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.