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President Joe Biden’s State of the Union claim that global democracies have gotten stronger and autocracies weaker in the last couple of years lacks evidence.
Recent research suggests that democracy has been declining around the world for the past several years, although some experts said some democracies have grown a little stronger, while others have weakened.
Biden has emphasized the importance of democracies since taking office and has introduced a variety of initiatives to bolster democratic policies at home and abroad.
In his second State of the Union address, President Joe Biden touted his administration’s accomplishments — domestic job growth, drug price cuts for seniors and infrastructure improvements.
But he also mentioned something else that, he claimed, has improved globally since he took office: Democracy.
Talking about his efforts to limit the power of authoritarian leaders in countries like China and Russia, Biden said, "We face serious challenges across the world. But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger."
We wanted to know: Has the state of global democracy improved in the last couple of years since Biden took office? Have autocracies weakened?
The answer is: Not really. Biden’s statement lacks evidence, and many researchers and human rights groups say that democracy has been waning around the world for several years.
Experts said it’s difficult to determine whether Biden — who has made bolstering democracy a focus of his presidency — has had any impact.
PolitiFact reached out to the White House for more information but did not hear back.
The nonprofit Freedom House researches democracy, political freedom and human rights. The group says that democracy is under attack in every region of the world. The organization, which receives a majority of its funding from U.S. government grants, released its last annual report in February 2022. The title: "The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule."
The report found that 60 countries have suffered democratic declines — an erosion of domestic human rights and equal treatment under law — over the previous year, while only 25 improved. Around 38% of the global population lived in countries that the organization deems aren’t free, the highest proportion since 1997. The group said that only about 20% of people in the world live in free countries, and pointed out democratic backsliding — a weakening of domestic human rights — in Sudan, Nicaragua and in Afghanistan, where the Taliban regained control and prompted a refugee crisis after Biden withdrew American troops from the country.
This isn’t a new problem. Freedom House’s latest report found that 2021 marked the 16th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
Daniel Brumberg, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, said that Biden’s claim is broad and that the terms "weaker" and "stronger" are subjective, vague and difficult to fact-check.
"Some democracies have gotten a little stronger or at least stepped back from the brink of what we call ‘democratic backsliding’ (the U.S., Brazil), and the Ukraine is, in its own way, a stronger democracy now," Brumberg said. "But other autocracies remain as strong if not stronger than ever."
The Economist, in partnership with its sister company, the Economist Intelligence Unit, releases a democracy index report each year. The survey rates the state of democracy across 167 countries on five measures — electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. Its 2021 index report found that global democracy had "continued its precipitous decline."
For 2022, the average global index score stagnated. Despite expectations of a rebound after the lifting of pandemic-related restrictions, the score was almost unchanged, at 5.29 (on a zero-to-10 scale), compared with 5.28 in 2021.
"From a global perspective," the report said, "the year 2022 was a disappointing one for democracy, given expectations that there might be a rebound in the overall index score as (COVID-19) pandemic-related prohibitions were lifted over the course of the year. Instead, the average global score stagnated."
The report highlighted some improvements made in Thailand, Angola, Niger and Greece. But these were counterbalanced by what it described as sharp declines in Russia, Belarus, Haiti, and Latin American countries such as Mexico and El Salvador. The Middle East and North Africa were the worst-performing regions by the Economist’s measures, with Tunisia, Iraq and Jordan all taking measures that sent their scores lower.
Biden was sworn into office just weeks after thousands of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, trying to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election.
Since then, Biden has emphasized the importance of democracies and has worked to bolster democratic institutions at home and abroad.
He held a White House democracy summit in December 2021 that convened world leaders, human rights activists and others to explore global democratic renewal. A year later, the Biden administration announced investments in free and independent media, anti-corruption efforts, and initiatives to support the work of activists and democratic reformers around the world.
Biden has also worked to curb the power of China and Russia, but both still hold global political influence. Increased pressure isn’t stopping leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who instituted domestic crackdowns on free speech, despite the country’s weakened economy and diplomatic isolation.
Other nations’ democracies are also under attack. In January, Brazil experienced a far-right assault on key government buildings over its presidential election results. In Israel, large crowds are gathering in protest of policies by its new far-right government that opponents say attempt to weaken the country’s democratic institutions.
Biden claimed in his State of the Union speech that democracies around the world have grown stronger in the last couple of years, while autocracies have weakened.
We couldn’t find evidence to back that up. Recent research suggests that global democracy has declined over the past several years, while authoritarian leadership has risen. A nonprofit that researches democracy found in 2021 that only 20% of the world’s population is living in free countries. But some experts said the claim is broad and difficult to verify. Some democracies have gotten stronger since Biden took office — the U.S. is one of them, according to analysts. But others have weakened.
Without evidence showing the changes Biden claimed, we rate this False.
WhiteHouse.gov, Remarks of President Joe Biden – State of the Union Address as Prepared for Delivery, Feb. 7, 2023
C SPAN, 2023 State of the Union Address, Feb. 7, 2023
Freedom House, Democracies in Decline, accessed Feb. 8, 2023
Freedom House, The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule, February 2022
The Economist, A new low for global democracy, Feb. 9, 2022
PolitiFact, Fact-checking Joe Biden’s speech about democracy before the 2022 midterms, Sept. 2, 2022
WhiteHouse.gov, Summit for Democracy Summary of Proceedings, Dec. 23, 2021
WhiteHouse.gov, Fact Sheet: Summit for Democracy: Progress in the Year of Action, Nov. 29, 2022
Email interview, Daniel Brumberg, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, Feb. 8, 2023
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