Is global democracy in trouble?


Or does it just feel like it? PRI asks.

“We’re not just talking about a recession of democracies, in terms of countries that are democracies. We’re talking about a recession of democratic-ness, of the extent, the vigor, of freedom and democracy in the world,” the Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond told a National Endowment for Democracy event last year.

But a robust case could also be made for democratic resilience. As some democracies have become wobbly, others have strengthened, or even moved to the democratic camp, PRI’s Mary Kay Magistad adds:

The number of democratic states in the world has held steady for a decade at 89, by some counts, even as some have left the list and others have joined. (Here’s Freedom House’s count. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index breaks the numbers down slightly differently.)

“There are well over 100 different political regimes out there in the world, and a number of different cases that for a number of different reasons are moving in different directions, says Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University professor of government. Levitsky wrote the book Competitive Authoritarian: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War with fellow political scientist Lucan Way at the University of Toronto.

“But I do not see in Asia, or anywhere, a pattern towards a systematic erosion of civil liberties.” Indeed, he says, many African states have moved over the past couple of decades, if not to real democracy, at least to allowing more rights, and some opposition.

Authoritarian tradition

“The Chinese Communist Party certainly does not want to give up power, nor does it envision a future in which it can retain power while radically changing the political system,” says Bill Hurst, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. “That is, Xi Jinping and others in power in China want to keep the status quo, as far as the basic system is concerned. They’re very, very concerned to be able to do that effectively, not necessarily to be able to do that in a pleasant way, but in an effective way.”

That’s a time-honored tradition among authoritarian states, says Levitsky, and not a sign of democracy in decline. He says Americans, especially in policymaking circles, have long been too optimistic that when things start to change in an authoritarian state, it necessarily means a move toward democracy.

“Whenever an authoritarian regime begins to liberalize, or weaken, or reform, whether those reforms are genuine whether these reforms are window dressing, we [in the United States] assume that its democratization. And it’s not always democratization,” Levitsky says. “Authoritarian regimes fall and may be replaced by chaos, like in Libya. They may be replaced by other authoritarian regimes like in Iran in 1979, or Nicaragua 1979 or they may be replaced by democracies. But there is no reason, either theoretically or empirically, to conflate change or reform or the breakdown of authoritarianism with democratization.”


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