Visualizing the State of Democracy, by Country
View the full-sized interactive version of this infographic by clicking here
From Norway to North Korea, governing systems differ around the world. But has the world become more or less free in the past decade?
This visualization from Preethi Lodha demonstrates how democracy levels of 167 countries have changed since 2006. The original data comes from the Democracy Index, which is compiled annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Four Levels of Democracy
First, it’s important to understand the classifications made by the Democracy Index.
Based on answers to 60 questions across a nation’s electoral process, civil liberties, government functions, political participation and political culture, countries are assigned a range of scores in the Democracy Index.
Based on these scores, a nation automatically falls into one of the following four types of governance. Here’s which category fits the bill, depending on the range of scores:
One thing that stands out is that many hybrid regimes and flawed democracies are also considered high potential emerging markets, but are held back by their political instability.
In recent times, public demonstrations have been a major cause behind increases in Democracy Index scores and changes in governance classifications.
Algeria moved from authoritarian to hybrid regime in 2019, the only country in the Arab region to do so in the index. This came after sustained protests against the previous president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika—who had served for 20 years.
Chile experienced similar turmoil, for the better. After a spike in the scale of middle class unrest over inequality and unfair policies in late 2019, the political participation moved it up from a flawed to full democracy.
The U.S. has one of the oldest democracies in the world. However, it was downgraded from a full to a flawed democracy as of the 2016 index, a status that had been “teetering” since before then, according to the report that year.
Venezuela dropped into an authoritarian regime in 2017, and it doesn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. The state was found to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on any dissent against the government.
Global Change in Democracy Levels
All in all, the average global democracy score worldwide emerged at 5.48 in 2019, although it’s clear that certain countries pull this value towards the opposite extremes.
North Korea, an authoritarian regime with a 1.08 score, has remained consistently one of the lowest ranked countries in the index. Meanwhile, its alphabetical successor Norway steadily keeps up its high score streak, with 9.87 being the best example of a full democracy in 2019.
Here’s how many countries made up each system of governance over the years, and the global Democracy Index score for that year.
Authoritarian regimes peaked in 2010 with 57 countries, whereas the full democracy category peaked in 2008 with 28 countries.
Since 2006, the average global score has slid from 5.52 to 5.48, and the total of countries categorized under full democracy decreased from 26 to 22.
Does this signal an increasingly divided world? And will the global pandemic—which is already delaying elections—have a further pronounced effect on backsliding these democracy scores?
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, the Supreme Court announced.
Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement that “Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature.”
Even before her appointment, she had reshaped American law. When he nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, President Bill Clinton compared her legal work on behalf of women to the epochal work of Thurgood Marshall on behalf of African-Americans.
The comparison was entirely appropriate: As Marshall oversaw the legal strategy that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed segregated schools, Ginsburg coordinated a similar effort against sex discrimination.
Decades before she joined the court, Ginsburg’s work as an attorney in the 1970s fundamentally changed the Supreme Court’s approach to women’s rights, and the modern skepticism about sex-based policies stems in no small way from her lawyering. Ginsburg’s work helped to change the way we all think about women – and men, for that matter.
I’m a legal scholar who studies social reform movements and I served as a law clerk to Ginsburg when she was an appeals court judge. In my opinion – as remarkable as Marshall’s work on behalf of African-Americans was – in some ways Ginsburg faced more daunting prospects when she started.
Starting at zero
When Marshall began challenging segregation in the 1930s, the Supreme Court had rejected some forms of racial discrimination even though it had upheld segregation.
When Ginsburg started her work in the 1960s, the Supreme Court had never invalidated any type of sex-based rule. Worse, it had rejected every challenge to laws that treated women worse than men.
For instance, in 1873, the court allowed Illinois authorities to ban Myra Bradwell from becoming a lawyer because she was a woman. Justice Joseph P. Bradley, widely viewed as a progressive, wrote that women were too fragile to be lawyers: “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
And in 1908, the court upheld an Oregon law that limited the number of hours that women – but not men – could work. The opinion relied heavily on a famous brief submitted by Louis Brandeis to support the notion that women needed protection to avoid harming their reproductive function.
As late as 1961, the court upheld a Florida law that for all practical purposes kept women from serving on juries because they were “the center of the home and family life” and therefore need not incur the burden of jury service.
Challenging paternalistic notions
Ginsburg followed Marshall’s approach to promote women’s rights – despite some important differences between segregation and gender discrimination.
Segregation rested on the racist notion that Black people were less than fully human and deserved to be treated like animals. Gender discrimination reflected paternalistic notions of female frailty. Those notions placed women on a pedestal – but also denied them opportunities.
Either way, though, Black Americans and women got the short end of the stick.
Ginsburg started with a seemingly inconsequential case. Reed v. Reed challenged an Idaho law requiring probate courts to appoint men to administer estates, even if there were a qualified woman who could perform that task.
Sally and Cecil Reed, the long-divorced parents of a teenage son who committed suicide while in his father’s custody, both applied to administer the boy’s tiny estate.
The probate judge appointed the father as required by state law. Sally Reed appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg did not argue the case, but wrote the brief that persuaded a unanimous court in 1971 to invalidate the state’s preference for males. As the court’s decision stated, that preference was “the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
Two years later, Ginsburg won in her first appearance before the Supreme Court. She appeared on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero. Frontiero was required by federal law to prove that her husband, Joseph, was dependent on her for at least half his economic support in order to qualify for housing, medical and dental benefits.
If Joseph Frontiero had been the soldier, the couple would have automatically qualified for those benefits. Ginsburg argued that sex-based classifications such as the one Sharron Frontiero challenged should be treated the same as the now-discredited race-based policies.
By an 8–1 vote, the court in Frontiero v. Richardson agreed that this sex-based rule was unconstitutional. But the justices could not agree on the legal test to use for evaluating the constitutionality of sex-based policies.
Strategy: Represent men
In 1974, Ginsburg suffered her only loss in the Supreme Court, in a case that she entered at the last minute.
Mel Kahn, a Florida widower, asked for the property tax exemption that state law allowed only to widows. The Florida courts ruled against him.
Ginsburg, working with the national ACLU, stepped in after the local affiliate brought the case to the Supreme Court. But a closely divided court upheld the exemption as compensation for women who had suffered economic discrimination over the years.
Despite the unfavorable result, the Kahn case showed an important aspect of Ginsburg’s approach: her willingness to work on behalf of men challenging gender discrimination. She reasoned that rigid attitudes about sex roles could harm everyone and that the all-male Supreme Court might more easily get the point in cases involving male plaintiffs.
She turned out to be correct, just not in the Kahn case.
Ginsburg represented widower Stephen Wiesenfeld in challenging a Social Security Act provision that provided parental benefits only to widows with minor children.
Wiesenfeld’s wife had died in childbirth, so he was denied benefits even though he faced all of the challenges of single parenthood that a mother would have faced. The Supreme Court gave Wiesenfeld and Ginsburg a win in 1975, unanimously ruling that sex-based distinction unconstitutional.
And two years later, Ginsburg successfully represented Leon Goldfarb in his challenge to another sex-based provision of the Social Security Act: Widows automatically received survivor’s benefits on the death of their husbands. But widowers could receive such benefits only if the men could prove that they were financially dependent on their wives’ earnings.
Ginsburg also wrote an influential brief in Craig v. Boren, the 1976 case that established the current standard for evaluating the constitutionality of sex-based laws.
Like Wiesenfeld and Goldfarb, the challengers in the Craig case were men. Their claim seemed trivial: They objected to an Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy low-alcohol beer at age 18 but required men to be 21 to buy the same product.
But this deceptively simple case illustrated the vices of sex stereotypes: Aggressive men (and boys) drink and drive, women (and girls) are demure passengers. And those stereotypes affected everyone’s behavior, including the enforcement decisions of police officers.
Under the standard delineated by the justices in the Boren case, such a law can be justified only if it is substantially related to an important governmental interest.
Among the few laws that satisfied this test was a California law that punished sex with an underage female but not with an underage male as a way to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.
These are only some of the Supreme Court cases in which Ginsburg played a prominent part as a lawyer. She handled many lower-court cases as well. She had plenty of help along the way, but everyone recognized her as the key strategist.
In the century before Ginsburg won the Reed case, the Supreme Court never met a gender classification that it didn’t like. Since then, sex-based policies usually have been struck down.
I believe President Clinton was absolutely right in comparing Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s efforts to those of Thurgood Marshall, and in appointing her to the Supreme Court.
If you’re looking for the right to vote, you won’t find it in the United States Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights recognizes the core rights of citizens in a democracy, including freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. It then recognizes several insurance policies against an abusive government that would attempt to limit these liberties: weapons; the privacy of houses and personal information; protections against false criminal prosecution or repressive civil trials; and limits on excessive punishments by the government.
But the framers of the Constitution never mentioned a right to vote. They didn’t forget – they intentionally left it out. To put it most simply, the founders didn’t trust ordinary citizens to endorse the rights of others.
They were creating a radical experiment in self-government paired with the protection of individual rights that are often resented by the majority. As a result, they did not lay out an inherent right to vote because they feared rule by the masses would mean the destruction of – not better protection for – all the other rights the Constitution and Bill of Rights uphold. Instead, they highlighted other core rights over the vote, creating a tension that remains today.
Relying on the elite to protect minority rights
Many of the rights the founders enumerated protect small groups from the power of the majority – for instance, those who would say or publish unpopular statements, or practice unpopular religions, or hold more property than others. James Madison, a principal architect of the U.S. Constitution and the drafter of the Bill of Rights, was an intellectual and landowner who saw the two as strongly linked.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison expressed the prevailing view that “the freeholders of the country would be the safest depositories of republican liberty,” meaning only people who owned land debt-free, without mortgages, would be able to vote. The Constitution left voting rules to individual states, which had long-standing laws limiting the vote to those freeholders.
In the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, Madison trumpeted a benefit of the new system: the “total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.” Even as the nation shifted toward broader inclusion in politics, Madison maintained his view that rights were fragile and ordinary people untrustworthy. In his 70s, he opposed the expansion of the franchise to nonlanded citizens when it was considered at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention in 1829, emphasizing that “the great danger is that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the Minority.”
The founders believed that freedoms and rights would require the protection of an educated elite group of citizens, against an intolerant majority. They understood that protected rights and mass voting could be contradictory.
Scholarship in political science backs up many of the founders’ assessments. One of the field’s clear findings is that elites support the protection of minority rights far more than ordinary citizens do. Research has also shown that ordinary Americans are remarkably ignorant of public policies and politicians, lacking even basic political knowledge.
Is there a right to vote?
What Americans think of as the right to vote doesn’t reside in the Constitution, but results from broad shifts in American public beliefs during the early 1800s. The new states that entered the union after the original 13 – beginning with Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee – did not limit voting to property owners. Many of the new state constitutions also explicitly recognized voting rights.
As the nation grew, the idea of universal white male suffrage – championed by the commoner-President Andrew Jackson – became an article of popular faith, if not a constitutional right.
After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed that the right to vote would not be denied on account of race: If some white people could vote, so could similarly qualified nonwhite people. But that still didn’t recognize a right to vote – only the right of equal treatment. Similarly, the 19th Amendment, now 100 years old, banned voting discrimination on the basis of sex, but did not recognize an inherent right to vote.
Debates about voting rights
Today, the country remains engaged in a long-running debate about what counts as voter suppression versus what are legitimate limits or regulations on voting – like requiring voters to provide identification, barring felons from voting or removing infrequent voters from the rolls.
These disputes often invoke an incorrect assumption – that voting is a constitutional right protected from the nation’s birth. The national debate over representation and rights is the product of a long-run movement toward mass voting paired with the longstanding fear of its results.
The nation has evolved from being led by an elitist set of beliefs toward a much more universal and inclusive set of assumptions. But the founders’ fears are still coming true: Levels of support for the rights of opposing parties or people of other religions are strikingly weak in the U.S. as well as around the world.
Americans may have come to believe in a universal vote, but that value does not come from the Constitution, which saw a different path to the protection of rights.