CLAIM: President Joe Biden alleged in his annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday that “democracies have become stronger” — and authoritarian states “weaker, not stronger” — in the two years since he took office.
VERDICT: False. Multiple studies by prestigious non-governmental organizations and research institutes published in 2022 warned that the state of global democracy has been in consistent decline, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, while authoritarian states have become more repressive.
Following remarks addressing foreign affairs, focused almost exclusively on the war in Ukraine and China, President Biden appeared to claim during his speech that his arrival as president to the world stage heralded the resurgence of democracy internationally.
“We face serious challenges across the world,” Biden said. “But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger.”
That statement does not align with multiple detailed studies of the state of democracy around the world in the past two years. Researchers warned throughout 2022 that many dictatorships used the Chinese coronavirus pandemic to reinforce their authoritarian grip on power, crushing basic civil liberties and mostly failing to restore them to pre-2020 levels. Democracies, in turn, experienced a decline in popular power and erosion of respect for basic rights.
The Swedish advocacy group The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) lamented in its annual report on the global state of democracy in December that the four metrics it uses to track freedom around the world had all shown a decline.
“Over the last five years, progress has stalled across all four aggregated Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoD Indices) attributes. In some cases, scores are the same as they were in 1990,” its annual report read. “The number of backsliding countries (seven) remains at its peak, and the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism is more than double the number moving towards democracy.”
“As of the end 2021, nearly one half of the 173 countries assessed by International IDEA are experiencing declines in at least one subattribute of democracy,” the report concluded.
Twice as many countries were moving towards authoritarianism than becoming more democratic by the end of the year, the IDEA report found.
Freedom House, whose Freedom in the World annual report is considered the gold standard of such studies, concluded similarly in 2022. It documented a 16-year erosion of democracy continuing into the end of the year.
“A total of 60 countries suffered declines [in democratic norms] over the past year, while only 25 improved,” Freedom House documented. “As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.”
The Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister organization to the eponymous Economist magazine, also published a global democracy index at the end of the year. This study was more optimistic, finding that democracy had “stagnated,” but not declined. It did not find that democracy strengthened on any measurable global scale.
“Despite expectations of a rebound after the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions, the score was almost unchanged, at 5.29 (on a 0-10 scale), compared with 5.28 in 2021,” the study detailed. “The positive effect of the restoration of individual freedoms was cancelled out by negative developments globally. The scores of more than half of the countries measured by the index either stagnated or declined.”
Biden himself has appeared to attempt to cite the Freedom House study in the past. In May, Biden warned, contradicting his speech on Tuesday, that democracy was declining around the world.
“Well guess what? In the last ten years there’s fifteen fewer democracies in the world,” Biden proclaimed at the time, an apparent attempt to highlight Freedom House’s documenting of a then-15-year decline in democratic norms.
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