In reality, democracy is going into reverse. While some countries in Africa, the Arab world, and Asia have opened slightly in the past two years, in other countries once held up as examples of political change democratic meltdowns have become depressingly common. In fact, Freedom House found that global freedom dropped in 2012 for the seventh year in a row, a record number of years of consistent decline.
The Arab Spring has not only led to dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family digging in across the region, but it has also pushed autocrats around the world to take a harder line with their populations -- whether it's China censoring even vague code words for protest or Russia passing broad new treason laws and harassing human rights NGOs. As Arch Puddington, Freedom House's vice president for research, put it, "Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians.… Especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change."
But it's not the Arab Spring alone that's to blame. According to Freedom House, democracy's "forward march" actually peaked around the beginning of the 2000s. A mountain of evidence supports that gloomy conclusion. One of the most comprehensive studies of global democracy, the Bertelsmann Foundation's Transformation Index, has declared that "the overall quality of democracy has deteriorated" throughout the developing world. The index found that the number of "defective" and "highly defective democracies" -- those with institutions, elections, and political culture so flawed that they hardly resemble real democracies -- was up to 52 in 2012.
In another major survey, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, democracy deteriorated in 48 of 167 countries surveyed in 2011. "The dominant pattern globally over the past five years has been backsliding," the report says. We're not just talking about the likes of Pakistan and Zimbabwe here. Thirteen countries on the Transformation Index qualified as "highly defective democracies," countries with such a lack of opportunity for opposition voices, such problems with the rule of law, and such unrepresentative political structures that they are now little better than autocracies.