Is Democracy in Decline?


For all the commentary on democratic recession, there has been nothing like the kind of “reverse wave” that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century identified in earlier periods, notes Marc F. Plattner, the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy. So what is negatively characterized as stagnation or as an end to democratic progress might more hopefully be regarded as success at conserving the remarkable democratic gains of the third wave, he writes in the new issue of Democracy & Society, the online publication of Georgetown’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society:

Moreover, the fact that so many countries became democratic during the late twentieth century dramatically reduced the pool of future prospects, and those that remain are generally less promising candidates in that they tend to possess fewer of the economic and cultural characteristics that have been identified as facilitating conditions for democratization. In a sense, the “low-hanging fruit” has already been picked. This indicates that the road ahead will be more difficult. Yet an optimist could still conclude that democracy is, so to speak, pausing to catch its breath to get ready for a new wave of expansion.

This optimistic long-term scenario, however, presupposes that democracy will remain the goal that countries are seeking to attain, Plattner adds:

And this in turn is likely to depend on its continuing to be viewed both as the global standard of political legitimacy and as the best system for achieving the kind of prosperity and effective governance that virtually all peoples desire. What has changed most dramatically in recent years is that these presuppositions are being called into question. It is rising doubt about the legitimacy and the desirability of democracy that is at the root of the sense of democratic decline. There are three chief reasons for this shift: (1) the growing sense that the advanced democracies are in trouble in terms of their economic and political performance at home; (2) the new self-confidence and seeming vitality of some authoritarian countries; and (3) the shifting geopolitical balance between the democracies and their rivals.

Yet there is reason to believe that the leading authoritarian regimes are not nearly as durable as their recent advances and the self-confidence they exude might suggest, says Plattner, co-chair of the Research Council of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies:

Venezuela, following mismanagement and the sinking of oil prices, has already become an economic basket case; if oil prices remain low, Russia too will encounter daunting economic obstacles, and even Iran and Saudi Arabia will be hard-pressed to maintain stability at home and their current level of influence abroad. Even China, the strongest of the Big Five, faces an uncertain future, as its remarkable economic growth of the past three decades inevitably slows, and its political system must cope with a much more educated and demanding citizenry. So even if democracy remains beset by difficulties, it may be bailed out by the weaknesses of its opponents.


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