Freedom’s March

History might not be ending, but democracy is still gaining ground.


After witnessing the Soviet Union’s fall and the global expansion of democracy, scholar Francis Fukuyama speculated that we were approaching an “end of history” in which liberal democracy would be the world’s only accepted political system. Conversely, Joshua Kurlantzick warns that recent cases of democratic failure signal that “democracy is in retreat” (“One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” March/April 2013).

Both predictions seem excessive to us. Democracy has made great strides since 1970, when only one in four sovereign countries was democratic. By 1995, more than half were. It’s true that over the last 15 years we’ve seen a remarkable stasis in the prevalence of democracy. In its 2013 report, Freedom House rates 90 of the world’s countries as “free” — the same number as five years ago and only one more than 10 years ago. Still, this is hardly a sign of democracy in dramatic decline.

Moreover, democracy remains overwhelmingly popular in every corner of the world. In the Globalbarometer’s latest survey of 55 mostly developing countries, two-thirds of respondents say democracy is their most preferred political system (including a majority in 49 of 55 countries), and 83 percent say democracy is suitable for their country. According to the World Values Survey, in two-thirds of 47 surveyed countries, the percentage rating democracy favorably increased over time. In only five countries did this percentage decline by more than 3 percentage points. Although Kurlantzick warns that the global middle class is turning away from democracy, support is actually highest among the most educated.

As Kurlantzick suggests, it is potentially worrying that the flat-lining of democracy has coincided with steady economic growth, a burgeoning global middle class, and popular dissatisfaction in several young democracies, including Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan. But the primary culprit in this democratic turmoil is the changing composition of the world’s democracies, rather than any resurgence of authoritarianism: Largely due to normative and international pressures, democracy has spread to dozens of poor countries with small middle classes and high inequality, precisely the countries least likely to democratize 50 to 100 years ago. These facts do not presage a retreat of democracy, nor do they contradict the proposition that wealthier and more educated populations tend to promote democratic development.

In effect, the global advance of democracy has become a victim of its own success. The more democracy spreads, the less it can be concentrated in the most favorable environments. Although history has shown that poor countries like Benin, India, and Mongolia can become stable democracies, others like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan continue to struggle, as did the United States, France, and Italy in the early days of democracy.

Democracies with wealthy and educated populations have been particularly stable, with the worrisome exception of Hungary. To date, no democracy with a per capita income above $11,000 (in today’s dollars) has ever slid backward. If current rates of growth in the developing world are sustained, we have good reason to expect the consolidation of many of the world’s young democracies.

Professor of Politics, Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.
Lecturer, Australian National University
Canberra, Australia
Professor of Political Science, Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon. @APQW
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