“The global decline in democracy has accelerated,” read the headline from Freedom House’s annual analysis of global political rights and civil liberties, “Freedom in the World 2021,” which was released on Wednesday.
The headlines on the front pages of that morning’s Star Tribune and New York Times unwittingly, and unfortunately, seemed to prove and amplify the report’s finding.
In the Times, “Sudden Death in Myanmar” headlined a searing image of mourners praying over just one of the victims of “a bloody crackdown by security forces since they seized control in a coup.”
The Star Tribune also included international examples of democracy’s decline, including: “Biden sanctions Russians: Penalties for poisoning of Alexei Navalny,” referring to the dissident the Kremlin allegedly tried to kill.
It was the second time in a week that the administration administered sanctions on a repressive regime for silencing dissent. Days earlier the U.S. levied penalties on some Saudi officials for the kidnapping, killing and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In both instances, President Joe Biden flinched from sanctioning the ultimate responsible party, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Authoritarians like these “grew bolder during 2020 as major democracies turned inward, contributing to the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom,” the think tank said in a statement that accompanied their report.
Overall, freedom scores were downgraded in 73 countries, representing 75% of the world’s population, as the share of nations “Not Free” hit its highest level since 2006, the year Freedom House tracks as the beginning of “the deterioration of democracy.” And nations with declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumbered nations with gains by the biggest margin in the 15-year period.
Starkly, and startlingly, the report states that less than 20% of the world’s population now live in a “Free” country, the lowest proportion since 1995.
But the headlines — and the report — didn’t just reflect democratic declines abroad. America’s democratic deterioration, which the report states has “moved the country out of a cohort that included other leading democracies, such as France and Germany, and brought it into the company of states with weaker democratic institutions, such as Romania and Panama,” was front and center on the front pages, too.
“Justices suggest they are likely to uphold Arizona voting limits,” read the headline of a Times story about just one of more than 100 attempts across dozens of states to restrict voting rights in the wake of the 2020 election.
The most infamous instance of resisting results of that election of course occurred on Jan. 6. But the attack at the U.S. Capitol may have just been the beginning, as evidenced in Star Tribune headlines like “FBI director warns homegrown terror like Jan. 6 ‘metastasizing’,” as well as the accompanying story headlined “Walz seeks to bolster BCA team that targets domestic threats.”
Later on Wednesday the threat of another Capitol attack prompted the U.S. House to cancel a scheduled Thursday session, and Senate hearings on the insurrection indicated that just days before the MAGA mob stormed the citadel of democracy, Pentagon brass had stripped the D.C. National Guard commander’s authorization to quickly deploy troops.
Delineating developments degrading democracy in the U.S. over the last year, Freedom House identified “high-profile cases of violence, police brutality, and deadly confrontations with counterprotesters or armed vigilantes” amid last year’s mass protests. It also identified how the Trump administration “undermined government transparency by dismissing inspectors general, punishing or firing whistleblowers, and attempting to control or manipulate information on COVID-19.” Most directly, Freedom House called out “the outgoing president’s shocking attempts to overturn his election loss,” which it said “further damaged the United States’ credibility abroad and underscored the menace of political polarization and extremism in this country.”
The recently incoming president has indicated he will prioritize promotion of democracy abroad and restoration of it at home.
Overseas, the report points out that this will be difficult with adversary and ally alike.
For instance, “the malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, ranged far beyond Hong Kong in 2020. Beijing ramped up its global disinformation network and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its coverup of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days.”
China’s and Belarus’ bellicosity toward peaceful protesters were cited as examples of “brutal crackdowns by governments that largely disregarded international criticism.”
Democracies usually levy these critiques, but when they’re sliding — as they are in India, which distressingly devolved from a “Free” to a “Partly Free” country — and the U.S., the beacon of freedom is dimmed.
“The U.S. has very serious work to do as a country to strengthen democracy here at home and to really re-establish ourselves as a global champion of freedom,” Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, said during a press event unveiling the report.
Later Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s vice president for research and analysis, added: “These examples underline how important it is for democratic countries like the United States to show support for peaceful protests and demands for democracy around the world. Not just statements — material support, money, medical and legal aide. Bolstering pro-democracy movements around the world should be one of the Biden administration’s top foreign-policy priorities.”
Despite democracy’s bleak prospects reflected in the report, Abramowitz said that intrepid individuals inspire with their wish to be free.
“While the declines that we saw in 2020 are very serious and frankly scary, nothing is inevitable,” Abramowitz said “At Freedom House we are inspired every day by the willingness of ordinary citizens in places like Hong Kong, Belarus, Iran, and Russia risking their lives and livelihoods protesting oppressive regimes.
“It’s a sign,” he concluded, “that the demand for freedom is only getting stronger even if dictators have the wind at their back for now.”
Democracies need to reverse the direction of that ill wind. But first, especially in America, they have to do it at home.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.