The Great Democracy Recession

By Penny Smith

Samuel Huntington, in an article in The Journal of Democracy, later expanded in his book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth-Century (1991), argued  that there have been three surges of democracy-building in the modern world. The first was in the early 19th-century, beginning when the United States dramatically expanded suffrage. That wave continued to the 1920s, when the rise of European fascism stalled it. The next surge followed the World War II and crested in 1962. The third swell coincided with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal (1974) and increased the number of nations labeled democracies from the mid-30s to over 100.

With the advent of the Arab Spring, some scholars predicted the beginning of a fourth wave. Conversely, others have argued that democracy is in recession. Notable among the recession advocates is Larry Diamond, a Stanford faculty member and Hoover Institute senior fellow. The failure of the Arab Spring to blossom across the Middle East supports Diamond’s position; we are in the midst of a democratic (small “d”) recession.

Using data from sources like the Freedom Scale (yes, there really is such an index), Diamond notes that in 1974 it stood at 4.38 (1 is the best score and 7 means you’re in authoritarian hell). Over the next 30 years it fell to 3.22 as more and more nations adopted some of the trappings of a functioning democracy – free and open election, civil liberties, transparency, and only a modicum of political corruption. However, around 2005 the index average sputtered and has basically flat-lined since (check out the latest report and information about the scale at Freedom House, which tracks such things).

Diamond points to deteriorating conditions in countries like Russia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Kenya, and Egypt. Conservative populist movements in the Philippines, Venezuela and Turkey coincided with the arrival of an elected charismatic leader and that person’s attempts to limit civil rights and suppress opposition. Even among developed nations considered models of democracy, there are growing nationalist factions, including, obviously, here in the United States.

With the rise of the “China Example,” developing countries can now consider an alternative to open market democracy. China did not suffer as much as western economies during the Great Recession. Its success demonstrated that economic gains are compatible with authoritarian rule. In the past decade China has consciously advanced its position as an international power, particularly in Africa. So, one reason for the stall is the presence of a viable alternative.

Other reasons, particularly in the west, include government gridlock and ideological polarization. Things don’t seem to get done and, as a consequence, there is growing mistrust of all forms of government and other mainline public institutions, like schools. We don’t look like a model for success right now.

Additionally, Westerners seem less confident. Since 9-11 and with each terrorist attack, developed countries are ever more fearful and insecure. We look for scapegoats and await saviors. We want Shane to ride to our rescue and make us whole again. It may not be a cultural accident that our movies are filled with tales of super heroes and dystopias. Our reality is a Hunger Game; we want to be the hunters and not the hunted or at least we want to be on the side of hunters. Today the Lord of the Flies rules; no one wants to be Piggy.

The Iraq-Afghanistan War and resulting nation-building debacle certainly didn’t prove we had the answers to making strong countries. At least Hussein could keep the lights on. Globalization, immigration patterns, displacement, terrorism, drugs, gangs, an increase in conspiracy theories, and the international war on a free press all contribute to our current anxiety crisis. I’d also throw in a multi-decade war on education. Americans are notorious for knowing little about the history of their country nor do they know much about how their government operates and who holds elected or appointed offices. Public schools once took more seriously the task of teaching citizenship skills. Today they spend more time teaching standardized test-taking.

So, what’s that mean to us in Jackson County? Well, potentially nothing at the moment. We are very small and far away from the centers of power. However, societies don’t flip in a day. Like the frog in the pot of water, if we start with water at a comfortable temperature and raise it slowly over time, we may not jump out before it is too late.

“It’s a republic, madam, but only if you keep it,” replied Benjamin Franklin to a 1787 questioner. We did for several centuries. Can we today?