Democracy is on a downward trajectory, but it is still winning across the globe

Janan Ganesh: The free world has shrunk — but from heights that were unimaginable when I was born

It is bad manners to pre-empt the Financial Times’s annual prize for individual achievement, but the Person of 2024 will be “the voter”.

Among the democracies that are due to choose a national government this year are the world’s largest (India) and mightiest (the US), as well as the one that fancies itself the most established (Britain). In elections elsewhere, the stakes range from the municipal (Brazil) to the pan-continental (the European Parliament). The people of Taiwan and conceivably even Ukraine, those front lines of the free world, will also exercise their right to decide who leads them.

Even if they choose badly, voters will be central to events in what is supposed to be the era of the dictator. And this isn’t the only thing to be said against the despair over democracy.

The number of democracies in the world, the quality of the democracy within them, the share of humankind that lives under democratic rule: to the extent that such things are measurable, all three have been getting worse over the past decade or so. But the baseline is the historic, almost delirious peak of democratic expansion in the afterglow of the cold war.


Widen the time frame a bit, and the present crisis looks more like a correction. The world is still incomparably freer than it was at the midpoint of the last century, when 1.7 billion of the planet’s 2.5 billion lived in “closed autocracies”. Now, two billion out of eight billion do. That there are about as many democracies (whether liberal or merely electoral) as there are autocracies (whether absolute or partial) would have been fanciful as late as the 1980s, when the former were hopelessly outnumbered.

As for how democratic a state is – how secure its right to vote, how strong its freedoms of association and expression – Our World in Data, drawing from the Varieties of Democracy index, suggests that countries on average have regressed from the all-time peak of 2012. To what level? That of 2002. On lots of measures, in fact, democracy is back to where it was around the millennium. For all its swagger, its sense of historical momentum, the autocratic world is nowhere near to reversing the losses that it suffered in the second half of the 20th century. Democracy is on a downward trajectory, no doubt, but so is a boxer who loses a round a

And we won’t even get into the methodological conundrum of India, whose 1.4 billion people can skew the global data. (Some watchdogs now have it as an “electoral autocracy”, which isn’t a universal assessment.) Or the question of how democracies and non-democracies compare as a share of world economic output. On that front, there is scarcely a competition to be had.

It is impossible to say any of this without radiating complacency. Even those who concede that the current picture isn’t so dire will insist that the trend of events is ominous. But that was true in the 1960s and 1970s – the era of postcolonial strongmen, of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency – and it didn’t turn out to be the shape of the future.

Besides, there are worse things than complacency. Its direct opposite, for instance. One of the stranger intellectual habits in the West today is a willingness to give autocrats too much credit, too soon, as the coming force in the world. Their loose network is credited as a “bloc” or “axis”, as though it were Nato – as though secular China is a tenable partner for theocratic Iran, or for a Russia that it diverged from even when both were communist. Another case in point is the notion that Vladimir Putin is “winning” the war in Ukraine, on the basis that the front line hasn’t moved farther east of late. (He wanted Kyiv and the whole country, remember.)

I don’t suggest that this undue awe for autocrats is down to western self-loathing, much less to some sinister fifth-columnism. It might just be the natural tendency to overvalue recent data points. Either way, the ultimate example of it is the narrative of democratic decline, or at least the context-free version of it. Decline? Yes. But from a height that was scarcely conceivable when I was born. And perhaps never tenable.

It is telling that even democracy’s enemies have to co-opt the idea. Xi Jinping refers to the communist model of government as “whole-process people’s democracy”. This year, Putin is among the world leaders standing for election. It might be a smoke and mirrors affair, but there is something in the fact even a true believer in the autocratic system has to pretend. What a compliment from vice to virtue. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024