Democracy has unquestionably lost its global momentum, note Carnegie Endowment analysts Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs. But those who despair the future of democracy tend to focus on a select set of highly visible negative developments—especially the searing failure of the Arab Spring and the rise of illiberal populism in Europe and the United States. Yet in other important regions the picture is different, they write for Foreign Affairs:
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index (left) scores for Asia and Africa show a modest improvement over the last decade. Indeed, the quality of democracy has improved in places such as Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, the Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Ukraine in spite of the serious problems they have faced. In Latin America, the illiberal populist wave in the early 2000s is receding. …..
The scholars Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have usefully warned [in the Journal of Democracy] that “democratic deconsolidation” may be occurring in Western democracies as a result of declines in adherence to core democratic values. But as Harvard University’s Pippa Norris has noted, some opinion surveys based on broader data sets reveal that this is not a consistent pattern across Western democracies.
Moreover, the current decline is not widely found outside of the West. In Africa and Latin America, public support for core democratic values has remained high and steady over the last decade. The Afrobarometer,* for example, shows that over 70 percent of Africans reject nondemocratic forms of democracy. And despite the dispiriting results of the Arab Spring, the World Values Survey shows that support for democracy in the Middle East is on a gradual, upward trajectory.
In short, although liberal democracy is facing greater cross-border challenges from authoritarian powers, the central threat is not authoritarianism’s success as a political system but rather the instability that such regimes produce, Carothers and Youngs contend:
The overall state of democracy in the world is much less healthy than predicted during the early years of democracy’s third wave. Yet a sense of perspective is needed: the past was not as bright as many seem to remember, democracy is holding steady in some regions, populism is not as global a trend as is often portrayed, and most people are more interested in accountability than illiberalism. The tendency to view global developments through the lens of antidemocratic counterrevolution provides a distorted picture.
*A grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.