Xi Jinping leaves after the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, March 2018.

Xi Jinping leaves after the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, March 2018. Photo: DAMIR SAGOLJ / REUTERS

Over the past decade, many marginally democratic countries have become increasingly authoritarian. And authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements have grown strong enough to threaten democracy’s long-term health in several rich, established democracies, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. How worried should we be about the outlook for democracy?

The good news is that ever since representative democracy first emerged, it has been spreading, pushed forward by the forces of modernization. The pattern has been one of advances followed by setbacks, but the net result has been an increasing number of democracies, from a bare handful in the nineteenth century to about 90 today. The bad news is that the world is experiencing the most severe democratic setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

The immediate cause of rising support for authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements is a reaction against immigration (and, in the United States, rising racial equality). That reaction has been intensified by the rapid cultural change and declining job security experienced by many in the developed world. Cultural and demographic shifts are making older voters feel as though they no longer live in the country where they were born. And high-income countries are adopting job-replacing technology, such as artificial intelligence, that has the potential to make people richer and healthier but also tends to result in a winner-take-all economy.

But there is nothing inevitable about democratic decline. Rising prosperity continues to move most developing countries toward democracy—although, as always, the trajectory is not a linear one. And in the developed world, the current wave of authoritarianism will persist only if societies and governments fail to address the underlying drivers. If new political coalitions emerge to reverse the trend toward inequality and ensure that the benefits of automation are widely shared, they can put democracy back on track. But if the developed world continues on its current course, democracy could wither away. If there is nothing inevitable about democratic decline, there is also nothing inevitable about democratic resurgence.


Over the past two centuries, the spread of democracy has been driven by the forces of modernization. As countries urbanized and industrialized, people who were once scattered over the countryside moved into towns and cities and began working together in factories. That allowed them to communicate and organize, and the economic growth driven by industrialization made them healthier and wealthier. Greater economic and physical security led successive generations to place less emphasis on survival and more on intangible values, such as freedom of expression, making them more likely to want democracy. Economic growth also went hand in hand with more education, which made people better informed, more articulate, more skilled at organizing, and therefore more effective at pushing for democracy. Finally, as industrial societies matured, jobs shifted from manufacturing to knowledge sectorsThose new occupations involved less routine and more independence. Workers had to think for themselves, and that spilled over into their political behavior.

Moreover, democracy has a major advantage over other political systems: it provides a nonviolent way to replace a country’s leaders. Democratic institutions do not guarantee that the people will elect wise and benevolent rulers, but they do provide a regular and nonviolent way to replace unwise and malevolent ones. Nondemocratic leadership successions can be costly and bloody. And since democracy enables people to choose their leaders, it reduces the need for repressive rule. Both these advantages have helped democracy survive and spread.

For the past few decades, the most striking alternative to the democratic path has come in China. Since its disastrous experience under Mao Zedong, the country has been governed by an exceptionally competent authoritarian elite. That reflects the political genius of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. In addition to guiding China toward a market economy, Deng established norms that limited top leaders to two five-year terms in office and mandated retirement at age 70. He then selected some of the country’s most competent 60-year-olds to run the government and installed a carefully chosen group of 50-year-olds below them. For roughly two decades after Deng’s retirement, China was governed by the people he had selected. In 2012, that group chose a new generation of leaders. Despite growing cronyism and corruption, this group also seems competent, but its leader, Xi Jinping, is maneuvering to establish himself as dictator for life, abandoning Deng’s system of predictable, nonviolent successions. If Xi succeeds, China’s government is likely to become less effective.

Most authoritarian countries, however, are not governed nearly as effectively as contemporary China (nor was China under Mao). During the early stages of industrialization, authoritarian states can attain high rates of economic growth, but knowledge economies flourish best in open societies. In the long run, democracy seems to be the best way to govern developed countries.


The long-term trend toward democracy has always had ups and downs. At the start of the twentieth century, only a few democracies existed, and even they were not full democracies by today’s standards. The number increased sharply after World War I, with another surge following World War II and a third at the end of the Cold War. Sooner or later, however, each surge was followed by a decline.

Democracy’s most dramatic setback, which came in the 1930s, when fascism spread over much of Europe, was partially driven by economic decline. Under relatively secure conditions in 1928, the German electorate viewed the Nazi Party as a lunatic fringe, giving it less than three percent of the vote in national elections that year. But in July 1932, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Nazis won 37 percent of the vote, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag, before taking over the government the next year. Each period of democratic decline brought a widespread belief that democracy’s spread had ended and that some other systemfascism, communism, bureaucratic authoritarianism—would be the wave of the future. But the number of democracies never fell back to its original level, and each decline was eventually followed by a resurgence.

More from Foreign AffairsMay/June 2018 Issue

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