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Factors That Will Shape Global Democracies' Future

Updated: Apr 18, 2023


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As a political scientist and a futurist, the future of global democracy is a critical issue. A flood of recent research suggests democracy is in peril. However, I am more optimistic. My optimism is rooted in my belief that the shape of global democracy is not linear and global democracy is a complex system whose trajectory is determined by countless forces. The role and state of global democracy is important for futurists to consider for the organizations we represent. Based on my experience, I’d like share why democracy matters, its current state, and the factors I think will influence its future. My intent is provoke thought about the dynamic forces that are shaping the future of democracy, which will help futurists in the development of their forecasts and visions of the future.


WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?

If each of us were asked to define democracy off the top of our heads, we would come up with a variety of answers, ranging from “where the people choose their government” to “majority rules.” A pre-eminent political scientist, Adam Przeworski, defines it as: “a political regime in which rulers are selected through free and contested elections…[and in] which incumbents lose elections and leave office if they do.” In addition to elections, democracy also includes a system of checks and balances, rule of law, strong institutions, and civil liberties and protections. A nebulous democratic culture also typically coexists, where many citizens tolerate different viewpoints and value institutions.


WHY DOES ITS FUTURE MATTER?

I will be explicit about an assumption that I and others hold: democracy is good for humanity. However, even the best of democracies are flawed because they reflect the imperfections of humanity itself. The famous Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, said it well: ‘Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.' This statement captures the importance of citizenry involvement in the system. In authoritarian systems, the people rarely get what they deserve. The future of democracy matters because it will shape how many people have freedoms that allow them to live with dignity, choice, protections, and less fear.


DEMOCRACY’S CURRENT STATE

Two prominent datasets indicate that global democracy is in a state of “precipitous decline.” These datasets inform Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s (IDEA) Global State of Democracy Report. According to the EIU, only 45.7 percent of our global population reside in a flawed or full democracy and only 74 out of 167 countries can be considered a democracy. In addition, 59 governments are considered “authoritarian regimes” and 34 are “hybrid regimes” (EIU, 4). IDEA underscores the number and quality of democracies has decreased, and “the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 outnumbered those going in a democratic direction.”


THE FUTURE

As a futurist, I strongly suspect that if we just extrapolate the EIU and IDEA’s data into the future, this forecast will be wrong. Extrapolation is often flawed, especially when considering complex systems. Extrapolation would suggest an incremental weakening of democracy, where authoritarian leaders will be able to expand upon their efforts to take advantage of polarization and technology to control populations. Social change has different shapes and dimensions. I contend that the state of global democracy is not a linear path nor is it necessarily progressive, regressive, or changing at a uniform speed. I am not sure we can make a definitive judgment on the shape of change for global democracy. Is its path circular or spiral? Does it oscillate? Is it a pendulum or cyclical? Probably all of the above, some of the time. What does this mean about how we think about its future? Democracy’s trajectory will be messy and complex, and we should be cautious about forecasts that try to simplify it by saying it is on a “downward trajectory.”



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FACTORS THAT WILL INFLUENCE DEMOCRACY’S FUTURE

So, what are some of the key variables, trends, and drivers that will influence the future of democracy? Below I offer some of the dynamics, but it is by no means an exhaustive list.





Authoritarianism predisposition. The most interesting research that I came across on this topic this year is the work of political psychologist and behavioral economist Karen Stenner on “authoritarian predisposition,” as highlighted in Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. Stenner’s research suggests that ‘a third of the population in any country has what she calls an authoritarian predisposition.’ This authoritarian predisposition “favors homogeneity and order…Authoritarianism appeals…to people who cannot tolerate complexity: there is nothing intrinsically ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ about this instinct… It is anti-pluralist [and] suspicious of people with different ideas (I would add different ethnic and racial backgrounds). It is allergic to fierce debates…” (15-16). We can imagine that our globalized, hyperconnected world only intensifies the authoritarian predisposition of those who do not want to or cannot grapple with complexity.


Communications revolution is changing rules of the game. Academic research is proliferating on the extent to which the exponential rise of social media and the decline of traditional media has reshaped political party dynamics and structures, political discourse, and how candidates are elected. We now have our own different “facts” thanks to this abundance of information. Applebaum notes: “in an information sphere without authorities— political, cultural, moral — and no trusted sources, there is no way to distinguish between conspiracy theories and true stories. False, partisan, and often deliberately misleading narratives now spread in digital wildfires.” and social media algorithms “encourage false perceptions of the world” (113).


Democratic culture and mindset. Another critical variable, but one that is difficult to measure, is a country’s democratic culture and mindset. If one-third of the population has an authoritarian predisposition, what is the predisposition of the other twothirds? Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Dies underscore the importance of democratic norms to sustaining a democracy, particularly “mutual toleration” and “forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in developing their institutional prerogatives” (8).


Expectations: Democracy equals economic growth. Another factor that’s important to shaping the views of citizens about democracies is the state of local and global economies. Some populations think that democracy should yield economic success. Consequently, if and when it does not, some citizens question the value of democracy. A case in point: the Zambian President in the Wall Street Journal stated: “We need to show that democracy can deliver jobs, development, and higher living standards as well as political freedom” and pledged “Democracy…is the best, fastest, and most sustainable path to economic prosperity” (Hichilema). This view is problematic because democracy does not always mean a better economy. The quality or existence democracy is only one of many variables that shape economic growth and vice versa. Consequently, future global recessions may weaken citizens’ faith in democracy.


Strength of governmental institutions. This dynamic often has a positive correlation with the strength of a democracy, determining if a “mixed democracy” veers toward full democracy. My favorite example is based on a famous quote by American political sociologist, Barrington Moore Jr.: “no bourgeoisie, no democracy.” This expression can be unpacked in many ways. One way is that when a middle class emerges, it pays taxes to the government and consequently expects more, including functioning services and the power to choose the government. Such taxation can only occur in countries with strong institutions to collect, account, and adjudicate.


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Relatedly, a problem in some democracies is the lack of state revenue to deliver social services, which dampens citizens’ expectations.


The quality of democracy in the U.S. The state of democracy in the United States is a driver in of itself. The U.S. remains the world’s oldest living democracy and history’s greatest democratic experiment. I assume we cannot quantify or accurately access this influence on global governance. The world, however, is watching and taking notes.


Ability to grapple with complex globalized challenges. The way in which democracies can mitigate some of the most pressing global challenges of our time, particularly climate change, will influence how citizens view democracies.


Role of technology. Technology is a dualedged sword on this issue. It will play an increasing role in enabling authoritarian leaders to cement their leadership and exacerbating polarization but it can help with democratizing populations.


Elite mindset. Elites, including political leaders, business leaders, cultural figures, and intellectuals, play an integral role in influencing the quality of democracy. Consequently, their willingness to manipulate the voting base to ensure their preferred candidates stay in power versus putting democratic ideals first will be an important factor that helps shape the strength of democracies (Levitsky and Ziblatt).


China’s rise. Almost every major Western foreign policy think tank is ringing alarm bells regarding the threat that China’s government poses to the international rules-based order, which is heavily underpinned by democracies. China is expected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s top economy during the next decade or so. China’s government has demonstrated that transformative economic progress is possible under authoritarian regimes, and it offers an alternative to the democratic world (EIU). In conclusion, the future of global democracy is far from written. Applying these variables to help generate potential scenarios can help us prepare for an uncertain future.

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REFERENCES

Applebaum, Anne. Twilight of democracy: The failure of politics and the parting of friends. Penguin UK, 2020.

Economist Intelligence Unit. “Democracy Index 2021: The China challenge.” https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracyindex-2021/

Hichilema, Hakainda, “In a Tough Time for Democracy, Zambia Stands Out” Wall Street Journal. 12 August 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-a-tough-time-fordemocracy-zambia-stands-out-elections-mediaeconomic-diplomacy-education-investmentkwacha-currency-inflation-11660328811

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2021 Global State of Democracy Report. https://www.idea.int/gsod/global-report

Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Broadway Books, 2018. Przeworski, Adam. "Democracy and economic development." Mansfield & R. Sisson (Eds.), The evolution of political knowledge. democracy, autonomy, and conflict in comparative and international politics (2004): 300-324.


 

Angela Carson Miller

Angela Carson Miller (she/her) earned a Master’s of Science degree in Foresight from the University of Houston (2021) and a Master’s in Arts in Political Science (2004) from Fordham University. She has more than 15 years of experience working on and analyzing international politics for the United States Government. Her foresight work largely focuses on scenarios, implications, and opportunities for U.S. foreign policy and exploring methodologies to improve our understanding and preparation for futures in the realm of international politics.

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