The Global Democratic Decline Revisited

Political scientist Daniel Treisman argues that claims of a global democratic decline and authoritarian backsliding are exaggerated and lack empirical evidence.
Daniel Tresisman Daniel Treisman presents during a CDDRL/TEC REDS Seminar on November 30, 2023.

How serious is the threat to democracy in the United States and around the world? In a CDDRL/TEC REDS Seminar talk, Daniel Treisman argued that claims of a global democratic decline and authoritarian backsliding are exaggerated and lack empirical evidence.

Treisman, who is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, questioned the assertion that the proportion of democracies in the world has been decreasing, showing, that, according to Polity data, it stands at an all-time high. At worst, the proportion has been plateauing, according to V-Dem ratings. Indeed, V-Dem’s liberal democracy rating and Freedom House’s “free state” rating have downscored a number of countries in recent years. Yet, Treisman indicated, inconsistencies across the two lists of downgraded countries suggest that the evidence is unclear and the assessments behind these trends are subjective. Although the momentum of democratization has slowed down in recent times, Treisman added, we have not entered a period of total decline. 

How much of the recent trend in democratic breakdown was expected? Treisman’s analysis shows that a country’s level of economic development and democratic history were strong predictors of decline, which is consistent with prior theoretical expectations. Most countries that democratized during the third wave were poorer than the average democracies worldwide. They were also – by definition – newer. These two factors made them prone to backsliding, and according to the model, the breakdowns that we have observed can be attributed to these two factors.

Treisman also challenged proliferating claims that the United States faces a serious risk of a democratic breakdown. Based on its income level and long democratic experience, the odds of breakdown are extremely low. That said, erosion in the quality of democracy is still quite plausible. 

Finally, Triesman questioned the notion that falling public support for democracy and erosion of elite norms have been driving observed incidents of democratic decline. Popular support for democracy seemed relatively high in backsliding democracies. Given how difficult it is to quantify shifts in elite norms, there has yet to be clear cross-national evidence showing an association between elite norms and democratic backsliding.

While Treisman believes there is no evidence to justify extreme alarmism around the issue of global democratic decline, the possibility of chaos and unfairness at the margins of established democracies warrants much attention and vigilance.

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