In 1991, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote an influential essay in the Journal of Democracy entitled “Democracy’s Third Wave.” Huntington’s essay, published several months prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, surmised that modern democracy was associated with “waves” of democratic growth followed by “reverse waves” of autocracy.
He identified a “long” first wave beginning in the 1820s, characterized by a global increase of male suffrage that continued until the 1920s. This first wave was subject to a reverse wave, beginning with the rise of fascism, first in Italy, and its subsequent spread through Western Europe and Japan. A second wave of democratization occurred after the allies’ defeat of fascism in World War II. This second wave would peak in 1962, when a smaller reverse wave again occurred from 1960-75 during heightened tensions of the Cold War.
The mid-1970s saw the emergence of a third wave of democracy, beginning with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974 and the gradual transition to democracy in post-Francisco Franco Spain, which held free elections in 1977. This third wave continued with the rise of democracies in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the decline of autocratic rule throughout much of South America.
The Third Reverse Wave
Currently though, democracy around the world is in the midst of another reverse wave, characterized by a slow, sustained growth in autocracy. Three reports analyzing the state of democracy suggest democratic institutions, practices and culture are under assault. The Economist’s Democracy Index 2018 report, “Me too? Political participation, protest and democracy” notes that, “as a percentage of the world’s population,” 47.7 percent of people lived in some form of democracy in 2018, a decrease from 49.3 percent in 2017.
The report identified three indicators of this decline: rising voter disillusionment with political institutions, the denial of equal participation to minority groups in the political system, and citizens’ disengagement from mainstream political parties. The report found only 4.5 percent of people in the world live under a full democracy. But The Economist report was not all bad news. Political participation has risen throughout the world — especially among women, who are playing an increasingly important role in many of the world’s democracies. In general, however, the report suggested global democracy remains under threat.
Another report, Freedom in the World 2019’s “Democracy in Retreat,” has recorded 13 consecutive years of decline in political rights and civil liberties throughout the world. This decline is most pronounced in East European countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc and considered resistant to autocratic rule after many became democratized during the 1990s. Freedom House noted that several countries experienced democratic growth in 2017. However, a dire warning was issued: “Hostile forces around the world continue to challenge the institutions meant to protect political rights and civil liberties, and the damage accrued over the past 13 years will not soon be undone.”
Finally, the V-Dem Institute’s Annual Democracy Report 2018, “Democracy for All?”, published at Sweden’s Gothenburg University, provides comprehensive analyses of historical patterns of democracy over a period of 228 years from 1789-2017. The V-Dem report likewise found troubling patterns regarding the current state of democracy in the world. Although levels of democracy are close to an “all-time high,” freedom of expression, media freedom and civil society institutions are under attack. According to the report, “autocratization — the decline of democratic attributes — affects 2.5 billion people and is gaining momentum.” The report further notes that democracy peaked around 2004, and for the first time since 1979, the “number of countries backsliding on democracy  is again the same as the countries advancing.”
Globalization and the Rise of Autocracy
This third reverse wave has emerged in a context in which global integration, multilateralism, and the diffusion of culture and technology have been the dominant forces of the last four decades. Globalization was predicated on the idea that implementing policies devoted to the free trade of goods, services and ideas would unify the planet, stimulate economic wealth throughout the world, and spread democratic governance.
Although globalization was marketed to promote human development and well-being on the one hand, it came into direct confrontation with structural economic factors (the flow of capital, unregulated corporate power, transformative demographic changes resulting from global migration) and the rise of political movements associated with cultural identity and national sovereignty. Multilateral trade agreements and the institutions that oversaw them paid only lip service to issues like workers’ rights, environmental protection and equity.
The creation of statutory mechanisms to ensure transnational institutions and multinational corporations would develop policies to protect against social dislocation and the environmental impact of their actions was rarely addressed. Measures to establish fair and equitable distribution of wealth that was generated during a period of exponential technological and economic growth was rhetorically acknowledged in trade agreements but not enforced through legal codification.
Not surprisingly, modern globalization has been marked by a widening chasm between rich and poor, and regional dislocations in economic and social development within developing and developed countries.
In essence, as globalization evolved, it became a force for exploitation, inequity and hegemonic power relations on a global scale. The neoliberal economic policy agenda, a principle driver of the globalization process, created a bifurcated world order. Trade liberalization, government deregulation, privatization of government programs and fiscal austerity has ravaged working-class communities in both developing and industrialized nations.
According to the 2018 World Inequality Report, since 1980, “The top one percent captured twice as much global income growth as the bottom fifty percent.” Transnational institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have made little attempt to address growing levels of inequality and the political dislocation associated with it.
Political elites in Western democracies have ignored growing inequality in their societies as they choose to push a concerted neoliberal agenda that focuses on austerity measures, leading to severe cuts in social programs that negatively affect the economic prospects of the poor, working and middle classes. The greatest tragedy of contemporary globalization is that its architects are also its beneficiaries: the global political and economic elite. In the end, the ideals of globalization have become usurped by a shortsighted perspective: that plutocrats and corporate largess can somehow transform the world.
As Anand Giridharadas has shown in his book, Winners Take All, global economic and political elites are incapable of transforming society because they refuse to accept that systemic change requires a recognition of their role in creating many of the problems they are attempting to change. Creating protocols to end poverty or promote gender equality in the workplace sells in corporate boardrooms but is much more difficult to enact in reality. Giridharadas also notes that while elites often work with admirable intention, they rarely invite key stakeholders into the decision-making process. Thus, the status quo becomes an enduring principal.
The status quo has become the target of right-wing populist’s political mobilization in Europe and the United States. As far-right Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini stated shortly before elections for the European Parliament, “We want to save the Europe that doesn’t have anything to do with bureaucrats, bankers, financiers, and with those who have been in power.” In Salvini’s vision, “saving” Europe requires a nationalist agenda that closes borders, engages in xenophobic fear-mongering, Islamophobia and skepticism, whereas a cosmopolitan, united Europe is neither beneficial nor functional.
Although far-right populists gained ground in the election, these parties did not perform as well as many polls predicted they would. The increase in the number of populists in the EU parliament will undoubtedly lead to more political fragmentation and polarization, ultimately weakening prospects for European unity. Given that far-right parties are far from unified on issues such as immigration and Russian influence in Europe, it is unlikely they will be able to have a significant impact on EU policy-making. A more likely scenario will see populist parties taking on the role of obstructionists working to block progressive EU policies.
Beyond their well-known anti-migrant and nationalist agenda, insight into the populist political agenda exists in countries where they have gained power. For example, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has made systematic efforts to eliminate an independent judiciary and weaken the role of the media as a check on government power. The electoral system has also been manipulated to favor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, in national elections. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has rescinded women’s rights since gaining power in 2015. According to Human Rights Watch, PiS leaders and civil servants have “championed retrogressive laws and policies, sought to reinforce traditional gender roles, disparaged feminism and publicly discouraged efforts to combat violence against women.”
Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told NPR, “The Greens and the liberals were the winners of the day” regarding the European elections. It appears the EU dodged an electoral bullet. However, for a number of European countries — Italy, Poland, Hungary, Belgium and France — the threat of autocracy is real and growing.