Wave of democracy

Last updated
See also: History of democracy.

In political science, a wave of democracy refers to a major surge of democracy in history. Although the term appears at least as early as 1887 [1] , it was popularized by Samuel P. Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University in his article published in the Journal of Democracy and further expounded in his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century .

Political science is a social science which deals with systems of governance, and the analysis of political activities, political thoughts, and political behavior.

Democracy system of government in which citizens vote directly in or elect representatives to form a governing body, sometimes called "rule of the majority"

Democracy is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting. In a direct democracy, the citizens as a whole form a governing body and vote directly on each issue. In a representative democracy the citizens elect representatives from among themselves. These representatives meet to form a governing body, such as a legislature. In a liberal democracy the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a representative democracy, but the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority, usually through the enjoyment by all of certain individual rights, e.g. freedom of speech, or freedom of association.

Samuel P. Huntington American political scientist

Samuel Phillips Huntington was an American political scientist, adviser and academic. He spent more than half a century at Harvard University, where he was director of Harvard's Center for International Affairs and the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Huntington was the White House Coordinator of Security Planning for the National Security Council. During the 1980s Apartheid era in South Africa, he served as an adviser to P.W. Botha's Security Services. He is best known for his 1993 theory, the "Clash of Civilizations", of a post–Cold War new world order. He argued that future wars would be fought not between countries, but between cultures, and that Islamic extremism would become the biggest threat to world peace. Huntington is credited with helping to shape U.S. views on civilian–military relations, political development, and comparative government even into the current Trump administration.


Scholars generally disagree about the precise number of democratic waves. Huntington describes three waves: the first "slow" wave of the 19th century, a second wave after World War II, and a third wave beginning in the mid-1970s in South Europe, followed by Latin America and Asia. Though his book does not discuss the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a number of scholars have taken the "Third Wave" to include the democratic transitions of 1989-1991. [2] Other scholars, such as Seva Gunitsky of University of Toronto, have referred to 13 waves from the 18th century to the Arab Spring (2011-2012). [3]


In his 1991 book The Third Wave, Huntington defined a democratic wave as "a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite directions during that period of time.” (Huntington 1991,15)

<i>The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century</i> 1991 book by Samuel P. Huntington

The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century is a 1991 book by Samuel P. Huntington which outlines the significance of a third wave of democratization to describe the global trend that has seen more than 60 countries throughout Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa undergo some form of democratic transitions since Portugal's "Carnation Revolution" in 1974.

Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2014,70) offer a similar definition: "any historical period during which there is a sustained and significant increase in the proportion of competitive regimes (democracies and semi-democracies)." [4]

Gunitsky (2018) defines a democratic wave as a clustering of attempted or successful democratic transitions, coupled with linkages among the transitions in that cluster. [3]

Huntington's three waves

First wave

The First wave of democracy, 1828-1926 began in the early 19th century when suffrage was granted to the majority of white males in the United States ("Jacksonian democracy"). Then came France, Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy and Argentina, and a few others before 1900. At its peak, after the breakup of the Russian, German, Austrian and Ottoman empires in 1918, the first wave saw 29 democracies in the world. Reversal began in 1922, when Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy. The collapse primarily hit newly formed democracies, which could not stand against the aggressions rise of expansionist communist, fascist and militaristic authoritarian or totalitarian movements which systematically rejected democracy. The nadir of the first wave came in 1942, when the number of democracies in the world dropped to a mere 12. [5] [6]

Suffrage right to vote

Suffrage, political franchise, or simply franchise is the right to vote in public, political elections. In some languages, and occasionally in English, the right to vote is called active suffrage, as distinct from passive suffrage, which is the right to stand for election. The combination of active and passive suffrage is sometimes called full suffrage.

Jacksonian democracy was a 19th-century political philosophy in the United States that expanded suffrage to most white men over the age of 21, and restructured a number of federal institutions. Originating with the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, and his supporters, it became the nation's dominant political worldview for a generation. The term itself was in active use by the 1830s.

Benito Mussolini Fascist leader of Italy 1922-43

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy from the fascists' takeover of state power in 1922 until 1943, and Duce from 1919 to his execution in 1945 during the Italian civil war. As dictator of Italy and founder of fascism, Mussolini inspired several totalitarian rulers such as Adolf Hitler.

Second wave

The Second wave began following the Allied victory in World War II, and crested nearly 20 years later in 1962 with 36 recognised democracies in the world. The Second wave ebbed as well at this point, and the total number dropped to 30 democracies between 1962 and the mid-1970s. But the "flat line" would not last for long, as the third wave was about to surge in a way no one had ever seen. [2]

Scholars have noted that the appearance of "waves" of democracy largely disappears when women's suffrage is taken into account; moreover, some countries change their positions quite dramatically: Switzerland, which is typically included as part of the first wave, did not grant women the right to vote until 1971. [7]

Third wave

The Third wave began in 1974 (Carnation Revolution, Portugal) and included the historic democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s, Asia Pacific countries and regions (Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan) from 1986 to 1988, Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 1989. The expansion of democracy in some regions was stunning. In Latin America only Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela were democratic by 1978 and only Cuba and Haiti remained authoritarian by 1995, when the wave had swept across twenty countries. [8]

Huntington points out that three-fourths of the new democracies were Roman Catholics. [9] Most Protestant countries already were democratic. He emphasizes the Vatican Council of 1962, which turned the Catholic Church from defenders of the old established order into an opponent of totalitarianism. [10]

Countries undergoing or having undergone a transition to democracy during a wave are subject to democratic backsliding. Political scientists and theorists believe that the third wave has crested and will soon begin to ebb, just as its predecessors did in the first and second waves. [11] Indeed, in the period immediately following the onset of the "war on terror" after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, some backsliding was evident. How significant or lasting that erosion is remains a subject of debate.[ citation needed ]

After the Great Recession of 2008, a number of countries backslid from democracy including Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Honduras and the Maldives. Some other countries have had democratic transitions however, such as Tunisia and the Gambia. There has also been limited democratic reform in some countries, such as Burma and Morocco. [12]

Arab Spring

Experts have associated the collapse of several dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, phenomenon known as Arab Spring, with the events which followed the fall of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The similarity between the two phenomena inspired hope for a fourth wave of democratization. However, a few months after the apparent beginning of the transition, most of the Arab political openings closed, causing an inevitable pull-back. One of the most alarming cases was that of Egypt, where the government, controlled by the military, did not facilitate the democratic transition in any way. On the contrary, it strove to silence the protests by arresting peaceful protesters and by "trying them in military tribunals."[ citation needed ] A concrete example is provided by the story of Maikel Nabil, an Egyptian blogger convicted to be imprisoned for three years for "insulting the military establishment." The main causes of the regression and crisis in all the affected countries are attributed to corruption, unemployment, social injustice, and autocratic political systems.

Despite the apparently unsolvable situation, the UN, under the administration of Ban Ki-Moon, tried to work as a mediator between the governments and the protesters. Moreover, according to Larry Diamond, the engagement of the United States of America in the democratic transition of the Arab world was fundamental. He attributed to the country the role of mentor and example for the newborn democracies. [13]

Digital media played a much longer term role in creating favorable conditions for uprisings, helped to publicize key igniting events, and then facilitated those uprisings and their diffusion; but digital media did not do this alone or as suddenly as some observers have claimed. The story of the Arab Spring, according to Howard and Hussain, began over a decade ago as Internet access and mobile phones began to diffuse rapidly through North Africa and the Middle East. The citizens that could afford internet access, the wealthy and powerful mostly, played a huge role in the Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain uprisings. Over time, online criticisms of regimes became more public and common, setting the stage for the Arab Spring. Digital media also allowed women and other minorities to enter these political discussions, and, ultimately, the ensuing protests and revolutions as well. [14]

Other waves

In a 2018 study in Perspectives on Politics, Seva Gunitsky of University of Toronto identifies thirteen waves of democracy [3] . His main criteria is rejection of absolute rule. By contrast, Huntington used the much narrower criteria of voting rights for the majority of men.

  1. The Atlantic Wave (1776-1798)
  2. The Latin American Wars of Independence (1809-1824)
  3. The First Constitutional Wave (1820-1821)
  4. The Romantic-Nationalist Wave (1830-1831)
  5. The Spring of Nations (1848)
  6. The Second Constitutional Wave (1905-1912)
  7. The post-WWI Wave (1919-1922)
  8. The post-WWII Wave (1945-1950)
  9. The African Decolonization Wave (1956-1968)
  10. The Modernization Wave, also known as the "Third" Wave (1974-1988)
  11. The Post-Soviet Wave (1989-1994)
  12. The Color Revolutions (2000-2007)
  13. The Arab Spring (2011-2012)

See also


  1. Morse, Anson D. (1887). "The Cause of Secession". Political Science Quarterly. 2 (3): 470–493. JSTOR   2139185.
  2. 1 2 "What Is Democracy? - Democracy's Third Wave". U.S. State Department. Retrieved 2007-08-07.
  3. 1 2 3 Gunitsky, Seva (2018). "Democratic Waves in Historical Perspective". Perspectives on Politics. 16 (3): 634–651. doi:10.1017/S1537592718001044. ISSN   1537-5927.
  4. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/democracies-and-dictatorships-in-latin-america/9CC511C619C452594287644A905994A1
  5. Huntington, Third Wave, pp 17-18.
  6. For a detailed outline history, see Peter Stearns, Encyclopedia of World History (6th ed. 2001), pp. 413-801. For a narrative history, J. A. S. Grenville, A history of the world in the 20th century (1994) pp 3-254.
  7. Paxton, Pamela. (2000). “Women's Suffrage in the Measurement of Democracy: Problems of Operationalization.” Studies in Comparative International Development 35(3): 92-111
  8. Schenoni, Luis and Scott Mainwaring (2019). "Hegemonic Effects and Regime Change in Latin America". Democratization. 26 (2): 269–287. doi:10.1080/13510347.2018.1516754.
  9. In chronological order: Portugal, Spain, nine new democracies in Latin America, Poland and Hungary.
  10. Huntington, "Democracies Third Wave" (1991) p 13
  11. Zagorski, Paul W. (2003). "Democratic Breakdown in Paraguay and Venezuela: The Shape of Things to Come for Latin America?". Armed Forces & Society. 30 (1): 87–116. doi:10.1177/0095327X0303000104.
  12. Larry Diamond, "Facing up to the democratic recession." Journal of Democracy 26.1 (2015): 141-155.
  13. "A Fourth Wave or False Start?". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  14. Howard, Phillip N. (2013). "Democracy's Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring" (PDF). OUP.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Dictatorship form of autocratic government led by a single individual

A dictatorship is an authoritarian form of government, characterized by a single leader or group of leaders and little or no toleration for political pluralism or independent programs or media. According to other definitions, democracies are regimes in which "those who govern are selected through contested elections"; therefore dictatorships are "not democracies". With the advent of the 19th and 20th centuries, dictatorships and constitutional democracies emerged as the world's two major forms of government, gradually eliminating monarchies, one of the traditional widespread forms of government of the time. Typically, in a dictatorial regime, the leader of the country is identified with the title of dictator, although their formal title may more closely resemble something similar to "leader". A common aspect that characterized dictatorship is taking advantage of their strong personality, usually by suppressing freedom of thought and speech of the masses, in order to maintain complete political and social supremacy and stability. Dictatorships and totalitarian societies generally employ political propaganda to decrease the influence of proponents of alternative governing systems.

Democratization is the transition to a more democratic political regime, including substantive political changes moving in a democratic direction. It may be the transition from an authoritarian regime to a full democracy, a transition from an authoritarian political system to a semi-democracy or transition from a semi-authoritarian political system to a democratic political system.

An illiberal democracy, also called a partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy, hybrid regime or guided democracy, is a governing system in which although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; thus it is not an "open society". There are many countries "that are categorized as neither 'free' nor 'not free', but as 'probably free', falling somewhere between democratic and nondemocratic regimes". This may be because a constitution limiting government powers exists, but those in power ignore its liberties, or because an adequate legal constitutional framework of liberties does not exist.

Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

According to the Democracy Index 2016 study, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, while Tunisia is the only democracy in North Africa. The measure of the level of democracy in nations throughout the world published by Freedom House and various other freedom indices, the Middle Eastern and North African countries with the highest scores are Israel, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait. Countries that are occasionally classified as partly democratic are Egypt and Iraq. The remaining countries of the Middle East are categorized as authoritarian regimes, with the lowest scores held by Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Larry Diamond Scholar on democracy studies

Larry Jay Diamond is an American political sociologist and leading contemporary scholar in the field of democracy studies. He is a professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative policy think tank. At Stanford he teaches courses on democratic development and supervises the democracy program at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. He has published extensively in the fields of foreign policy, foreign aid, and democracy.

In political science and in international and comparative law and economics, transitology is the study of the process of change from one political regime to another, mainly from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones.

Guillermo Alberto O'Donnell was a prominent Argentine political scientist, who spent most of his career working in Argentina and the United States, and who made lasting contributions to theorizing on authoritarianism and democratization, democracy and the state, and the politics of Latin America. His brother, Pacho O'Donnell, is a well-known politician and writer.

Dankwart Rustow American political scientist

Dankwart Alexander Rustow was a professor of political science and sociology. He is perhaps best known as the 'father of transitology,' a school of thought in the field of democratization studies. In his seminal 1970 article 'Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,' Rustow broke from the prevailing schools of thought on how countries became democratic. Disagreeing with the heavy focus on necessary social and economic pre-conditions for democracy, he argued that only national unity was a necessary precondition for democracy. Beyond that, the most important thing for a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy was consensus between elites on the new rules of the game.

Democracy promotion, which can also be referred to as democracy assistance, democracy support, or democracy building, is a strand of foreign policy adopted by governments and international organizations that seek to support the spread of democracy as a political system around the world. Among the reasons for supporting democracy include the belief that countries with a democratic system of governance are less likely to go to war, are likely to be economically better off and socially more harmonious.

Mitchell A. Seligson is the Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. He founded and is Senior Advisor to the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), which conducts the AmericasBarometer surveys that currently cover 27 countries in the Americas. Seligson has published many books and papers on political science topics. He was elected to membership in the General Assembly of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in 2011.

Steven Levitsky American political scientist

Steven Levitsky is an American political scientist and Professor of Government at Harvard University. A comparative political scientist, his research interests focus on Latin America and include political parties and party systems, authoritarianism and democratization, and weak and informal institutions. He is notable for his work on competitive authoritarian regimes and informal political institutions.

Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Under an authoritarian regime, individual freedoms are subordinate to the state, and there is no constitutional accountability. Authoritarian regimes can be autocratic, with power concentrated in one person, or can be a committee, with power shared among officials and government institutions. The political scientist Juan Linz defined authoritarianism in an influential 1964 work as possessing four qualities:

  1. Limited political pluralism, realized with constraints on the legislature, political parties, and interest groups;
  2. Political legitimacy based upon appeals to emotion, and identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat "easily recognizable societal problems, such as underdevelopment, and insurgency";
  3. Minimal political mobilization and suppression of anti-regime activities;
  4. Ill-defined executive powers, often vague and shifting, which extends the power of the executive.
American democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa

American democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) aims to encourage governmental and non-governmental actors in the region to pursue political reforms that will lead ultimately to democratic governance. As an area of the world vital to American interests yet generally entrenched in non-democratic, authoritarian rule, MENA has been the subject of increasing interest on the part of the American government and democracy promoters, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with many viewing democratic transition as essential to regional stability and international security.

Philip N. Howard is a sociologist and communication researcher who studies the impact of information technologies on democracy and social inequality. He studies how new information technologies are used in both civic engagement and social control in countries around the world. He is Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute and Balliol College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of eight books, including New Media Campaigns and The Managed Citizen, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up.

Despite its popular usage, anocracy lacks a precise definition. Anocratic regimes are loosely defined as part democracy and part dictatorship, or as a "regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features". Another definition classifies anocracy as "a regime that permits some means of participation through opposition group behavior but that has incomplete development of mechanisms to redress grievances". Scholars have also distinguished anocracies from autocracies and democracies in their capability to maintain authority, political dynamics, and policy agendas. Similarly, these regime types have democratic institutions that allow for nominal amounts of competition.

A hybrid regime is a mixed type of political regime that arises on the basis of an authoritarian as a result of an incomplete democratic transition. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones, they can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections. The term “hybrid regime” arises from a polymorphic view of political regimes that opposes the dichotomy of autocracy or democracy. Hybrid regimes are characteristic of resource countries (petro-states). Such regimes are stable and tenacious.

Embedded democracy

Embedded democracy is a form of government in which democratic governance is secured by democratic partial regimes. The term "embedded democracy" was coined by political scientists Wolfgang Merkel, Hans-Jürgen Puhle, and Aurel Croissant, who identified "five interdependent partial regimes" necessary for an embedded democracy: electoral regime, political participation, civil rights, horizontal accountability, and the power of the elected representatives to govern. The five internal regimes work together to check the power of the government, while external regimes also help to secure and stabilize embedded democracies. Together, all the regimes ensure that an embedded democracy is guided by the three fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and control.

Stunning elections — process of democratization of authoritarian or hybrid regimes through partially free elections in which opposition either wins, either forms a majority in parliament and begins to significantly influence the decision-making process.