Disinformation related to the U.S. elections and Covid-19 has taken a serious toll on American democracy, causing it to backslide for the first time in history, a new report found.
But it's not just the United States. The Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance found that more countries than ever are suffering from "democratic erosion." And geopolitical and economic powers, like the U.S., India and Brazil, are seeing a more severe and deliberate kind of decline, called "democratic backsliding."
The 2021 Global State of Democracy report, released Monday, is the latest to raise the alarm over the decline of democracy globally and in the U.S., in particular. This downward trend became even more concerning at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when government inaction or mishandling exacerbated many issues, the 80-page report found.
International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization working to advance democracy worldwide, has produced its Global State of Democracy report since 2016. The latest iteration found that the number of people living in at-risk or undemocratic countries is the highest it's ever been.
More than 30 percent of the world's population lives in countries — the U.S. included — with backsliding democracies, per the report. Those countries combine with the regions under undemocratic or authoritarian regimes to account for 70 percent of the global population. Just 9 percent of the world's population lives in high-performing democracies.
"The quality of democracy continues to travel a very visible downward path across the board," the report states. "And all this is happening while authoritarian systems intensify their repressive practices and engage in ever more brazen attempts to silence their critics and distort the workings of democracies."
The process of democratic backsliding is often gradual, the report notes, taking on average nine years from the onset of the decline until a total breakdown in democracy or a return to democratic health.
The spread of disinformation and the rise in political polarization are key drivers of democratic decline, according to the report. Both factors have contributed to the downward trend seen in the United States. And when geopolitical and economic powerhouses like the U.S. decline, it can have a ripple effect across the globe.
For example, the baseless allegations of voter fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump during the 2020 election had spillover effects in countries like Brazil, Mexico, Myanmar and Peru, the report states.
"Electoral integrity is increasingly being questioned, often without evidence, even in established democracies," the report says. In the U.S., election disinformation undermined trust in the electoral process, ultimately leading to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Now, global democracy finds itself at a crossroads, the report concludes. On the one hand, the rise in authoritarianism threatens the survival of democratic governance. But on the other hand, many governments are working to adapt and revitalize democracy to meet these new challenges.
"To counteract the current challenges and create the conditions for a more sustainable, inclusive and accountable recovery, democracies must reassert their strengths and show the world how and why democratic governance is the best option," the report states. "This is a time for democratic actors and institutions to be bold and push the frontiers of the democratic project."