Is Democracy Experiencing a Setback Worldwide?

Thursday, December 09

By Piper Rae Davidson

Democracy, defined as a form of government in which the common people hold political power and can rule either directly or through elected representatives, is the string that holds up much of modern society. The conventional idea of ‘democracy’ embodies values of equality and civil liberties, yet it is in a state of crisis. Its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, freedom of the press, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law— have come under fire all around the world. According to the FreedomHouse organization, 2017 marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with over 70 countries experiencing net declines in political rights and liberties. Nations that once stood as a poster child for democracy, such as the United States, have found themselves riddled with internal conflict that pushes the bounds of democratic governance. Similarly, countries that only a decade ago seemed to be stepping into a trajectory for democratic stability and success, such as Turkey or Poland, have fallen back into patterns of authoritarian rule. No matter where you are globally, it is clear that we are experiencing major setbacks in democracy.

Despite once being the frontrunners in the pursuit of democratic governance, the United States failed to present consistent evidence of democratic forgien and domestic policy under the Trump administration. We have established that democracy is built on the grounds of human rights, and yet the United States has seemingly put far more energy into their economic and military pursuits in comparison to their humanitarian ones. Furthermore, much of the systemic ability to hold leaders accountable for their actions by means of press has been dissolved. The United States has continuously undermined the pivotal presence of free press, along with other core democratic values such as rule of law, electoral integrity, and judicial independence. This neglect for humanitarian efforts in the pursuit of corrupt policy was demonstrated quite clearly in 2019, a time in which Donald Trump faced impeachment trials. Trump abused national power with intent of personal gain, and in doing so sacrificed the democratic standard his nation stands upon. Despite this blatant breach of multiple US policies and standards, he was impeached without removal from office. This ruling is deeply concerning when analyzing global democtratic standards, as it sets a precedent within both the US and other nations. The actions of Trump threatened fundamentals such as congressional oversight of the executive branch, as well as the integrity of democratic elections. Yet the impeachment appeared to have only resulted in carving a deeper wedge between political parties. 

The growing cracks in democracy culminated on January 6th, 2021, with a storming of the United States Capitol. This historical event was a violent attack and riot against the 117th US Congress, enacted by supporters of Trump looking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Not only is this deeply impactful on a global scale, but it must be noted that this attack was prompted by Trump himself.  This shows that to the most extreme of levels, the democratic pillars of society within the United States have been cracked. The reactions to the event were, not unjustly, quite forward in their condemnation - both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the aftermath was flooded with mass resignations from members of office. All Chiefs of Staff openly condemned the attacks, and reiterated their commitment to the constitution.  Internationally, many leaders have openly labeled the event as an “attack on democracy”. While it is clear that responses to this insurrection were negative, it is important to note that the United States is a highly influential nation, with the power to set global precedent. 

While we have discussed the rise of undemocratic philosophy within the United States, the question of how this drastic event came to formation is one of importance. Beginning with Trump's loss of the 2020 election, widespread conspiracy theories and incorrect information have continuously alleged voter fraud. Despite having no factual evidence, these claims were accepted by many right-wing communities, both on and offline. With the use of social media, these claims reached incredibly large audiences, further creating a level of mistrust in the US population. On December 18th, 2020, Donald Trump tweeted “Big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6. Be there, will be wild!”.  These instructions were clearly taken seriously, as it resulted in large online conservitive communities planning the Capitol attacks. It is clear that with many failed attempts to legally overturn the election, Trump and his extreme supporters resorted to what appeared to be their last option - violence. It is important to note that the dialogue within these communities simply did not consider peaceful transition of power an option, as they believed the notion of a rigged election to be fact. We have established that even in times of crisis, the United States may be looked to as the pinnacle of democracy. This raises concern, for if the US cannot act upon the values they preach, we are left wondering how democratic governments will hold up internationally.

While it is clear that the United States is experiencing democratic reform, this alone is not evidence of democracy experiencing a setback worldwide. The end of the Cold War marked what appeared to be the disbanding of totalitarianism, in favour of widespread democratic ideologies. However the 21st century can be defined by its increasingly impactful connection of nations. As noted in the FreedomHouse 2019 democracy report, it has become increasingly difficult for nations to create and sustain democratic institutions and values while another nation is neglecting them. Large autocratic powers such as China and Russia push beyond their borders in the pursuit of holding onto power. It has become crucial that nations hold onto their democratic values in the fight against invasive ideologies. Regardless of location, nations are facing democratic setbacks. From India’s turn to Hindu nationalism, to Turkey's fall back into authoritarian rule - it is clear we are facing global change. The biggest threat to democracy are the battles fought within nations, conflict in relation to the control of democracy and accordance with rule of law. However, the rise of globalization has ensured that the troubles faced by one nation will most certainly create a ripple effect across the globe. 

Democracy allows for governments to set in place national standards that promote humane society that is influenced by the views of the people. This allows for the fostering of civility, peace, and security both domestically and internationally. Yet it is clear that there is a global spread of antidemocratic practice. These practices pose economic and security risks worldwide, as well as a setback in fundamental freedoms. The rise of autocratic regimes and the weakening of democratic powerhouses have combined to spark declining freedoms internationally. The United States presents just one example of freely elected leaders shifting away from the traditional pillars of democracy, and abusing the powers they are given. We have seen this global phenomenon demonstrate itself in Israel, Hungary, Spain, and Austria, amongst others. This trend has not only destabilized large democracies, but it has torn apart international relations. Strong democracies act in often support of each other whilst pursuing positive global change, but in contrast more authoritarian nations present aggressive and damaging tendencies. Nations with a lack of stability within their governance are incredibly susceptible to manipulation by major authoritarian powers as outlined previously. This has very large global implications, as it can allow for the spread of harmful power. 

The topic at hand can be crystallized into two main schools of thought. Firstly, it is clear that we are witnessing large democratic powers struggle from internal divide, and smaller nationals fall back into authoritarian regimes. Along with this we have our second focus, the growth and expansion of large authoritarian powers. It is vital that we acknowledge how deeply intertwined these two global phenomena truly are. The downfall of weaker nations opens opportunities for these authoritarian powers to spread their power and ideologies. Without the strength of powerful democracies, democracy around the world is at risk.  The basic tenets of democracy -- guarantees of free and fair elections, freedom of the press, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law -- are being sacrificed in the pursuit of power internationally. As a result of globalization, the internal conflicts that plague a nation's democracy are projected on the world stage. This projectition can set harmful precedents and expectionals for all nations. It is evident that individual countries are experiencing democratic setbacks, however it is the international ties that hold us together that propel global decline. These conflicts make it clear, that no matter the long term progresses made, democracy is most certainly experiencing a setback world wide. 


Barrett, Ted, and Manu Raju. “US Capitol Secured, 4 Dead after Rioters Stormed the Halls of Congress to Block Biden's Win.” CNN, Cable News Network, 7 Jan. 2021, 

“Democracy in Crisis.” Freedom House, 

Jacobo, Julia. “A Visual Timeline on How the Attack on Capitol Hill Unfolded.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 

“A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” Freedom House, 

Person, and Alex Newhouse. “ANALYSIS: US Capitol Attack: Far-Right Activists on Social Media Telegraphed Violence Weeks Before.” News24, news24, 11 Jan. 2021,

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