In recent commentaries on the bleak state of global freedom, analysts have used a series of labels to describe the trajectory of democracy: “stagnation,” “erosion,” “recession,” and even “decline” for those who view the trends with alarm, notes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House. One label that has not been applied to current conditions is “reversal.”
This is worth noting. In his influential study of the democracy revolution of the late 20th century, The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington devoted considerable space to the reversals in political freedom that came on the heels of the first and second waves of democratization, he writes for the Freedom at Issue blog.
The sense of backsliding is increasingly palpable, leading many to ask, like the Economist, what’s gone wrong with democracy? A complete list of disheartening phenomena over the past several years would be a long one, but here are a few:
- The lack of major breakthroughs: Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring has met with a grim fate across the Middle East, with antidemocratic forces dragging the region even deeper into repression and violence. Other persistent blocs of Not Free countries, covering much of Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, remain overwhelmingly authoritarian, despite significant ferment on their margins.
- Worsening conditions in major authoritarian states: In 2000, many anticipated change for the better in China. Instead, political freedom remains a remote prospect, and civil liberties have been further curtailed. Russia was ranked as Partly Free in 2000; it is now firmly in the Not Free category. Nor have things improved in Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, and the situation has gone from bad to worse in Venezuela.
- Strutting dictators: Where previously a country’s democracy deficit would elicit apologies and pledges to institute reforms, today’s autocratic leaders, led by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, categorically reject democratic values and speak with disdain of Euro-American gridlock and decadence.
- The economic factor: The democratic sphere’s clear superiority in growth, prosperity, and technological modernization played a huge role in discrediting both communism and military dictatorship during the late 20th century. While developed democracies remain atop the roster of prosperous countries, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has shaken their peoples’ confidence and—coupled with a continued boom in China—changed the calculation in many developing societies.
The current situation can be viewed in two ways. It is not as bad as it may seem, in the sense that the great gains of previous decades have not in fact been erased. But it could be a sign of things to come, the cusp of a major reversal. To prevent a negative outcome in matters of such consequence, it is always best to prepare for the worst.