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Why Is Democracy Performing So Poorly?
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Why Is Democracy Performing So Poorly?

The Journal of Democracy published its inaugural issue a bit past the midpoint of what Samuel P. Huntington labeled the “third wave” of democratization, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just before the breakup of the former Soviet Union.1 The transitions in Southern Europe and most of those in Latin America had already happened, and Eastern Europe was moving at dizzying speed away from communism, while the democratic transitions in sub-Saharan Africa and the former USSR were just getting underway. Overall, there has been remarkable worldwide progress in democratization over a period of almost 45 years, raising the number of electoral democracies from about 35 in 1970 to well over 110 in 2014.

But as Larry Diamond has pointed out, there has been a democratic recession since 2006, with a decline in aggregate Freedom House scores every year since then.2 The year 2014 has not been good for democracy, with two big authoritarian powers, Russia and China, on the move at either end of Eurasia. The “Arab Spring” of 2011, which raised expectations that the Arab exception to the third wave might end, has degenerated into renewed dictatorship in the case of Egypt, and into anarchy in Libya, Yemen, and also Syria, which along with Iraq has seen the emergence of a new radical Islamist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

It is hard to know whether we are experiencing a momentary setback in a general movement toward greater democracy around the world, similar to a stock-market correction, or whether the events of this year signal a broader shift in world politics and the rise of serious alternatives to democracy. In either case, it is hard not to feel that the performance of [End Page 11] democracies around the world has been deficient in recent years. This begins with the most developed and successful democracies, those of the United States and the European Union, which experienced massive economic crises in the late 2000s and seem to be mired in a period of slow growth and stagnating incomes. But a number of newer democracies, from Brazil to Turkey to India, have also been disappointing in their performance in many respects, and subject to their own protest movements.

Spontaneous democratic movements against authoritarian regimes continue to arise out of civil society, from Ukraine and Georgia to Tunisia and Egypt to Hong Kong. But few of these movements have been successful in leading to the establishment of stable, well-functioning democracies. It is worth asking why the performance of democracy around the world has been so disappointing.

In my view, a single important factor lies at the core of many democratic setbacks over the past generation. It has to do with a failure of institutionalization—the fact that state capacity in many new and existing democracies has not kept pace with popular demands for democratic accountability. It is much harder to move from a patrimonial or neopatrimonial state to a modern, impersonal one than it is to move from an authoritarian regime to one that holds regular, free, and fair elections. It is the failure to establish modern, well-governed states that has been the Achilles heel of recent democratic transitions.

Some Definitions

Modern liberal democracies combine three basic institutions: the state, rule of law, and democratic accountability.

The first of these, the state, is a legitimate monopoly of coercive power that exercises its authority over a defined territory. States concentrate and employ power to keep the peace, defend communities from external enemies, enforce laws, and provide basic public goods.

The rule of law is a set of rules, reflecting community values, that are binding not just on citizens, but also on the elites who wield coercive power. If law does not constrain the powerful, it amounts to commands of the executive and constitutes merely rule by law.

Finally, democratic accountability seeks to ensure that government acts in the interests of the whole community, rather than simply in the self-interest of the rulers. It is usually achieved through procedures such as free and fair multiparty elections, though procedural accountability is not always coincident...