Democracies: Emerging or Submerging?

Democracies: Emerging or Submerging?

The second half of the twentieth century was an age of democracy. The women’s movement, anti-colonial struggles, and challenges to what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “color line” won political inclusion for many people throughout the world. And starting in the mid-1970s, electoral democracies replaced authoritarian regimes in southern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia. This process was extended when the former Soviet Union broke up, and communist regimes collapsed there and in Eastern Europe. According to Freedom House, a nonprofit institution that issues an annual assessment of political and civil rights worldwide, there were only twenty-two democracies with 31 percent of the world population in 1950, out of a total of eighty sovereign states. Today, there are 120 electoral democracies representing 58 percent of the world population, out of 192 sovereign states. The percentage of the world’s population living under some form of democracy nearly doubled in the last fifty years. This was a historic shift of epic proportions.

Western triumphalism about the “end of history,” however, was never justified. Nondemocratic regimes still exist. Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Swaziland are traditional monarchies. China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam are nominally communist, one-party regimes whose leaders deeply distrust multiparty democracy. And military regimes of the kind so common in developing countries in the 1960s and 1970s survive. Burma (Myanmar), which the democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi calls a “Fascist Disneyland,” is one of them, as are Pakistan and, until 1999, Nigeria. Although they often declare their intent to supervise a democratic “transition,” such regimes do not respect the democratic principles of universal suffrage and elected government.

In addition, some of the world’s states have imploded, rendering the form of their regime irrelevant: Sierra Leone, the Congo, Colombia, and Sri Lanka today; Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Haiti, Liberia, Rwanda, and Somalia a few years ago. It is likely that there will be more, and that international intervention, when it occurs, will not be entirely successful in promoting peace and rebuilding the state.

Furthermore, many new democracies are illiberal, unable or unwilling to guarantee their citizens important political and civil rights, even if regular elections are held. Leaders with a dictatorial bent manipulate political systems to prevent genuine competition or to steal elections. Observers speak of these polities as “democracies without citizenship” or “delegative democracies”—political systems in which plebiscitary elections create mandates for powerful chief executives who rule virtually unchecked.

Finally, changes in patterns of economic and political organization have shifted authority upward to regional and global institutions (the European Union [EU], the North American Free Trade Agreement...