Relaciones Internacionales – Comunicación Internacional

Subjective and Objective Measures of Democratic Backsliding

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Andrew Little

University of California, Berkeley

Anne Meng

University of Virginia

Date Written: January 17, 2023


Despite the general narrative that we are in a period of global democratic decline, there have been surprisingly few empirical studies to assess whether this is systematically true. Most existing studies of backsliding rely heavily, if not entirely, on subjective indicators which rely on expert coder judgement. We survey other more objective indicators of democracy (such as incumbent performance in elections), and find little evidence of global democratic decline over the last decade. To explain the discrepancy between trends in subjective and objective indicators, we develop formal models that consider the role of coder bias and leaders strategically using more subtle undemocratic action. The simplest explanation is that recent declines in average democracy scores are driven by changes in coder bias. While we cannot rule out the possibility that the world is experiencing major democratic backsliding almost exclusively in ways which require subjective judgement to detect, this claim not justified by existing evidence.

Little, Andrew and Meng, Anne, Subjective and Objective Measurement of Democratic Backsliding (January 17, 2023). Available at SSRN:




 What if the crisis of democracy is (mostly) in our heads?

The Washington Post (Jan 30, 2023) at 8:30 h
Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, advanced as the Cold War came to a close, is a pundit’s favorite punching bag. The sense of democratic optimism, security and confidence that defined the 1990s has clearly diminished. In the past decade, Western global influence declined; great-power competition surged; societies polarized and populist leaders rose.

But Fukuyama’s basic interpretation of the Soviet Union’s collapse — that it left liberal democracy as the “final form of human government” with widespread appeal and prestige — has proven surprisingly resilient. A new research paper challenges the avalanche of popular and academic commentary declaring that, especially since 2016, the world has faced a systemic crisis of democracy.

In “Subjective and Objective Measures of Democratic Backsliding,” the political scientists Andrew Little of the University of California at Berkeley and Anne Meng of the University of Virginia find that the post-Cold War expansion of democracy in nations around the world has, on average, held. “Recent studies that find evidence of global backsliding,” they observe, “rely heavily if not entirely on subjective indicators” — such as asking experts to rate, based on their own judgment, the extent to which an election was “free and fair.”

Little and Meng instead measure democracy based on quantifiable factors less susceptible to individual bias. They find, for example, no overall decline in electoral competition. Across the world, “The rate of leader and ruling party turnover has remained fairly constant since the late 1990s,” the paper says. “If anything, the vote shares of incumbent leaders in executive elections and incumbent parties in legislatures have decreased in recent years.”

They also measured the prevalence of constraints on national leaders, such as term limits. From 2000 to 2018, according to the paper, 60 leaders sought to evade term limits, and 34 succeeded, but the rate was “fairly constant” over time. In an attempt to objectively measure press freedom, the authors analyze data from the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s a mixed picture: Murders of journalists have been declining since 2008, but the number of journalists imprisoned has been rising since 2000.

The authors created their own democracy index reaching back to 1980, relying on hard inputs such as the share of a population eligible to vote, rather than subjective interpretation by experts. “The index in 2020 is nearly as high as it has ever been,” they conclude.



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