Publication | Report/Paper

In Sickness and in Health – Checking Up on Democracy

Democracy is not at peak health. Particularly over the past decade, the quality of democratic institutions and governance has eroded around the world, leading to widespread declines in satisfaction with this form of government. In this moment of weakness, authoritarian leaders have swiftly increased efforts to consolidate power domestically and influence political systems abroad, trying to sell autocratic ideas as viable alternatives to what they label a decaying system of governance. The truth, however, is that, despite flaws and setbacks, democracies continue to outperform non-democratic regimes across key development areas, such as economic growth, peace and security, education, health, social protections and social cohesion, gender equality and climate change. Given efforts by autocratic leaders to bury this truth, combined with direct attacks on democracy such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is increasingly important to analyze the available data on what democracy has delivered throughout its history and how it can still improve quality of life.

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute’s new project “The Case for Democracy” does precisely that, gathering and reviewing scientific evidence on what and how democracies deliver better than non-democracies. In a series of policy briefs, the project paints a robust and strikingly positive picture of democracy’s advantages over non-democratic forms of government. Reviewed studies demonstrate, for instance, that:

  • Democracies are better at providing public goods such as access to water, electricity and internet (Lake and Baum, 2001; Boräng et al., 2016);
  • Democracies tend to have higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (Acemoglu et al., 2019; Knutsen, 2020) and are less vulnerable to financial crises (Knutsen, 2020);
  • After transitioning to democracy, countries tend to observe a three percent average increase in life expectancy (Bollyky et al., 2019) and a 94 percent lower infant mortality rate compared to dictatorships (Wang et al., 2019); and
  • Democracy has also proven to be more effective at dealing with emerging challenges such as climate change, which is increasingly affecting quality of life. Specifically, democracies tend to have more ambitious climate policies (Bättig & Bernauer, 2009) and effect more significant reductions in CO2 emissions (Eskander & Fankhauser 2020).

One of the greatest achievements of the global spread of democracy in the past half century has been the reduction of interstate military conflict – a phenomenon known as the Democratic Peace Theory. The studies reviewed by V-Dem reinforce this theory that democracies do not go to war with one another (Altman et al., 2020). However, when either countries do not achieve their full democratic potential or a once-democratic country erodes, this reassurance also dissipates.

Despite all these advantages of democratic governance, the project also calls attention to the unique challenges democracies face, especially when countries are going through democratization processes. For instance, research has shown that, in the short run, the odds of a civil war in a country transitioning from autocracy to democracy are nine times higher than before the transition (Hegre et al., 2001). This finding aligns with a recent IFES analysis that identifies insecurity, in addition to several other challenges like weak infrastructure and low civil society capacity, as obstacles to democracy assistance in countries going through transitions. Additionally, the V-Dem project finds many of democracy's benefits mentioned above are contingent on low levels of corruption and a strong rule of law – neither of which are often common in new democracies. Finally, it is evident that progress does not happen overnight (Boese & Eberhardt, 2021). Growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is more visible after the democratic system has been in place for seven years (Papaioannou & Siourounis, 2008), for example, and the risks of civil war only decrease incrementally with time (Hegre et al., 2001). People might become frustrated and doubtful when it takes such a long time to feel the benefits of a new, democratic system.

In democratic and non-democratic countries, people rely heavily upon their government to provide accurate information during any crisis, including pandemics, environmental disasters and armed conflict. Importantly, this project found that autocracies regularly misrepresent data about everything from measures of economic growth (Guriev & Treisman, 2019; Martínez, 2021) to the number of lives lost to COVID-19 (Annaka, 2021; Kapoor et al., 2020). There is also increasing evidence of authoritarian governments spreading misinformation on social media. On the contrary, democracies provide data to the public that tend to be more transparent and of higher quality – even if it does not always make the government look good. Unfortunately, autocrats can take advantage of this transparency by exaggerating democracy’s flaws in order to create public dissatisfaction with democracy despite the many benefits outlined above.

V-Dem’s work consolidating these scholarly findings and disseminating them among the community of practice is extremely important for two major reasons. First, it provides overwhelming, objective evidence that democracies – and especially full democracies with strong rule-of-law cultures – can provide a better quality of life for all people. Second, it reminds donors, implementers and recipients of democracy assistance that, although the benefits are certain, they are not immediate. Democracy takes time and effort to build, and its consolidation is never final or permanent, especially when autocratic actors ramp up efforts to undermine it. If we want to keep enjoying the fruits that only democracies can provide, we need to actively fight to protect them, both domestically and globally.

Fernanda Buril, IFES Research Specialist
Cassandra Emmons, IFES Democracy Data Analyst

Published on March 30, 2022.