People want their voices heard and when they had an opportunity to make a difference with a direct vote — one that promised to make a bigger difference than the usual box-ticking every four years - they grabbed it. As a result of the populist backlash, political elites — which includes many in the media — are suddenly talking about the need to defend democracy. By getting the public involved in the biggest political debate in decades, Brexit was phenomenal, she says.
Yet many still identify the populist backlash itself as the problem, rather than an expression of a deeper issue. But to dismiss millions of people like that will get us nowhere, says Hoey. There are no other fixes. For Hoey, Brexit and the election of Trump are electoral shocks that could be good for democracy in the long-run. The reason that many countries have representative democracies — in which people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf — or other structures, such as second chambers of government, is that the will of the people needs to be balanced with things like equality and civil liberty.
Some states have constitutions that set out their citizens' incontrovertible rights explicitly. Most have independent judicial systems. Many deep thinkers about politics have worried about the vulnerability of pure democracy to the tyranny of the majority. The danger inherent in the democratic process is that a leader can be elected who removes those brakes.
Trump has support for banning immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, for example. And last year, the UK government was able to pass the most sweeping internet-surveillance legislation of any democracy. Diamond is struck by how quickly democratic processes and institutions are being dismantled in European countries like Hungary and Poland — states that have long been absorbed into the European Union.
Diamond agrees with Hoey about the underlying causes of the populist surge across the West. But simply talking about these issues may not be enough. To compete with more authoritarian rivals, Diamond thinks mainstream politicians will need to concede ground, stepping back from liberal social and economic policies — on equality, immigration or global trade — that have been advanced in recent years. This was because the Dutch prime minister saw what was happening and made some significant policy adjustments, says Diamond. Despite being on the back foot, many people believe democracy is the best system of government humans have come up with, an end point to political evolution.
In non-democratic countries around the world — in parts of Asia, in sub-Saharan Africa — survey data shows that people want it. As China has become richer and its economy more modern, you can see a growing aspiration for democracy from the middle classes, says Hoey. Which is why people like Joshua Wong devote themselves to fighting for it. Feelings are strong on both sides, however. When Wong travelled to Taiwan in January, he was met by around pro-China protestors at the airport.
One broke through police lines and tried to punch him. Wong ended up being placed under police protection for his visit. Is democracy really the only morally legitimate system for choosing a society's leaders? He believes governments in places like China, Russia and Iran will eventually collapse. Not everyone thinks things are so clear cut, however. Daniel Bell at Tsinghua University in Beijing argues that a lot of Western ideas about democracy verge on dogma.
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A Canadian political scientist trained in the UK, Bell has spent many years living and working in China. Bell points out that non-democratic states can take many forms. There are family-run dictatorships like in North Korea, military dictatorships like in Egypt, monarchies like in Saudi Arabia. Each is quite different. And some, like China's meritocratic system — in which government officials are not elected by the public, but appointed and promoted according to their competence and performance — should not be dismissed outright.
The Communist Party of China has 88 million members. Its membership is managed by the Department of Organisation, which is essentially a huge human resources department. To be a member of the party, candidates must pass a set of examinations. Government officials are thus selected from across the country and from various sectors of society according to merit.
Promotion from low-ranking official to the very top of government is then — in principle — simply a matter of performance. One obvious issue is a lack of transparency in how merit is measured. At the lower levels of government, the system is becoming more open to public scrutiny. Some Chinese cities are now experimenting with putting budgets online and allowing people to comment on the budgets, which lets citizens see how their local officials are performing.
But how the party selects its top-tier leaders is not generally known, says Bell. The biggest challenge to Chinese politics is corruption. A democratic system can live with corruption because corrupt leaders can be voted out of power, at least in theory. But in a meritocratic system, corruption is an existential threat. If political leaders are seen to be corrupt, they cannot claim superior merit and thus lose the one quality that justifies their position.
Because of this, China needs more mechanisms to keep its politicians accountable. Chinese officials have studied the British civil service to learn how to deal with corruption, for example. It's why they're having the longest and most systematic anti-corruption drive in recent history.
There are obvious flaws in China's system, says Bell. But he also ticks off several advantages.
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The government is also not subject to the electoral cycle and can focus on its policies. This has allowed China to pull millions out of poverty in just a few decades, build a vast amount of new infrastructure in the biggest construction drive the world has ever seen , and begin to tackle its substantial urban pollution and greenhouse emissions. Officials used to be judged mainly on how well they did at reducing poverty, says Bell. Now they are expected to make environmental improvements too.
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The West has tried to export democracy not only at the point of a gun, but also by imposing legislation. Bell says lots of surveys show that the Chinese system has strong support within the country at most levels of society, where the government is viewed as providing a form of guardianship. Across three continents, fragile democracies gave way to authoritarian forces exploiting the vulnerabilities of the democratic system, while other democracies fell prey to the worldwide economic depression. There was a ripple effect, too—the success of fascism in one country strengthened similar movements elsewhere, sometimes directly.
Spanish fascists received military assistance from the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy. The result was that by the democratic gains of the previous forty years had been wiped out. The period after the First World War showed not only that democratic gains could be reversed, but that democracy need not always triumph even in the competition of ideas.
For it was not just that democracies had been overthrown. Hobson observed. Human beings, after all, do not yearn only for freedom, autonomy, individuality, and recognition. Especially in times of difficulty, they yearn also for comfort, security, order, and, importantly, a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves, something that submerges autonomy and individuality—all of which autocracies can sometimes provide, or at least appear to provide, better than democracies. In the s and s, the fascist governments looked stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable of providing reassurance in troubled times.
They appealed effectively to nationalist, ethnic, and tribal sentiments. It took a second world war and another military victory by the Allied democracies plus the Soviet Union to reverse the trend again. With the victory of the democracies and the discrediting of fascism—chiefly on the battlefield—many other countries followed suit. Some of the new nations born as Europe shed its colonies also experimented with democratic government, the most prominent example being India.
Was this the victory of an idea or the victory of arms? Was it the product of an inevitable human evolution or, as Samuel P. In Africa, Nigeria was the most prominent of the newly decolonized nations where democracy failed.
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By , more than three-dozen governments around the world had been installed by military coups. What explained the prolonged success of democratization over the last quarter of the twentieth century? It could not have been merely the steady rise of the global economy and the general yearning for freedom, autonomy, and recognition. Neither economic growth nor human yearnings had prevented the democratic reversals of the s and early s. Until the third wave, many nations around the world careened back and forth between democracy and authoritarianism in a cyclical, almost predictable manner.
What was most notable about the third wave was that this cyclical alternation between democracy and autocracy was interrupted. Nations moved into a democratic phase and stayed there. But why? The answer is related to the configuration of power and ideas in the world.
The international climate from the mids onward was simply more hospitable to democracies and more challenging to autocratic governments than had been the case in past eras. The growing success and attractiveness of the European Community EC , meanwhile, had an impact on the internal policies of nations such as Portugal, Greece, and Spain, which sought the economic benefits of membership in the EC and therefore felt pressure to conform to its democratic norms.
These norms increasingly became international norms. But they did not appear out of nowhere or as the result of some natural evolution of the human species. The United States, in fact, played a critical role in making the explosion of democracy possible. This was not because U. They did not. At various times throughout the Cold War, U. It even permitted or was complicit in the overthrow of democratic regimes deemed unreliable—those of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in , Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in , and Salvador Allende in Chile in At times, U.
Nor, when the United States did support democracy, was it purely out of fealty to principle. Often it was for strategic reasons. Beginning in the mids, however, the general inclination of the United States did begin to shift toward a more critical view of dictatorship. The U. Congress, led by human-rights advocates, began to condition or cut off U.
In the Helsinki Accords of , a reference to human-rights issues drew greater attention to the cause of dissidents and other opponents of dictatorship in the Eastern bloc.
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President Jimmy Carter focused attention on the human-rights abuses of the Soviet Union as well as of right-wing governments in Latin America and elsewhere. Even during this period, U. Many allied dictatorships, especially in the Middle East, were not only tolerated but actively supported with U. But the net effect of the shift in U. The third wave began in in Portugal, where the Carnation Revolution put an end to a half-century of dictatorship. As Larry Diamond notes, this revolution did not just happen.
In , the United States threatened military action to prevent Marcos from forcibly annulling an election that he had lost. In , President George H. Elsewhere it urged presidents not to try staying in office beyond constitutional limits. Huntington estimated that over the course of about a decade and a half, U. Many developments both global and local helped to produce the democratizing trend of the late s and the s, and there might have been a democratic wave even if the United States had not been so influential.
The question is whether the wave would have been as large and as lasting.
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The stable zones of democracy in Europe and Japan proved to be powerful magnets. The liberal free-market and free-trade system increasingly outperformed the stagnating economies of the socialist bloc, especially at the dawn of the information revolution. The greater activism of the United States, together with that of other successful democracies, helped to build a broad, if not universal, consensus that was more sympathetic to democratic forms of government and less sympathetic to authoritarian forms.
In the s, the trendsetting nations were fascist dictatorships. In the s and s, variants of socialism were in vogue. But from the s until recently, the United States and a handful of other democratic powers set the fashion trend. They pushed—some might even say imposed—democratic principles and embedded them in international institutions and agreements. Equally important was the role that the United States played in preventing backsliding away from democracy where it had barely taken root.
Perhaps the most significant U. It was not that the United States was exporting democracy everywhere. This helped to give the third wave unprecedented breadth and durability. What role the United States played in hastening the Soviet downfall may be in dispute, but surely it played some part, both by containing the Soviet empire militarily and by outperforming it economically and technologically.
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And at the heart of the struggle were the peoples of the former Warsaw Pact countries themselves. They had long yearned to achieve the liberation of their respective nations from the Soviet Union, which also meant liberation from communism. These peoples wanted to join the rest of Europe, which offered an economic and social model that was even more attractive than that of the United States.