Global Trends in the Quality and Governance of Democracy

The long-term view of democracy flourishing in the world looks promising.

 There are a plethora of frightening headlines in our midst: the debt crisis, floods, earthquakes, Middle Eastern government crackdowns on protestors. But, then again, there is the Arab Spring, that hopeful wave of protests and revolutions that has toppled numerous entrenched dictators and become an icon of popular democratic change. If you take the longterm view, suggests Jack Goldstone, the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor this fall, world trends over the past three decades have been moving dramatically in the direction of democracy.

Dictatorships are down. Partial and full democracies have been on the rise since the end of the Cold War. That is to say, increasing numbers of countries are moving towards the implementation of rule of law and free elections (versus the capricious whims of dictators), as well as instituting changes to protect the civil liberties of their citizens (versus having no legal protection). Things look much better in the realm of conflict, too: in fact, Goldstone notes, the number of armed conflict onsets, both civil and interstate, has declined dramatically since 1980, including even those armed conflicts in Africa, with the exception of places like Somalia. Echoing the findings in Stephen Pinker's recently released Angels of Our Better Nature, Goldstone says that modern democratic society has made people markedly less violent.

But the news is not all good. The number of refugees and displaced populations has increased inversely to the decline in wars -- also dramatically. Since the end of the Cold War, in fact, the total number of these persons that had already been displaced (37 million) have not declined, meaning displaced populations seem to be the result of less conflict. Flight instead of fight.

Also less than inspiring in the realm of state stability or fragility is that high-casualty terrorist bombings have also increased, particularly since 9/11. While the prospect for interstate war in Europe is no longer a concern, refugees and terrorism are bigger concerns than ever. All of this requires, Goldstone says, a "reset" of NATO, which he and the State Fragility Index team he leads at George Mason University, should focus on "supporting and protecting democratic institutions and vulnerable populations outside of the US and Europe." Security, economic growth, political stability, and social services (education, health, transportation) are elements of governance considered essential to a functioning democratic state.

On a map Goldstone showed of the world's Fragility Index, the fragile states exist in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of south Asia, Haiti, and (until recently) Ecuador. These governments do a bad job taking care of their own people, Goldstone states, and they do a bad job administering people's funds, providing social services, and are stocked with corrupt figures. Though north Africa has recently delivered a series of revolutions (Tunisia, Libya), and the nations of Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, and Liberia have all held successful elections, the overall quality of governance throughout Africa remains worrisome. Even more worrisome for Western states that feel a responsibility to look after refugees, over the next century, Africa's population will become more than three times that of all of Europe. Given the combination of emigrants from Africa and the need for governments to be stable in order to train and educate its citizens to be prepared for the global workforce, this does not bode well for the strain on social services and thus political alignments who vie for tolerance.

The most vulnerable states, Goldstone says, are not pure dictatorships. They are, rather, "polarized partial democracies." These are states that do not have checks and balances, that foment internal and ethnic divisions, and that evidence institutional deficiencies and general unfairness. Institutions, after all, are only as good as the people who run them. Moreover, governments that fail their people and do not provide for their liberty (a component of "human psychology" which Goldstone movingly states he has witnessed in every single country he has visited, from China to Mexico to Tanzania), are usually those who are taken over by individuals who use the government to their own ends and hold on to their authority through vicious and violent means.

The key to democracies, Goldstone reminds, is not in the "superiority of democratic institutions." It is rather that the structure of democracy, in its best form, allows people to feel that their own actions might effect change and that they have control over their destinies. Democratic governments arise and have always arisen when people rose up against institutions that had abused power over them. When that happens, the populace admits to "having enough" and takes it upon itself to change things within the bounds of law. In democracies, this results in political realignment that pan out results in democratic and open elections. "We forget that sometimes," Goldstone says, in the midst of criticism of a voting system that occasionally disenfranchises and a political class that sometimes abuses its power. In non-democratic states, however, we should not forget that things are much, much worse: no considerations for personal freedom and opportunity; low government accountability; no citizen equality; and the general lack of the idea that governing is a responsibility for popular welfare. It's only in a democracy that such considerations are taken as serious moral imperatives. "It's embarrassing that I have to actually stand up here and say these things," Goldstone says, "because this is the stuff we learned in grade school; this is what governments do!" Unfortunately, he continued, given that the global economic system has failed to provide opportunity for ever larger numbers of people, including in the United States and Europe, now vocalized by the Occupy movement, "we will continue to see disruptions in the street."