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Gallup Podcast
The Erosion of Rule of Law and Global Democracies
Gallup Podcast

The Erosion of Rule of Law and Global Democracies

Why is the rule of law important for societies? How much did the COVID-19 pandemic affect law and order around the world? Ted Piccone, chief engagement officer at the World Justice Project, joins the podcast to discuss the global state of law and order.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, in our final episode of the year, we take a look at the state of law and order across the globe. Ted Piccone is the chief engagement officer at the World Justice Project, where he leads their efforts to advance the rule of law through strategic partnerships and convenings, coordinated advocacy, and locally led initiatives across the globe. Ted, welcome to the podcast.

Ted Piccone 00:30
Thanks, Mohamed.

Mohamed Younis 00:31
You do a lot of work on rule of law and its importance in a functioning democracy. For those of us, Ted, who are not legally inclined, what do you mean exactly by rule of law? Why is it important to countries rich and poor?

Ted Piccone 00:43
Well, you know, the rule of law is an old concept and going back centuries, but it's never felt more relevant given current challenges of democratic backsliding around the world. Our definition is that, you know, the rule of law is understood in its, in its modern context as a durable system that has four universal principles. First, accountability -- under the laws for everyone, regardless of their status. So, in other words, no one is above the law. The second, that the laws are just -- that they're clear, they're publicized, they're stable and that they protect fundamental human rights, as well as contract rights, property rights, procedural rights. Here, you might say no one is below the law. We're all entitled to be treated as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, as equals in dignity and rights.

Ted Piccone 01:45
The third universal principle is open government -- this refers to the way in which laws are adopted, the way they're administered and enforced. And that laws are, they're transparent, they're fair, they're accessible. And then finally, that justice is impartial. So when disputes arise, as they always do, you have adjudicators who are competent, they're ethical, they're independent. And they have the resources to do their job; they come from communities they serve. So those are the key four elements of this more comprehensive definition of a rule of law. And in my view, you know, all societies, regardless of their history or their economic status, have a need for rules of some kind, or they're going to face chaos and conflict. So what a healthy rule of law system provides is a stable framework. It elevates fairness and opportunity for all, over cronyism and state capture by the few, which we still have lots of around the world.

Ted Piccone 02:59
Now, you asked, why, why is it important? History shows that countries with stronger rule of law, like the ones with the principles I described, tend to perform better across the spectrum of public goods, from higher economic growth, greater peace, to less inequality and improved health and education outcomes. So this is a goal that I think all countries, rich and poor, share. So just in some, I would say the rule of law is not just for lawyers and judges. It's for business leaders, economists, engineers, healthcare workers, etc. Everyone has a stake in stable and open rule of law systems.

Mohamed Younis 03:43
I love how you described it, how you break it down, really, into those four really critical pillars. At Gallup, we poll the world on maybe one small outcome of a rule of law system, or how well it's functioning, is perceptions of local safety. What we've noticed around the world is that there wasn't a big change in perceptions of either local safety or even confidence in the police changing during the pandemic. But I'm sure you all have been extremely involved in understanding how the pandemic has really impacted rule of law issues around the world. How have you seen it, in impact -- the rule of law, beyond just local safety?

Ted Piccone 04:22
So, we have our annual rule of law index the World Justice Project produces, which is the world's leading resource for understanding how the rule of law is actually experienced by people in now 139 countries around the world. And the last version just came out in October, so all of the data was collected during the pandemic, which really gives us a nice way to compare pre-pandemic and the current times. And the data is collected from people in, through household surveys, but also questionnaires to experts who are familiar, you know, as practitioners of the law in their, in their countries. And by now we cover the world's, you know, most of the world's population.

Ted Piccone 05:09
The index looks at eight factors, and I'm not going to mention all of them, but they include, you know, constraints on government powers to the functioning of civil and criminal justice. So, to your question, our most recent findings for the factor that measures order and security, similar to the law and order component, is similar to what Gallup found -- that more countries improved in their score on this factor over the past year, about 54%, than declined. And this was also an improvement over the six-year average. So we're consistent on this finding, which is interesting. Now, why is this? You can speculate. Obviously, the pandemic forced people to stay at home, so restrictions on freedom of movement.

Ted Piccone 05:59
Now, I would say, as the pandemic has gone on, we are seeing an uptick in crime reporting in certain places, including in some cities in the United States, and endemically and chronically, as you point out in Africa and Latin America. The other thing to point out on this subject is that the data on crime is really quite difficult to capture through official statistics because everyone has a different definition under their legal code. It's not really in their political interest to report on crime rates, and it's very uneven reporting.

Mohamed Younis 06:42
And we also have a lot of cases where crimes are just not reported, right, like if you're living in a system where people aren't often being held accountable for breaking the law. The interests of a citizen to report that activity declines, I would assume.

Ted Piccone 06:56
That's right. And so we also look at whether people resort to violence to settle their dispute. So, if people are, don't have any trust or faith in the police or court system, they're going to use other methods of fixing their problems, which, of course, you don't want in a rule of law system. So that's where we are on the order and security factor. But if you step back and look at the more comprehensive picture on rule of law during the pandemic, you see some very worrying trends. And let me just kind of tick off a few of them of what we're seeing. We're seeing significant declines in constraints on government power, which means that just as one indicator, law enforcement officials were less likely to face punishment for misconduct. Second, we're finding an increase in infringements on civic participation, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly.

Ted Piccone 07:54
It's maybe a contradiction because you see a rise in global protests, social protests around the world. But the data shows people were less able to voice their, their concerns in the public square. The third area of concern was the vast majority of countries, 94%, experienced increased delays in whether civil, criminal or administrative justice. So we're clearly finding that justice was delayed across the board, and that has lots of ramifications, including for law and order. And finally, reports of mistreatment and discrimination rose in 67% of countries in our survey, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. So, most people surveyed may perceive law and order as relatively stable during COVID. But for certain groups, more marginalized populations who are vulnerable to the economic crisis of the pandemic, things actually got worse.

Mohamed Younis 08:59
It's sad, but on many levels, not surprising, considering just the social and political dynamic that's unfolded really with this pandemic. One thing that's been fascinating to me, Ted, is how more, you know, democratic systems have reacted versus authoritarian systems, and one of the things I kept thinking about, especially during that first year of the lockdown, is it's a lot easier to control a population if you really have, you know, a public health concern to regulate people's behavior on a level that it's usually not. Obviously, here in the U.S., we saw a huge political firestorm because of the lockdown, or not lockdown. But in countries that really don't have a democratic system of governance, it's even more opportunity, really, for governments to overreach. Would you agree?

Ted Piccone 09:49
Yes, for sure. We saw that in many different countries. It's hard to say, though, that democratic societies were unable to impose serious lockdown. Take New Zealand, or South Korea, Taiwan. And these countries actually did quite well in containing the, the epidemic. But in societies, for example, in Europe that are open to much more, you know, used to much more freedom and openness, you know, lockdowns don't go down very well, and you're going to see that kind of political polarization and exploitation. Now, the authoritarians, you know, they definitely did make use of this by imposing, for example, emergency laws that were not properly approved by Parliament or they have no end point, and so they keep getting extended. That's obviously a concern from a rule of law perspective.

Mohamed Younis 10:51
What question I've gotten often, it's almost impossible to answer. We live in a legal world that's really based on nation state sovereignty, right? So, if things aren't going great with regards to rule of law in Country X, there are not a lot of external enforcement mechanisms to get Country X to change unless Country X really wants to change on its own. How do you get nations and leaders to really make improvements on grounds that in many cases really are undermining their ability to maintain a level of control over their population?

Ted Piccone 11:30
It's a great question, and it's probably the most important one that we're facing in the world right now. It's something I've studied over many years. You know, first and foremost, change has to be led by people in the country, and it can't be imposed from the outside. Now, outside factors can play a role, and they can support change-makers on the ground, or they can punish authoritarians through sanctions and other measures. But it's very hard to really have a tight enforcement procedure under our current framework of international law and order and power. The other consideration here is that people in power really go to great lengths to avoid losing that power, and to the point where they will, they will trash their own countries in the process. You know, Venezuela is the most obvious example here. There's a similar phenomenon at work, and I think you have millions of people suffering in some of these countries, while the rulers, you know, intentionally just line their pockets with impunity.

Ted Piccone 12:36
The impunity piece is important, right? That's where we started. What's the definition of the rule of law? Accountability. The opposite of accountability is impunity. Impunity signals to rulers that they can get away with this, and they'll keep doing it. So that makes it really hard to, to get change going in, in these countries. And, you know, what other checks on power are their courts, parliaments, media, civil society, opposition parties. The autocrats are going to make sure they're in check and under control. Now, it's not only those cases. You have other cases where there's not a lack of political will, but there is a lack of resources and capacity, particularly in the lower-income world, and I think this is a generational challenge. It takes a long time and a lot of consistent effort and resources and education over many years to build up that, that muscle of a culture of the rule of law.

Mohamed Younis 13:36
Rule of law has been backsliding in some countries, Ted, where really some of them were once poster children for progress on this topic. This is, of course, having ramifications on the future, like you mentioned, both economic development and the quality of governments in those nations. I know not to pick on Latin America, a region that I absolutely love, but I know that's a part of the world you spend a lot of time studying. Where are you most troubled by rule of law setbacks these days?

Ted Piccone 14:04
Well, you know, the list is long and much longer than the cases of optimism. Yeah, our index this year showed declines in rule of law in every region and regardless of income status. So this is a global phenomenon. Certainly, Latin America is facing many of those challenges, but I would put the countries of greatest concern in two categories. First, you have the countries that were already underperforming but took a big turn for the worse in the past year or two. So, countries like Myanmar, Belarus, the whole Hong Kong, and China more broadly, situation. Nicaragua, with the sham elections, they just had locking up most of the presidential candidates in the process. Ethiopia is going through a difficult stretch. That's the first category, but the second would be those that are governed by leaders who, frankly, should know better. They came to power through democratic means, but they're exploiting differences to stay in power. They're using populism, nationalism, sectarian differences.

Ted Piccone 15:23
So on that list, I would put Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil. You have this guy Bukele in El Salvador. Unfortunately, the list keeps going, and I think in the United States, we faced our, our own versions of that kind of, of leadership. In terms of more hopeful countries, our survey this year found that only 25% of countries improved. That's the lowest number we've seen in at least six years. There are a few positive cases -- some of the Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, rose in their global rankings. And then we can also track improvement over time. So, there's some countries like Ukraine, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Italy and Spain, have all seen steady improvement over the last few years.

Mohamed Younis 16:18
And Italy, actually, people might be surprised to hear that, but Italy did go through a pretty significant constitutional reform process recently that's been fascinating to watch. Ted, you mentioned the United States. I wanted to ask you, how does a guy who spent decades, now, studying rule of law in a lot of really tough situations across the world, how do you view the state of rule of law here in the United States? What are kind of some of the major challenges you see the U.S. facing?

Ted Piccone 16:48
You know, I went through that list and I would say, for me, I'm most worried about the United States. In the last year, the United States fell more than any other high-income country in our global survey and more than any other country in the European and North America region. I guess, we are -- and, you know, you don't have to spend much time reading the newspaper or watching the news to realize that we are in a crisis of democracy. It's beyond just a temporary recession. It feels more systemic. It feels like it's getting harder and harder to find the path toward resolution of our big problems because the polarization has become so intense and so bitter, and living in Washington, you see it and you hear it every day.

Ted Piccone 17:46
So, in some areas, you see declines in constraints of government powers, right? So the role of Congress and checking the executive has declined. The reduction in independent media, particularly at the local level, is of serious concern. You have concerns around corruption. The role of independent auditors in checking government is also under threat. Fundamental rights have been under a lot of stress in the United States and globally, I would say. And we're seeing, you know -- what's interesting about our data is it gives us an objective yardstick to compare the United States to all these other countries over several years. So, you have some sense of comparability, and there the United States really is falling, falling down.

Ted Piccone 18:44
To point out just one or two others, we have a big problem in this country in discrimination in our justice systems, whether civil or criminal. And you see that on the rankings where we fall, you know, almost at the bottom when it comes to issues of bias and prejudice in our justice systems. So clearly, the last several years, we did have a certain type of president. Last -- prior to this current one, that took an approach to governing that sought to undermine checks and balances in the system, and it's led to a lot of polarization, as I mentioned, and the lack of trust in government and including in the public health sector.

Ted Piccone 19:31
So, who do you, who do you trust? And you see that in the way the pandemic is getting, or not getting under, under control. So just to, you know -- President Biden faces this challenge of how do you dig out of this hole? And his approach was as many pieces. But one part was to convene the world's first summit for democracy just last week, and you had over 100 heads of state and government coming together to address the problems in, in each of our countries. And I think that's a good thing. You know, we have a long road to travel, and we, you know, ideally, the United States would be able to be a positive role model for other countries and for the rule of law and democracy and human rights. But it's still going to take some time, and -- but I think we're maybe coming out of the hole and going in the right direction.

Mohamed Younis 20:33
It's amazing, Ted, you mentioned those data because they so perfectly mirror what we've been finding with public opinion in the U.S. 2005 was the last time a majority of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. Most Americans perceive corruption as being widespread in government. And the most important problem facing the country -- it's like an open question we ask every month -- continues to be poor government and poor leadership. And it's really held on for years now. So, it couldn't dovetail better with your comments and really the challenges we face here in the U.S. and across many democracies and budding democracies, we'll say, across the world. Ted, I can't thank you enough for being with us. It's Ted Piccone, who is the chief engagement officer at the World Justice Project. Ted, thanks for being with us.

Ted Piccone 21:22
Thank you, Mohamed.

Mohamed Younis 21:24
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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