The debate about whether a state is democratic or not came to rise in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War. Before this period, countries were classified as either democratic or dictatorial, with the USA at the top of democracy, while the communist states like the former USSR at the top of authoritarian states. The end of the cold war made people think that many countries were going to adopt democratic systems to emulate the United States which had become the world superpower after the World War II. The debate was propagated by scholars like Larry Diamond, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. Levitsky and Lucan were co-authors who jointly wrote many journals about democracy in the United States and outside the US. In their writings, they have argued that there has been no recession of democracy in the last one decade. They have conducted research together to support their claims after which they have unanimously agreed that world democracy has either been stagnant or improved slightly. Larry Diamond has come out strong to counter Levitsky and Way's claims. He has argued that democracy has been in recession notably from 2007 onwards. There is need to study the arguments made by these scholars and come up with a stand as to which case is right.
The definition and understanding of democracy is critical towards analysis as to whether there has been a rise or a decline in democracy. Different terms have developed to refer to different types of democracy that stand between full democracy and full authoritarianism. Such terms include young democracies, half democracies, pseudo-democracies and illiberal democracies to mention but a few (Levitsky & Way, 2002, p. 51). These terms emerged as a result of some countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America which started the process of democratization but never did it sufficiently to match the level of the United States and Western Europe. Depending on the level of maturity, different names were given to various democracies. Scholars, statisticians, and policymakers are left in a dilemma, not knowing which states to be counted as democratic and which are to be treated as authoritarian. Due to this confusion, it has been difficult to determine whether democracy has been on a rise or a decline.
Way and Levitsky have maintained a stand that there has been no democracy recession. Instead, they have introduced the concept of competitive authoritarianism to bring a new understanding of democracy. They argue that the countries that have not fully democratized should not always be treated as democracies because there are possibilities of them shifting to the authoritarian direction as it happened with Azerbaijan. There are also chances of them moving in multiple directions as is the case of Zimbabwe and Russia (Levitsky & Way, 2002, p. 52). They argue that if the states are treated as if to be shifting towards democracy, it often leads to misjudgment when analyzing the shift of democracy. This was the case after the Cold War where most people expected most states to democratize which did not happen as planned. Analysts were left with frustrations and they without enough evidence concluded that there has been a decline in democracy.
After the Cold War, most states were bankrupt because they had spent a lot of their resources in war. These countries, mostly in Africa, Asian and the former Soviet Union were unable to uphold their authoritarianism. They were unable to counter their opposition, and they adopted democracy, for example, they started having periodic elections and free opposition parties. Way and Levitsky describe people's expectations for states to democratize as overly and exaggeratedly optimistic (Levitsky & Way, 2015, p. 45-46). When the states adopted some characteristics of democracies, thinkers believed that the countries were becoming democracies whereas in a real sense it is the economic conditions that forced them. After financial recovery at the beginning of the 21st century, some of these countries have gone back to authoritarianism because they have the power to dictate (Levitsky & Way, 2015, p. 51). Observers have labeled this move democratic recession.
Levitsky and Way have classified all the states that practice competitive authoritarianism as full authoritarian regimes (Levitsky & Way, 2002, p. 54). When analyzing the rise and fall of world democracy, they do not consider these states as having receded. To them, these countries were never democracies in the first place. For example, the fall of Central African Republic (CAR) is not considered when they examine the democracies that have fallen (Levitsky & Way, 2015, p.47).
Levitsky and Way have given the reason behind the excessive optimism as the myth that collapse of authoritarianism is an automatic transition to democracy. They have criticized such views claiming that such scenarios are not guaranteed. Although fall of authoritarianism can open up for democracy, it can equally lead to the collapse of a state or even beginning of another authoritarianism (Levitsky & Way, 2015, p.49). The above arguments have made Levitsky and Way stand strong to back their claims that there has been no recession of democracy.
There has been a rise in the number of democracies until 2007. Larry observes that by the end of the World War II, only 46 states had become fully democratic, notably, the Western countries and their former colonies (Diamond, 2015, p.141). He argues that the increase in democratic states that followed in the next thirty years cannot compare to any other in the world history. Democratization had covered more than half of the world, but the trend stopped since 2006 whereby there is no notable change or a slight decrease in democracy (Diamond, 2015, p. 142). He uses the figures of freedom house to decide whether there has been a recession of democracy. From his analysis, there has been a recede in democracy since the 1980s to over 16% in 2014. Diamond notes more than 20 democracy collapse since 2000 including Russia (Diamond, 2015, p. 145).
Diamond has different views compared to Levitsky and Way. The dispute exists due to different understandings of democracy. The use of terms like semi-democracy, pseudo-democracy, an illiberal democracy, and electoral democracy among others have brought differences between scholars. All these terms refer to some democracy, but there arises a variance in the level of maturity of democracy. The weak democracies mostly found in Africa are better referred to as competitive authoritarian regimes by Levitsky and Way because they exhibit more characteristics of authoritarianisms than Democrats. For example, many African states claim to be democratic because they hold periodic elections. However, all other aspects including the elective procedures do not fit the democratic definition. There are in most cases unfair elections, which explains why most African states are faced with civil wars (post-election violence). Scholars want to subscribe to a specific type of democracy that suits their understanding. Diamond's argument is backed up by the trend in today's nations. America for example under the leadership of President Donald Trump has shown signs of the democratic recession (Mickey, Levitsky & Way, 2017, p. 29). America's recession, however, may not get to authoritarianism since it is only a few aspects of their democracy that are affected by the President's dictatorship.
The debate on whether there is a rise or fall of democracy has been raging on for the past one decade, and it is still unresolved. Factors as the understanding of the concept and the various terms that have risen and continue to arise to suit the needs of specific countries. However, a conclusion has been drawn that there is a general recession in democracy due to the diversity of the modern governments. Developing countries have been struggling to acquire democracy which has almost proven impossible due to factors such as poverty and poor leadership. Transition to democracy should be a voluntary process enhanced by strong pre-existing institutions in a country such as a judiciary, economy, and legislature (Mansfield & Snyder, 2007, p. 5). This view has been criticized by Carothers who argue that strong state institutions are a result of democracy, which comes after transparent elections and governance. He, therefore, claims that there is no need to wait for stable institutions for a state to transit to democracy (Carothers, 2007, p. 19). Developed countries have been improving their democracy, but the trend has changed for the last one decade. Recession in democracies has led to tension in the world whereby people fear for an emergence of a war geared by big world powers. Therefore, it is crucial for countries to review their democracies and to ensure that it is achieved.
Levitsky and Way are right in their argument about the position of the world democracy. This is because, besides considering the research and statistics done by other bodies such as Freedom House, they have also critically analyzed the data and reviewed the nations that do not belong where the researchers place them. They have accessed whether a state was surely democratic besides what is written on books by other researchers. They have also looked at the reasons behind the back slide of democracy, hence their research is deep and accurate.
Carothers, T. (2007). Misunderstanding Gradualism. Journal of Democracy, 18(3), 18-22. doi:10.1353/jod.2007.0042
Diamond, L. (2015). Facing Up to the Democratic Recession. Journal of Democracy, 26(1), 141-155. doi:10.1353/jod.2015.0009
Levitsky, S., & Way, L. (2002). The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy, 13(2), 51-65. doi:10.1353/jod.2002.0026
Levitsky, S., & Way, L. (2015). The Myth of Democratic Recession. Journal of Democracy, 26(1), 45-58. doi:10.1353/jod.2015.0007
Mansfield, E. D., & Snyder, J. L. (2007). The Sequencing "Fallacy". Journal of Democracy, 18(3), 5-10. doi:10.1353/jod.2007.0047
Mickey, R., Levitsky S & Way, L.A. (2017). Is America Still Safe for Democracy? Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding. Foreign Affairs, 20-29.
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