Our World In Data: The world has recently become less democratic by Bastain Herre

The world has recently become less democratic

Many more people have democratic rights than in the past. Some of this progress has recently been reversed.
by Bastian Herre
September 06, 2022

Many more people than in the past have democratic rights. But now there is growing concern that this progress is currently being partially undone.1 Is this true? Has the world become less democratic recently?

This article shows that the leading approaches to measuring democracy indicate that this is true: the world has become less democratic in recent years.

Democracy is in decline, regardless of how we measure it — whether we look at big changes in the number of democracies and the people living in them; at small changes in the extent of democratic rights; or at medium-sized changes in the number of, and people living in, countries that are autocratizing.2

The extent of this decline is substantial, but it is also uncertain and limited. We can see it clearly across democracy metrics: the world has fallen from all-time democratic highs to a level similar to earlier decades. But the extent of this decline depends on which democracy measure we use. And it is limited in the sense that the world remains much more democratic than it was even half a century ago.

Finally, the recent democratic decline is precedented, and past declines were reversed. The world underwent phases of autocratization in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, people fought to turn the tide, and pushed democratic rights to unprecedented heights. We can do the same again.

Recently, the number of democracies has declined…

The simplest way to explore whether the world has recently become less democratic is by looking at how many countries are democracies.

In the chart I rely on the Regimes of the World (RoW) classification3 as a measure for whether a country is a democracy. You can read more about the data in our article on it here.

RoW is just one of the leading approaches of identifying which countries are democracies. But the findings are similar when we look at other approaches to measuring democracy: you can see this in versions of the same chart based on the Lexical Index, BoixMiller-Rosato, Freedom House, and the Economist Intelligence Unit.4 You can find all these charts and more in our Democracy Data Explorer.

Using the RoW data, the chart shows that the world has become less democratic in recent years. The number of democracies in the world reached an all-time high in 2012, with 97 electoral democracies. A decade on, their number has fallen to 89 countries.

The same is true of liberal democracies. Their number has fallen from 42 countries in 2012 to 34 in 2021.

…and fewer people are living in democracies

The number of democracies does not tell us how many people enjoy democratic rights. But when we look at this data, the findings are the same.

The number of people that have democratic rights has recently plummeted: between 2017 and 2021, this number fell from 3.9 billion to 2.3 billion people.

During the same years, the number of people living in liberal democracies fell from 1.2 billion to 1 billion.

Examples of people losing democratic rights — according to the RoW data — are the 1.4 billion people in India,5 the 84 million people in Turkey, and the 28 million people in Venezuela.6

Instead of the absolute number of democracies and people living in them, we may be interested in the share of democratic countries and the share of the world population living in them. The world is also becoming less democratic based on these metrics.

See full report and additional charts on Our World in Data