The 'Democratic Recession' has turned into a modern zeitgeist of democratic reform

It is no coincidence that the wave of protests comes in the wake of a 'democratic recession'. People are increasingly demanding democracy in the Arab world, and also in the west.

Robert Battison
21 December 2011

The common perception of democracy is all too often of a natural historical process that results in democracy if and when per capita GDP, education, urbanisation and communication have reached a required level. Yet despite the Arab Spring, the past decade has seen a questioning of whether we might in fact be seeing the beginning of the end for democracy.

The term ‘democratic recession’ was coined in 2009 by Larry Diamond. It was supported by the fact that according to Freedom House, 2007 was the worst year for freedom since the end of the Cold War. 38 countries declined in their freedom scores, and only 10 improved. And indeed since then the world has been struggling to pull itself out of economic recession, which is not usually a good thing for democracy. It’s no coincidence that the twentieth century’s most famous dictators rose, and crushed their democratic opponents, in the wake of extensive economic turmoil. Indeed the EBRD’s (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) Transition Report 2011, which analyzes data from a survey of around 39,000 people, concluded that support for democracy is rapidly declining – by over 20 per cent in Slovakia between 2006 and 2010.

This is a great cause for concern, because not only have countries like Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Pakistan, Thailand, and Mexico had falling freedom ratings, but we have also seen worrying levels of declining voter turnout, falling political participation, and a rising sense of disillusionment in the oldest and most established democracies over the past few decades.

voter turnout

All rights reserved

The graph shows falling voter turnout across some of the most commonly cited democracies.

The logical extension of this argument, that we are facing a ‘democratic recession’, is rooted in political philosophy that dates back to Ancient Greece and the founding of democracy. Using the concept of ‘kýklos’, or cycle, Polybius said that societies start in anarchy, with the strongest emerging to form a monarchy, whose weak descendents become despots that create a tyranny, which is in turn overthrown by an aristocracy etc, until we return to anarchy and the circle starts over. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and even thinkers in our own times have played with this concept.

Indeed Samuel Huntington, author of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, said that he had identified a pattern, in which two long waves of democratisation are generally followed by regressive eras (Huntington, 1981, p120). His argument built on Theodore Lowi’s earlier analysis; that the onset of reform is essentially a sign of cynicism, in which the present system is rejected, but the initial energy and fervour of the reformist movement cannot be maintained or institutionalised, and thus democracy regresses, with society moving on to pick another, less democratic system.

Thus the ‘democratic recession’ could be seen as a further re-gurgitation of the concept of ‘kýklos’, with us having seen democracy’s heyday at the end of the Cold War, and now starting to move into the next stage. But continued pessimism in the reporting of this concept overlooks one crucial fact: nearly all of those who discussed such concepts identify them as a negative phenomenon that needs to be prevented.

Representative democracy is the system of compromise that has emerged over the past few decades. The intellectual question as to how democracy should be defined usually boils down to a matter of worth and value. A democracy is therefore the only system under which all people can be valued as individuals, hence its wide appeal.

Churchill articulated it best more than fifty years ago: “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” In an increasingly complicated world democracy is the only way to capitalise not only the opinions of all, but also the knowledge and expertise of all. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, in their 2002 publication of India: Development and Participation, argued that no consolidated democracy has ever experienced a famine. This is because democracies provide a safety check, to ensure that the people cannot be ignored. For example Augustus Caesar was a clever man, whose reign initiated an era of peace known as the ‘Pax Romana’. But he was plagued throughout his life over the question of succession, as no such safety check existed to ensure that future emperors would either be able or willing to prevent problems such as famines. Democracies therefore ensure that governments have to respond to society’s needs and desires, whichever people are actually in power.

In addition, support for democracy is widespread. In fact having coined the phrase “democratic recession” Diamond himself went on to say that data showed “surprisingly high levels of democratic commitment in non-western societies.” He qualified this statement with the following data:

Share agreeing democracy is best

Diamond, Larry; 2008; table 1.1. All rights reserved

It shows that quite apart from democracy being unpopular, it is perhaps more popular than ever. Indeed those who promote the concept of ‘democratic recession’ often point to newly transitioned states as their prominent worry. We can see in the chart above why this is so. But in actual fact according to the EBRD’s Transition Report 2011, support for democracy and markets is rising in the former Soviet Union.

On top of this the principle of a global ‘democratic recession’ was significantly weakened by the Arab Spring. To see so many people willing to give up their lives for democracy is to know that democracy is still desirable. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old from Tunisia, burnt himself alive in protest at his lack of rights. Yet his was merely the most reported act. Inspired by the difference one man was able to make, others endured the very same pain. Mohsen Bouterfif, Maamir Lotfi, Abdelhafid Boudechicha, Abdou Abdel-Moneim Jaafar and many others followed; not for consumer items or the redistribution of wealth, but for democracy.

And according to the above graph those living in established democracies actually want democracy even more. Indeed despite the wave of political apathy that has afflicted the west in recent years, there have in fact been countless new organisations set up campaigning for democratic reform. Even in the UK the number of new organisations is astronomical. The problem is that these organisations exist because people no longer believe existing democracies provide the value and inclusion they are supposed to provide. And so there is doubt about the extent to which government is able or willing to respond to a changing social landscape.

Scholars such as Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry are therefore wrong to suggest that we can overlook this net decline in democracy and freedom prior to the Arab Spring. It is quite possible that as Diamond argued in the SAIS-CGD Conference on “New Ideas in Development after the Financial Crisis” (April 22, 2009) a gradual executive strangling of political pluralism and freedom could bring the demise of democracy. Indeed if we were being pessimistic we could say that the Thatcherite and Blairite centralisation of power has started such an executive strangling in the UK.

However, historically, democratic transitions from autocracy to democracy have taken place over an average of 2.4 years, whereas transitions in the reverse direction have tended to happen overnight. This was shown to be the case in an analysis conducted by Patrik Lindenfors, Fredrik Jansson and Mikel Sandberg earlier this year. Yet overnight coups d’etat seem extremely unlikely in any long-established democracy.

The remaining alternative, if almost everyone still agrees with democracy, and that same majority still wants change, seems to be that rather than seeing the decline of democracy we will in fact see its rejuvenation and reform.

Thus it is possible to conclude that with the Arab Spring we saw the start of a new transition, from ‘democratic recession’ to a modern zeitgeist (spirit of the times) of democratic reform. In an age of rapid changes in technology, communication, the distribution of global wealth and power, urbanisation and the level of education; political changes are almost always present. And yet thus far what changes have been employed amount to no more than tinkering. Protesters, who were once a minority, can now quite easily get away with saying “we are the 99%”. The rapid success of groups like the Occupy Movement (which uses this slogan) is in fact closely related to the success found in the Arab Spring. Although to all appearances these two movements/events are very different, they were both caused by disillusionment and disenfranchisement. Majorities, even within well-established democracies, no longer feel that they are valued by the political system. The common goal that all these people share around the world is therefore the goal of empowering the people at every level of government i.e. democratic reform.


Deudney, Daniel & Ikenberry, G. John. 2009. The Myth of the Autocratic Revival. Foreign Affairs, 88 (1): 77-93

Diamond, Larry. 2008. The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle To Build Free Societies Throughout The World. Holt Paperbacks.

Diamond, Larry. 2009. SAIS-CGD Conference on New Ideas in Development after the Financial Crisis. http://www.stanford.edu/~ldiamond/papers.html

EBRD Transition Report. 2011. http://www.ebrd.com/pages/news/press/2011/111115.shtml

Hoffman, Barak D & Santucci, Jack. 2009. The Democratic Recession; http://www8.georgetown.edu/centers/cdacs/globalizing/democratic_recession_5apr09.pdf

Huntington, Samuel. 1981. American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. Center for International Affairs, Harvard University

Lindenfors, Patrik & Jansson, Fredrik & Sandberg, Mikel. 2011. The Cultural Evolution of Democracy: Saltational Changes in A Political Regime Landscape; http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0028270

Sen, Amartya Kumar & Drèze, Jean. 1996. India: Development and Participation. Oxford University Press


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