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Is the global tide turning in favor of democracy?

Anti coup protest in Tunis (10 October 2021). Image: Wikimedia/Dodos photography

Despite some recent democratic gains, it is too early to declare that the global democratic recession is over. Overcoming the deep roots of democracy’s global woes will require sustained efforts by the United States and many other democracies to address a myriad of continuing challenges.

In his March 29 address during the second U.S.-led Summit for Democracy, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that democracies are “turning the tide” against democratic backsliding and that “democracies of the world are getting stronger, not weaker,” while “autocracies of the world are getting weaker, not stronger.” In a recent Foreign Affairs article on countering autocracy globally, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, wrote that 2022 might have been “a high-water mark for authoritarianism” and the “autocrats are now on the back foot.” This optimistic narrative builds on the case made by various political observers who in global political retrospectives at the end of 2022 pointed to accumulating good news for democracy and speculated that a new positive tipping point for global democracy might be at hand. 

Those end-of-year accounts centered on five cases: China, Russia, Iran, Brazil, and the United States. In this view, the Chinese government’s retreat from its Zero COVID policy in the face of mounting public anger and resistance was a major setback for China’s authoritarian model. Russia’s enormous miscalculations in its military intervention against Ukraine shattered the idea of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongman competence, gravely weakened the Russian military, and resulted in harsh economic sanctions against the country. Massive, sustained protests in Iran had the regime more on the ropes than at any time in its history. The electoral defeat of president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil halted a dangerous slide in the country’s democracy. And the U.S. midterm elections saw the defeat of a number of far-right candidates steeped in election denial, especially ones seeking to gain positions in state offices from which they could potentially undercut the integrity of the 2024 presidential election. 

US President Joe Biden attending a virtual session of the second Summit for Democracy. Image: Instagram/POTUS (public domain)

The idea of a global turning of the tide in favor of democracy is appealing. After many years of sagging democratic fortunes, characterized by analysts as a profound “democratic recession,” all who care about democracy are hungry for some good news. But is it accurate? Certainly there is some good news for democracy here and there in the world. The global democratic retreat is neither an unrelieved nor an unshakeable condition. Yet, the roots of the democratic recession are deep, and its reversal will require fundamental progress on multiple daunting challenges at the same time. Today, that progress is still only incipient on many fronts.

Mixed news for democracy

A second look at the five big positive cases described above somewhat tempers the optimistic picture. China’s reversal of its Zero COVID policy was a huge shift, but with economic growth having resumed and Chinese President Xi Jinping continuing his forceful, repressive leadership, it does not seem to have constituted a major unsettling of the Chinese political system. The war in Ukraine has been disastrous in some ways for Russia, but Putin still commands significant popularity and his political hold seems secure, at least for now. The Iranian protests have subsided, and the regime, while certainly shaken, is intact. Brazil is back to some degree of democratic normality, but the attack on the National Congress on January 8, 2023, signaled the continued presence of antidemocratic forces. In the United States, the extraordinarily harsh divide between Republicans and Democrats—including the perception on both sides that the other represents a fundamental threat to American democracy—continues, and the unfolding presidential election campaign is certain to further inflame divisions.

A second look tempers the optimistic picture

Of course, there is other positive recent news for democracy around the world. Democratic openings have occurred via elections in Honduras, Slovenia, and Zambia in the past two years, with democratically backsliding or stagnant parties or leaders being replaced by ones promising democratic reform. In Moldova, political reformers have gained power and are struggling valiantly to bring about prodemocratic change. In Tanzania, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who succeeded an autocratic predecessor in 2021, has reversed her country’s authoritarian drift. In Thailand’s May 2023 elections, the reformist opposition parties’ victory over the military-backed parties has been an encouraging sign, though how much democratic change the military will really allow remains uncertain. But overall, recent democratic openings—which the Biden administration hails as “democratic bright spots” and has usefully stepped up support for—have mostly emerged in small countries and remain fragile.

Meanwhile, democratic backsliding continues in many places, including in quite a few regionally or globally influential countries. In Latin America, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is intent on weakening key democratic guardrails, such as the country’s National Electoral Institute, while in El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele is well along such a path. Peru is beset by perpetual political conflict and instability, and Guatemala’s political and security elite are steadily undercutting the country’s weak democratic institutions. In South Asia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s relentless pursuit of an illiberal Hindu majoritarian agenda threatens his country’s democracy, while democratic politics in many other countries in the region, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, have either corroded significantly or are in a state of disruptive churn. In the Middle East, Israel’s long-standing democracy has come under unprecedented internal pressure from a government bent on undercutting the independent judiciary, while Tunisia’s once-promising democratic transition has been derailed by a president determined to wield absolute power. In Africa, military coups or other unconstitutional power transitions have multiplied in the past two years, hitting Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan. The recent reelection of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Türkiye is a sobering reminder of just how difficult it is to best an entrenched strongman leader, even when the leader’s recent economic record is manifestly terrible.

The deep roots of the democratic recession

Thus, while the overall international picture is not a landscape of unbroken democratic gloom, it is still very mixed at best. There is some inspirational value, as well as some political utility, in the U.S. government and other prodemocratic actors projecting confidence about democracy’s overall global fortunes. And it is certainly possible that the global democratic recession will recede significantly over time; democracy has waxed and waned globally since the early twentieth century. Yet, it is important to avoid unrealistically positive and ultimately unpersuasive narratives.

Pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on 19 January 2020. Photo: Etam Liam/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

To assess whether the democratic recession is in fact starting to lift, it is necessary to go beyond simple scorecards of countries that are up or down on democracy and instead focus on what brought on the recession in the first place. Democracy’s global retreat over the past decade and a half was the unfortunate confluence of three broad and deeply rooted negative global political developments. 

It is necessary to go beyond simple scorecards of countries

At the heart of the democratic recession is the fact that many of the countries in the Global South and in the former communist world that attempted democratic transitions starting in the 1980s and 1990s—the core part of democracy’s “third wave”—have encountered serious problems in attempting to consolidate those changes. In some countries, such as Cambodia, Hungary, and Nicaragua, predatory political actors have amassed outsized amounts of political power, steamrollered relatively shallowly rooted democratic norms and institutions, and convinced a sizable share of populations disillusioned with the early results of democracy to go along for the illiberal ride. Other third wave countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Peru, have suffered chronic political churn among weakly institutionalized political parties and have made little progress on addressing core governance challenges. Still others, including Haiti and Lebanon, have experienced either state collapse or near governance paralysis. It was almost inevitable that many of the third wave’s democratic experiments would run into rough sledding given that they were launched in contexts of profound institutional weaknesses, harsh socioeconomic realities, and thin experience with democratic practices and norms. But the falling short of prodemocratic aspirations has been wider and deeper than most observers—and, very importantly, most citizens of such countries—expected back when democracy seemed to be gaining global momentum.

Contributing to this widespread democratic malaise among newer democracies has been a second trend: an unexpectedly serious wave of democratic tremors hitting established wealthy democracies, the United States most sharply but many parts of Europe as well. This wave has been marked by widespread citizen alienation from conventional democratic institutions, including long-standing center-left and center-right parties, and the rise of illiberal right-wing parties and politicians. Powerful drivers have propelled these troubling political currents. These drivers have included long-term economic stagnation and rising insecurity of the middle class; illiberal counterreactions to progressive sociocultural change in domains such as immigration, ethnic and racial diversity, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights; and the disruptive effects of technological change on the integrity of public information spaces and on basic societal cohesion. Although democracy has survived in the wealthy democracies of North America, Europe, East Asia, and Oceania, these tremors have damaged their standing as democratic models for other countries and weakened the appeal of democracy around the world.

Adding still further to this troubled situation for global democracy in the first two decades of this century was the slow but ultimately deep authoritarian hardening of two crucial countries—China and Russia—that have gained the capacity and embraced the intent to challenge U.S. power and project antidemocratic practices and ideas widely beyond their borders. Other autocratic states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, have also at different times and in different ways over the past fifteen years expanded efforts to influence the political trajectory of some of their neighbors, usually with antidemocratic intent and effects.

Indicators of fundamental change

Given that democracy’s current challenges are rooted in these three major developments, observers will know therefore that the global democratic recession is receding when these developments change in the following ways.

  • A significant number of developing countries and postcommunist countries where attempted democratic transitions went off track manage to find new, more productive ways forward. Doing so will require a combination of a dauntingly long and challenging list of gains and reforms, including defeating elected autocrats, renovating prodemocratic political parties, widening the constituencies of independent civil groups, bolstering key guardrail institutions such as courts and electoral management bodies, strengthening the delivery of basic socioeconomic services, shoring up independent media, and nurturing local- and provincial-level oases of prodemocratic innovation.
  • Wealthy established democracies put illiberal parties and politicians on the defensive and reengage meaningfully with disaffected citizens by offering economic hope and results rather than stagnation and insecurity, achieving productive consensus over divisive social issues and forging solutions for making new technologies reinforce rather than disrupt societal cohesion.
  • Major autocratic powers come up against hard limits to their efforts to undercut democracy beyond their borders and experience real competition to their attempts to serve as alternative models to liberal democracy.

The various recent pieces of good news on democracy touch all three of these categories. Brazil’s ouster of a populist strongman is an example of the first, the electoral defeat of some antidemocratic politicians in the United States an example of the second, and the strong coalition of countries supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression an example of the third. But much wider, sustained actions and progress in all three areas are necessary before it can be declared with confidence that the tide has turned for democracy globally. Under Biden’s leadership, the United States is making valuable efforts to help bring about such an outcome through multilateral and bilateral diplomacy, economic carrots and sticks, and enhanced democracy assistance. But much more will need to be done on all these fronts, not just by the United States but by democracies around the globe, for the considerable democratic backsliding and malaise still present in many places to be reversed. Overstating what is at best incipient progress to date risks underselling what will be needed to widen and sustain this progress in the years to come.

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here. The copyright remains with the original publisher/author. Republished here with kind permission.

Thomas Carothers
Thomas Carothers, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, is a leading expert on comparative democratization and international support for democracy
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