Waves of democratization are not over?


In the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, (PDF), Marc Plattner makes the provocative claim that “the era of democratic transitions is over, and should now become the province of the historians,” notes political scientist Jay Ulfelder. By that, he seems to mean that we should not expect new waves of democratization similar in form and scale to the ones that have occurred before. I think Plattner is wrong, in part because he has defined “wave” too broadly, he writes on his Dart Throwing Chimp blog.

In his essay, Plattner implicitly adopts the definition of waves of democratization described by Samuel Huntington on p. 15 of his influential 1991 book:

A wave of democratization is a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that period of time.

Much of what’s been written and said about waves of democratization since that book was published accepts those terms and the three waves Huntington identifies when he applies them to the historical evidence: one in Europe from the 1820s to the 1920s; another and wider one in Europe, Latin America, and Asia from the 1940s to the early 1960s; and a third and so-far final one that began in Portugal in 1974, has been global in scope, and now appears to have stalled or ended…..

I think we can make out at least five and maybe more such waves since the early 1900s, not the three or maybe four we usually hear about.

First, as Plattner  (p. 9) points out, what Huntington describes as the “first, long” wave really includes two distinct clusters: 1) the “dozen or so European and European-settler countries that already had succeeded in establishing a fair degree of freedom and rule of law, and them moved into the democratic column by gradually extending the suffrage”; and 2) “countries that became democratic after World War I, many of them new nations born from the midst of the European empires defeated and destroyed during the war.”

The second (or now third?) wave grew out of World War II. Even though this wave was relatively short, it also included a few distinct sub-clusters: countries defeated in that war, countries born of decolonization, and a number of Latin American cases. …. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to split the so-called second wave into two clusters (war losers and newly independent states) and a clump of coincidences (Latin America), but there are enough direct linkages across those sets to see meaning in a larger wave, too.

As for the so-called third wave, I’m with Mike McFaul (here) and others who see at least two separate clusters in there. The wave of democratization that swept southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s is temporally and causally distinct from the spate of transitions associated with the USSR’s reform and disintegration, so it makes no sense to talk of a coherent era spanning the past 40 years. Less clear is where to put the many democratic transitions—some successful, many others aborted or short lived—that occurred in Africa as Communist rule collapsed. Based partly on Robert Bates’ analysis (here), I am comfortable grouping them with the post-Communist cases. …

So, based on that definition and its application, I think it’s fair to say that we have seen at least five waves of democratization in the past two centuries, and perhaps as many as six or seven….

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries now have regimes that most observers would call democratic, so the pool of potential democratizers is substantially diminished. As Plattner puts it (p. 14), “The ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been picked.” Still, if we look for groups of authoritarian regimes that share enough political, economic, social, and cultural connections to allow common causes and contagion to kick in, then I think we can find some sets in which this dynamic could clearly happen again. I see three in particular.

The first and most obvious is in the Middle East and North Africa, the region that has proved most resistant to democratization to date. In fact, I think we already saw—or, arguably, are still seeing—the next wave of democratization in the form of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. So far, that cluster of popular uprisings and state collapses has only produced one persistently democratic state (Tunisia), but it has also produced a democratic interlude in Egypt; a series of competitively elected (albeit ineffective) governments in Libya; a nonviolent transfer of power between elected governments in Iraq; ongoing (albeit not particularly liberal) revolutions in Syria and Yemen; and sustained, liberal challenges to authoritarian rule in Bahrain, Kuwait, and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. …

Beyond that, though, I also see the possibility of a wave of regime breakdowns and attempts at democracy in Asia brought on by economic or political instability in China. Many of the autocracies that remain in that region—and there are many—depend directly or indirectly on Chinese patronage and trade, so any significant disruption in China’s political economy would send shock waves through their systems as well. I happen to think that systemic instability will probably hit China in the next few years (see here, here, and here), but the timing is less relevant here than the possibility of this turbulence, and thus of the wider wave of democratization it could help to produce.


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