Democratic backsliding

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In political science, democratic backsliding is the gradual decline in the quality of democracy.[1] Democratic backsliding can occur both in democracies and autocracies.[1] Democratic backsliding may occur when essential components of democracy are threatened; this may occur, for example, when:[2][1]

  • Free and fair elections are degraded;[2]
  • Liberal rights of freedom of speech and association decline, impairing the ability of the political opposition to challenge the government, hold it to account, and propose alternatives to the current regime;[2]
  • The rule of law (i.e., judicial and bureaucratic restrains on the government) is weakened,[2] such as when the independence of the judiciary is threatened, or when civil service tenure protections are weakened or eliminated.[3]
  • The government manufactures or overemphasizes a national security threat to create "a sense of crisis", allowing the government "to malign critics as weak-willed or unpatriotic" and to depict defenders of democratic institutions "as representatives of a tired, insulated elite".[3]


Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago Law School argue that many threats to democracy are stealthy.[2] Pippa Norris of the Harvard Kennedy School and University of Sydney argues, in an article published by the Journal of Democracy in 2017, that two "twin forces" that pose the greatest contemporary threat to Western liberal democracy: "sporadic and random terrorist attacks on domestic soil, which damage feelings of security, and the rise of populist-authoritarian forces, which feed parasitically upon these fears."[4] Norris argues that the latter risk is especially pronounced in the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump.[4]

The scholarly recognition of the concept of democratic backsliding reflects a reversal from older views, which held "that democracy, once attained in a fairly wealthy state, would become a permanent fixture."[2] This older view came to be realized as erroneous beginning in the mid-2000s, as (in Huq and Ginsburg's words) "an increasing number of seemingly stable, reasonably wealthy democracies have retreated from previously robust democratic regimes toward autocracy" in a variety of regions across the world, including Hungary and Poland in Europe; Turkey in the Mediterranean; and Bolivia and Venezuela in Latin America.[3] More broadly, Huq and Ginsburg identified in an academic paper "37 instances in 25 different countries in the postwar period in which democratic quality declined significantly (though a fully authoritarian regime didn't emerge)".[3] Huq and Ginsburg note that coups have decreased at the same time that democratic backsliding has increased.[3]

In 2017, the U.S.-based research group Freedom House published a report indicating that 25% of countries that suffered "backward moves on democracy" in the previous year were in European democracies, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Spain. The report also listed the United States as having regressed democratically.[5] Chavismo in Venezuela is viewed as having propelled democratic backsliding in that country.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Waldner, David; Lust, Ellen (2018-05-11). "Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding". Annual Review of Political Science. 21 (1): 93–113. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628. ISSN 1094-2939. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "How democratic backsliding happens". Democracy Digest. February 21, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Aziz Huq & Tom Ginsburg, How to lose a constitutional democracy, Vox (February 21, 2017).
  4. ^ a b Norris, Pippa (April 2017). "Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks" (PDF). Journal of Democracy (Scholarly response to column published online). Online Exchange on “Democratic Deconsolidation”. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved 2018-08-28. 
  5. ^ Esther King (January 31, 2017). "Democratic backsliding threatens international order: report". Politico. 
  6. ^ Hawkins, Kirk (2016). "Chavismo, Liberal Democracy, and Radical Democracy". Annual Review of Political Science. 19: 311–329. SSRN 2779566Freely accessible. 

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