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If you had turned one hundred in the year 2000, you might have been excused for thinking democratization was wired into modern world history. During your life the number of countries embracing democracy had exploded. In 1900 there were perhaps a dozen democracies (giving partial credit to semi-democracies). The number spiked after 1945, as the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa were dismantled. It spiked again in the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War. Freedom House, a good-government watchdog, counted 120 democracies in 2000. At that point, nearly two out of three humans lived under democratic political systems.
This was heady stuff for classical liberals, who had long contended that the expansion of freedom required only the removal of repressive regimes. Once people took power into their own hands, autocrats would never get it back.
Then, against the historic trend, democracy hit the skids. During the first two decades of this century, democracy has declined in breadth and depth. Freedom House found that the number of countries where democracy was growing stronger outnumbered those where it was growing weaker. By the late 2010s, the weakeners outnumbered the strengtheners by two or three to one.
Each country had its own story. But the overall trend was ominous for democracy’s advocates. The most worrisome part of it was that democracy wasn’t being overthrown by its enemies so much as being abandoned by its friends. From Russia to Poland to Hungary to Turkey, from India to Indonesia to the Philippines, from Colombia to Brazil to Nicaragua, and even, by some measures, in democratic exemplars like the United States and Israel, democratic institutions and norms corroded from within. Election results were denied, the independence of courts was challenged, freedom of speech was ridiculed, access to the ballot box was curtailed, laws were fiddled to protect incumbents. No counter-ideology outdueled democracy; democracy simply lost its ability to inspire.
Democracy had suffered setbacks before. Between the world wars, republican government, if not full democracy, had given way to fascist regimes in Italy, Germany and Spain. Generals toppled democratic governments in Greece, Argentina, Brazil and Chile in the second half of the twentieth century. But this time seemed different. Democracy was ending—where it was ending—not with a bang but a whimper.
If the decline of democracy proves to be more than a blip, it begs for an explanation. Three come to mind.
First possibility: Humans are simply hard to please. Give them freedom, and they demand prosperity. Give them prosperity, and they want security—even if it erodes their freedom and prosperity. In this scenario, people dissatisfied with authoritarianism turn to democracy, but then they become dissatisfied with authoritarianism and turn back to democracy. This cycle explains German history in the twentieth century. The cycle will continue, and democracy will revive.
Second possibility: Democracy isn’t scalable. Democracy as we know it originated in Greek city-states, where the polity comprised a few thousand people. In America in the nineteenth century, the experiment was tried in a country of twenty million, and it promptly led to civil war. Democracy in America has survived since then, in part because of America’s federal system, which divides the burden of governing, and in part because wars about once a generation injected doses of patriotism into the American body politic. Of late the formula isn’t working so well. Many Americans like their parties more than they like their democratic government. In countries larger than the United States, democracy has fared no better. China never tried it, and India has been drifting from democracy toward religious nationalism.
Third possibility: Human government of any sort isn’t scalable. Humans want freedom, prosperity and security. (Some want equality too, but this comes after the first three.) Perhaps in small groups they can achieve the trifecta, but in large groups they lack the necessary cohesion and selflessness. They can have freedom and prosperity, but at the cost of personal security. This is the American model. Or they can have prosperity and security, but without freedom.This is the Chinese model.
Possibly the human race has grown too numerous to govern ourselves well by any means. Maybe our fate is to choose among flawed models. Winston Churchill preferred democracy but owned its limitations. “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried, in this world of sin and woe,” he observed. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It should be noted that Churchill preferred democracy for Britain; for India he insisted on Britain’s imperial rule.
Just because democracy is declining doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear. With all its imperfections, it seems to suit about half the human race. That’s still a lot of people.