Is Democracy Failing?

Updated on May 23, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Ask the question “Is democracy necessary?” and a chorus will be heard of “Well Duh! Of course, it is.” At least, that’s what would happen in the Western world. But, for many, actions don’t match words. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 111 million of the 250 million eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot.

The mid-term election of 2018 was even more dismal; less than half the people eligible to vote bothered to turn out.

Donald Trump and his antics were unleashed on the world by slightly more than a quarter of the people who had the privilege to vote. It certainly lends credence to the old saying that “We get the politicians and government we deserve.”


Democracy’s Downward Plunge

Gideon Rose is the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In the introduction to his publication’s May/June 2018 issue, he writes, “Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution. Those are the optimists. Pessimists fear the game is already over, that democratic dominance has ended for good.”

Publishers in the Western world have been pumping out books about the coming collapse of democracy. The titles are ominous: How Democracy Ends, The People Versus Democracy, How Democracies Die.

Many university academics and people in political think tanks are also saying democracy is threatened in countries where it has well-established roots.

There’s more evidence about the decline of democracy’s popularity. Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk says that 71 percent of North Americans and Europeans born in the 1930s think living in a democracy is essential. Younger generations are not so keen; only 29 percent of those born in the 1980s believe the same thing.

In Australia, the Lowy Institute quizzed people about democracy. Among those aged 18 to 29, 42 percent thought democracy was “the most preferable form of government.” Those over 30 recorded 65 percent support for democracy.


Democracy Is New

Most tribal societies were democratic, but so-called “civilization” changed that. Through most of the 7,000 years of recorded history society has been hierarchical; a tiny ruling elite at the top controlled large numbers of poor people. This was seen as the natural order.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is considered one of the founders of political philosophy. He believed the best society was one in which the few ruled over the many. He had a poor opinion of the ability of the masses to govern themselves. Without iron-fisted rulers in charge, he wrote, there would be “no place for industry ... no arts, no letters, no society.”

Later philosophers during what is called the Age of Reason in the 18th century argued otherwise. Slowly, the absolute power of monarchs was chipped away until full-blown democracy emerged in the 20th century in most Western nations.

Given the long sweep of human history, democracy is a quite recent innovation.

Democracy in Canada

Canada is reckoned to be one of the most stable democracies in the world. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit 2018 report, Canada is one of only 19 countries in the world among 195 that is designated a “full democracy.”

Here’s how the Canadian Library of Parliament describes what it means: “In a democratic country, all eligible citizens have the right to participate, either directly or indirectly, in making the decisions that affect them. Canadian citizens normally elect someone to represent them in making decisions at the different levels of government. This is called a representative democracy. Countries like Canada, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom all have representative democracies. Before European people came to Canada, many different Indigenous peoples governed their regions using many different political systems, including democracy.”

But, there are flaws even in Canada’s robust democracy. In the federal election of October 2015, the Liberal Party was handed a majority government by voters; but only by a small minority of voters. Three out of four eligible Canadians did not vote for the Liberals. Most of them, about nine million people (34 percent), did not bother to vote at all. The rest voted for other parties.

With such large numbers of people not casting ballots, Canada can hardly claim to have a rock-solid democracy. As political commentator David Howard points out (HuffPost, July 2017) “… while we have democracy in theory and a democratic process, we do not have democracy in practice. In fact, we are a long way from it.”

Stephen Harper was Canada’s prime minister from 2006 to 2015 during which time he concentrated enormous power in his office at the expense of Parliament. Many Canadians protested against this.
Stephen Harper was Canada’s prime minister from 2006 to 2015 during which time he concentrated enormous power in his office at the expense of Parliament. Many Canadians protested against this. | Source

Decline Elsewhere

While Canada’s grip on democracy might be a little bit shaky, in many countries it is slipping from the grasp of citizens.

Here’s writer Paul Mason in The Guardian in July 2017: “Let’s be brutal: democracy is dying. And the most startling thing is how few ordinary people are worried about it.”

And, the Economist Intelligence Unit can even put a number on the decline. On its scale, 10 is a perfect democracy, which no country achieves. Norway is closest with 9.87 and Canada comes sixth with 9.15.

Globally, the score fell from 5.52 in 2016 to 5.48 in 2017. Only 27 countries became more democratic over that period while 89 nations went backwards.

The index measures such things as freedom of media, respect for human rights, and access to open electoral processes.

Rebecca Joseph of Global News (January 2018) comments that “… reasons for this ‘democracy recession’ include less election participation, declining trust in institutions, and a growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and experts.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit says that just 4.5% of the world’s population lives in “full democracies.” It adds that 44.3% of the world’s people live in what it called “flawed democracies.” Its list of flawed democracies includes Japan, India, and the United States.

And, The Big Think reports that “One-third of the global population lives in outright authoritarian regimes, primarily due to the massive population of the People’s Republic of China.”

Democratic decline elsewhere in Asia is the main reason the global picture is gloomier. India has lost some of its freedoms because of religious and ethnic unrest. Indonesia is also slipping because of “conservative religious ideologies.”

Most Asian countries now have what’s called “hybrid regimes.” These are places that may have elections but there is also some political repression and abuse of human rights.


A Bigger View

Perhaps, we are looking at too short a time frame when announcing a decline in democracy.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) says that if you step back and take a long-term view, the plight of democracy looks better.

IDEA checked in with a study of 155 countries between 1975 and 2015.

Over this time frame, The Washington Post comments that “… democracy has made considerable progress since 1975 - and the world continues to see stable levels of democracy.”

IDEA gives us a scale where zero means there is not the slightest sign of democracy and one, in which democracy is perfect. In 1975, the world average was .44, and by 2015 it had risen to .58.

“The word ‘democracy’ means government by the people; especially rule of the majority ... a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”


Bonus Factoids

According to the World Values Survey, one in six Americans in 2014, said that army rule would be “good” or “very good;” in 1995, one in 16 thought so.

Pew Research has found that “In advanced economies, young adults are more likely than older people to prefer technocracy to democracy” (Think, February 2018). Forty-six percent of millenials would prefer government by experts rather than government by politicians.

According to The New York Times (November 2016), two academics have found that “Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.”

Pew Research (2015) found that “… elected officials are held in such low regard that 55 percent of the public says ‘ordinary Americans’ would do a better job of solving national problems.” And, 74 percent say most elected officials put their own interests ahead of their country’s.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Winston Churchill


  • “Is Democracy Dying?” Gideon Rose, Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2018.
  • “Democracy Defined.” Canada’s Library of Parliament, undated.
  • “Canada Is a ‘Full’ Democracy, U.S. Is not: Report.” Rebecca Joseph, Global News, January 31, 2018.
  • “Is Democracy An Endangered Species In Canada?” David Howard, HuffPost, July 25, 2017.
  • “Democracy Is Dying – and It’s Startling How Few People Are Worried.” Paul Mason, The Guardian, July 31, 2017.
  • “New Report Shows Democracy Is in Decline Everywhere - Including the United States.” Scotty Hendricks, Big Think, February 5, 2018.
  • The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


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