March 29, 2023 - 10:00am

The Economist Intelligence Unit warns of “democratic stagnation”. Global freedom has declined “for the seventeenth consecutive year”, according to Freedom House. Civicus Forum has officially labelled the UK’s democracy as “obstructed”. Like the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. — the world capital of the NGO industrial complex — the release of alarmist reports on the state of global democracy has become a venerable spring tradition. 

The organisations that produce these reports have slightly different methodologies — the EIU and Freedom House are respectably centrist while Civicus Forum, a newer institution, exhibits a progressive bent — but their basic approach is remarkably similar. 

International watchdogs of varying stripes launder their political and ideological preferences through scientific language to produce high-minded warnings about the future of democracy. These reports generate frightening headlines but are often misleading, inaccurate, or straightforwardly biased. 

Attempting to quantify the health of individual countries’ institutions beyond the broadest strokes inevitably involves subjective, value-laden judgements. Comparing America’s expansive First Amendment with more restrictive, European-style hate speech laws is one such example. Another is Canada’s 2022 invocation of the Emergencies Act, which allowed the Government to freeze anti-lockdown protesters’ bank accounts without due process. The EIU report briefly mentions this measure but actually raises Canada’s overall score from the year before, citing favourable factors like its centrist “political culture”. One might argue that a moderate political climate counts for more than the temporary freezing of dissidents’ financial assets, but that’s a judgement call, not a scientific finding. 

Detailed appendices on methodology can’t obscure this fundamental problem, and where subjective judgments arise, these reports reliably lean Left. To restore its tarnished reputation on civil liberties, Civicus Forum helpfully suggests that the UK start “dismantling colonial practices”. Freedom House’s latest report warns that Right-wing populists often “seek cooperation with authoritarian powers”, which conflates foreign policy realism with domestic rights abuses. The EIU helpfully informs readers that the representation of Right-wing parties “is not necessarily anti-democratic” but goes on to warn that such parties could undermine democracy by “promoting intolerance”, whatever that means. 

It is tempting to dismiss these reports as unimportant or irrelevant, but a similar logic has insinuated itself into the corridors of power. Concerns about democracy and civil liberties have become cudgels to punish countries that offend centre-Left sensibilities, which is why supporting Ukraine has suddenly become a key barometer of democratic legitimacy.

Poland and Hungary, two Eastern European countries governed by populist conservatives, used to be lumped together as democratic backsliders. Over the past year, Poland’s reputation has miraculously recovered as it ships arms and supplies to Ukraine while Orbán remains the bête noire of the Western press. According to the EIU, Poland showed some of the “strongest improvements” in civil liberties over the past year. Congratulations may be due to the Poles, then, on the sudden renewal of their civic freedoms.

Despite their pretensions to scientific accuracy, international democracy watchdogs are not neutral arbiters, but instead institutions with their own ideological and political preferences. All the charts and graphs in the world can’t hide that.

Will Collins is a secondary school teacher in Budapest