Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled (Expanded Edition)

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The Journal of Democracy began publishing in 1990 in an era of hopeful, even exhilarating, expansion of democracy around the world. Democracy was on the march not only literally—on the ground and at the ballot box—but normatively and intellectually. Yet even at the peak of democracy’s third wave in the mid-1990s, scholars were worrying about the shallow nature of many democratic regimes. These illiberal, poorly governed democracies were identified as prime candidates for erosion, and many of the have since failed or oscillated. Beginning in 2006, the world entered a period of global democratic recession that has gathered considerable momentum in recent years. Now, with the deterioration of democratic norms and institutions in the United States, the growing doubts about democracy’s efficacy, and the resurgence of authoritarian power and belligerence (led by China and Russia), democracy faces its most daunting test in many decades.

A shorter version of this essay, written to mark the close of Larry Diamond’s 32 years as coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, appears in the Journal’s January 2022 issue and is available here

“No cause is left but the most ancient of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.”

—Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1963

When Marc Plattner and I began preparing to launch this journal early in 1989, democracy was resurgent globally, but far from dominant. What Samuel P. Huntington would soon call “democracy’s third wave” had already spread from Southern Europe to Latin America to Asia, increasing the percentage of states that were democracies from a quarter in 1974 to about 40 percent at the end of 1988.1 As we prepared to launch a new kind of publication that would inform scholars, students, activists, and policymakers around the world, we believed that we were riding a historical wave that would transform the world. But we did not assume its inevitability, and we did not imagine the scope and speed of the political transformation that was looming.

By the time our first issue went to press toward the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall had been torn down by the people whom it had held captive for decades, and the Soviet bloc was crumbling. After five years of opening under Mikhail Gorbachev, the decrepit Soviet Union itself had entered a twilight period. With both fear and faith in the Soviet Communist Party rapidly diminishing, Charles Fairbanks predicted the collapse of its rule within a few years, or sooner.2 By the end of 1991, it was no more. Transitions to democracy were then well underway in most of Central and Eastern Europe, Nelson Mandela had been released in South Africa, civil society had toppled a dictatorship in Benin, and other longstanding African dictatorships were on the defensive. Seemingly impregnable dictators soon fell in Zambia, Kenya, and Malawi. By 1994, some forty countries had transited to democracy within the space of half a decade.

About the Author

Larry Diamond is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy.

View all work by Larry Diamond

This was the hopeful—and at times thrilling—context of the Journal of Democracy’s early years, a period in which the liberal democracies were regarded as “the only truly and fully modern societies.”3 Democracy was on the march not only literally—on the ground and at the ballot box—but normatively and intellectually. From both the left and the right, intellectuals like Nigeria’s Claude Ake and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa were making the case for democracy as the best and historically necessary form of government.4 In 1999, at the end of the Journal’s first decade, Indian economist Amartya Sen decisively rebutted Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s thesis that autocracies are preferable as engines of economic development and stability. Beyond its selective, “sporadic,” and hence faulty empiricism—which ignores the frequent staggering developmental failures of autocracy—the Lee argument failed on both intrinsic and instrumental grounds. Intrinsically, Sen argued, democracy is important because it meets essential human needs for political participation and freedom. Instrumentally, it gives people—not least, the poor—the ability to voice their needs and be heard.5

Across diverse regions, the rule of dictatorships had left a trail of tears: brutal human rights abuses, pervasive fear, massive corruption, and often economic stagnation or ruin. In Latin America, this sobered both citizens and politicians, producing (especially on the left) what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan termed “the increased valorization of democracy as an important end that needed to be protected in and for itself.”6 Inspired by the rising tide of freedom, repulsed by the cruelties of authoritarian rule, and in some countries (especially in East Asia) transformed by growing incomes, education, and integration into the West, public opinion around the world swung strongly in favor of democracy as the best form of government.7

With the resurgent popular aspiration for democracy went a new pragmatism, moderation, and readiness for compromise among previously vehement political rivals. One result, as captured in the classic model of democratic transition laid out by Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, was a series of political bargains or “pacts” between regime and opposition “soft-liners” as well as broad coalitions among once bitterly opposed political parties, who came together (as in the case of Chile’s Concertación) to present a united electoral front against the old authoritarian regime.8 Citing Max Weber’s distinction between the “ethics of conviction” and the “ethics of responsibility,” the founding president of Uruguay’s renewed democracy, Julio María Sanguinetti, poignantly framed the painful choice democratic leaders confronted in compromising with military autocrats and torturers. For Sanguinetti, as for Nelson Mandela, Kim Dae Jung, and the Polish democrats who handled “roundtable” negotiations with the communists, the watchwords were: “Always strive to ensure that your actions do not produce consequences which contradict your good intentions.”9

Sadly, this was not a lesson that China’s young prodemocracy student leaders in Tiananmen Square, and the millions across China who rallied with them, had the time, organization, or grasp of history to effectuate during their mushrooming protests in early 1989.  In our inaugural issue, one of the leaders of that movement, Wuer Kaixi, paid tribute to the “great achievement” by virtue of which the Chinese people rose up to face “their government directly” in order to demand “freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”10 Shortly thereafter, the China scholar Andrew Nathan saw the Tiananmen protests as exposing political and ideological weaknesses in the communist regime that repression could not solve. This, along with modernization, the spread of “emancipatory” values, and the unfolding democratic transition in Taiwan, suggested the plausibility of transition to at least partial democracy in China.11 For reasons that I will discuss later in this essay, such a transition was not to be.

Transition and Consolidation

By 1995, a clear majority of the world’s countries had become democracies. In the following decade, the ranks of democratic countries would continue to grow, but at a much slower pace. The biggest breakthroughs were the postcommunist “color revolutions” that brought down first (in 2000) the murderous Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević and then the communist-successor authoritarian regimes in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004–2005). As Michael McFaul explained in our pages, these three revolutions bore remarkable similarities to one another. Each used the limited space of a semi-authoritarian regime to challenge an unpopular incumbent while rallying disparate opposition forces. Each organized extensive vote monitoring and a parallel vote tabulation, which documented systematic vote fraud. Each then used partly independent media to publicize the fraud and to organize massive public demonstrations protesting against it. And each strictly adhered to tactics of nonviolent civil resistance, thereby fomenting splits within the security forces that discouraged repression.12

Research has shown that nonviolent movements for political change are much more likely to be successful.13 The strategy and tactics of nonviolent civil resistance, with their capacity for broadly mobilizing society, played important roles in numerous other democratic transitions. Beyond the above cases, these included: South Africa, Benin, Zambia, and Malawi; the 1997–98 student protests that pressured Indonesia’s 32-year dictator Suharto to resign in May 1998; the toppling of President Alberto Fujimori in Peru after he stole the 2000 election; the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005; the 2011 Arab Spring ousters of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt; the EuroMaidan protests that restored a faltering democracy in Ukraine in 2014; and the 2019 downfall of the 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir in Sudan.14 Over the years, the Journal of Democracy has covered these movements in some depth. Recently, Erica Chenoweth found that over the past nine decades, nonviolent campaigns have been about twice as effective as violent ones in overthrowing oppressive regimes. Yet success rates generally have plummeted since the golden years of the 1990s—when 65 percent of all nonviolent campaigns succeeded in toppling oppression. That rate fell by about half, to 34 percent during the decade beginning in 2010.15 Moreover, since 2009, of twenty-two cases where mass public protests or an electoral earthquake opened possibilities for a transition to democracy, only two succeeded (Tunisia between 2010 and 2014, and in Ukraine in 2014).16 In both countries, democracy is now in serious trouble.

One of the most significant developments in the mid-1990s was the completion of Taiwan’s gradual transition to democracy with its first direct and democratic presidential election in 1996. While the candidate of the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), incumbent Lee Teng-hui, won easily, the smoothness of this final passage, the election of a native-born Taiwanese to the presidency, and subsequent democratic reform and deepening (despite intense two-party competition) all marked Taiwan as one of the third wave’s great success stories. Today, Taiwan is the most liberal democracy in Asia and one of the most open and technologically innovative countries in the world.

As Taiwan was headed toward this final chapter in its transition, the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies (the research companion to the Journal of Democracy) was invited to join Taiwan’s Institute for National Policy Research (INPR) in organizing a conference on “Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies.” That four-day meeting in August 1995 (gathering many of the world’s greatest living democracy scholars) was significant not only symbolically, but intellectually, for the debate it spawned about democratic consolidation.17 Through institutional deepening, state-building, and a normative transformation, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan argued, the consolidation process generates behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional commitments that make democratic breakdown essentially unthinkable.18

The participating scholars did not regard consolidation as inevitable or irreversible. For Philippe Schmitter, democratic consolidation at the level of an entire regime required the consolidation of several “partial regimes” of interest representation and conflict resolution.19 For Linz and Stepan, consolidation required democratic leadership to safeguard or establish “a free and lively civil society”; effective electoral and representative institutions; “a rule of law that protects individual freedoms and associational life”; a reasonably functional state bureaucracy capable of collecting taxes, delivering basic services, and maintaining order; and a market economy able to deliver reasonable prosperity.20 Plainly, these things were all far more likely to be found in countries with moderate to high levels of economic development and state capacity. Thus, consolidation was considered more likely to occur in more prosperous countries with stronger states.

In the mid-1990s, Adam Przeworski and his colleagues found stunning evidence in support of the modernization advantage: With every step up the ladder of per capita income, the survival prospects of democracies increase. “Above $6,000” (in 1985 Purchasing Power Parity dollars, or about $13,000 in today’s value), they declared, “democracies are impregnable and can be expected to live forever.” Otherwise, democracies could “survive even in the poorest nations if they manage to generate development, if they reduce inequality, if the international climate is propitious, and if they have parliamentary institutions.”21

Controversy emerged around this literature, however. Years after Przeworski and his coauthors wrote, several democracies fell despite existing in countries where per capita PPP income was above the $6,000 threshold.22 And at our conference in Taiwan, Guillermo O’Donnell challenged the utility of the consolidation concept, worrying that it “carries a strong teleological flavor. Cases that have not ‘arrived’ at full institutionalization, or that do not seem to be moving in this direction, are seen as stunted, frozen, protractedly unconsolidated, and the like,” until their obstacles are overcome.23 But most emerging democracies of the third wave had not institutionalized formal, impersonal rules of the game.

As O’Donnell (and later, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi) stressed, the institutionalized rules of the game in many third-wave democracies were far from being anything like the formal and universalistic building blocks of the Rechtsstaat that Linz and Stepan had held to be crucial to consolidated democracy. Rather these rules were particularistic and informal—or in a word, corrupt. A key missing ingredient was what O’Donnell called “horizontal accountability,” the robust architecture of checks and balances (and systems of oversight) that constrains particularistic behavior and narrows the gap “between the formal rules and the way most institutions actually work.”24 The result (as he had already explained in the Journal) is “delegative democracy,” with a “caesaristic, plebiscitarian executive that once elected sees itself as empowered to govern the country as it deems fit.”25

The “freeing of illusions” that O’Donnell appealed for would later be advanced by another much-cited Journal article, by Thomas Carothers in the January 2002 issue, declaring “The End of the Transition Paradigm.” Carothers criticized the flawed assumptions of many political aid practitioners: that any liberalizing change from authoritarian rule places a country on a path of democratic transition; that democratization unfolds naturally from opening to breakthrough to consolidation; that democratic elections automatically produce an accountable state and then other reforms; that structural and historical conditions do not greatly constrain democratic progress; and that a reasonably functional state is already in place. In fact, Linz and Stepan, along with other scholars, had already warned against just such assumptions, but U.S. and Western policy makers heedlessly settled into a paradigm for moving “nearly a hundred countries” along this transitional path to democracy. Carothers could identify no more than twenty countries that were “clearly en route to becoming successful, well-functioning democracies.” Most others were stuck in a “political gray zone” marked by limited space for opposition, contestation, and dissent but also “serious democratic deficits” that made these countries either very low-quality democracies or what Linz, Lipset, and I termed “pseudo-democracies.”26

In other words, they were hybrid regimes—a type of polity that Terry Karl had explained in an influential 1995 Journal essay diagnosing the “fallacy of electoralism” in Central America. Behind a façade of elections that may sometimes be free and fair, militaries impede democratic control, inequality degrades citizenship for the poor, “judiciaries remain weak, rights are violated, and contracts are broken.”27 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way reclassified many supposedly democratic regimes as “competitive authoritarian” because they failed to provide a reasonably level playing field for electoral competition.28 In other gray-zone countries, elections were free and fair, with alternation in power, but even then they suffered from what Carothers called “feckless pluralism,” in which “politics is widely seen as a stale, corrupt, elite-dominated domain that delivers little good to the country” and is often torn by paralyzing divisions.29 Both types of regimes frustrated the ambitions of democracy promoters to nudge countries along the transition paradigm.

The End of Illusions

Years before this debate took place, I had begun worrying about the problem of democratic shallowness and inauthenticity. Part of this came from my growing concern about the limits and deep contradictions of democracy in Latin America, which had initially seemed advantaged by its prior democratic experience, its proximity to the United States, a regional architecture for democratic defense, and at-least-middling levels of economic development. One memory had stayed with me from years earlier: At a conference on democracy in the Americas hosted by the newly completed Carter Center late in 1986, I got a rude awaking when Guatemalan president Vinicio Cerezo declared: “I have ten percent of the power in my country.” The rest, he said, was controlled by the military and various hidden, wealthy elites. How real and effective can the formal institutions of democracy be when they are overwhelmed by hidden forces, “reserve domains” of military power, or “authoritarian enclaves” of local bosses and mafias?30 In 1993, Guillermo O’Donnell warned about the limited reach of the legal state in Latin America, beyond which lie vast “brown areas” informally but quite effectively controlled by “patrimonial, sultanistic, or simply gangsterlike” powers. These are worlds of “extreme violence” and predation that “coexist with a regime that, at least at the national political center, is democratic.”31 My assessment of democracy in Latin America in the 1990s similarly led me to concern about the “illiberal nature of ‘democracy’” in the region. I argued that shallow democracy renders a country more susceptible to a total breakdown of the constitutional order, and that democratic regimes cannot become secure unless they broadly respect human rights and institutionalize constraints on the power of key political actors.32 Since then, some Latin American countries have moved forward, others back, but democracy remains a partial, troubled, and contested reality that has recently shown growing signs of unraveling.

A Farewell Message

This issue is my 129th and last as coeditor of the Journal of Democracy. For the past 32 years, the work of shaping and editing our coverage of democracy’s challenges has been a calling and a privilege. For a young scholar of comparative democracy, the opportunity to partner in conceiving, launching, and editing the Journal was the chance of a lifetime, and I cannot imagine having had the same career of scholarship and advocacy without it.

I would like to thank the Journals publisher, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and staff for their friendship, dedication, and exemplary work—especially former NED president Carl Gershman and the Journals founding coeditor, Marc Plattner, for their support and solidarity over three decades. From his perch heading the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, Marc was the ideal working partner in every respect—intellectually rigorous, normatively steadfast, prudent, well organized, creative, and empathetic. I felt we made an effective “inside-outside” team. Carl Gershman gave us not only tangible support as president of the NED, but also constant intellectual and moral inspiration. Christopher Walker, who now leads the NED’s International Forum, has been a vital partner, key ally, and promoter of our work.

Will Dobson has proven to be a gifted and worthy successor to Marc as coeditor of the Journal, bringing to the role far-reaching knowledge, superb editorial judgement, and fierce intellectual integrity. I am also confident that my successor, Professor Tarek Masoud of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, will help take the Journal to new horizons. A longtime member of our editorial board, Tarek is committed to the high standards and deep analysis that are our signature, and he brings a brilliant mind, strong moral commitment, and fresh analytic perspective to the work.

I am deeply grateful to the dedicated and talented people who have served on the Journals staff over the years, particularly our executive editor, Phil Costopoulos, who has done so much to shape the style of these pages, especially their crisp, accessible, and engaging prose. With the incredibly sharp and thoughtful Tracy Brown recently returning to the Journal as senior editor, Brent Kallmer as our creative and efficient managing editor, and Justin Daniels as our prodigiously energetic assistant editor, the Journal team has never been stronger. Finally, I thank the many extraordinary scholars of democracy who have served on our editorial board, contributed essays, and advised us in many ways. While Seymour Martin Lipset, Juan Linz, Alfred Stepan, Samuel Huntington, and Guillermo O’Donnell are no longer with us, the debt that we (and I personally) owe them is enormous and can never fully be repaid.

—Larry Diamond

The concern for democratic quality grew in collaboration with the Italian political scientist Leonardo Morlino. In a Stanford University conference and then a Journal of Democracy symposium, we developed a framework for assessing the quality of democracy along eight dimensions: the procedural ones of participation, competition, vertical and horizontal accountability, and rule of law; the “content” ones of freedom and equality; and the “results” dimension of responsiveness.33 Democracies that score high on these dimensions (“liberal democracies”) are very likely to become consolidated. Democracies that improve on these dimensions lift their survival prospects. Those that fall very short or decline in quality will be at risk.

I had also been sobered from very early on by my study of Nigeria’s experience. My doctoral research on the failure of the First Nigerian Republic in the 1960s showed how a pseudodemocracy could careen from one crisis to the next—its legitimacy draining away amid corruption, repression, polarization, and misrule—until the military intervened. Nigeria’s Second Republic commenced in 1979 with exuberant hopes, a flood of oil wealth, and a constitution reflecting some important political lessons, but it quickly became mired in the worst forms of particularism and lawlessness. Kleptocratic corruption ravaged governance, accountability, the economy, and then, in its first reelection test, the most minimal condition for democracy, free and fair elections.

In the last quarter of 1983, as I prepared to leave Nigeria ahead of another military coup (it happened on the last day of the year), I broached with my former thesis advisor, Seymour Martin Lipset, the idea for a multiregional comparative study of experiences with democracy. In what would become the most impactful intellectual collaboration of my career, Marty brought in another, more senior, former student of his, Juan Linz. Our project produced three regional volumes (on Asia, Africa, and Latin America, respectively) and ultimately 27 country-level case studies.34

As we worked on these cases over several years, we were struck by a few things. First, it is very hard to reduce the fate of democracy to a single grand factor, even though our critics demanded that we find this holy grail. Instead, we found that many different factors could make a difference, and they mattered to varying degrees over time. Economic development eased the path to achieving and especially consolidating democracy, but only when economic inequality was attenuated to some degree and at least some other factors were favorable. Democratic legitimacy and related norms of tolerance and accommodation were crucial; a democratic culture could, as in India, Botswana, and Costa Rica, sustain a low-income democracy and help to entrench democracy at higher levels of development. A flawed structure for managing ethnic conflict (as in Nigeria’s First Republic) could by itself doom democracy.35 Constitutional arrangements that fit the society’s circumstances and structured strong institutions of representation, administration, and horizontal accountability often made a difference, by their presence or absence. Strong civil societies were often critical in pressing forward democratic transitions, and they played a foundational (if more incremental) role in the process of democratic consolidation, too.36 In some countries, the military was an enduring threat to democracy, and failure to transform civil-military relations could render an emerging democracy highly vulnerable.37

As I look back, however, three factors stand out. Together, they evoke the core theoretical debate in democratic studies between “structure and agency.” Do historical legacies and economic and social conditions largely guarantee—or foreclose—democracy, or does democracy’s fate depend on what leaders, parties, organizations. and ordinary people do in specific circumstances? Like most democracy scholars then and now, Linz, Lipset, and I recognized this as a false choice and embraced the perspective of “structured contingency.”38 To say that “agency” (political action and choice) matters is not to say that it is always decisive, that it can overcome all obstacles to achieving or preserving democracy, or that bad actors can suddenly demolish a democracy that is otherwise legitimate, institutionalized, and well-functioning. Democracy is tested when it enters the crucible of crisis and uncertainty. Then, the strategies, capacities, values, and decisions of individuals, groups, and institutions (including other states) can determine whether democracy survives or fails in a given country.39

The first factor that stands out, as Linz and Stepan stressed, was the quality of governance, involving both state capacity and the rule of law. It is impossible for democracy to become consolidated when lawlessness reigns, corruption is rampant, and the state is weak. As Francis Fukuyama has stressed, good governance—or at least initially decent, as opposed to predatory, governance—is key to democracy’s long-term prospects.40 Badly governed, poorly performing democracies are accidents waiting to happen. At some point, a crisis or an antidemocratic force will emerge—the military, an insurgent movement, or an authoritarian demagogue like Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chávez—and knock them over. If there is a holy grail for democratic development, that in my view is it.

But how does good governance emerge out of historical and social circumstances of weak laws, courts, bureaucracies, and other formal institutions? As would be shown in our edited project on The Self-Restraining State (led by Andreas Schedler) and in the work of Alina Mungiu-Pippidi on virtuous cycles, this can only be done by the conscious work of leaders, organizations, and reform coalitions, sometimes with the assistance of other states and outside institutions.41 Therefore, political and civic agency, strategy, and choice—or to use a word strangely rare in political science these days, “leadership”—matter. Most success stories have benefited from capable and dedicated (though hardly angelic) leaders who were committed to democracy, respectful of its institutions, and savvy about building and broadening coalitions and gradually strengthening institutions. Indeed, as we noted, many of the institutions (representative parties, suitable electoral systems, inclusive rules, competent states, independent courts) that have helped democracies to endure are the historical product of prior periods of political crafting by democratic leaders in government and civil society.42

Nevertheless, democracies do not rise or fall in a global vacuum. A key contribution of Huntington’s landmark 1991 book, The Third Wave, was to demonstrate the crucial impact of the international context of prevailing norms, ideas, models, and trends, and how the policies and actions of powerful democracies—and their power relative to autocracies—shaped the global fate of freedom. During the third wave, U.S. and European pressure, diplomatic engagement, and support often tipped the balance toward a successful transition (or away from democratic demise) in precarious circumstances. A later comparative study found that Western technical assistance, training, intellectual engagement, diplomatic pressure, and financial support for independent media and NGOs all figured prominently in successful democratic transitions but were notably weaker or absent in failed transitions.43 Thus, the international environment stands out as a hugely important third factor.

A healthy appreciation for the role of agency counsels us against a false sense of security about democracy’s fate—that once “consolidated,” democracies are inevitably here to stay. By the mid-1990s, several Western democracies, including the United States, were showing signs of political decay, distrust, and declining civic and political engagement. In 1995, Robert Putnam called attention to a particular dimension of this problem—America’s declining social capital—in his famous article “Bowling Alone,” which remains one of the most widely read articles in the history of the Journal.44 That same year Juan Linz, Seymour Martin Lipset, and I offered our own warning:

It is a dangerous fallacy to view consolidation as a one-time, irreversible process.  Democracies come and go. Over time, they may become legitimated, institutionalized, and consolidated. But as their institutions decay and democratic beliefs and practices erode, they may also become deconsolidated. . . . [E]ven established democracies have demagogues who blame the failings of society on democracy itself. One should not assume that in the face of crisis and prolonged governmental inefficacy and corruption, these demagogues could not gain a wider following.45

The Accelerating Democratic Recession

In 1996, I raised the possibility that the third wave might be giving way to stagnation or reversal, due to the growing gap between the electoral minimum of democracy and the rest of its liberal essence. Many third-wave democracies (or regimes loosely labeled as such, like Pakistan) were staggering on at a very superficial level, while suffering elite assaults on constitutional norms that threatened “death by a thousand subtractions.” Unless democracy was deepened and institutionally strengthened, many democracies would fail. And this deepening required, I argued then (and still do), that the established liberal democracies “show their own continued capacity for democratic vitality, reform, and good governance,” while working consciously “to promote democratic development around the world.”46

It gives me no satisfaction that many of my worst fears have been realized. Pakistan’s shallow “democracy” fell in a military coup in October 1999. Several of the other major democracies that I worried about at the time have clearly failed (Bangladesh and Turkey) or oscillated (Sri Lanka) or descended deeply into what Thomas Carothers called “the gray zone” of regime ambiguity (the Philippines). Of thirty strategic swing states that I identified in 1999,47 only Taiwan and the Czech Republic have maintained a high level of liberal democracy or progressed substantially in that direction. Democracy has been retreating at least somewhat in South Korea and, under populist, illiberal leaders and parties, substantially in Brazil, India, Mexico, and Poland.48 As it did in Bangladesh and Turkey, democracy broke down in Russia and Thailand, and it is now once again threatened by severe political polarization in Chile, weak governance in South Africa, and Russian meddling and aggression in Ukraine.

The above is only a partial list of democracy’s setbacks. In global aggregate, the democratic recession did not actually begin until around 2006. Since then, levels of freedom and democracy have steadily declined, fewer countries have made transitions to democracy, and many more democracies (almost all of them illiberal) have broken down. Several liberal democracies have declined in quality, and at least one (Hungary) has ceased to be a democracy at all. Several electoral democracies (such as Peru) are hanging by a thread; the only Arab democracy (Tunisia) has suffered an executive coup; and the most promising African democracy (Ghana) has been quietly deteriorating under the weight of rising corruption and disaffection. Several competitive authoritarian regimes (Cambodia, Nicaragua, and Uganda) are no longer the least bit competitive, and the weightiest authoritarian regimes (China and Russia, but also Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) are now significantly more so. Finally, rather than sustaining vitality and self-confidence, some of the leading liberal democracies (most alarmingly, the United States) have been on a glide path toward polarization and decay.

For a decade, the democratic recession was sufficiently subtle, incremental, and mixed that it was reasonable to debate whether it was happening at all.49 But as the years have passed, the authoritarian trend has become harder to miss. For each of the last fifteen years, many more countries have declined in freedom than have gained (reversing the pattern of the first fifteen post–Cold War years). By my count, the percentage of states (with populations over one million) that are democracies peaked in 2006 at 57 percent and has steadily declined since, dropping below a majority (to 48 percent) in 2019 for the first time since 1993.50 Every annual global assessment now warns of a serious downward spiral, as in the titles of the most recent Freedom House survey, “Democracy Under Siege,”51 and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) report, “Autocratization Turns Viral.”52 The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index found that under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, democracy scores declined in nearly 70 percent of the countries tracked, while “the global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006.”53 The most recent global assessment, released by International IDEA in November 2021, warns:

Democracy is at risk. Its survival is endangered by a perfect storm of threats, both from within and from a rising tide of authoritarianism. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these threats through the imposition of states of emergency, the spread of disinformation, and crackdowns on independent media and freedom of expression….The number of countries undergoing “democratic backsliding”… has never been as high as in the last decade.54

We have recently entered a more ominous phase of the democratic recession, evocative of Huntington’s reverse waves. More troubling than the aggregate numbers are the qualitative trends and where they are taking place. The world’s most populous democracy, India, is experiencing a diffuse assault on the normative and constitutional underpinnings of liberal democracy: political and intellectual pluralism; tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities; judicial independence and bureaucratic professionalism; and freedom of the media and civil society. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is following a trajectory hauntingly familiar to those who have watched the gradual destruction of democracy in countries such as Turkey, and because of India’s emerging market size and vital strategic importance as a counterweight to China, no major democracy wishes to call it out. The other big and influential democracies of the global South are also in trouble, due as well to authoritarian populist leaders (in Brazil and Mexico) or weak institutions and rising social stresses (in South Africa and Indonesia). The Philippines may next year elect as president the son of the last dictator, Ferdinand Marcos (deposed in 1986), and perhaps then complete its slide back into autocracy.

Stoking this worldwide backsliding has been the steady, shocking decline of democracy in the United States, which the Economist Intelligence Unit rates as a “flawed democracy.” In two influential Journal of Democracy articles in 2016 and 2017, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk identified growing signs of democratic “deconsolidation” in Europe and the United States, including rising disaffection with democratic institutions, growing support for authoritarian alternatives, and a weakening commitment to democratic rules of the game.55 Western Europe’s democratic troubles have been fed by the declining programmatic distinctiveness, creativity, and responsiveness of mainstream parties. Gripped by many of the same underlying stresses—economic dislocation, rising inequality, immigration pressures, identity divisions, and explosive inflammation of these by social media—U.S. democracy has decayed differently. Partisan polarization, skillfully exploited by demagogic forces, has followed the same toxic downward spiral that has undermined democracy in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Venezuela. As Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer explain, polarizing social forces and political strategies generate a deep societal rift, an “us versus them” intergroup logic, and the collapse of cross-cutting social ties, which Seymour Martin Lipset and many other scholars have viewed as crucial to the health of democracy.56 As the boundaries of in-group loyalty and interaction harden, mutual respect and tolerance give way to distrust, stereotyping, prejudice, and enmity between members of deeply hostile political camps. Each side comes to view the other as an existential threat, straining and then rupturing respect for democratic norms and rules.57 The problem is made worse, William Galston argues, by deep tensions in the nature of liberal democracy that render it vulnerable to reassertions of nationalism and traditionalism. “Individualism gives rise to the desire for denser communities. Egalitarianism strains against the desire for status and distinction. . . . Diversity produces a craving for unity; tedious negotiation for swift and decisive leadership.”58

It is not just political behavior that has taken the United States to the brink of constitutional crisis. Rising proportions of Americans in both camps express attitudes and perceptions that are blinking red for democratic peril. Common political ground has largely vanished. An October 2020 Pew poll found that “roughly eight-in-ten registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine-in-ten—again in both camps—worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”59 A February 2021 survey documented deep partisan divisions over the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, with most Republicans but very few Democrats believing that there had been widespread voter fraud. Nearly three in ten Americans (29 percent), and 39 percent of Republicans, were ready to endorse “violent actions” by “the people . . . themselves” to “protect America” if elected leaders fail to do so.60

A growing number of politicians and elected officials in the United States have been willing to bend or abandon democratic norms in the quest to achieve or retain power—and in retaining power, to barricade the party in it as a kind of permanent right, through restrictions on voting, politicization of electoral administration, and increasingly audacious and scientific gerrymandering that seeks to foreclose electoral alternation. Even in the wake of the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, most Americans have still not come to grips with how far the country has strayed from the minimum elements of normative and behavioral consensus that sustain democracy, what Robert A. Dahl called the “system of mutual security,” in which competing political forces commit to tolerating the other and playing peacefully by the rules of the democratic game.61 Every major scholar of democracy has recognized the fundamental need in a democracy for competitors to: 1) accept the legitimacy of their political rivals, and their right to compete; 2) trust that their rivals will not seek to eliminate them if they come to power, and 3) accept the consequences of fairly administered elections. This all requires, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt note, not just “mutual toleration” but also political “forbearance”—self-restraint in the exercise of power, rejection of violence, and respect for democracy’s unwritten rules and limits.62 As these two master norms have begun disintegrating, democracy in the United States has begun to deconsolidate and is at serious risk of breaking down in the next presidential election.

Resurgent Authoritarianism and the End of American Dominance

As my longtime coeditor, Marc Plattner, observed in our thirtieth-anniversary issue, “we are relearning the lesson that geopolitics matters deeply for the fate of democracy.”63 It is no coincidence that the heyday of democratic expansion—the decade of the 1990s—was also what Charles Krauthammer dubbed “the unipolar moment,” when the United States stood at “the center of world power” as “the unchallenged superpower . . . attended by its Western allies.”64 Already during the late 1970s and especially the 1980s, the power and will of the United States to defend human rights and promote democracy was giving hope and help to movements for democratic change, while ushering embattled autocrats out of power. Then, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the absence of other powerful autocracies enabled the United States, key European democratic allies, and the European Union to support and encourage democratic change on an unprecedented scale. Democratic forces around the world were emboldened, morally embraced, and materially assisted. Autocrats who depended on aid and diplomatic support faced often irresistible pressure to open up, plan their exits, or step aside when they lost elections.

Krauthammer anticipated that the unipolar moment would extend for decades. It lasted for little more than one. The first body blow to the United States’ global democratic supremacy was the reckless overextension of U.S. power in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which tarnished the very idea of democracy promotion. The second was the 2008 financial crisis, generated by greed and mismanagement in the U.S. subprime-mortgage industry and flawed U.S. regulatory policies. As the American financial crisis became a global one, the reputation of the world’s most powerful democracy was further damaged. Preoccupied with the crisis and torn between his deep philosophical commitment to human rights and his instinctive pragmatism, the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, charted a middle course that brought only “partial revitalization” of the U.S. role in promoting democracy. Although it sustained democracy assistance, launched the Open Government Partnership against corruption, worked to discourage democratic backsliding, and occasionally pushed for democratic change, the United States was no longer spearheading an effort to make dictatorships democratize. The era of U.S. leadership to shape a more democratic world drew to a close.65

Two structural factors constrained Obama’s—and the United States’—scope to promote democracy. One was the deepening polarization of U.S. politics, which further reduced the United States’ appeal as a model of democracy (and would do so even more dramatically in the years to come). And the second was the global resurgence of authoritarianism: the swelling power of China, the revival of aggressive and resentful Russian power, the cunning learning and adaptation of many autocracies, and their increasing collaboration in overlapping networks and norm-challenging initiatives.66

No global development of the twenty-first century has been more damaging to the cause of freedom than the emergence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the world’s next superpower, with the world’s fastest-growing military, a worldwide propaganda apparatus, and a program of global infrastructure development—the Belt and Road Initiative—that has already invested more than US$200 billion in ports, railways, highways, energy pipelines, and the like in some sixty countries comprising a majority of the world’s population. China has now surpassed the United States as the largest trading partner of Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. China leads four of the fifteen specialized UN agencies and, in cooperation with Russia and other authoritarian regimes, is working energetically to degrade human-rights norms and democratic civil society participation within existing global institutions, such as the UN and its Human Rights Council, while seeking to craft new global rules to make the world safe for autocracy, kleptocracy, and digital repression. Now China is developing the world’s first major central-bank digital currency in a bid to challenge the supremacy of the dollar and weaken the ability of the United States to impose financial sanctions on violators of international norms.

As its geopolitical weight and resources swell, China is deploying classic Communist Party “united front” tactics to penetrate and coopt the soft tissues of democracy—universities, think tanks, research centers, news media, the arts, corporations, community organizations, parties, and local governments. The three principal goals of this vast apparatus are 1) to steal and appropriate Western technology in a drive toward global economic and military dominance; 2) to control the narrative about China by censoring and intimidating criticism of its human-rights violations and external belligerence, while promoting a benign view of the regime; and 3) to mobilize exchange partners and united-front allies (witting or not) to embrace rather than resist China’s hegemonic pretensions, and to lobby their governments for policies that will expedite this seismic shift in global power.

Abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s historic dictum to “hide your strength and bide your time,” China under its dictatorial president, Xi Jinping, has engaged in increasingly brash and bellicose conduct in its region and beyond. It has laid sovereign claim to virtually the entire resource-rich and strategically vital South China Sea, and it has enforced this claim by dredging and militarizing new islands, swarming disputed waters with its vessels, invading the fishing and other maritime rights of its neighbors, and launching increasingly frequent and threatening rhetoric and military probes against Taiwan. Such actions, and China’s sweeping projection of sharp power in the region and globally, have come at a price. The Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue among the United States, Australia, India, and Japan has begun to fashion a coordinated balancing response, and Japan and Australia especially are ramping up their defense posture and vigilance. Globally, public views of China have dimmed in reaction against its blandishments and bullying. But precisely because sharp power is covert and corrupting, many ruling elites around the world are only too happy to take up the bargain, and weak-state autocrats in particular welcome the support of an authoritarian superpower to neutralize and deter pressure from the Western democracies. Autocracy and kleptocracy have become inseparable companions in a global campaign to compromise sovereignty, plunder national wealth, eviscerate the rule of law, suppress opposition, and weaken the advanced democracies by laundering illicit wealth and whitewashing the reputations of the looters. Numerous Western corporations, consultancies, law firms, and private intelligence and surveillance contractors have become deeply implicated in this malign global trade, which has greatly extended the repressive capacity, retaliatory reach, and self-confidence of the world’s autocracies.67

No country has witnessed the marriage of autocracy and kleptocracy on a more staggering scale than Russia, where an increasingly fearful and despotic ruler, now more than two decades in power, has amassed one of the world’s largest personal fortunes. The Kremlin’s mafia state seriously threatens the rule of law and the integrity of governance in Europe and the United States. But even greater is the damage that Russia’s deep digital, financial, and political projections of sharp power have repeatedly done to democracy in neighboring states such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, as well as to Western democracies through social media manipulation and disinformation and financial support for far-right actors. These increasingly well-resourced and technically sophisticated efforts would be alarming enough, but Russia has also been reviving and modernizing its military as well. It has already used military force to shear off Crimea, a strategic portion of Ukraine, while waging a years-long war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to destabilize the country’s democracy and warn it away from a closer alliance with the West.

Although they differ significantly in political system, economic capacity, and global power, the Chinese and Russian regimes share important features and interests. Each has become dramatically more repressive in the last decade, with China moving toward a neototalitarian surveillance state and Russia toward more vengeful and pervasive punishment of political opposition and dissent. Each system has become increasingly dominated by a single ruler who, feeling insecure in power, tightens repression and stokes nationalism to enhance domestic control. Each regime feels threatened by the example of a neighboring democracy—Taiwan in the case of China, Ukraine in the case of Russia—that substantially shares its language and culture and could inspire its citizens to want their own country’s political system to follow the neighboring model of freedom and pluralism. Each autocracy is therefore determined to subvert that neighboring democracy before being subverted by it. Each leader—and system—has broad contempt for the West and is determined to upend the liberal international order, which each detests. And each regime believes that the United States and, more broadly, the Western democracies are weak and irresolute, and therefore can be compromised, tested, and one day successfully confronted. Separately and together, China and Russia are nurturing networks of authoritarian collusion and endeavoring to remake the global balance of power.

We are approaching a very dangerous juncture. There is a real chance that China will use military force (if not an invasion, then a blockade, a massive cyberattack, or an escalating campaign of hybrid warfare) to attempt to compel Taiwan to “reunify with the motherland” and surrender its remarkable democracy. There is also a worrisome possibility that Russia will unleash more overt and massive military force to bring Ukraine to heel. Either of these events could happen not in some novelistic, next-generation scenario, but in the next few years, and the launching of one could, opportunistically, well invite the other. For this reason, Taiwan and Ukraine represent the front lines of the struggle to defend freedom in the world. The demise of either democracy through aggression by a more powerful neighbor would represent a hinge in history, much more akin to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia than to the shadow contests of the Cold War. For several decades, we have become used to thinking of the struggle for freedom as purely political and civic. But unfortunately, as in the 1930s, the present danger has a significant element of military threat, for which neither the two battleground democracies nor the world’s most powerful liberal democracies are adequately prepared, psychologically, militarily, or in the security of their supply chains.

Power and Legitimacy

The most efficient solution to the gathering crisis of democracy globally would be the democratization of its two greatest adversaries, Russia and especially China. The failure of Russia’s nascent 1990s democracy was not predestined. As Michael McFaul recently explained in these pages, the choice of a successor to the ailing Boris Yeltsin was a close call. “A global financial meltdown felled Russia’s fragile economy in August 1998,” and along with it the liberalizing reformists led by first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. Absent that development, Yeltsin’s deteriorating health, and a few other elements of chance, it is plausible to imagine a different scenario, in which Nemtsov might have succeeded Yeltsin and an imperfect but real democracy could have gradually taken hold.68 Putin’s dictatorship may seem ruthless and unassailable now, but public confidence in his leadership is falling, and the regime’s self-confidence appears at a low ebb.

By contrast, China’s communist regime has seemed a juggernaut of economic success and efficient control since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But the regime faces multiple dilemmas. Its economic growth rate has slowed to probably 4 percent or less. The real-estate sector is disastrously overleveraged and in crisis. As Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have recently observed, “State zombie firms are being propped up while private firms are starved of capital.” To remain economically innovative and dynamic, the regime needs to incentivize private enterprise and investment, but it is cracking down on its biggest tech companies (as well as other entrepreneurs) because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is genetically unable to tolerate any rival to its power. Having “ravaged its own natural resources,” Brands and Beckley write, China is running out of water and “is importing more energy and food than any other nation.” Consequently, it is three times as costly for China to produce a unit of growth today as it was in the early 2000s. The price of labor and fiscal pressures are likely to soar with the rapid aging of the Chinese population, which will reduce the working-age population by 200 million over the next three decades while increasing the number of senior citizens by a similar amount.69 These contradictions could turn China’s economic miracle into a prolonged period of Soviet-style stagnation. But before that would bring the collapse of communism and the possibility of democratic change, Brands and Beckley worry that it could generate strategic panic—a conclusion that time is not on the regime’s side, and that (like Germany before World War I and Japan before Pearl Harbor) the PRC must strike militarily soon, at the peak of its power.

Two decades ago, it was possible to imagine that China’s rapid development would bring pressure for democratic change. In 2007, the economist Henry S. Rowen predicted that China’s rapid economic modernization would make it a “partly free” state by 2015 and a “free” one by 2025.70 The Asian Barometer was likewise finding tantalizing evidence that values were changing in China in a more liberal direction, particularly among the young. However, this faith in the power of modernization to liberalize China (which I also found seductive) has proven misplaced thus far. Prior to Rowen’s essay (and since), the Journal published many others predicting at least incremental progress toward a stronger civil society and a more technocratic, law-based state, or that corruption and unaccountable rule would produce a crisis that could open the way to democracy.71 Instead, Andrew Nathan’s 2003 analysis of “authoritarian resilience” has held truer to the mark. But Nathan’s assessment presumed continued institutionalization of CCP rule through regular, norm-bound succession, increased meritocracy and bureaucratic specialization, and growing channels of mass participation and appeal.72 Few anticipated the emergence in Xi Jinping of a neototalitarian ruler who would erase institutional constraints on his power, intensify state control of the masses, and extinguish any trace of political liberalization. Early on, Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, revealed the ways in which Chinese netizens were evading and even ridiculing government authority. But digital censorship, manipulation, and control has rendered online civic pluralism largely an illusion, masking the reality of what Rebecca Mackinnon calls “networked authoritarianism.” With the aid of an ever-more omniscient and integrated system of digital surveillance and control, powered by rapid gains in artificial intelligence, the CCP under Xi have been defying the odds.

We have reentered a period of epochal confrontation between two divergent forms of rule—one based on power, the other on legitimacy. Regimes based on power have the comfort and aid of one another as well as their shared corrupt networks and technologies of control, but most face dwindling economic prospects. Surveillance and repression are expensive, and kleptocratic tyranny drains the economy and atrophies the state beyond its repressive core. As Venezuela and Zimbabwe discovered, this is a formula for state decay and ultimately failure, unless the ruling clique has natural resources to loot or (as in North Korea and Syria) can operate as a global organized-crime syndicate. Where autocrats such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán in Hungary depend on elections to legitimize and renew their rule, the economic consequences of their bad governance will be their undoing. This is a dilemma that India’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, will confront if he continues down his current illiberal path.

But the dictatorships in Russia and China could destroy world peace before they destroy themselves. As they face the deep contradictions of their stultifying models, the authoritarian rulers of Russia and China will find their legitimacy waning. If they do not embrace political reform—a prospect that fills them with dread, given the fate of Gorbachev—they will have to rely increasingly on the exercise of raw power at home and abroad to preserve their rule. This is likely to propel them on a fascistic path, in which relentless repression of internal pluralism becomes inseparably bound up with ultranationalism, expansionism, and intense ideological hostility to all liberal and democratic values and rivals. In both Russia and China, the campaign of bigotry and harassment against the LGBT community and any deviance from traditional gender roles reflects the rising tide of chauvinistic rejection of “Western influence” and is the flip side of the growing threat that these regimes pose to regional and ultimately global peace and security.

This is the darkest moment for freedom in half a century. I have faith in democracy’s long-run prospects, because it is a morally superior system and because it has proven over time to be more effective at meeting human needs, growing economies, protecting the environment, respecting human rights, and controlling corruption.73 In addition, it is human nature to seek personal autonomy, dignity, and self-determination, and with economic development those values have become ascendant.74 But there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy. In this new era, the strategies and choices of democratic states and leaders will have consequences that resonate for decades. Can the world’s democracies manage their divisions and rally their resolve to meet the challenge posed by resurgent authoritarianism? Gramsci urged: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Only a clear-eyed recognition of the depth of the current peril can generate the necessary will.

I remain optimistic.



1. Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Spring 1991): 12–34; and The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

2. Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., “The Suicide of Soviet Communism,” Journal of Democracy 1 (Spring 1990): 18–26.

3. Marc F. Plattner, “The Democratic Moment,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Fall 1991): 38.

4. Claude Ake, “Rethinking African Democracy,” Journal of Democracy (Winter 1991): 32–44; Mario Vargas Llosa, “The Culture of Liberty,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Fall 1991): 25–33.

5. Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10 (July 1999), 6 and 10.

6. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, “Political Crafting of Democratic Consolidation or Destruction: European and South American Comparisons,” in Robert A. Pastor, ed., Democracy in the Americas: Stopping the Pendulum (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989).

7. The Journal has published numerous articles from the Afrobarometer, Arab Barometer, Asian Barometer, Latinobarómetro, and others showing broader global support for democracy than cultural skeptics imagined. Many of these essays were collected in Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds., How People View Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

8. Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule:  Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).

9. Julio María Sanguinetti, “Present at the Transition,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Winter 1991): 9.

10. Wuer Kaixi, “Tiananmen and Beyond: After the Massacre,” Journal of Democracy 1 (Winter 1990): 7.

11. Andrew J. Nathan, “Is China Ready for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 1 (Spring 1990): 50–61.

12. Michael McFaul, “Transitions from Postcommunism,” Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005): 4.

13. Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman, How Freedom Is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Freedom House, 2005).

14. For a more detailed list, see Peter Ackerman, The Checklist to End Tyranny: How Dissidents Will Win 21st Century Civil Resistance Campaigns (Washington, D.C.: International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021), 77–80, Table 12.

15. Erika Chenoweth, “The Future of Nonviolent Civil Resistance,” Journal of Democracy 3 (July 2020): 75, Figure 2.

16. Larry Diamond, “Democratic Regression in Comparative Perspective: Scope, Methods, and Causes,” Democratization 28 (January 2021): 31–32, Table 3. To the twenty cases in that table, I add the failed 2019–20 Venezuelan protests that aimed to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and the 2020–21 mass protests against the stolen presidential election in Belarus.

17. The essays and speeches from the conference were published in Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, Yun-han Chu, and Hung-mao Tien, eds., Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), and many were first published in the Journal.

18. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, “Toward Consolidated Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 7 (April 1996): 15––16.

19. Philippe C. Schmitter, “Civil Society East and West,” in Diamond, et al., Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies, 240–62.

20. Linz and Stepan, “Toward Consolidated Democracies,” 17–23.

21. Adam Przeworski, Michael Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, “What Makes Democracies Endure?” Journal of Democracy 7 (January 1996): 41 and 49.

22. These cases include Venezuela, Turkey, Thailand, and Hungary.

23. Guillermo O’Donnell, “Illusions About Consolidation,” Journal of Democracy 7 (April 1996): 38–39.

24. O’Donnell, “Illusions About Consolidation,” 44.

25. O’Donnell, “Illusions About Consolidation”; see also his “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5 (January 1994): 55–69, and O’Donnell, “Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 9 (July 1998): 112–26.

26. Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Journal of Democracy 13 (January 2002): 5–21; Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, Democracy in Developing Countries: Asia, Africa and Latin America (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1988–89).

27. Terry Lynn Karl, “The Hybrid Regimes of Central America,” Journal of Democracy 6 (July 1995): 80.

28. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Ahmad Way, “Elections Without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002): 51-65.

29. Carothers, “End of the Transition Paradigm,” 10.

30. Linz and Stepan, “Toward Consolidated Democracies,” p. 15, and Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 67–69.

31. These quotes are from Guillermo O’Donnell, “The Quality of Democracy: Why the Rule of Law Matters,” Journal of Democracy 15 (October 2004): 41, but the idea originates in his essay “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries,” World Development 21 (1993): 1355–69.

32. Larry Diamond, “Democracy in Latin America: Degrees, Illusions, and Directions for Consolidation,” in Tom Farer ed., Beyond Sovereignty: Collectively Defending Democracy in the Americas (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 73–74.  See also Larry Diamond, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 64–117, especially 74–75.

33. See the articles on the Quality of Democracy, Journal of Democracy 15 (October 2004): 20-110, and Larry Diamond and Leonardo Morlino, eds., Assessing the Quality of Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

34. Diamond, Linz, and Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries and Politics in Developing Countries: Comparing Experiences with Democracy (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1995).

35. See for example Donald Horowitz, “The Challenge of Ethnic Conflict: Democracy in Divided Societies,” Journal of Democracy 4 (October 1993): 18-38, and his magisterial Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985).

36. Larry Diamond, “Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation,” Journal of Democracy 5 (July 1994): 4-17, and Schmitter, “Civil Society East and West.”

37. We pondered these issues in great depth in Diamond, Linz, and Lipset, “What Makes for Democracy?” in Politics in Developing Countries, 1-65.

38. Terry Karl popularized this term in “Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America,” Comparative Politics 23 (October 1990): 1-21.

39. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, eds., The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Nancy Bermeo, Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: the Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, ‘Democracy’s ‘Near Misses,’” Journal of Democracy 29 (October 2018): 16–30.

40. Francis Fukuyama, “Why is Democracy Performing So Poorly,” Journal of Democracy 26 (January 2015): 11–20.

41. Andreas Schedler, “Rethinking the State: Conflicts and Agents of Accountability,” in Schedler, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, eds., The Self–Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies, 333–50; and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, “The Quest for Good Government: Learning from Virtuous Circles,” Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 95–109.

42. Diamond, Linz and Lipset, “What Makes for Democracy,” 16.

43. Kathryn Stoner et al., “Transitional Successes and Failures: The Domestic-International Nexus,” in Stoner and McFaul, eds., Transitions to Democracy: A Comparative Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013): 3–24.

44. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (January 1995): 65–76.

45. Diamond, Linz, and Lipset, “What Makes for Democracy?” 56–57.

46. Larry Diamond, “Is the Third Wave Over?” Journal of Democracy 7 (July 1996): 33 and 35.

47. Larry Diamond, “Is Pakistan the (Reverse) Wave of the Future?” Journal of Democracy 11 (July 2000): 91–106.

48. For two broader views, see Larry Diamond, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russia Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (New York: Penguin, 2019) and Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman, “The Anatomy of Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 32 (October 2021): 26–41.

49. See the essays under the title, “Is Democracy in Decline?” in the Journal of Democracy 26 (January 2015), and compare especially Larry Diamond, “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession,” 141–55, with Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Myth of the Democratic Recession,” 45–58.

50. Larry Diamond, “Breaking Out of the Democratic Slump,” Journal of Democracy 31 (January 2020): 36–50, and Diamond, “Democratic Regression in Comparative Perspective.”

51. Freedom in the World, 2021,, and Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, “Democracy in a Year of Crisis,” Journal of Democracy 32 (April 2021): 45–60.

52. V-Dem Institute, Democracy Report 2021,

53. “Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and In Health?”

54. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “The Global State of Democracy 2021: Building Resilience in a Democratic World,”

55. Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27 (July 2016): 5–17, and “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy 28 (January 2017), 5–15.

56. Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, expanded ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981): 77–78.

57. Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer, “Mainstream Parties in Crisis: Overcoming Polarization,” Journal of Democracy 32 (January 2021): 9–11; and McCoy and Somer, “Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681 (January 2019): 234–71.

58. William A. Galston, “The Enduring Vulnerability of Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 31 (July 2020): 23.

59. Michael Dimock and Richard Wike, “America Is Exceptional in the Nature of Its Political Divide,” Pew Research Center, 13 November 2020,

60. Daniel A. Cox, “After the Ballots Are Counted: Conspiracies, Political Violence, and American Exceptionalism,” Survey Center on American Life, 11 February 2021,

61. Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).

62. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018), 97–117.

63. Marc F. Plattner, “Democracy Embattled,” Journal of Democracy 31 (January 2020): 8.

64. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1991): 23.

65. Thomas Carothers, Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat? (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012),

66. William J. Dobson, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy (New York: Doubleday, 2012); Alexander Cooley, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms,” Journal of Democracy 26 (July 2015): 49–63; and Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Christopher Walker, Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

67. Ronald Deibert, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2020); Deibert, “Digital Subversion: The Threat to Democracy,” Lipset Lecture, National Endowment for Democracy, 1 December 2021; and Anne Applebaum, “The Autocrats are Winning,” Atlantic, December 2021, 44–54.

68. Michael McFaul, “Russia’s Road to Autocracy,” Journal of Democracy 32 (October 2021): 17 (see also his full discussion of democratic failure on 15–19).

69. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, “China Is a Declining Power—and That’s the Problem,” Foreign Policy, September 2021,

70. Henry S. Rowen, “When Will the Chinese People Be Free?” Journal of Democracy 18 (July 2007): 38–52.

71. These numerous Journal of Democracy essays, including the ones cited in this paragraph, were gathered together in Andrew J. Nathan, Larry Diamond, and Marc F. Plattner, Will China Democratize? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

72. Andrew J. Nathan, “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy 14 (January 2003): 6–17.

73. See V-Dem’s “The Case for Democracy,”

74. Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart, “The Role of Ordinary People in Democratization,” Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 126–40, and Welzel, “Why the Future Is Democratic,” Journal of Democracy 32 (April 2021):  132–44.


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