Global democracy is stable, not in decline, new study suggests

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Contrary to a wave of recent studies that claim that democracy is experiencing erosion in the world with the proliferation of authoritarian leaders, a new study published in the United States maintains that, by all indications, democracy is stable —perhaps even more vigorous.

Authored by researchers Anne Meng and Andrew T. Little, from the Universities of Virginia and California, respectively, the article is entitled “Subjective and Objective Measurement of Democratic Backsliding”.

The material was published in January as a “pre-print”—that is, it has not yet been reviewed by other scientists, an important step in academic production. Even so, it aroused frenzy.

The hypothesis raised by him is that recent indexes on the levels of democracy in the last decade have been based mostly on subjective criteria, influenced by a kind of pessimism of responsible researchers and evaluators.

With this, say Meng and Little, a misleading version of the resilience of democratic institutions gains strength. The duo recognizes, in any case, that there is a process of democratic weakening in some places — but emphasizes that it is not possible to say that this is a global trend.

“We’re not saying there isn’t any backlash going on,” Meng tells the Sheet. “There are about 200 countries in the world; probably in some of them leaders then taking anti-democratic actions.”

To support their hypothesis, the pair grouped objective indices to measure democratic quality. For example, the percentage of leaders who are in power and are re-elected, the existence of multipartyism and the presence or absence of measures that limit the power of the leader.

The idea, in general, is to observe whether there has been an increase in the basic principle of democracies in the last decade: the alternation of power. Based on these indicators, Meng and Little conclude that there has been no regression —indices have remained relatively stable in recent years.

They say that leaders may even have tried to dismantle institutions, but if they fail to achieve an autocrat’s key objective — to remain in power — it cannot be said that there has been a retreat. “Some were already taking anti-democratic actions in previous decades,” suggests Meng. “Maybe we were paying less attention. That’s part of why the trend lines look similar: part of it has been happening all along.”

The publication of the pre-print seems to have generated a positive debate among researchers in the field. The Swedish V-Dem, one of the institutes mentioned in the study, commented on the hypothesis and even opened a section on the subject on its website on the frequently asked questions page.

The institute annually publishes democracy scores and thereby classifies countries into political regimes—namely, liberal and electoral democracies, electoral autocracies, and dictatorships. By the latest available report, seven out of ten people in the world live in undemocratic regimes.

V-Dem says that while there is no evidence that researchers are biased due to pessimism, it cannot rule out this factor. And that, thinking about it, the measurement model used already includes technologies to take into account that, sometimes, one or another researcher can provide biased evaluations.

A Sheet reached out to Freedom House and Polity, the other two institutes mentioned by name in Meng and Little’s study, but did not receive a response as of the publication of this text.

For the purposes of comparison, subjective indicators are those that are more difficult to answer with a yes or no. Questions such as confidence in electoral results, for example —researchers usually have a scale of answers, such as “it is possible to trust”, “there was a suspicion of fraud, but that did not change the result” or even “there was a suspicion of fraud that probably took place “.

Brazilian political scientist Fernando Bizzarro, an associate researcher at the WeatherHead Center at Harvard University, points out that the study brings to the debate a paradox that has aroused the interest of scholars in the area for some time: “We have the general impression that democracy is eroding in the world but this is not captured in the objective indicators”.

He, however, considers the hypothesis about subjectivity prosaic. “Evidence is not tested,” he says. To support the argument, Meng and Little bring data on the increase in the number of researches on democratic erosion and reports from newspapers such as the American The New York Times and suggest that, today, researchers are inserted in an ecosystem that talks much more about this.

Meng says that the idea for the study was born when she was studying possible topics for a new book —she is the author of “Constraining Dictatorship” (Cambridge University Press, 2020), no edition in Portuguese. “But when I went to look at the data, I didn’t find this ‘big burst’ of backtracking that I thought I would see.”

She then spoke on the subject at a symposium last May which was also attended by Little, who has been studying research trends for some time. Meng says that her objective, along with her research partner, is not to deny democratic backsliding, but to draw attention to the fact that much of the data does not confirm this.

“We want to encourage researchers to collect better data on topics like press freedom and civil liberties, as well as to think more about their definitions of democracy, which directly influence the type of data they collect,” she says.

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