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Getting Over the Third Wave

Samuel Huntington’s classic theory offered a new way of understanding democracy’s global trajectory. But amid rising populism and aggressive authoritarian states, has Huntington’s thesis outlived its usefulness?

By Marc F. Plattner

June 2024

A half-century has passed since the “Revolution of the Carnations” was launched in Lisbon on 25 April 1974, heralding Portugal’s transition to democracy after nearly five decades of dictatorship. The events of that day also started off a wider and unprecedented expansion in the number of the world’s democratic countries that Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (1927–2008) would famously call the “third wave” of democratization.

Huntington’s 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century laid out a framework for understanding democracy’s global path that remains unrivaled in its intellectual influence. Even for those already familiar with it, Huntington’s work repays a fresh reading. Defining a democratic wave as a period in which transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction, Huntington identifies three positive waves of modern democratization, while also specifying two “reverse waves” that eroded some of those democratic gains.

Huntington briefly discusses the first “long” wave, which covers roughly a century (1828 to 1936), plus a second and much shorter wave that spanned two decades (1943 to 1962). But his primary aim is to analyze the democratic breakthroughs that made up the third wave. His focus is on the thirty transitions from authoritarianism to democracy that had taken place in just the decade and a half separating 1974 from his time of writing in 1990. If we look through Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” reports, we see that by 2000 the third wave had brought the total number of “Free” countries to eighty-six, more than doubling the number of countries categorized as “Free” in 1974.

From his vantage point at the dawn of the 1990s, Huntington attributes the rise of the third wave to the effects of ongoing economic development, to religious changes (especially the rise of prodemocratic sentiments in the Catholic Church), and to the role of external actors such as the United States and the European Union, as well as the faltering USSR (a force for authoritarianism that was fading as the Soviet regime approached its impending dissolution). He also declares that with the triumph of the Allies in World War II “a world democratic ethos came into being,” posing severe legitimacy problems for authoritarian regimes as they faced burgeoning domestic protest movements.

Huntington helped to make the expansion of democracy a focal point in the study of global politics. In his preface, he calls the third wave “perhaps the most important global political development of the late twentieth century.” Eight years later, in 1999, the Nobel Prize–winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen (b. 1933) would tell a Japanese newspaper that the “emergence of democracy as the preeminently acceptable form of governance” was the most important thing to happen in the twentieth century. Distant posterity, he went on, would see it as our era’s signal event.

While I have not yet abandoned hope that future historians will endorse the judgment of Huntington and Sen, I have become much more doubtful that they will do so. Today, it is hard to believe that a century from now people will see the third wave as marking a more profound shift in world politics than the two world wars or the demise of the Soviet Union. I have even begun to wonder if Huntington’s framework of democratic waves and reverse waves remains the best guide to understanding the current and likely future state of democracy in the world.

Part of my pessimism, of course, stems from what history has revealed in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Though some scholars continue to dispute the contention that democracy is in decline, by now the evidence is overwhelming. The number of new democracies being born has fallen far behind the number of existing ones that are backsliding or collapsing. This has led to much debate about where matters currently stand: Has the third wave ended? Is a third reverse wave under way? Or are we caught in a period of uncertainty, with no clear picture of the wave’s direction—or even of whether there is a wave at all?

Whatever the answers may be, I find myself increasingly inclined to believe that viewing the current and future state of democracy through the lens of the three waves is no longer fruitful. In fact, I want to raise a perhaps heretical question: Might the concept of the three waves of democratization, which seemed to serve us so well for almost half a century, now have outlived its usefulness?

We are now well into the twenty-first century. The era that Huntington covers, the late twentieth century, ended before most of today’s college students were born. Huntington himself tells us that he is not relaying “timeless truths,” but only offering generalizations drawn from a “discrete class of events of the 1970s and 1980s.” The discrete events of later decades are likely to suggest different lessons.

Huntington is no Pollyanna predicting a future of inevitable democratic progress. On the contrary, he is alert to the difficulties facing many new democracies and hence to the possibility of new reverse waves. His book even includes an uncannily accurate description of the tendencies toward disillusionment and frustration that would afflict the citizens of new democracies as the excitement of toppling dictatorship gave way to the hard slog of trying to govern democratically. Huntington clearly admits that countries which have achieved democratic transitions can move backward as well as forward. Yet the underlying spirit and tone of his book are shaped by the view that, whatever the ebbs and flows ahead, “time is on the side of democracy.”

The prime reason for this is his confidence that economic growth will persist and that economic growth favors democracy. Huntington is neither an economic determinist nor an advocate of some simplistic version of modernization theory. Still, he does not seem seriously to entertain the possibility of a large-scale “rollback” of democracy. Like most scholars of democratization during his era, he appears to have taken for granted that the long-established democracies of the West would remain virtually impregnable. Today, however, we can no longer feel certain that, once countries have established a consolidated and deeply rooted democracy, they have crossed a kind of historical finish line and become forever secure from serious deterioration.

The shaking of this belief in the durability of advanced democracies is chiefly responsible for today’s widespread sentiment that the world has entered a period of democratic decline. Scholars such as Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, drawing on survey data, have warned of the sagging popular support for democracy even in the most advanced countries and have argued that this poses a danger of democratic deconsolidation. But the strongest source of declinist sentiment lies in the rise of populism, not only in newer democracies but also in democracy’s North American and European heartlands. If there is a wave that can be discerned in our current circumstances, it is a rising populist wave. And the great question that confronts democracy in our time is how it will respond to the populist challenge.

There are many varieties of populism of both the Left and the Right. What they all share is a weak regard for the individual freedoms and minority rights that are essential to liberal democracy. Populists are hostile to liberalism. They may be described as illiberal democrats, at least so long as they remain wedded to the democratic principle of majority rule. If they abandon that principle, populism turns into just another species of authoritarianism. But can a liberal democracy survive if its citizens vote to bring populists to power? The cases of Poland and Brazil show that populists, even after a considerable period in office, can sometimes be overcome at the ballot box. But what if a democracy votes for populists a second or a third time? Can democracy survive the periodic return of populists to power?

Huntington had called attention to a “cyclical pattern” of regime change in which a democratic country suffers recurring military coups. In this case, he says, the country does not alternate between political systems: “The alternation of democracy and authoritarianism is the country’s political system.” Is some kind of similar cycle conceivable with populists? We do not know. It is hard to say whether and at what point a country that elects populists ceases to be a democracy, let alone what this means regarding its chances for a future democratic revival. We are likely soon to get a good deal more evidence about these matters, but the difficulty of deciding which regimes belong in the democratic column will continue to grow.

While the democracies try to resist the populist threat from within, they must simultaneously counter the authoritarian challenge from abroad. We seem to be heading into an era in which geopolitical competition, including war, becomes a determinative factor in the rise and fall of regimes. Perhaps this has always been the case, but during the enormous democratic expansion of 1974 to 2000 it was easy to overlook the extent to which democratic gains depended on Western military and economic power. Ukraine’s travails show the kinds of obstacles that aspiring democracies can face if the international context is inhospitable.

Authoritarian countries are increasingly working together to undermine democratic norms and institutions. Free countries too must work together to defend those norms and institutions, and to preserve an international order in which liberal democracy can thrive. This will usually call for democracies allying with one another, but there will also be situations when geopolitical reasons require cooperation with unsavory regimes. This too is a conundrum that has long beset the democracies. But the case for cooperating with populist governments to win their support against countries such as China is likely to grow even stronger.

Neither the challenge of populists at home nor that of authoritarians abroad is significantly illuminated by Huntington’s three-waves thesis. Nor does that framework help us to deal with the rise of identity politics or the new digital threats that are on the horizon. The democracies may well be able to cope with all these challenges in the years ahead. But even if they do, it is probably time to give the emphasis on the third wave an honorable retirement.

Marc F. Plattner is a member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Board of Directors. He was on the NED staff from 1984 until 2020, serving first as the director of the grants program. In 1989, he became founding coeditor (with Larry Diamond) of the Journal of Democracy. He later served as codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and as NED’s vice-president for research and studies.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

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