Since my post last week on the “democratic recession” that isn’t, Reason managing editor Jesse Walker has amplified and augmented my response to the “democratic meltdown” narrative in a thoughtful piece called “Planet Burma,” and Tufts University professor-cum-Foreign Policy blogger Dan Drezner has considered both versions of the tale and concluded that democracy is in fact growing up, not melting down.
In his post, Dan — I get to call him Dan because we were colleagues and friendly office-mates in graduate school — makes an important point that deserves a reply. He writes:
Kurlantzick and Freedom House do make one point, however, that neither Walker nor Ulfelder rebut. The most disturbing trend is the “lock-in” of authoritarianism in so many medium and great powers. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia — these are countries that have trended towards the “not free” category for many a year now, and these regimes are getting better at stifling dissent. Walker argues that, “the know-how for building freedom is still spreading,” but the know-how for squelching it can also spread. Indeed, the Arab Spring itself has led to genuine regime change in some countries, but in others it has been a testing ground for how to crack down. Even if the democratization wave continues, there are enough big authoritarian countries around that will not be transitioning anytime soon. That is a significant change from twenty years ago, and it’s worth thinking about the implications for the future.
Actually, I think the cases Dan mentions — China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — support the view that the roster of democratic governments will continue to expand. Where Dan sees regimes that are “locking in” authoritarian rule by “getting better at stifling dissent,” I see regimes that are facing still-growing pressures to expand civil liberties and hold fair elections–pressures that should eventually help tip those countries onto the democratic side of the ledger. In 2009, Iran saw its largest and most sustained popular uprising since the revolution 30 years earlier in response to flawed presidential elections. That uprising did not succeed in forcing fairer elections, but its occurrence and staying power suggests that popular pressures for democratization in Iran are stronger than ever. Meanwhile, in China, official corruption, land grabs, and environmental degradation routinely spark protests that could agglomerate into a movement for deeper reforms. The Chinese government responds aggressively to these incidents, but we should be careful not to project its past successes in squelching protests too far into the future. As someone who has studied popular mobilization in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years, I see many parallels between the forms and dynamics of dissent in China now and the environmental, nationalist, labor, and democratic mobilization that occurred in the USSR in the late 1980s. Popular pressure does seem much weaker in Russia and Saudi Arabia, but neither has proved immune to civil unrest, either, as evidenced by Russia’s Article 31 protest movement the recent right-to-drive campaign among women in Saudi Arabia.
I think it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that any of these regimes will cede power to democratically elected governments in the next year or two. At the same time, I think it’s also evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.