In the past decade, an increasing number of seemingly stable, reasonably wealthy democracies have retreated from previously robust democratic regimes toward autocracy. These states are literally all over the map: They range from Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) to the Mediterranean (Turkey) to Latin America (Bolivia and Venezuela). Once-anticipated democratic gains in Russia and China haven’t materialized. Meanwhile, a hoped-for “fourth wave” of democracy in the Arab Spring’s wake has dissipated into bitter civil war or authoritarianism.
Democratic backsliding is far less rare than political scientists used to believe. In a recent academic paper, we identified 37 instances in 25 different countries in the postwar period in which democratic quality declined significantly (though a fully authoritarian regime didn’t emerge). That is, roughly one out of eight countries experienced measurable decay in the quality of their democratic institutions.
Scholars used to argue that democracy, once attained in a fairly wealthy state, would become a permanent fixture. As the late Juan Linz put it, democracy would become “the only game in town.” That belief turned out to be merely hopeful, not a reality.
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