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A nation must think before it acts.
Today, the storied bipartisan research and advocacy organization Freedom House releases its annual global survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World, and the news is not good. For the 13th year in a row, more countries experienced overall declines in democratic performance than improvements during calendar year 2018.
While the world is still better off in terms of political liberties than it was during the height of the Cold War, the recession in human freedom continues to deepen, even as we are reminded that the doldrums under discussion are long running, widely dispersed, and derive from many factors. “The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century,” the report’s writers conclude, “but the pattern is still ominous. Democracy is in retreat.”
The methodology used to trace the arc of the 13-year retreat is unpacked in a very helpful section of the overview, noting that scores in the Rule of Law subcategory suffered the most overall during this period. The report also notes that “the scores driving the decline” in the last six years have shifted to Freedom of Expression and Belief (what in American terms can be understood as First Amendment freedoms). In particular, the indicator assessing people’s freedom to “express their personal views without surveillance or retribution” showed the most consistent drops globally.
As usual, scattered countries moved forward in this past year—due in some cases to unexpected electoral reversals for authoritarian rulers (in Armenia and Malaysia), or when designated successors showed more tolerance or even support for political openings (in Angola, Ecuador, and Ethiopia). But these were outliers in 2018, rather than parts of a positive trend. Moreover, a total of 50 countries showed net improvements in their scores for the year—the largest number since 2006—though it was overshadowed by the 68 countries moving down the scales.
This year’s report pays particular attention to the nations of the former communist regions of Europe and Eurasia, noting that post-Cold War democratization has faltered notably. “A large share of countries that made progress during that time were unable to maintain it . . . demonstrating the particular vulnerability of countries whose democratic institutions have shallow roots.”
Thus, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia are among those showing the largest one-year declines. Romania has been a member of the European Union for more than a dozen years, so this should cause some alarm in Brussels. More concerning, however, is that Hungary, an EU member for fifteen years now (meaning its democratic bona fides were long ago ratified by European consensus, and certified by closure of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s programs to support democratization in the country), finally falls from the ranks of the “Free” countries into the “Partly Free” range.
After the abrupt collapse of communism in Central Europe in 1989 ended all constraints on free expression and assembly and began the process of liberalization more broadly, Hungary and its neighbors entered the ranks of the “Free” back in 1990. Now, after five consecutive years of declines in various scores, the re-establishment of some of those constraints on basic freedoms, and 13 years without improvements, Hungary finds itself in the global rankings nestled among Senegal, Timor Leste, and Tunisia, in the community of partial and aspiring democracies.
The larger thrust of this year’s report from Freedom House, however, is what is described as “an ebb tide in established democracies”—not least in the United States of America. Indeed, the overview essay by the organization’s president, Mike Abramowitz (a former journalist at the Washington Post, among his other credentials), is entitled The Struggle Comes Home: Attacks on Democracy in the United States. He reviews the familiar litany of attacks by the current President and his administration on previously well-settled American norms relating to transparency and corruption; the independence of the judiciary; and the role of the free press in holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable to the public.
Interestingly, the U.S. score does not decline in the current report, and Abramowitz explains that the erosion of democracy in the U.S. dates back to the early Obama years, when an eight-point decline (on the one hundred point scale) over the course of a decade began. And he notes that the country remains firmly in survey’s ranks of “Free” countries—largely because an energetic civil society, an animated political opposition, and the resilience of the judiciary and the press have pushed back against the efforts of Donald Trump and his enablers to diminish the American democracy.
“But the fact that the system has proven durable so far is no guarantee that it will continue to do so,” writes Abramowitz. Freedom House has watched as democratic institutions elsewhere “gradually succumbed to sustained pressure from an antidemocratic leadership, often after a halting start. Irresponsible rhetoric can be a first step toward real restrictions on freedom.”
It is notable that the analysts at Freedom House have elevated their attention to democratic backsliding in the United States in such a full-throated manner. Last year, when the U.S. was dropped three points after the first year of the Trump administration, certain corners on the right began to question the integrity of the Freedom in the World methodology, alleging that the centrist organization (long considered, indeed, to lie somewhere to the right of center by some) had become partisan in a Democratic-leaning direction. Undaunted, the organization founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie (the Republican candidate against her husband in 1940) sticks to its guns this year.
As part of a wider discussion of setbacks in the long-established democracies, the report notes that “punitive approaches to immigration are resulting in human rights abuses”—and refers specifically to the separation of migrant children from their detained parents by the Unites States government, a story that continues to unravel well into 2019.
The reason to be outspoken about the deterioration in official standards in the American government, in Abramowitz’s words, is clear: “[Just] as we have called out foreign leaders for undermining democratic norms in their countries, we must draw attention to the same sorts of warning signs in our own country. . . . It is a priority we cannot afford to ignore.”