By Joseph Preston Baratta
Joseph Baratta PhD is emeritus professor of history and political science at Worcester State University. Joseph is the author of the two-volume historical work, The Politics of World Federation (2004) and is cofounder of the Center for Global Community and World Law
Democracies throughout the world have been giving way to autocracies and nationalist movements in the last 15 years, as many people think. President Biden has announced a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. The United States and its allies (including Canada) are pitted against Russia and China and a few other revanchists. Freedom House, which tracks such trends, finds that the growth of freedom (not of democracies) after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 began to reverse in 2006.
In an alarming report of Freedom in the World in 2021, Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz cite such signs of widening autocracy as expansion of authoritarian rule, increased resort to military force, heavy jail sentences, torture, and murder of beleaguered activists, human rights abuses in mainland China, demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy, wars in Ethiopia and Azerbaijan, Hindu nationalism in India, malfeasance of former President Trump, insurrection in Washington, and racial injustice in the U.S.A. They see a growing threat to institutional safeguards, civic norms, and the promise of democracy’s core principles.
However, a longer-term historical view of the actual growth since 1900 of democracies (republican states with elected legislatures), as opposed to monarchies and tyrannical states, shows that the story is not nearly so grim. According to Our World in Data, in 1900 there was one democracy (presumably the U.S.A.) and 112 autocracies. Democracies grew in numbers comparatively as the 20th century wore on — 17 versus 132 at the start of World War II in 1939, and 99 democracies vs. 80 autocracies in 2018, after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The crossover point was about 1995, when democracies began to outnumber autocracies. Data from the Pew Research Center after 1946 confirms this pattern. Pew finds that mixed systems (democracies perverted by authoritarian leaders) crossed over the line with autocracies about 1995. By 2017, the number of democracies was 57, that of autocracies 13, and mixed polities 28.
We should remember that, historically, democracy has been a slow growth. England took over 600 years to establish democracy, reckoning from the first caucus of knights and burgesses outside the Great Council in the reign of Edward I (1295) to the Parliament Act ending the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation (1911) and the Representation of the People Act (1918). Canada took 140 years, judging from the British Constitutional Act (1791), which gave the colony a government with an appointed governor, executive council, legislative council, and popularly elected assembly. Independence as a Dominion was granted by the British North American Act (1867), and all dependence on the British Parliament ended with the Act of Westminster (Commonwealth, 1931). The United States of America took 200 years, dating from the Mayflower Compact (1620), through the Revolution and drafting of the U.S. Constitution, to full democracy (ending of property requirements for voting) at the election of Andrew Jackson (1828).
A historical perspective helps us to appreciate the Theory of Change of Democracy Without Borders (2021), which was partly inspired by the ideal of world federalism. DWB predicts the democratization of Russia and China after about 2030. In order to come to grips with our immense global problems, there has to be even a tentative timetable, and Citizens for Global Solutions and Democracy Without Borders deserve respect for daring to do so. But last year, the military and diplomatic maneuvers of Vladimir Putin to end the threat of NATO expansion into Ukraine were not so evident, and one of these years China may attempt by force to bring Taiwan back into the Empire under the Mandate of Heaven. Then there may be some other upset of foreign relations like North Korea’s testing of ICBMs that can reach California, or demonstrated acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran in the troubled Middle East.
I do not think democratization of Russia, situated on a vast plain open to enemies west and east, will ever by possible without some truly fair and reliable regional security system. And democratization of China seems inconceivable without a long period of adjustment by the masses to norms of individual freedom. We should not be in a hurry. Such changes, even in Western civilization, were a slow growth. We should remember the Cold War and not let “democracy” become a weapon against great powers that are adjusting to the forces of globalization.