Map Monday: democracy throughout history

There’s much lamenting these days of the future of democracy as we know it, or rather as we would like it to be.  Sorry to say that, as an example, there is much concern both inside and outside one of the world’s oldest proclaimed democracies – and the wealthiest and arguably the most powerful nation in the world – about the real possibility of American democracy collapsing.  There are also a number of countries that moved to democracy in some form, but have recently reverted to authoritarian states, although on paper they remain democracies.  There is no doubt that democracy is not a given.

Just what is the history of democracy in the world?  Very young and very fragile, as it turns out.  Keep in mind that recorded history of mankind is several thousand years old.  The notion of even a small segment of the population (wealthy males) having a vote on what happens is a recent one, not something that kings, queens, emperors, and the aristocracy ever had in mind.  Let’s take a look.

All these maps and definitions come from Our World in Data’s very interesting site on this topic.

These maps use the following ‘Regimes of the World’ definitions:

  • In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.
  • In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.
  • In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.
  • In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

Now let’s take a look at political systems worldwide through the ages.  There are lots of maps; I’m trying to show you how the political systems can change very quickly in a matter of years or even months.  You can view changes that happen year by year from 1789-2020 by going to the interactive website.

You may have some difficulty agreeing with the designation of some of the system classifications at certain points in time, including now.  This just demonstrates that although a constitution might give everyone certain rights, it doesn’t mean that they’re always followed!  Mankind is, indeed, a work in progress.




1799: Notice that France didn’t hold on to its democratic gains for too long at this time.


1827: Some form of democracy spreads to South America, at least for now.



1850: There’s some quick retreat from democracy, but also some new players. And look at the bright blue spark of hope in the middles of Europe – Switzerland!


1867: Canada becomes independent from British rule and Australia joins Switzerland in the bright blue category.


1900: Democracy is spreading in South America, and more of Europe is turning blue.


1917: The start of the Russian Revolution.


1920: Democracy strengthens in South America and Europe, but retreats quickly in Russia.


1939: The beginning of WWII.


1944: Near the last stages of WWII.




1990: Democracy does indeed seem to be spreading.


2020: This current map seems to be a good news story. But we know the reality behind what the data appears to be saying, and it’s not as reassuring as we’d like.


If you look carefully at this graph showing the percentage of the world’s population living in these 4 categories of political systems throughout this time period, you get a somewhat different picture. If you look carefully you’ll see that the number of people living in countries rated blue has declined significantly in the past few years.


Bottom line: Treasure your democratic foundations and fight to make sure they stay open, transparent, and accessible to all.

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15 Responses to Map Monday: democracy throughout history

  1. Interesting especially how the US and Canada have been virtually in lock step.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, yes! Feels like we are on a razor’s edge in this country.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. boblorentson says:

    Maps, and map interpretation at their most powerful.
    Yuval Noah Harari, one of my favorite writers, has some interesting, and disturbing thoughts on the fragility of liberal democracy. He talks of how Big Daddy Algorithms are reshaping our minds by feeding us what we want to hear and further reducing our need or ability for independent thinking. And I think we clearly are seeing more and more evidence of this all around us. And it’s far easier to exploit emotions than thoughts, with Trump like results.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Harari is one of our faves as well. It’s not just in the U.S. and it’s not just Trump. Harari’s point is 100% correct; we now have these additional, very powerful tools that exacerbate and accelerate the ability of self-serving humans to seek power over cooperation.


  4. BernieLynne says:

    A very interesting look back. Some trouble some times ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Really interesting, Jane. I was listening to some sort of expert on the radio a few months back, explaining that democracy is still a fairly new experiment, given how long society has been around. Having been born in the 1950’s and growing up in Canada, it’s been so easy to take it for granted, or assume it’s always been there. As those fascinating maps show, citizens in most countries seem live on a pendulum that slowly swings back and forth. It will be so interesting to see how the fight for democracy we hear about down south will actually play out, and how it will impact Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You’re right, we have grown up taking our democracy for granted. Some of the events happening in several countries, including the big one south of our border, should wake us up to the fact that our democracy is something to appreciate deeply and guard vigilantly.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Roy McCarthy says:

    Remarkable. I love how the UK has been in the vanguard throughout though you’d be hard pressed to argue that democracy allows the best and most able to rise to the top.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Boy, you got that right. And the examples in the news this week are great cases in point. I have to admit to enjoying seeing these particular people at the top, having demonstrated all too well their sense of entitlement, now squirming big time.


  7. dfolstad58 says:

    I liked the interactive site but it went so fast. I was able to understand better from the snapshots you included in your post. Thank you. This is not a topic I planned to think or learn about today – bravo for widening my understanding today. Maps are amazing tools if thoughtfully reviewed. I appreciate the work you put into today’s post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks a lot, David. I’m glad the individual maps showing snapshots of how often political systems change worked well for you. I was a bit concerned that I was using too many maps, but there were so many stories I wanted to share!

      Liked by 1 person

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