The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States raises many issues about the democratic process in what has long been considered the most advanced democracy in the world. The U.S. election is, however, only the latest indication that the global experiment with democracy may be in decline.

Riot police guard the entrance to a courthouse in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, as an Economic Freedom Fighters supporter protests. Photo: AP

In his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Samuel Huntington famously argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was part of a much bigger wave of democratization that started with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974.

The year the book was published, the Soviet Union fell apart. At that time, to say that democracy was on the march was merely stating a self-evident fact. The events of the subsequent two decades supported the conclusion that democracy was advancing around the world.  

Now, 25 years later, we find ourselves unexpectedly questioning whether the progress of democracy as a political system is inevitable. Certainly, the election of billionaire real estate mogul and reality television personality Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States raises many concerns about democratic processes in the most advanced democracy in the world, but the global democratic experiment as a whole has been in doubt for some time.

Democracy in Decline?, a book of essays by prominent scholars, was published over a year ago, but it is particularly relevant today — and not only because the authors are the very same people who heralded and championed the expansion of democracy. Condoleezza Rice, who wrote the forward, will forever be remembered as a U.S. National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State at a time when the U.S. was spreading democracy in the Middle East. Francis Fukuyama, the author of the lead essay and a protégé of Huntington, is famous for proclaiming that the end of world history was at hand and that all nations would eventually adopt the Western style of liberal political democracy.

In this fairly slim volume, Fukuyama and seven other scholars reflect on the status of both democracy as an idea and democracy as a practice. While the essays differ in their level of optimism, conclusions and recommendations, they generally agree that there is a gap between the notion of democracy as a theoretical form of government, which still retains appeal, and the actual performance of democratic governments, which has attracted considerable criticism.

Theory and practice of democracy

Fukuyama has a simple and rather convincing answer to the question of why democracies have performed so poorly lately: bad governance. According to the scholar, a nation’s success is based on a “tripod” consisting of the rule of law, a modern state and a democratic regime.  In recent times, too much effort was spent determining how to bring about democratic change and not enough on what happens on the morning after autocrats are driven from power.  

Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers the intriguing although unsettling idea that democracy has succeeded thus far not because of some natural law that makes democratization inevitable, but because of the U.S. political dominance over the past 25 years. In other words, democracy’s victory was one of arms, not of ideas. Kagan notes that the U.S. was hardly a promoter of democracy during the Cold War, supporting the military overthrow of democratic powers in Iran and Chile.  He also suggests that the reason Eastern Europe embraced Western European governance was not because, for example, the Polish love democracy, but because former Soviet satellites wanted American security guarantees to ensure independence from Russia. Kagan says that democracy has suffered reversals before, and therefore should be treated as a fragile flower that requires care, not as a foregone conclusion about the inevitable future.  

Steven Levitsky of Harvard University and Lucan Way of the University of Toronto offer the most optimistic prognosis of the state of democracy, arguing that the decline of democracy has been exaggerated. They consider the recent lack of democratic progress as a normal slowdown period of consolidation after a time of rapid change. The perception that democracy is in decline is caused by the overly optimistic assessment of the democratic change of the 1990s, and by high expectations that countries like China would soon adopt democratic reforms.

Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace considers the rather controversial topic of “democratic aid.” He admits that there have been plenty of shortcomings with the way in which money for the development of democratic institutions has been allocated. He identified the “cowboy” method of democracy promotion and the support of “color revolutions” by U.S.-funded non-governmental organizations as areas of concern. Nevertheless, Western money continues to flow into democracy promotion, and therefore Western support for the development of democratic institutions will remain a factor, despite the fact that in many countries, including Russia, the doors for such activity have been closing.

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Larry Diamond of Stanford University, who is also a founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, argues that the “democratic recession” is a fact that we must face. As evidence, he points to 25 cases of democratic breakdown since 2000, including military coups in Fiji, Thailand and Bangladesh, and the degradation of democratic institutions and executive abuse in Venezuela and the Philippines. He also is no friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, connecting Russia’s democratic breakdown to Putin’s election in 2000. Looking for causes of the democratic recession, Diamond takes a broader view, looking not only at what is happening with the government of new democracies, but also the political process in established democracies in the West. The development of democracy is threatened by the decline of confidence in the West and the decline in the quality of governance in Western Europe and the United States, Diamond says.

Philippe Schmitter of the European University Institute provides the most intellectually ambitious essay, saying that democracy is not so much in decline as it is in transition to a new “post-liberal” state brought about by the forces of globalization and cultural and political changes. According to Schmitter, observers should look at democracy more broadly and accept that many practices may not fall under the strict notion of party-based liberal democracy. Democratic tools in the age of Facebook include consultation and public discussions on policy issues, public financing of civil society organizations and the growing importance of existing of various “guardian institutions.” They also reflect broader definitions of many traditional concepts relevant to democracy, such as the notion of citizenship in an era where cross-border movement of people has become the norm.

A new vision for democracy

Altogether, the essays are thought-provoking. They suggest that the school of thought regarding democracy is in flux and struggling to find a way forward — and not because there is a broad range of opinions of what ails democracy, or whether democracy is a sick patient in the first place.

A potentially bigger issue is that the authors in the book share certain assumptions that are increasingly open to debate.  

The largest of these is the problem with the “minimalist” definition of democracy, which holds that democracy is a mechanism of competition among leaders, much like competition in the economic market place. This idea first appeared in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, a book by the Austrian-born American economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter and became an accepted view for Western political scientists, including the contributors to Democracy in Decline?

The “Schumpeterian” approach puts an outsized importance on the process of competitive elections, and this is probably the underlying reason why America’s promotion of democracy has been prioritized setting up electoral processes over just about any other consideration. Remember America’s earnest enthusiasm for the images of Iraqis with purple fingers during the 2005 Iraqi elections?

The focus on the electoral process worked well when it was practiced in the secular industrial states of the former Soviet space, but it went awry when it was expanded to the Middle East where so many aspects of life are defined by religion and where the notion of political completion often has grisly implications.

Another questionable assumption is that democracy should be embraced by people around the world because it leads to a better life. Democracy, says Rice in the book, “retains its power to appeal to those who do not yet enjoy its benefits.”  

Well, if one thinks about the benefits of which things that the people in, say, the Middle East might like to enjoy, tangible benefits like a life free of terror would probably top the list. China, too, has demonstrated that it is possible to improve lives of millions of people without political liberalization.

The loyalty to any notion, including democracy, is truly tested when societies face challenges. If people are supposed to pursue democracy because it is “beneficial,” the idea of democracy loses its luster and becomes vulnerable to other ideas that give people a sense of purpose and belonging. The popularity of Trump, or Putin, is a testament to that. It is possible to argue that it is countries such as Russia or South Africa, which have suffered on their road to democracy but who are bound retain their democratic institutions, are those where the adherence to democracy is the strongest.

Democracy in Decline? shows that a major rethinking of democratic theory is underway. What will replace the minimalist definition of democracy remains to be seen, but certainly the notion of good governance that features prominently in this book must be part of any future theory of democracy.