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  • Is Democracy in Decline?
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)

Since the publication of its inaugural issue in January 1990, the Journal of Democracy has published well over a thousand articles, exploring all aspects of the workings of democracy and the struggles of democratic movements. But we have been especially concerned with tracking democracy’s advances and setbacks around the world. For 25 years, we have been “taking the temperature” of democracy. Since 1998, we have published annually an article summarizing Freedom House’s survey of Freedom in the World, and we have featured numerous other essays analyzing democracy’s global trajectory, beginning with Samuel P. Huntington’s classic 1991 article introducing the concept of the “third wave” of democratization. So it should not be unexpected that we turn to this subject as the central theme of our twenty-fifth anniversary issue.

Some may be surprised, however, by the headline on our cover—“Is Democracy in Decline?”—which faithfully reflects the way in which we posed the question to our contributors. For a journal that is unabashedly in favor of democracy, this obviously is not the kind of celebratory theme that might be preferred for marking a historic milestone. Yet this seemed to be the question that everyone was asking as 2015 approached, and we decided that it deserved a thorough examination.

Tracing the viewpoints and opinions expressed over the years in the Journal (especially on its five-year anniversaries) suggests how evaluations of and sentiments about the state of democracy have evolved since 1990. The editors’ introduction that Larry Diamond and I wrote for the inaugural issue was animated by the view that democracy was experiencing a “remarkable worldwide resurgence,” but also by a concern that [End Page 5] it lagged behind its rivals with respect to political ideas and organization. Five eventful years later, we recognized not only that democracy had spread to many more countries but also that it had hugely improved its standing in terms of ideas and organization. We asserted that democracy had “gained enormous ground” with respect to “international legitimacy” and that it now “reign[ed] supreme in the ideological sphere.” Multilateral organizations were increasingly endorsing democratic principles, and a whole new field of international democracy assistance had emerged. At the turn of the century, these trends seemed only to be growing stronger. In introducing a special tenth-anniversary issue on “Democracy in the World” modeled on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, we argued that Tocqueville had supplanted Marx and concluded, “We are all Tocquevilleans now.”

By 2005, however, our tone had grown far more downbeat, and we acknowledged a darkening mood among supporters of democracy. We attributed this in part to the travails of democracy-building in postinvasion Iraq and to Russia’s descent back into authoritarianism, but argued that the overall global trends were mixed and did not justify discouragement among democrats. By 2010, we were prepared to grant that “there now may even be grounds for speaking of an erosion of freedom over the past few years, though its dimensions are very slight.”

Confronting Decline

Yet here in our twenty-fifth anniversary issue, we feel compelled to confront head-on the question of whether democracy is in decline. Why? There are two aspects to the answer, which although intertwined are in some measure separable. The first deals with what is actually taking place on the ground: How many countries are democratic? Is their number rising or shrinking? What is the situation with respect to such liberal-democratic features as freedom of the press, rule of law, free and fair elections, and the like? The second, more subjective, aspect concerns the standing of democracy in the world: How is it viewed in terms of legitimacy and attractiveness? It is in this latter dimension that the evidence, or at least the widespread perception, of decline is most striking.

As readers will see, the first dimension is open to differing interpretations. The divergence among them is most sharply posed by comparing Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s essay on “The Myth of Democratic Recession” with Larry Diamond’s on the need for “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession.” Levitsky and Way point out that...


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