Australian Outlook

Democracy in Decline

19 May 2023
By Emeritus Professor Damien Kingsbury
Democracy. Source: Sara/

By many measurements, democracy is in a troubling decline, even in many Western states. As the debate about economics becomes increasingly hijacked by nationalist sentiments, it is little surprise that “flawed” democracies and “Hybrid” regimes are becoming more commonplace.

In its approximate century of substantive existence, democracy has been an idea whose time seemed to have come. It has been a mechanism for mediating competing interests, helping form them as political parties playing by “the rules of the game,” while producing a largely equitable system for political organisation.

Yet, democracy is now in decline. There are fewer democracies, fewer people live in democracies, and most established democracies have veered towards more authoritarian responses. The world passed its democratic highwater mark in 2012. This decline may be permanent.

Just 24 countries are “full democracies,” with just eight percent of the world’s population. Including “flawed democracies,” that number increases to 72. Such “flawed democracies” includes the United States, Poland, South Africa, and Botswana. People in 95 countries live under “hybrid” or authoritarian regimes.

Democratic countries have also become less democratic, reflecting increasing levels of autocracy, political populism, the personalisation of political power, restrictions on free speech, and other forms of democratic “backsliding.” This trend began in 2006, with around three-quarters of all democratic countries undergoing degrees of democratic deterioration by 2021.

Such democracies have increasingly adopted authoritarian measures, often with popular support, and include Brazil, India, the US, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. Authoritarianism is deepening in non-democratic states and autocratisation has increased overall. The undermining of otherwise reliable election results that started in the US in 2020 has since spread to Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar (where it rationalised a military coup), and Peru, among others.

Following the Cold War, a number of former Soviet, Warsaw Pact, and client states began to democratise, sparking a type of liberal democratic triumphalism. Such hubris, though, has been caught out by the unsentimental march of events. Those events have impacted in three areas, on developing countries, rising developmentalist economies, and on established democracies.

Many developing countries that had begun to democratise in the post-Cold War period succumbed to underlying tensions, including ethnic competition, poor economic performance, and elite rivalries. This has led to the widespread failure of democratic consolidation.

Many middle-income countries have also decided that autocracy is at least as good a fit for producing economic growth as democracy, and not nearly as messy. That China has shown that economic development can occur without democracy has made that model more appealing.

The world’s democratic stalwarts have also tended to gravitate towards nationalist populist figures specialising in fear-mongering. As in the past, economic insecurity, manifested as a sense of betrayal, has been a key driver for this nationalist populist wave.

Such economic insecurity has been most sharply felt by less-educated Westerners whose once secure manufacturing jobs have been sent off-shore and where job security and even full-time work is, for many, a thing of the past. Added to this is a growing gap between rich and poor, and consequent resentment.

The post-war social contract that underpinned democratic consolidation, in which improving living standards were widely shared, has been lost to neo-liberalism’s fundamental economic reordering, accelerated by technological change. Perceptions of competition for scarce good jobs from “others” has consequently been more easily manipulated by unscrupulous politicians.

This manipulation has been reflected in the rise of “nationalism,” not of a civic pride in well-functioning institutions but an insular, exclusivist, and dumbed-down reaction to a changing world. Manipulation of this politics of resentment has resulted in the tearing up of the democratic “rules of the game,” noticeably in the US.

The rise of Europe’s Far Right also reflects the politics of insecurity. France has faced recent elections between the Centre Right – as saviour of democratic rules, supported by what used to be the Left – against the Far Right.

In Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, the UK, and Russia, populist reaction against decline, insecurity, and nationalist assertion dominates and polarises political debate. The “rules” are, for many, regarded as an expression of older, vested interests. In some countries, such as Turkiye, Thailand, and the Philippines, such “rules” never had a firm grip.

Yet, the “rules of the game” are essential to a voluntary political order. Without agreement on these “rules,” there is conflict within and between groups of peoples. Without consistent “rules,” democracy fails.

Arguing against the “rules of the game” is usually undertaken through the impoverishment of political vocabulary in order to limit complex and critical reasoning. Complex questions are, thus, answered with simplistic or dishonest answers.

Reflecting this political diminution, rather than Left and Right, political divisions are now more evident between technocratic economic management regimes, regardless of party, and nationalist populism. And, as developmentalist autocracy has demonstrated, democracy is not necessary for economic well-being.

The question must now be asked whether a global technocratic future need also be a democratic one. Following that, if democracy does have an intrinsic value, the further question arises as to how, or whether, democracy’s future can be secured.

Damien Kingsbury is Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of The Rise and Decline of Modern Democracy.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.