Will there be a fourth democratic wave?

As the Cold War came to a close, renowned political scientist, professor and author, Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed the end of history. He said humankind had reached the endpoint of its “ideological evolution,” and Western liberal democracy had won out as the “final form of human government." At around the same time, another influential political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington wrote that the world was in the middle of a “third wave” of democratic expansion. But 23 years later, the third democratic wave has hit a wall. According to Larry Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, the rapid democratic expansion, which began in the 1970s and continued until 2005, is now in recession.

A number of theories have been put forth to explain this democratic stagnation.

Diamond points to “bad governance” as the most influential factor that has led to an authoritarian resurgence and the retreat of Western democracy. Underdeveloped democratic institutions were ill-equipped to handle abuses of power, which were exacerbated by the global economic crisis and increasing inequality. Western democracy suffered a blow to its reputation, resulting from a perceived “decline of democratic efficacy, energy and self-confidence,” says Diamond. The United States has not been immune, suffering repeated bouts of political gridlock and economic turmoil.

Pat Merloe, NDI’s senior associate and director of electoral programs, contends that the struggle against authoritarianism and the deficiencies of established Western democracies are long-term challenges that require resolve. Factors like rapid authoritarian learning and the spread of new forms of terrorism complicate democratic development and must be met with effective democratic learning and innovation to create a “democratic stimulus” and avoid a “democratic depression.”

Democracy Works – a project by the Legatum Institute and the Center for Development and Enterprise, which coincidentally shares a title with NDI’s recently launched blog – says that the resurgent appeal of authoritarianism is also driven by economics.

China’s rapid economic rise accounted for 76.09 percent of global poverty reduction between 1990–2005, and was a primary reason that the world was able to halve global poverty five years ahead of the Millenium Development Goal target.

The Democracy Works project argues that China’s hybrid model – which employs market mechanisms alongside a command economy – has demonstrated an “attractive alternative to Western-style democratic capitalism.” But the Chinese model does not have a monopoly on delivering inclusive economic growth. The project points to three developing societies that are delivering economic growth, along with the other trappings of democratic society: stability, accountability, liberty and human rights. Three fifths of the BRICS – India, Brazil and South Africa – represent an often-overlooked democratic alternative from the South.

Warning that the third democratic wave would not last forever, Huntington’s 1991 article predicted a fourth democratic wave occurring sometime in the 21st century. He wrote: "The two most decisive factors affecting the future consolidation and expansion of democracy will be economic development and political leadership. Economic development makes democracy possible; political leadership makes it real."

Will there be a fourth democratic wave? It will take democratic stimulus, political leadership and economic development.