A Forecast of Global Democratization Trends Through 2025

A couple of months ago, I was asked to write up my thoughts on global trends in democratization over the next five to 10 years. I said at the time that, in coarse terms, I see three plausible alternative futures: 1) big net gains, 2) big net losses, and 3) little net change.

  • By big net gains, I mean a rise in the prevalence of democratic regimes above 65 percent, or, or, because of its size and geopolitical importance, democratization in China absent a sharp decline in the global prevalence of democracy. For big net gains to happen, we would need to see a) one or more clusters of authoritarian breakdown and subsequent democratization in the regions where such clusters are still possible, i.e., Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East and North Africa (or the aforementioned transition in China); and b) no sharp losses in the regions where democracy is now prevalent, i.e., Europe, the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa. I consider (a) unlikely but possible (see here) and (b) highly likely. The scenario requires both conditions, so it is unlikely.
  • By big net losses, I mean a drop in the global prevalence of democracy below 55 percent. For that to happen, we would need to see the opposite of big net gains—that is, a) no new clusters of democratization and no democratization in China and b) sharp net losses in one or more of the predominantly democratic regions. In my judgment, (a) is likely but (b) is very unlikely. This outcome depends on the conjunction of (a) and (b), so the low probability of (b) means this outcome is highly unlikely. A reversion to autocracy somewhere in Western Europe or North America would also push us into “big net loss” territory, but I consider that event extremely unlikely (see here and here for why).
  • In the absence of either of these larger shifts, we will probably see little net change in the pattern of the past decade or so: a regular trickle of transitions to and from democracy at rates that are largely offsetting, leaving the global prevalence hovering between 55 and 65 percent. Of course, we could also wind up with little net change in the global prevalence of democracy under a scenario in which some longstanding or otherwise significant authoritarian regimes—for example, China, Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia— break down, and those breakdowns spread to interdependent regimes, but most of those breakdowns lead to new authoritarian regimes or short-lived attempts at democracy. This is what we saw in the Arab Spring, and base rates from the past several decades suggest that it is the most likely outcome of any regional clusters of authoritarian breakdown in the next decade or so as well. I consider this version of the little-net-change outcome to be more likely than the other one (offsetting trickles of transitions to and from democracy with no new clusters of regime breakdown). Technically, we could also get to an outcome of little net change through a combination of big net losses in predominantly democratic regions and big gains in predominantly authoritarian regions, but I consider this scenario so unlikely in the next five to 10 years that it’s not worth considering in depth.

I believe the probabilities of big net gains and persistence of current levels are both much greater than the probability of big net losses. In other words, I am generally bullish. For the sake of clarity, I would quantify those guesses as follows:

  • Probability of big net gains: 20 percent
  • Probability of little net change: 75 percent
    • With regime breakdown in one or more critical autocracies: 60 percent
    • Without regime breakdown in any critical autocracies: 15 percent
  • Probability of big net losses: 5 percent

That outlook is informed by a few theoretical and empirical observations.

First, when I talk about democratization, I have in mind expansions of the breadth, depth, and protection of consultation between national political regimes and their citizens. As Charles Tilly argues on p. 24 of his 2007 book, Democracy, “A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.” Fair and competitive elections are the most obvious and in some ways the most important form this consultation can take, but they are not the only one. Still, for purposes of observing broad trends and coarsely comparing cases, we can define a democracy as a regime in which officials who actually rule are chosen through fair and competitive elections in which nearly all adult citizens can vote. The fairness of elections depends on the existence of numerous civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, assembly, and association, and the presence of a reasonably free press, so this is not a low bar. Freedom House’s list of electoral democracies is a useful proxy for this set of conditions.

Second, we do not understand the causal processes driving democratization well, and we certainly don’t understand them well enough to know how to manipulate them in order to reliably produce desired outcomes. The global political economy, and the political economies of the states that comprise one layer of it, are parts of a complex adaptive system. This system is too complex for us to model and understand in ways that are more than superficial, partly because it continues to evolve as we try to understand and manipulate it. That said, we have seen some regularities in this system over the past half-century or so:

  • States are more likely to try and then to sustain democratic regimes as their economies grow, their economies become more complex, and their societies transform in ways associated with those trends (e.g., live longer, urbanize, and become more literate). These changes don’t produce transitions, but they do create structural conditions that are more conducive to them.
  • Oil-rich countries have been the exceptions to this pattern, but even they are not impervious (e.g., Mexico, Indonesia). Specifically, they are more susceptible to pressures to democratize when their oil income diminishes, and variation over time in that income depends, in part, on forces beyond their control (e.g., oil prices).
  • Consolidated single-party regimes are the most resilient form of authoritarian rule. Personalist dictatorships are also hard to topple as long as the leader survives but often crumble when that changes. Military-led regimes that don’t evolve into personalist or single-party autocracies rarely last more than a few years, especially since the end of the Cold War.
  • Most authoritarian breakdowns occur in the face of popular protests, and those protests are more likely to happen when the economy is slumping, when food or fuel prices are spiking, when protests are occurring in nearby or similar countries, and around elections. Signs that elites are fighting amongst themselves may also help to spur protests, but elite splits are common in autocracies and often emerge in reaction to protests, not ahead of them.
  • Most attempts at democracy end with a reversion to authoritarian rule, but the chances that countries will try again and then that democracy will stick improve as countries get richer and have tried more times before. The origins of the latter pattern are unclear, but they probably have something to do with the creation of new forms of social and political organization and the subsequent selection and adaptation of those organizations into “fitter” competitors under harsh pressures.

Third, whatever its causes, there is a strong empirical trend toward democratization around the world. Since the middle of the twentieth century, both the share of regimes worldwide that are democratic and the share of the global population living in democratic regimes have expanded dramatically. These expansions have not come steadily, and there is always some churn in the system, but the broader trend persists in spite of those dips and churn

The strength and, so far, persistence of this trend lead me to believe that the global system would have to experience a profound collapse or transformation for that trend to be disrupted. Under the conditions that have prevailed for the past century or so, selection pressures in the global system seem to be running strongly in favor of democratic political regimes with market-based economies.

Crucially, this long-term trend has also proved resilient to the global financial crisis that began in 2007-2008 and has persisted to some degree ever since. This crisis was as sharp a stress test of many national political regimes as we have seen in a while, perhaps since World War II. Democracy has survived this test in all of the world’s wealthy countries, and there was no stampede away from democracy in less wealthy countries with younger regimes. Freedom House and many other activists lament the occurrence of a “democratic recession” over the past several years, but global data just don’t support the claim that one is occurring. What we have seen instead is a slight decline in the prevalence of democratic regimes accompanied by a deepening of authoritarian rule in many of the autocracies that survived the last flurry of democratic transitions.

Meanwhile, some authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa broke down in the face of uprisings demanding greater popular accountability, and some of those breakdowns led to attempts at democratization—in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in particular. Most of those attempts at democratization have since failed, but not all did, Tunisia being the notable exception. What’s more, the popular pressure in favor of democratization has not dissipated in all of the cases where authoritarian breakdown didn’t happen. Bahrain, Kuwait, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia are notable in this regard.

Rising pressures on China and Russia suggest that similar clusters of regime instability are increasingly likely in their respective neighborhoods, even if they remain unlikely in any given year. China faces significant challenges on numerous fronts, including a slowing economy, a looming real-estate debt crisis, swelling popular frustration over industrial pollution, an uptick in labor activism, an anti-corruption campaign that could alienate some political and military insiders, and a separatist insurgency in Xinjiang. No one of those challenges is necessarily likely to topple the regime, but the presence of so many of them at once adds up to a significant risk (or opportunity, depending on one’s perspective). A regime crisis in China could ripple through its region with strongest effect on the most dependent regimes—on North Korea in particular, but also perhaps Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Even if a crisis there didn’t reverberate, China’s population size and rising international influence imply that any movement toward democracy would have a significant impact on the global balance sheet.

The Russian regime is also under increased pressure, albeit for different reasons. Russia is already in recession, and falling oil prices and capital flight are making things much worse without much promise of near-term relief. U.S. and E.U. sanctions deserve significant credit (or blame) for the acceleration of capital flight, and prosecution of the war in Ukraine is also imposing additional direct costs on Russia’s power resources. The extant regime has survived domestic threats before, but 10 more years is a long time for a regime that stands on feet of socioeconomic clay.

Above all else, these last two points—about 1) the resilience of existing democracies to the stress of the past several years and 2) the persistence and even deepening of pressures on many surviving authoritarian regimes—are what make me bullish about the prospects for democracy in next five to 10 years. In light of current trends in China and Russia, I have a hard time imagining both of those regimes surviving to 2025. Democratization might not follow, and if it does, it won’t necessarily stick, at least not right away. Neither regime can really get a whole lot more authoritarian than it is now, however, so the possibilities for change on this dimension are nearly all on the upside. (The emergence of a new authoritarian regime that is more aggressive abroad is also possible in both cases, but that topic is beyond the scope of this memo.)

Talk about the possibility of a wave of democratic reversals usually centers on the role China or Russia might play as either an agent of de-democratization or example of an alternative future. As noted above, though, both of these systems are currently facing substantial stresses at home. These stresses both limit their ability to act as agents of de-democratization and take the shine off any example they might set.

In short, I think that talk of Russia and China’s negative influence on the global democratization trend is overblown. Apart from the (highly unlikely) invasion and successful occupation of other countries, I don’t think either of these governments has the ability to undo democratization elsewhere. Both can and do help some other authoritarian regimes survive, however, and this is why regime crisis or breakdown in either one of them has the potential to catalyze new clusters of regime instability in their respective neighborhoods.

What do you think? If you made it this far and have any (polite) reactions you’d like to share, please leave a comment.

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