go from facts to implications, and build such context for you.
One of the statistics I often cite is when I say things like: “democracy’s declining at the rate of over 10% a decade.” In the chart above, you can see such an effect with crystal clarity. The green line’s gone from 46% or so to about 20% in less than two decades, which is a clear rate of decline of over 10%.
But what’s worse, and truly dire, and maybe even a bit shocking, is that at that rate of decline…how much democracy is even left? If just 20% of the world is democratic in the full, deep sense, anymore, and the rate of decline is over 10% a decade…that gives us the end of democracy as we know it within plain sight, in a handful of decades.
Now, that’s a linear extrapolation, and those are always dangerous, and a little bit suspect. So I’m not saying that’s going to happen. But I am saying that being in a position where it could is already a very, very bad one.
This is a form of civilizational risk accelerating out of control now. To be able to see the end of global democracy, to say that it could happen, given current trends—that isn’t to say it will, but it is to say that we risk precisely that.
That is how bad the global authoritarian wave really is. We now run the risk of extinction of global democracy within a handful of decades. Now, this is the kind of thing that when I say it, it provokes accusations of hyperbole and exaggeration from a certain kind of guy—you know the kind, American, white, privileged, and who’s been wrong about more or less everything for the last few decades. I’m not really opining on much here. Just, I beg you, look at the data, because the data is saying all this, not me.
When we ask ourselves, “how bad is the global far right wave,” or “how bad is it really to see authoritarianism and fascism rising around the globe again,” now we have an answer. That’s the point of this little discussion. The answer is: “it’s so bad that it’s running the risk of the extinction of global democracy.”
How high is that risk? Risk is risk. A risk of 100% isn’t a risk, it’s certainty. So what probability could or should we assign to this risk? I think that’s a topic for future discussions. Right now, we could just assign it an “average” level of risk, 50%, or an even lower one, if you want, let’s say, 10%. But even that’s too much for any sane and thoughtful person to consider somehow acceptable. If I told you there was a 25% chance, or even a 10% one, that democracy wouldn’t make it, and would go extinct in the next few decades, would you think that was OK? Of course not—and yet that’s the kind of place we’re actually in.
In what way? Let me make that concrete. Trump’s surged back, and he’s ahead of Biden in the polls. This is after he a) led a soft coup b) led a hard coup c) is on trial after trial for charge after charge and d) America’s intellectual class has finally woken up and has begun to warn openly of fascism. Now imagine that Trump gets re-elected—another linear extrapolation, which is a fancy way of saying “if the election were held today.” That green line? It would nose-dive, suddenly, even further.
A situation like America putting Trump back into power would be a capstone on the mega-trend of global democracy imploding. It’d turn that civilizational risk we just discussed, and blow it out of the water, magnifying it to immense proportions, because of course, an authoritarian America would have the power to spread authoritarianism, too (not that democratic America didn’t do that, too, but still.) So even now, the macro-trend we’re discussing shows no real signs of decelerating: the risk it represents is, if anything, very real, and growing.
There are a few bright spots, here and there. Brazil embraced a freer, more democratic politics not so long ago, after a bad spell. Poland, too, appears to be trying to emerge from an autocratic turn. And yet for democracy, the blows keep on coming—Argentina and Holland are just two of the latest self-made victims of the global anti-democratic wave, the authoritarian turn. So overall, the trend remains very potent.
The decline of global democracy is real. When we speak about it, we understate it. That’s the way that power figures, I think, would like it to be spoken of, so that their world keeps turning as usual: so we keep shopping, consuming, buying, and pretending that everything’s just fine out there in the world. It’s emphatically not.
What we’re seeing is a Great Unravelling, if you like. Democracy made steady gains for decades, even centuries. And we have the misfortune to live in an age where all that is actually coming undone. Democracy actually appears to have peaked and gone into reverse. But not even some kind of slow, gentle, decline—rather, a sudden, cataclysmic, implosion.
That should give us all pause. We should all understand how bad it really is. Only then can we really begin to wake up a little bit, I think. When we say things like “democracy’s in trouble,” or “times are bad,” or “there are Trumpisms everywhere,” we shade the truth, because perhaps we ourselves are unaware of how serious and shocking the plight of democracy in the 21st century really is.
Never before has democracy really faced what it does now. The only parallels are in antiquity. In the modern era, democracy has risen and risen. Has that come to an end? Before, in the pre-modern world, democracy died, too, and we called it, later, a dark age. These are the kinds of stakes we face now. It’d be foolish to look at such startling data and conclude: democracy will be fine, when one can clearly see the risk of it going extinct within our lifetimes, at its current rate of decline.
Like I said, we should all know this. We should teach it to our friends, children, and neighbors. These basic facts about perhaps the most crucial aspect of our modern world—democracy’s parlous state—are those that should be the stuff of everyday literacy. But most people aren’t aware of this at all. And that is why we are where we are. Why it’s easy for, for example, for young people to squander their votes on Trump, as some kind of senseless, self-destructive protest, not seeing the forest for the trees, or why it’s easy for demagogues to rack up wins, people imagining, in frustration, that the system needs a momentary dose of punishment—instead, collectively delivering something more like a killing blow
Our civilization needs a reality check. Democracy is going extinct, at our hands. Its implosion has reached proportions that make history shudder. But do we really want to live in a world where democracy’s gone extinct? Where today’s mere remaining slender thread of 20% democratic societies and peoples have become 10%? 5%? At what point is it fair to say that democracy’s extinct, or a memory, anyways? Shall we draw the line when it reaches 10% or 5%? Do we want to live in that world? Should we teach our kids that’s OK?
We are playing with fire, my friends. And we don’t know it, yet. But we should and must. That is why we must all learn, before we continue burning our own temple down.
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