Centuries ago, most of our ancestors were living under a different political paradigm.
Although democracy was starting to show signs of growth in some parts of the world, it was more of an idea, rather than an established or accepted system of government.
Even at the start of the 19th century, for example, it’s estimated that the vast majority of the global population — roughly 84% of all people — still lived under in autocratic regimes or colonies that lacked the authority to self-govern their own affairs.
The Evolution of Rule
Today’s set of charts look at global governance, and how it’s evolved over the last two centuries of human history.
Leveraging data from the widely-used Polity IV data set on political regimes, as well as the work done by economist Max Roser through Our World in Data, we’ve plotted an empirical view of how people are governed.
Specifically, our charts break down the global population by how they are governed (in absolute terms), as well as by the relative share of population living under those same systems of government (percentage terms).
Classifying Systems of Government
The Polity IV data series defines a state’s level of democracy by ranking it on several metrics, such as competitive and open elections, political participation, and checks on authority.
Polity scores are on a -10 to +10 scale, where the lower end (-10 to -6) corresponds with autocracies and the upper end (+6 to +10) corresponds to democracies. Below are five types of government that can be derived from the scale, and that are shown in the visualization.
A territory under the political control of another country, and/or occupied by settlers from that country.
Examples: Gibraltar, Guam, French Polynesia
A single person (the autocrat) possesses supreme and absolute power.
Examples: China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea
An anocracy is loosely defined as a regime that mixes democratic and autocratic features. In a closed anocracy, political competitors are drawn only from an elite and well-connected pool.
Examples: Thailand, Morocco, Singapore
Similar to a closed anocracy, an open anocracy draws political competitors from beyond elite groups.
Examples: Russia, Malaysia, Bangladesh
Citizens exercise power by voting for their leaders in elections.
Examples: United States, Germany, India
A Long-Term Trend in Question
In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.
In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen — and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.
While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.
Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?