Whither democracy in an age of renewed populism?

Guest article by Kendra Dupuy, Senior Researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo

Just after the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama, an American scholar of democracy, published ‘The End of History and the Last Man’.[1] In his book, Fukuyama argued that the fall of communism and the increased embrace of democracy by states around the world was evidence of a global convergence on democracy as humanity’s final form of government. Fukuyama’s prediction reflected the optimism of the 1990s and early 2000s regarding the third wave of democratisation that had started in the 1970s. A fourth wave seemed possible with the Arab Spring.

Today’s global political reality directly challenges Fukuyama’s prediction. The existing empirical evidence suggests that the world is currently in a democratic recession.[2] This recession is occurring both from below in the form of a popular backlash or pushback against democracy among citizens, as well as from above in the form of elite-led institutional backsliding. In a number of countries, popular support for democracy is dwindling, as citizens select leaders who actively promote and adopt anti-democratic principles and behaviours.[3] Government officials in all world regions are actively dismantling basic democratic institutions and clamping down on basic civil liberties and political rights. The world is seeing the renewed rise of populist political leaders who are rolling back democracy in the name of security, sovereignty and protectionism, and who are going so far as to embrace the notion of ‘illiberal democracy’. What is the prognosis for the sustainability of democracy and its principles under these circumstances?

Arguments about a global democratic recession hinge on whether we define democracy in minimalist or maximalist terms. A minimalist view of democracy focuses on elections: whether a given polity holds regular, multi-candidate, competitive elections, and whether some proportion of the population - historically, in many places, adult males - have the right to vote.[4] If we evaluate polities using this characteristic alone, many states qualify as democracies. However, adhering to this definition also runs the risk of committing the fallacy of electoralism: the belief that elections equal democracy. In other words, in a minimalist view, a regime can hold elections but have no other democratic institutions in place and still be considered a democracy. Too often, policy makers have committed this fallacy, supporting elections but not the wider and deeper social changes required for full realisation of the rights and freedoms that underpin the ability to hold free, fair and competitive elections, and also the improvements in social welfare that democracy brings about.

If democracy is not only about holding elections, then we must turn to maximalist or liberal definitions of democracy. In such conceptions, democratic polities must not only hold elections, they must also guarantee citizens’ rights and freedoms, and uphold institutions that offer checks and balances on power, apply the law equally and protect the rights of minorities. According to Robert Dahl’s classic 1971 definition, a democracy is a political entity characterised by participation and contestation, wherein leaders are awarded political authority through elections that are free, fair and capable of being won by an opposition.[5] This in turn depends on upholding political rights and civil liberties such as associational rights.[6] Citizens in a democracy have political equality, meaning that they have the right and ability to govern themselves, and the government should work to improve the welfare of all its citizens, including minority groups. Democratic backsliding, then, entails regression on at least one if not all of these components of democracy.[7]

Existing quantitative data clearly tell us that we are in the midst of a worldwide democratic recession. Freedom House data show that there has been an overall decline in political rights and civil liberties since 2006, with 67 countries suffering net declines in liberties in 2017 alone.[8] Established, liberal democracies have experienced the greatest declines in recent years.[9] Data from the Varieties of Democracy Project (V-Dem) also support these conclusions. While it is very rare for full democracies to retreat into authoritarianism, previously liberal democracies such as Hungary are no longer considered liberal democracies: an alarming development. Moreover, several electoral democracies - those states upholding the minimalist definition of democracy - such as Bangladesh, Turkey and Zambia are now considered autocracies.[10]

The greatest democratic losses have been in association and expression rights as well as in the judiciary, as states have heightened the repression of civil society, media and judges. These three spheres are traditionally the stronghold of opposition to ruling regimes as well as critical sources of accountability over holders of political power. Political elites are purposefully repressing and manipulating these pillars of democracy in order to undermine democracy and maintain their hold on power. Civil society has in particular suffered as states around the world - including democracies - have adopted a rash of new laws and policies that restrict the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to form, carry out activities - particularly ‘political’ activities such as rights-based advocacy work - and access and use funding, particularly funding sourced from abroad.[11] Governments are also using extra-legal, informal tactics to further close civil society space, including the use of direct violence, intimidation and harassment of CSOs as well as employing negative discourse about civil society. This directly threatens and undermines basic freedoms of association, assembly and expression.

Democracy is being gradually dismantled from above by political leaders and from within governments in several ways, two of which are mentioned here.[12] First, political leaders are weakening checks on executive power through incremental institutional changes and by hampering the ability of the political opposition to challenge these changes. Second, leaders are strategically manipulating elections to favour incumbents, or are committing outright election fraud to rig elections in their favour. While the normative power of democracy may be enduring, as evidenced by the fact that even dictators want to hold elections and constitutional referenda,[13] leaders’ active questioning of, and negative discourse about, democratic institutions, political rights and civil liberties legitimises these dismantling actions.

Although democracy may not be dying,[14] these trends in democratic recession present fundamental challenges to the ability of states and communities to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and improve the economic and social well-being of billions of people around the world. Though not perfect, democracy is undeniably the form of government that is best able to bring about real gains in well-being for people, since only democracies can most fairly redistribute wealth and distribute public goods to the majority of citizens. Democracies raise economic growth by guaranteeing political stability and economic freedom, and investing in human capital.[15] As Amartya Sen once pointed out, no democracy has ever faced a famine, due to the protective role of (liberal) democratic institutions, including elections, civil society, courts and the media, in upholding basic human rights, including to food.[16]

How is civil society responding to the democratic recession, and what more can CSOs do to resist, respond and react actively in order to counter these trends?

Currently, we lack a systematic overview of organisational response strategies across time and space, but we do know that donors and CSOs have in some cases adapted to new repressive measures by developing and testing new models for fundraising and allocation, experimenting with new organisational forms and strengthening existing and forming new domestic and international organisational alliances.[17]

CSOs have also pushed back, engaging governments through policy dialogue processes as well as vocal protests, peaceful resistance, court cases and international and domestic public and diplomatic campaigns. Civil society must continue to draw attention to the trends in democratic backsliding and closing civil society space, and to the consequences of these trends for the welfare of billions of people around the globe.


[1] ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, Francis Fukuyama, Free Press, 1992.

[2] ‘How Much Democratic Backsliding?’, Valeriya Mechkova, Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg, Journal of Democracy, 2017, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 162-169; Larry Diamond, ‘Facing Up to the Democratic Recession’, Journal of Democracy, 2015, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 141-155.

[3] ‘The Signs of Deconsolidation’, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, Journal of Democracy, 2017, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 5-15.

[4] ‘A Complete Data Set of Political Regimes, 1800-2007’, Carles Boix, Michael Miller, and Sebastian Rosato, Comparative Political Studies, 2013, Vol. 46, No. 12, pp. 1,523-1,554; ‘Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990’, Adam Przeworski, Michael E Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub and Fernando Limongi, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[5] ‘Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition’, Robert A Dahl, Yale University Press, 1971.

[6] ‘Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation’, Larry Diamond, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

[7] ‘On Democratic Backsliding’, Nancy Bermeo, Journal of Democracy, 2016, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 5-19.

[8] ‘Freedom in the World 2017’, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2017.

[9] ‘Why is Democracy Performing So Poorly?’, Francis Fukuyama, Journal of Democracy, 2015, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 11-20; Valeriya Mechkova, Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg, op. cit.; Larry Diamond, 2015, op. cit.

[10] Valeriya Mechkova, Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg, op. cit.

[11] ‘Hands Off My Regime! Governments’ Restrictions on Foreign Aid to Non-Governmental Organizations’, Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash, World Development, 2016, Vol. 84, pp. 299-311.

[12] Nancy Bermeo, op. cit.

[13] Valeriya Mechkova, Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg, op. cit.

[14] ‘Democracy is Not Dying: Seeing Through the Doom and Gloom’, Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs, Foreign Affairs, 11 April 2017.

[15] ‘Democracy and Economic Growth: A Meta-Analysis’, Hristos Ducouliagos  and Mehmet Ali Ulubaşğlu, American Journal of Political Science, 2008, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 61-83.

[16] ‘Development as Freedom’, Amartya Sen, Alfred A Knopf, 2000.

[17] ‘Civil Society Under Assault: Repression and Responses in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia’, Saskia Brechenmacher, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017; ‘Maintaining Civic Space in Backsliding Regimes’, USAID, 2017.