Why the Future Is Democratic

Issue Date April 2021
Volume 32
Issue 2
Page Numbers 132–44
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Recent accounts of democratic backsliding neglect the cultural foundations of autocracy-versus-democracy. To bring culture back in, this article demonstrates that 1) countries’ membership in culture zones explains some 70 percent of the total cross-national variation in autocracy-versus-democracy; and 2) this culture-bound variation has remained astoundingly constant over time—in spite of all the trending patterns in the global distribution of regime types over the last 120 years. Furthermore, the explanatory power of culture zones over autocracy-versus-democracy is rooted in the cultures’ differentiation on “authoritarian-versus-emancipative values.” Therefore, both the direction and the extent of regime change are a function of glacially accruing regime-culture misfits—driven by generational value shifts in a predominantly emancipatory direction. Consequently, the backsliding of democracies into authoritarianism is limited to societies in which emancipative values remain underdeveloped. Contrary to the widely cited deconsolidation thesis, the ascendant generational profile of emancipative values means that the momentary challenges to democracy are unlikely to stifle democracy’s long-term rise.

Ours is an era of democratic gloom. For some years now, a growing array of scholars and pundits have discerned a worldwide democratic recession. Democracy and especially its liberal principles are said to be fast receding as various forms of authoritarianism surge. The world’s most potent autocracies, most notably China and Russia, are proving resourceful and resilient. These empirical claims are hard to dispute. Yet the swelling mood of pessimism about democracy’s future is unwarranted. Particularly suspect is the recently propagated “deconsolidation thesis,” which claims that public support for democracy is crumbling across most of the world and especially among the young.1

In truth, the long-term future for democracy in the world is much brighter than most imagine. In essence, “modernization theory” is proving correct. Economic development brings expanding levels of education, information, travel, and other experiences that enhance human knowledge, awareness, and intelligence. This “cognitive mobilization” inspires and empowers people to act with purpose and think for themselves, rather than accept received authority and wisdom. In other words, development brings value change that is highly conducive to the emergence and persistence of liberal democracy.2

About the Author

Christian Welzel is political culture research professor at Leuphana University in Lüneberg, Germany, and the former president of the World Values Survey Association. His books include Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation (2013).

View all work by Christian Welzel

My analysis of decades of public-opinion data from the World Values Survey and other projects lays bare a tectonic cultural transformation that is taking place beneath the surface “storm and stress” of social and political life around the world. Slowly but steadily, emancipative values—which prioritize universal human freedoms, individual choice, and an egalitarian emphasis on equality of opportunity—are replacing authoritarian values that stress deference and conformity.3 This transformation [End Page 132] has made its longest strides so far in Western societies, followed by other regions in which levels of income, education, and overall human development are relatively high. But it is not limited to these areas.

The trend appears to be global in nature, affecting all regions of the world even if at varying rates. In most places for which we have survey data, emancipative values are on the rise—a circumstance that should lead to younger generations who feel a stronger commitment to democratic principles. Moreover, once people form in their youth these underlying values concerning freedom, authority, and the role of the individual in society, the complex of attitudes thereby created tends to endure.4 They are lifelong habits of mind and heart, not fashions discarded at a whim.

Over the long run, therefore, profound generational changes are bringing about a fundamental shift in society, and this shift favors values that provide a cultural foundation for liberal democracy. As older generations who hew to more hierarchical and deferential values pass away, their places are taken by newer generations of people who increasingly embrace universal, libertarian, and egalitarian—in other words, emancipative—values. Although this process does not move at the same pace in all regions and is not irreversible, it is broad and tenacious and will ultimately have political consequences.

Since durability is the purpose of institutions, most political regimes do not change most of the time. Under the surface, however, cultural change flows like magma, gathering slowly but with heat and potential force beneath the crusted surface of stagnant autocracies. Eventually, the magma makes its way aboveground. The generational ascension of emancipative values gradually produces a structural contradiction between authoritarian systems of government and human aspirations for individual freedom, autonomy, and opportunity. In the long run, these regime-versus-culture “mismatches” come under growing stress. The regime’s structures prove too undemocratic relative to society’s values, and the disconnect grows more glaring with time.

This long-term process cannot guarantee a transition to democracy at any particular historical juncture, of course. Life and history are too contingent for that, and the translation of a values disconnect into an actual regime change must in the end rely on the purposeful acts of concrete actors. Nevertheless, a growing gap between the regime and the culture will unavoidably reshape the context that political actors must navigate. A country with a government and public order that say one thing and a culture that says something quite different and more emancipatory is a country ripe for the rise of counterelites, regime-challenging alliances, [End Page 133] and popular movements that seek to bring the regime more into line with the underlying, freedom-valuing culture. In other words, such a country is one in which democratic ideas and convictions can gain purchase and strive for predominance.

Of course, there is no guarantee that values will keep evolving or keep running firmly in an emancipatory direction. Short-term economic and political factors may generate illiberal cycles in public moods.5 These mood shifts can move regimes in autocratic directions, as we have seen all too often during the current global democratic recession. These cycles are really epicycles, however, like eddies in a larger current. That current is the fundamental transformation wrought by modernization and its attendant emancipative values.

As such values become more widely held and influential in one society after another over time, transitions toward democracy will start to exceed in both number and scope those that trend in the opposite direction. Moreover, if the regime-versus-culture mismatch in a given country features a regime that is formally more democratic than the underlying values predominant in society at the time of that country’s transition to political democracy, we would expect to see the democratic system there becoming both more stable and more liberal over time as underlying social values begin shifting (in line with the long-term, global trend) toward the emancipatory end of the scale.

In the sections that follow, I present evidence supporting what I term a “cultural theory of autocracy versus democracy.” The Online Appendix (henceforth OA; see www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/supplements) to this essay presents ample supplementary materials derived from the recent release of the seventh wave of the European Values Study and World Values Surveys, covering the years 2017 through 2020.

That people should be able to live in freedom and have an equal voice and vote in the public sphere is the core idea of modern democracy.6 This idea has firm roots in the Enlightenment view of human nature. According to this view, all humans are equipped with the faculty to think for themselves, make reasonable judgements, and tame their self-interest in light of the common good. Furthermore, people are entitled, simply by virtue of their humanity, to be trained in these faculties and to utilize them to participate in the political process and to determine their own futures.7 In cultures that build and rely on these Enlightenment values, democracy is the natural order.8 This does not mean that liberal democracy must remain a unique property of “the West,” only that Western societies were the first to fully embrace these values.

In order to be stable and liberal, democracy must be understood and appreciated by its citizens. That requires a solid foundation of Enlightenment values. Where these values are underdeveloped, democracy might be sustained by exceptionally benevolent elites. Yet as we have seen in [End Page 134] the recent period of democratic backsliding, a merely elite-sustained democracy has no defense if at some point authoritarian temptations corrupt the elites’ democratic commitment.9

Since the emergence of the Washington Consensus in the early 1980s, a steep increase in Western-funded democracy promotion, combined with the conditioning of international aid on electoral accountability, reshaped the incentive structure of the international system.10 Accordingly, rulers in many countries were induced to introduce electoral contestation and democratic constitutions. The ensuing regional waves of democratization swept across many countries in which large population segments lack an attachment to Enlightenment values. In such countries the word “democracy” often drew high support in opinion surveys, but this only served to obscure the reality that cultural support for democracy in these places lacked a deep foundation in the values people actually held.11 In these countries, widespread expressions of support for democracy frequently coexist with highly instrumental understandings (or misunderstandings) of what democracy really means. These, for the most part, have also been the countries where democracy has receded as illiberal populism has surged.12

Examining the European Union, we can cite Hungary, Poland, and Romania as cases in point. As required by the EU-accession process in the early 1990s, the governments of those countries institutionalized democracy at higher levels than the values of their respective populations demanded. Populist political entrepreneurs recognized the resulting regime-versus-culture mismatches, and learned how to play on them in order to win elections. Once in power, these populists began paring away at democracy’s liberal qualities. Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán’s promotion of what he proudly calls “illiberal democracy” is paradigmatic. From all this, one might conclude that the world became, in a sense, “overdemocratic” at the height of the “third wave.” What we have been witnessing in recent years, then, is a “regression to the mean.”13

Democracy’s Culture-Bound Ascension

Since the end of the Second World War, variation across regions in the extent of democracy has been tightly correlated with the extent of these regions’ placement in or closeness to Western culture. In fact, as OA-Figure 1 shows, since 1960 this close cultural mapping has been a temporal constant, accounting for a striking 70 percent of the global variation in the extent of democracy in any given year. Notwithstanding all the various shifting and trending patterns in regime dynamics around the world, we always find countries from Western cultures at the fore-front of democracy.

The cultural essence underlying the distinction between Western and non-Western cultures is a dimension of moral orientations that I refer [End Page 135] to as the distinction between authoritarian and emancipative values. As shown by OA-Figure 2, emancipative values represent the defining cultural signature of the West. But culture evolves, and there is no intrinsic reason why non-Western cultures cannot develop emancipative values. Indeed, the evidence shows that with modernization, they are doing so, albeit from different starting points and at different paces.

Emancipative values involve more than mere lip service to “democracy” as a catchword; instead, they embody a principled commitment to the view of human nature from which democracy derives its original inspiration. That is why the prevalence of emancipative values in a population much better predicts countries’ actual level of democracy than does the percentage of people who simply express support for democracy.14 People who defy emancipative values are no less likely to express support for democracy. Decoupled from emancipative values, however, people’s support for democracy often involves authoritarian misconceptions of what democracy means. If these people take action in favor of what they believe democracy is, it may not actually serve democracy. In stark contrast, support for democracy can be counted as genuine when it is found occurring together with emancipative values, because these values turn people against any form of autocratic domination over their beliefs and actions.15 For this reason, emancipation-minded people demonstrate in favor of democratic freedoms when these freedoms are denied or challenged, even at the risk of autocratic repression (as OA-Figure 14 illustrates).16

Whether a country attains or sustains democracy will of course depend on the power balance within the elite between pro- and antidemocratic actors. But a key element in this elite-level power balance is how much public support each camp can rally behind its goals. The more widespread emancipative values become, the more mass support will shift away from antidemocratic forces and toward prodemocratic forces. Therefore, the attainment, sustenance, and deepening of democracy all become more likely as emancipative values gain momentum on a mass scale.17

Available data from around the globe support this argument by revealing how astoundingly close the correlation is between authoritarian-versus-emancipative values and autocratic-versus-democratic regimes these days (see the upper diagram in OA-Figure 3). Admittedly, in the absence of experimental control this evidence does not reveal the underlying causal mechanism. But whatever that mechanism might be, the tightness of this relationship is undeniable and gives us a striking reason for thinking that regime-culture congruence is real.

Moreover, a comparison with similar data from the 1970s and 1980s shows that—back then—a regime also tended to be democratic in proportion to its people’s support for emancipative values (see the lower diagram in OA-Figure 3). Interestingly, there was a group of “incongruent” [End Page 136] countries at the time—it included Argentina, Chile, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uruguay, among others—whose regimes were autocratic far in excess of the (relatively emancipative) values held by their respective peoples. By no coincidence, some years later all these countries made transitions to democracy.

Originally a domain of classical-liberal philosophers, emancipative values began to catch on widely when mass-scale economic progress profoundly improved the living conditions of ordinary people, giving them access to previously unknown goods, services, and opportunities, not to mention the prospect of upward social mobility through educational merit. More highly “enabling” conditions of life such as these enhance people’s sense of agency—the idea that they can take control of their own lives. Once people have learned to plan for themselves, they no longer want to be told what to think and do.

This psychological awakening activates in people a drive toward freedom from external domination, which is a natural response of the human mind to existential opportunities that enable individual growth. For this reason, once people experience enabling conditions, the promotion of emancipative values requires no ideological program or orchestrated strategy. Supporting this Enlightenment logic, OA-Figure 4 documents that emancipative values thrive to the extent that education, information, communication, science, and technology shape a society’s functioning and penetrate the lives of its people.

Over the past several decades, modernization has generated the existential conditions—rising living standards, falling mortality rates, and declining fertility, as well as expanding education and other aspects of cognitive mobilization—to ignite human potential and trigger the shift to emancipative values. Only a shrinking number of global trouble spots remain excluded from this generally progressive trend.18 Across the globe, existential opportunities, emancipative values, and liberal democracy have been rising in astonishing unison, promoting a more encompassing trend toward “human empowerment” (OA-Figure 5). Consequently, as Figure 1B below shows, emancipative values are spreading beyond the borders of Western culture and ascending through generational replacement across all the globe’s culture zones.

Illiberal Scripts of Modernity

Modernization tends to foster emancipative values, but autocrats do not always stand helpless in the face of it. Today, as they have before, they try to redirect the consequences of modernization by writing a new script about what it means to be modern. And when the author of the script is a major world power, the impact can extend well beyond the country’s borders. [End Page 137]

The structure of power in the world today differs dramatically from what prevailed in the aftermath of the Cold War. With China’s emergence as a global power and Russia’s resurgence and anti-Western turn, the international system no longer operates nearly as uniformly in favor of democracy. Chinese and Russian leaders propagate an explicitly illiberal script of modernity, couched in cultural tales of non-Western geopolitical identity and destiny. This is not the first time that Enlightenment values have faced a challenge from powerful global actors. The Nazis of Hitler’s Germany and the militarists of Imperial Japan in the 1930s, like the Communists of the Soviet Union during the 1950s, ruled major industrial countries that seemed (for a time) to pursue with sweeping success a nondemocratic course of modernization.19

While fascism and communism have been trashed by history, populist authoritarianism now competes with liberal democracy for the claim to be the better version of modernity. The rhetorical strategy is similar to that of democracy’s earlier challengers: By portraying Western values as alien to their own nations’ cultural identities, rulers try to pick from modernity just those parts that make their nations more powerful, such as technological progress, economic prosperity, and military prowess, while rejecting the emancipatory consequences of modernity experienced by the West, most notably democracy.

In an effort to bury emancipative values under the soil of nationalism and religion, autocrats and populists compose narratives about national destinies and geopolitical missions to breed a “culture of allegiance.” To some extent, this strategy pays off (as we can see from the upper diagram in OA-Figure 6). The extent to which ruling elites succeed in feeding allegiance cults indeed diminishes the translation of cognitive mobilization into emancipative values, thus slowing down the liberating consequences of modernization. However, the emancipatory effect of cognitive mobilization is still apparent (lower diagram of OA-Figure 6), and turns out to be stronger than the forces acting counter to it. In a nutshell, illiberal scripts with their authoritarian versions of modernity can slow but not stop the emancipative effects of modernization.

Although the twentieth-century illiberal scripts of fascism and Soviet communism did not survive, the fate of the “authoritarian modernities” currently being promoted is yet to be decided. The evidence cited above suggests that time is not on their side. Across most of the world, and dramatically in China, living conditions continue to become more enabling of human empowerment. This will sooner or later bring emancipative values to the fore and lay the basis for democratic change. The evidence in Figure 1A and Figure 1B supports this conjecture.

The global dynamics of democracy versus autocracy move with an intriguing simultaneity. On the one hand, democracy oscillates in recurrent cycles, but along an ascending trajectory. On the other hand, steadily [End Page 138] rising emancipative values correlate with democracy at constant strength throughout each of democracy’s cycles. In other words, no matter how democracy is faring globally, countries with more emancipative values fare better. This simultaneity can only exist because a twofold regularity in global regime dynamics prevails. We can describe it as follows: 1) During global democratic upswings, countries with more widespread emancipative values are more likely to follow the trend and shift toward democracy; and 2) during global democratic downswings, countries with more widespread emancipative values are less likely to follow the trend, and instead will tend to withstand pressures to move away from democracy.

If that description is accurate, the dynamic of emancipative values is indeed a chief selective force in the global evolution of political regimes. Yet in politics nothing is guaranteed. Where emancipative values gain momentum on a mass scale, the emergence, sustenance, and deepening of democracy become more likely—but not inevitable. Conversely, where weak emancipative values tilt the odds in the opposite direction, democracy is not doomed to fail. But its success will depend on contingencies such as the presence or absence of benevolent and capable elites, sound policies, resilient institutions, and international alliances with powers committed to democratic principles.

Challenging the Deconsolidation Thesis

When the full picture is considered, the alarming idea that democracy’s cultural foundation is deconsolidating loses much of its credibility. This conclusion is clear beyond reasonable doubt when looking at the World Values Surveys’ complete country coverage and temporal scope, rather than cherry-picking particular countries and periods. In fact, over the past two decades (from the 1994–98 wave of surveys to the 2017–20 wave) mass support for democracy declined in fifteen countries but increased in 27. On average across the globe, mass support for democracy remained stable at 75 percent of the public, and age differences account for a minuscule 4 percent of the total individual-level variation in support for democracy (OA-Figures 13 and 16).20

More importantly, though, lip service to democracy—as measured by survey items that use the “d” word—is a weak indicator of a culture’s fitness for democracy. For as we have seen, overt support for democracy frequently obscures deep differences in how people understand democracy. Some of these understandings are actually so strongly twisted in an authoritarian direction that the meaning of support for democracy reverts to its negation—support for autocratic rule.21

Authoritarian propaganda deliberately nourishes misperceptions of democracy as obedience to rulers. In fact, most autocracies call themselves democracies. China’s leaders like to call their country a democracy (“with Chinese characteristics,” they always add), and even claim that China is [End Page 139]

the world’s “greatest” democracy.22 The usual indoctrination denigrates Western democracies as overly liberal perversions of “true” democracy, which is presented as a form of “guardianship” by which “wise” rulers govern in the people’s best interest. In return for such “enlightened” rulership, the story goes, the people owe their leaders obedience.23 Schools, the media, and other institutions under government control all disseminate these guardianship tales, which vary from culture to culture in attire but not in substance. Across the globe, the World Values Surveys show an astoundingly large percentage of people (easily exceeding 50 percent of those surveyed) who indeed misunderstand democracy as being summed up by the proposition “people obey their rulers” (OA-Figure 8).

Since emancipative values make people critical of imposed authority, autocrats have a vested interest in keeping these kinds of values dormant.24 To achieve this end, rulers breed national-allegiance cults that propagate visions of special historic legacies and geopolitical destinies to counter the West and its emancipatory heritage.25 The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—with its personality cult of the Kim-family dynasty and its autarkic juche ideology—is the most extreme case of a regime running this propaganda game. Its additional powerful players around the world include the governments of China, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and other [End Page 140]

countries where illiberal forces sustain “strongman rule.”

When emancipative values spread, misunderstandings of democracy as obedience to rulers recede. Strikingly, this effect is so sweeping that it unfolds regardless of the type of regime in place (OA-Figure 8). Complementing this finding, we observe a current illiberal cycle in the public mood throughout mature Western democracies. As a result, there is a noticeable rise in popular support for, as the WVS survey item calls them, “strong leaders who do not have to bother with parliaments and elections.” This increase, however, is not discernible among people with strong emancipative values (OA-Figure 9). These observations reinforce the conclusion that strong emancipative values provide the mightiest antidote against authoritarian redefinitions of democracy.26 Besides, swings in public mood between liberal and illiberal conceptions of democracy recur in regular cycles on the surface of public opinion, but underneath the turbulence created by those swings the long-term ascendance of emancipative values proceeds. In the interplay between long-term trajectories and short-term cycles, trajectories are the deeper and more transformative force.

At its core, democracy is about freedoms—freedoms that entitle people to control their own private lives and to have a voice and a vote in the public sphere. In that sense, democracy operates from the most highly [End Page 141] evolved natural quality of our species: human agency. Democracy in this sense did not exist on a mass scale until the Industrial Revolution spread democracy-enabling conditions into the lives of ordinary people. The reason why democracy is so tightly tied to the mass-level enabling conditions generated by modernization is simple: Democracy is a demanding system that requires of its citizens certain cultural qualities. People need to endorse the values that safeguard the freedoms to which democracy entitles them. In short, these are emancipative values.

The global democratic trend over the past 120 years reflects the success of modernization at steadily making more knowledge, information, and awareness available to ordinary people. As a result, commitment to emancipative values has increased. These closely interrelated trends have literally been empowering, making modern mass publics both more capable and more eager to demand and defend freedoms. Since these ground-breaking empowering trends are spreading and accelerating, the long-term odds are tilted in favor of democracy and against autocracy—despite the protracted democratic recession of recent years. The particularly robust presence of emancipative values among young people should make us even more optimistic about democracy’s future. By the same token, a country’s vulnerability to any democratic downcycle will vary with the prevalence of emancipative values in the national populace. When a democracy does face headwinds and rough seas, the presence in it of a large share of people who are stalwart supporters of emancipative values can help it to endure those challenging conditions.

This conclusion does not deny that even mature democracies are currently navigating troubled waters as classes split along authoritarian-versus-emancipative lines and authoritarians seem readier to use force to get their way. Still, if the prodemocratic forces manage to mobilize their support base and elevate voter turnout, illiberal populism faces electoral defeat, as the recent European Parliament and U.S. presidential elections have shown. In light of the ascendant generational profile of emancipative values, the momentary challenges to democracy are unlikely to stifle democracy’s long-term rise. For genuine democrats, this is not a reason for complacency but—on the contrary—a call to struggle harder for their cause, precisely because it is far from being hopeless.



1. For statements of this pessimistic thesis, see Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy 27 (July 2016): 5–17; and their follow-up essay “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy 28 (January 2017): 5–15. For evidence against Foa and Mounk’s claims, see the online exchange (including a rejoinder by Foa and Mounk) hosted by the Journal of Democracy at www.journalofdemocracy.com/online-exchange-democratic-deconsolidation. That exchange dates from 2017; for newer evidence from around the globe that also disconfirms a global drop in public support for democracy, see Section 4 of the Online Appendix to the present essay.

2. The points made in this essay are outlined in a more extended manner and documented in greater empirical detail in Christian Welzel, “Democratic Horizons: What Value Change Reveals About the Future of Democracy,” Democratization 28 (forthcoming), https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2021.1883001.

3. Using data from the World Values Surveys for about a hundred countries, emancipative values measure support for universal freedoms by combining responses to four themes, each of which is probed via three questions: 1) gender equality [support for women’s equal access to education, jobs, and politics]; 2) child autonomy [independence, imagination, and nonobedience as desired qualities in children]; 3) public voice [support for freedom of speech and public participation in local, job, and national affairs]; and 4) reproductive freedoms [tolerance of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce]. Index scores vary between 0 (purely authoritarian) and 1.0 (purely emancipative). Section 1 of the Online Appendix documents how this index is constructed.

4. It is an established insight that people’s value orientations crystallize once their formative socialization is completed. Therefore, value change advances through generational replacement, which also means that current cohort differences in value orientations show the footprints of value change in the past. This allows one to transpose cohort differences in emancipative values from a recent national survey into a time series of annual measures by projecting the average emancipative values of people from the same birth year into the year in which these people were of a certain age. Section 2 of the Online Appendix documents these backward projections. For a similar procedure, see Damian J. Ruck et al., “The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies,” Nature Human Behaviour 4 (March 2020): 265–69.

5. For evidence of how a national public’s overall “policy mood” can cycle between relatively liberal and illiberal phases, see Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson, Ideology in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

6. From the human-empowerment perspective that lies at the heart of most democratic theory, I consider democracy to be first and foremost a system of entitlements provided, protected, and enforced by the state. These entitlements are called rights, and give people self-determination in personal affairs, equal voices and votes in public affairs, and protection against oppression and discrimination. See Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) and Corey Brettschneider, Democratic Rights: The Substance of Self-Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

7. A.C. Grayling, Toward the Light of Liberty: The Struggles for Freedom and Rights That Made the Modern Western World (New York: Walker, 2007).

8. Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); David Held, Models of Democracy, 1st ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

9. Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg, “A Third Wave of Autocratization Is Here: What Is New About It?” Democratization 26, no. 7 (2019): 1095–1113.

10. Jeroen Van den Bosch, “Introducing Regime Cluster Theory: Framing Regional Diffusion Dynamics of Democratization and Autocracy Promotion,” International Journal of Political Theory 4 (April 2020): 71–102.

11. Helen Kirsch and Christian Welzel, “Democracy Misunderstood: Authoritarian Notions of Democracy Around the Globe,” Social Forces 98 (September 2019): 59–92; Stefan Kruse, Maria Ravlik, and Christian Welzel, “Democracy Confused: When People Mistake the Absence of Democracy for Its Presence,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 50 (April 2019): 315–35; and Hasan Muhammad Baniamin, “Citizens’ Inflated Perceptions of the Extent of Democracy in Different African Countries: Are Individuals’ Notions of the State an Answer to the Puzzle?” Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft 14 (December 2020): 321–43.

12. Lennart Brunkert, Stefan Kruse, and Christian Welzel, “A Tale of Culture-Bound Regime Evolution: The Centennial Democratic Trend and Its Recent Reversal,” Democratization 26, no. 3 (2019): 422–43.

13. Christian Welzel and Ronald F. Inglehart, “Political Culture, Mass Beliefs, and Value Change,” in Christian Haerpfer et al., eds., Democratization, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 134-57.

14. See Christopher Claassen, “Does Public Support Help Democracy to Survive?” American Journal of Political Science 64 (January 2020): 118–34; and also Ruck, et al., “Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies.”

15. Kirsch and Welzel, “Democracy Misunderstood”; Kruse, Ravlik, and Welzel, “Democracy Confused.”

16. Franziska Deutsch and Christian Welzel, “Emancipative Values and Non-Violent Protest: The Importance of ‘Ecological’ Effects,” British Journal of Political Science 42, no. 2 (2012): 465–79. For further proof, see Section 4.3 of the Online Appendix, especially OA-Figure 12.

17. While the close link between emancipative values and levels of democracy is un-disputed, the direction of causality is a matter of debate. Does the causal arrow in regime-culture coevolution point from regimes to cultures, or does it go the other way? For more on this question, and for reasons to think that cultures drive regimes rather than the reverse, see the Online Appendix.

18. Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better than You Think New York: Flatiron, 2018). See also Jack A. Goldstone and Larry Diamond, “Demography and the Future of Democracy,” Perspectives on Politics 18 (September 2020): 867–80 and Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin, 2018).

19. Barrington Moore, Jr., The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon, 1966).

20. See the evidence in Section 3.2 of the Online Appendix.

21. Kirsch and Welzel, “Democracy Misunderstood”; Kruse, Ravlik, and Welzel, “Democracy Confused”; Baniamin, “Citizens’ Inflated Perceptions.”

22. An op-ed in Chinese state media from 2015 claims that not India but China is the world’s “greatest democracy”: https://qz.com/489345/china-not-india-is-the-worlds-biggest-democracy-an-op-ed-in-chinese-state-media-claims.

23. One of the World Values Survey items actually phrases the meaning of democracy as “people obey their rulers” and this notion of democracy finds high levels of support in non-Western cultures.

24. Archie Brown, “Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup: From Democratization to ‘Guided’ Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 12 (October 2001): 35–41.

25. Plamen Akaliyski and Christian Welzel, “Clashing Values: Supranational Identities, Geopolitical Rivalry and Europe’s Growing Cultural Divide,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 51 (October 2020): 740–62.

26. For a more detailed picture of the modest global increase in public support for strongman rule, see Section 4.4 of the Online Appendix.


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