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 longer version of this essay, with additional reflections on the evolution of the Journal’s work, 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. 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.
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.”2 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.3 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.4
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.”5 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.6 By 1995, a clear majority of countries in the world had become democracies. In the decade that followed, democracy would continue to expand across the world, albeit at a slower pace.
Even then, years before democracy’s present headwinds, I began 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 Carter Center late in 1986, I got a rude awakening 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?7 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.”8 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.9 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 Journal’s publisher, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and staff for their friendship, dedication, and exemplary work—especially former NED president Carl Gershman and the Journal’s 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 Journal’s 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.
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.10 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, in my view good governance is it.
But how does good governance emerge out of historical and social circumstances of weak laws, courts, bureaucracies, and other formal institutions? 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.11 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. Many scholars emphasize that the scope for political “agency” is often strictly limited by structural conditions and institutional arrangements. But 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.
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.12
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 read articles in the history of the Journal.13 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. . . . Even established democracies have demagogues who blame the failings of society on democracy itself. One should not assume that in the face of severe societal crisis and prolonged governmental inefficacy and corruption, these demagogues could not gain a wider following.14
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’s) 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.”15
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 1999,16 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 the leadership of populist, illiberal leaders and parties, substantially in Brazil, India, Mexico, and Poland.17 In addition to 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 very 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.18 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 1993.19 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,”20 and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) report, “Autocratization Turns Viral.”21 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.”22
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, 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.” 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 the 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.23 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.24 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.”25
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.”26 A February 2021 survey documented deep partisan divisions over the legitimacy of the last presidential election, with most Republicans but very few Democrats believing that there was 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.27
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 January 6 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.28 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.29 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.
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.”30 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.”31 Already during the late 1970s and especially the 1980s, the power and will of the United States to defend human rights and promote democracy were 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–lending industry and flawed regulatory policies. As the U.S. 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.32
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.33
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 containing 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, political 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 leader, 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 to 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.34
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.35 Putin’s dictatorship may seem ruthless and unassailable now, but public confidence in his leadership is falling, and the regime’s self-confidence appears to be 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.36 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, before its power wanes.
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 swift economic modernization would make it a “partly free” state by 2015 and a “free” one by 2025.37 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.38 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.39 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 have rendered online civic pluralism largely an illusion. 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 has 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.40 In addition, it is human nature to seek personal autonomy, dignity, and self-determination, and with economic development those values have become ascendant.41 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? Antonio 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 Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
2. Marc F. Plattner, “The Democratic Moment,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Fall 1991): 38.
3. Claude Ake, “Rethinking African Democracy,” Journal of Democracy (Winter 1991): 32–44; and Mario Vargas Llosa, “The Culture of Liberty,” Journal of Democracy 2 (Fall 1991): 25–33.
4. Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10 (July 1999), quoted from pages 6 and 10.
5. 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), 47
6. 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).
7. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, “Toward Consolidated Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 7 (April 1996): 15, and Linz and Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 67–69.
8. 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 (August 1993): 1355–69.
9. 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.
10. Francis Fukuyama, “Why is Democracy Performing So Poorly?” Journal of Democracy 26 (January 2015): 11–20.
11. Andreas Schedler, “Restraining 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 (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999); and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, “The Quest for Good Government: Learning from Virtuous Circles,” Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 95–109.
12. Kathryn Stoner et al., “Transitional Successes and Failures: The Domestic-International Nexus,” in Kathryn Stoner and Michael McFaul, eds., Transitions to Democracy: A Comparative Perspective (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
13. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (January 1995): 65–78.
14. Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, “What Makes for Democracy?” in Diamond, Linz, and Lipset, eds., Politics in Developing Countries: Comparing Experiences with Democracy, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1995).
15. Larry Diamond, “Is the Third Wave Over?” Journal of Democracy 7 (July 1996): 20–37, quoted on 33 and 35.
16. Larry Diamond, “Is Pakistan the (Reverse) Wave of the Future?” Journal of Democracy 11 (July 2000): 91–106.
17. 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.
18. 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” (141–155) and Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Myth of Democratic Recession” (45–58).
19. Larry Diamond, “Breaking Out of the Democratic Slump,” Journal of Democracy 31 (January 2020): 36–50, and Diamond, “Democratic Regression in Comparative Perspective: Scope, Methods, and Causes,” Democratization 28 (January 2021): 22–42.
20. Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2021; and Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, “The Freedom House Survey for 2020: Democracy in a Year of Crisis,” Journal of Democracy 32 (April 2021): 45–60.
21. V-Dem Institute, Democracy Report 2021, www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/74/8c/748c68ad-f224-4cd7-87f9-8794add5c60f/dr_2021_updated.pdf.
22. Economist Intelligence Unit, “Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and In Health?” www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020.
23. Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics, expanded ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 77–78.
24. 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.
25. William A. Galston, “The Enduring Vulnerability of Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 31 (July 2020): 23.
26. Michael Dimock and Richard Wike, “America Is Exceptional in the Nature of Its Political Divide,” Pew Research Center, 13 November 2020, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/13/america-is-exceptional-in-the-nature-of-its-political-divide.
27. Daniel A. Cox, “After the Ballots Are Counted: Conspiracies, Political Violence, and American Exceptionalism,” Survey Center on American Life, 11 February 2021, www.americansurveycenter.org/research/after-the-ballots-are-counted-conspiracies-political-violence-and-american-exceptionalism.
28. Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
29. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown, 2018), 97–117.
30. Marc F. Plattner, “Democracy Embattled,” Journal of Democracy 31 (January 2020): 8.
31. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs 70, no. 1 (1991): 23.
32. Thomas Carothers, Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat? (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).
33. 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, eds., Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).
34. 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.
35. Michael McFaul, “Russia’s Road to Autocracy,” Journal of Democracy 32 (October 2021): 17 (and see the full discussion of democratic failure, 15–19).
36. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, “China Is a Declining Power—and That’s the Problem,” Foreign Policy, 24 September 2021.
37. Henry S. Rowen, “When Will the Chinese People Be Free?” Journal of Democracy 18 (July 2007): 38–52.
38. 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, eds., Will China Democratize? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
39. Andrew J. Nathan, “China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience,” Journal of Democracy 14 (January 2003): 6–17.
40. See the V-Dem project on “The Case for Democracy,” www.v-dem.net/en/our-work/research-projects/case-democracy.
41. Christian Welzel and Ronald Inglehart, “The Role of Ordinary People in Democratization,” Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 126–40; Welzel, “Why the Future Is Democratic,” Journal of Democracy 32 (April 2021): 132–44.
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