Home Lightbox The Spread of Democracy

The Spread of Democracy

Economic growth is arguably the main driver for democracy taking hold in states traditionally ruled by kings and dictators

by Khaled Ahmed

In Political Order and Political Decay (2014), Francis Fukuyama outlines how democracy spread in a world dominated by kings and dictators, with the number of democratic states growing from around 35 to nearly 120 between 1970 and 2010.

Citing Samuel Huntington’s Third Wave of Democratization, the author recalls that the first wave began in the 1820s and continued until the end of the 19th century, while the second wave began in the immediate aftermath of World War II and led into the third wave, which began with the democratic transitions of Spain and Portugal in the early 1970s. The Third Wave, he writes, included the end of military rule in Greece and Turkey, as well as the establishment of democracy in various Latin American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. It then moved to Asia, with the democratization of the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan, before culminating in the collapse of communism and the transition to democracy of Eastern Europe as well as some successor states of the former Soviet Union.

Larry Diamond, a contemporary scholar in democratic studies, has argued that the Third Wave receded in the 2000s. Some observers subsequently argued that the outbreak of the Arab Spring in early 2011 marked the start of a Fourth Wave, but setbacks in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have made this a less compelling argument. The core question remains: why did these waves of democratization occur and why were they successful in some regions but not others? Additionally, why did democracy spread globally only in the 20th century and not any earlier time in human history?

While specifics differ, a general agreement is that democracy has taken hold as the result of the power of its underlying idea. This was cited forcefully by Alexis de Tocqueville in his introduction to Democracy in America. He noted that the idea of human equality underlying modern democracy had been gaining ground for 800 years, and it had acquired an unstoppable momentum that roused in him a “kind of religious dread.” He regarded its progress as providential fact. Other authors have agreed that ideas were critical and have traced them to specific historical and cultural roots, either in ancient Athens or in Christianity. Both Hegel and Nietzsche thought that modern political democracy was a secularized version of the Christian doctrine of the universal equality of human dignity.

Developments in the material world such as the French Revolution led to the emergence of the principle of equal recognition as the working of the inner logic of human rationality. During the Third Wave, as well as during the more recent Arab Spring, ideas clearly propagated rapidly across international borders via radio, television, the Internet, bringing news of political upheavals. The wave of democratic transitions occurring in sub-Saharan Africa during the early 1990s was clearly inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall and developments taking place in Eastern Europe shortly before.

Ideas or cultural values also posit a causal relationship, but while ideas are indeed powerful and can explain much about political institutions, this explanation begs many questions. Why, for instance, do the ideas of human equality or democracy rise in some periods and not in others? The idea of democracy was around at least since ancient Athens, and yet it did not become institutionalized anywhere until the end of the 18th century. Tocqueville does not explain why the idea of human equality became progressively more powerful, except to suggest that it was an act of God. But democracy did not equally arise in all parts of the world, with the contemporary Chinese government and Islamists arguing that liberal democracy does not represent a universal trend but is something culturally specific to Western civilization. Taken as true, this still begs the question of why this particular idea arose in the West and not elsewhere.

According to Fukuyama, an alternative school of thought understands democracy not as the impression of an idea or a set of cultural values but as the by-product of structural forces within societies. A key factor may well be economic development, with one well-known study showing that while countries transition from authoritarian to democratic government at any level of development, they are much more likely to remain democracies if they are above a certain threshold of per capita income. But what is the exact link between economic development and democracy? Do people’s values somehow magically shift to favor democracy when they achieve a certain level of well-being? Statistical correlations do not provide any specific insight, with significant exceptions available: for example, this view suggests impoverished India should not be a stable democracy but wealthy Singapore should.

There is an alternative causal path by which economic growth could affect democratic institutions via social mobility. The key concept here is division of labor. Adam Smith has asserted that the division of labor is limited by the size of the market, or, that as markets expand through increased trade in a commercial and later an industrial economy, a new division of labor arises and deepens. This division of labor entailed the creation of new social groups. While Smith did not state this explicitly, it stands to reason that such new groups, excluded from participation in the political institutions of the old agrarian society, would subsequently demand a share of political power, increasing pressures for democracy.

As such, it can be argued that one of the most important centers for democracy is economic change. Economic growth engenders social mobilization via the spreading division of labor, and social mobilization in turn produces demands for both rule of law and greater democracy. The traditional elites that dominated the old order frequently try to block entry of the newer groups into the system. A stable democratic system will emerge only if these newly mobilized groups are successfully incorporated into the system and allowed to participate politically. Conversely, instability and disorder will occur if those groups do not have institutionalized channels of participation. A key example is that of Europe, where democracy gradually emerged in stages over a 150-year period, resulting from struggles among the middle classes, working class, old oligarchy, and peasantry, all being shaped in turn by underlying changes in the economy and society.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment