How Great is the Current Danger to Democracy? Assessing the Risk with Historical Data

Daniel Treisman
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Event Sponsor
The Europe Center
Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law
Hoover Institution
Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies
Encina Hall 2nd floor, William J. Perry Conference Room
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Just how bad is the current danger of democratic backsliding in the US and around the world?

Influential voices contend that democracy is in decline worldwide and threatened in the US. Using a variety of measures, I show that the global proportion of democracies is, in fact, at or near an all-time high. The current rate of backsliding is not historically unusual and is well-explained by the income levels of existing democracies. Historical data yield extremely low estimated hazards of democratic breakdown in the US—considerably lower than in any democracy that has failed. Western governments are seen as threatened by a supposed decline in popular support for democracy and an erosion of elite norms. But the evidence for these claims is sparse. While deteriorating democratic quality in some countries is indeed a cause for concern, available evidence suggests that alarm about a global slide into autocracy is exaggerated.

Daniel Treisman is a Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles and Interim Director of UCLA’s Center for European and Russian Studies. A graduate of Oxford and Harvard, he has published six books and many articles in leading political science and economics journals, as well as numerous commentaries in public affairs journals and the press. His research focuses on Russian politics and economics as well as comparative political economy, including the analysis of democratization, the politics of authoritarian states, political decentralization, and corruption. 

A former co-editor of The American Political Science Review, he is a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and has consulted for the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and USAID. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford), the Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna), and the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford), and he is currently an Andrew Carnegie Fellow. In 2023, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book, co-authored with Sergei Guriev, "Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century" (Princeton University Press, 2022), has been translated into 13 languages and won the Prix Guido et Maruccia Zerilli-Marimo of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in Paris.