Changes in the global state of democracy represent a megatrend that foresight professionals should watch closely.
After all, this trend influences a raft of other key issues such individual freedoms, rule of law, social programs and even technological innovation.
In recent years, many have argued that there’s been global decline in democracy. The case that democracy is eroding around the world is often linked back to the work of Freedom House—a U.S.-based, nonpartisan nonprofit that gets its primary funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. State Department.
According to Freedom House, there has been a decline in overall global freedom in each of the past ten years. In 2016, freedom declined in 72 nations while increasing in just 43. (Information on its methodology may be found here).
But there’s good news in the data as well. Two-fifths of the nations analyzed by Freedom House are considered to be free and another 36% are “partly free,” leaving only about a quarter of the world’s population in unfree nations. And just 30% of nations can be considered unfree. Still, freedom has eroded somewhat since 2005, when 46% of nations were free.
Not everyone agrees that Freedom House has the final word on the matter. Joshua Keating, writing on international affairs for Slate, notes that Nigeria—Africa’s largest nation by population—recently held democratic elections. He also points to Indonesia as a nation that has consolidated its democracy and to Pakistan, which recently enjoyed its first peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. He writes,
With the addition of Nigeria and including the United States, that means that six of the world’s seven largest countries, with a combined population of 2.4 billion, now have democratically elected governments. (The world’s largest country, which if anything is getting even more autocratic under President Xi Jinping, is an obvious exception.)
Yet, even as most large nations adopt democracy, some intellectuals have begun trying to build a case against it. Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan wrote Against Democracy, a book in which he finds fault with democratic system of governance (or, oftentimes, with the political knowledge of people who vote in a democracy). Brennan puts forth a different idea called epistocracy, which means the “rule of the knowers.” The idea is also discussed in Caleb Crain’s recent New Yorker article “The Case Against Democracy.”
The bottom line, though, is that although democracy—at least as Freedom House defines it—has suffered some erosion over the last decade, it continues to be a prevalent and preferred system of governance. It’s simply too soon to tell if the erosion cited by Freedom House represents a long-term trend or a short-term blip, but it makes sense for trend-watchers to put the issue on their radar.