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The Global State of Democracy

Living in a free, democratic country is not something to take for granted. Recent political developments around the world have clearly shown us that.
Pre-reading activity

Before you start reading, go through the following words and expressions in pairs or in groups. Explain the meaning of the word in English. Use a dictionary if you like.

  • follow suit

  • take root

  • legitimacy

  • backslide

  • referendum

  • divisive

  • allegations

  • interference

  • strongmen

  • flawed

  • erode

  • infringements

  • civil liberties

  • confidence

  • predate

  • rule of law

  • marginalization

  • changing tide

  • take heed

The history of modern democracy

Today, there are only a few countries in the world which can point to a fairly long and stable history of democratic governance. The United States is often considered the oldest democracy in the modern world, with its Constitution from 1789.

In the century following the founding of the United States, countries like Canada, New Zealand and several Western European countries followed suit, but it was not until after the Second World War that the idea of democracy took root worldwide.

In the 1960s and 1970s, after the colonial period had ended, the world experienced a global wave of people demanding a more democratic form of government, and throughout the 20th century, democracy continued to grow in popularity and legitimacy around the world.

Graphic showing the development of democracy from 1820 to 2000.
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The state of global democracy

However, events in the 21st century have raised concerns about a global democratic backslide. The overall state of democracy in the world has been declining since 2015, with many countries experiencing erosion of democratic norms and institutions, increasing polarisation, and a rise in authoritarianism and populism.

In Britain, the Brexit referendum in 2016 brought on a democratic crisis. The same year, the United States went through a very divisive election, in which there were strong allegations of Russian interference. In addition to Donald Trump being elected, other conservative strongmen have also risen to power, destabilizing democratic institutions in their countries. As a result, democracy scores across the globe have gone down.

The EIU Democracy Index

Every year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) publishes the Democracy Index, rating the state of democracy in 167 countries around the world. Countries are sorted into one of four categories: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

Characteristics of each of the four types of regime

Full democracies:

  • Civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are respected

  • Valid systems of governmental checks and balances exist

  • There are limited problems in democratic functioning

  • Media is diverse and independent

Flawed democracies:

  • Elections are fair and free

  • Basic liberties are honored but may have issues

  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Hybrid regimes:

  • Electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly

  • Pressure is applied to political opposition

  • Corruption is widespread and rule of law tends to be weak

  • Media is pressured and harassed

  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Authoritarian regimes:

  • Political pluralism is nonexistent or limited

  • The population is ruled by absolute monarchies or dictatorships

  • Infringements and abuses of civil liberties are common

  • Elections are not fair or free (if they occur at all)

  • Media is state-owned or controlled directly or indirectly by the ruling regime

  • The judiciary system is not independent

  • Criticism of the government is censored

Map showing the countries of the world and their varying degree of democracy.
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The report has over years showed that the global state of democracy is in decline. In many Western countries, democratic institutions and processes have been eroded. In 2016, the United States was downgraded from being a full democracy to being a flawed democracy. This was a result of a sharp fall in popular confidence in the functioning of the government and public institutions. According to EIU, this development predated and aided the election of Donald Trump the same year.

We have also seen the same development in EU countries like Hungary and Poland, where democratic principles, human rights, and the rule of law have come under threat from powerful forces in society. In fact, if you take a look at the EU as a whole, less than half of the countries are categorised as fully democratic.

Over the past years, some countries have stood out as having a particularly negative development. China has been one of the countries with the sharpest decline in democratic rights over time, with an increase in discrimination of minorities and infringements on civil liberties. In the 2022 EIU report, Russia recorded the biggest decline in score of any country in the world. Its invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by all-out repression and censorship at home. Russia has been on a trajectory away from democracy for a long time and is now acquiring many of the features of a dictatorship.

Concerns about a democratic backslide are especially prominent in countries experiencing nationalist movements. Strongmen like Bolsonaro (Brazil), Orban (Hungary), Erdogan (Turkey), Modi (India) and Trump (United States) are all examples of leaders who have represented this development. Nationalist politicians are often elected as a result of a rising income inequality between people and a feeling of marginalisation, both resulting in a declining trust in government institutions. Political trust is the glue of democracy.

Norway topping the list

With regards to Norway, we are still in a fairly good position, even though we also feel the changing tide of the world. The EIU Democracy Index puts us at the top of the list of democratic countries together with the rest of the Scandinavian countries and a few other Western countries. This is much due to the high trust most Norwegians have in each other and the government, a trust which is higher than in most other countries. Still, there are also divisive forces in the Norwegian society which will erode the stability of the country if we don't take heed. We should never assume that our own freedom and democratic form of government can be taken for granted.

The EIU's Democracy Index: Top 10 and bottom 10 countries (max score: 10.00) (2022)

TOP 10

  • Norway: 9.81

  • New Zealand: 9.61

  • Iceland: 9.52

  • Sweden: 9.39

  • Finland: 9.29

  • Denmark: 9.28

  • Switzerland: 9.14

  • Ireland: 9.13

  • Netherlands: 9.00

  • Taiwan: 8.99


  • Equatorial Guinea: 1.92

  • Laos: 1.77

  • Chad: 1.67

  • Turkmenistan: 1.66

  • Democratic Republic of Congo: 1.48

  • Syria: 1.43

  • Central African Republic: 1.35

  • North Korea: 1.08

  • Myanmar: 0.74

  • Afghanistan: 0.32


Aridi, R (2020). How democracies now are ‘backsliding’ in countries from Russia to the United States. Retrieved from:

Cartledge, P (2018). A brief history of democracy: Does it still convey ‘the will of the people’? Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/democracy-history-athens-greece-politics-people-society-a8345136.html

Desjardins, J (2019). Mapped: The world’s oldest democracies. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/countries-are-the-worlds-oldest-democracies

The Economist Intelligence Unit (2023). Democracy Index 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2022/

Relatert innhold

CC BY-SASkrevet av Karin Søvik.
Sist faglig oppdatert 10.08.2023


Democracy and Human Rights