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Is the “Third Wave” Obsolete?

In the 1991 classic, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Samuel P. Huntington offered a new way of understanding democracy’s global trajectory that became “unrivaled in its intellectual influence.” He identified three waves of modern democratization — when transitions from nondemocratic to democratic rule far outnumbered those in the opposite direction. The titular “third wave” began in 1974 with Portugal’s Revolution of the Carnations and was still going strong at the end of the century. But that wave has long since ebbed.

In a provocative new online exclusive, Journal of Democracy founding coeditor Marc F. Plattner asks not only if the third wave has ended but whether there is any current wave at all. Amid rising global populism and increasingly aggressive authoritarian leaders, has Huntington’s framework outlived its usefulness? Read “Getting Over the Third Wave,” Huntington’s original 1991 essay on the third wave, and a selection of other important pieces analyzing democracy’s challenges and contemplating its future, free for a limited time:

Getting Over the Third Wave
Marc F. Plattner

Democracy’s Third Wave
From 1974 to 1990, some 30 countries transitioned to democracy, just about doubling the number of democratic governments in the world. Would this become part of a continuing “global democratic revolution”?
Samuel P. Huntington

After Twenty Years: The Future of the Third Wave
The third wave of democratization that Portugal initiated in 1974 created an age of democracy, in which for the first time in history more than half the countries in the world had some form of democratic government.
Samuel P. Huntington

Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled
Whether democracy regains its footing will depend on how democratic leaders and citizens respond to emboldened authoritarians and the fissures within their own societies.
Larry Diamond

Why Democracies Survive
Democracies are under stress, but they are not about to buckle. The erosion of norms and other woes do not spell democratic collapse. With few exceptions, affluent democracies will endure.
Jason Brownlee and Kenny Miao

The End of the Backsliding Paradigm
Like the “transition paradigm” before it, the concept of democratic backsliding threatens to flatten our perceptions of complex political realities.
Licia Cianetti and Seán Hanley

A Lost Decade for Third-Wave Democracies?
Ordinary citizens in East Asia, Latin America, and Africa are increasingly disappointed with democracy and its ability to deliver.
Yun-han Chu, Kai-Ping Huang, Marta Lagos, and Robert Mattes

Democracy Embattled
Despite being in a “slump,” democracy shows vivid signs of its persisting appeal.
Marc F. Plattner

Breaking Out of the Democratic Slump
There is still an opportunity to pull the world out of its democratic slump. What is most needed is democratic conviction and resolve.
Larry Diamond

Populism and the Decline of Social Democracy
In Eastern and Western Europe, social-democratic parties have shifted to the center on economic policy, sapping their electoral strength and opening up political space for the populist right.
Sheri Berman and Maria Snegovaya

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Image Credit: Nuno Cruz/NurPhoto via Getty Images