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Stanford political scientist says conditions ripe for democratic growth in the 21st century

Stanford's Larry Diamond is optimistic about democracy's future, arguing that its historical moment has not passed. Despite recent examples of democratic breakdowns, he says, global values are shifting, pressuring governments toward more accountability.

Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP Demonstrators

Anti-government protests such as this one last year in the Moroccan capital of Rabat exemplify continued unrest in the region affected by the Arab Spring.

Despite risks and dangers, democracy is alive and well around the world, a Stanford political scientist insists.

And the trends favor more – not less – democracy.

"People are becoming more tolerant of diversity, more politically demanding and assertive, and more willing to protest," wrote Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the director at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute. His perspective appears in a new article in the journal Current History.

Diamond said the most advanced form of democracy – "liberal democracy" – is still strong with no net declines among the number of nations fitting this description. Diamond pointed out that 40 percent of the world's states and about two-thirds of the world's democracies now meet this test (79 nations in all, according to data from the Freedom House, which publishes an annual survey, "Freedom in the World").

Behind this group are other countries with a "decent level of democracy," such as India and Indonesia. Outside the West, the fate of democracy could move forward or backward, Diamond acknowledged. Countries like Brazil and India need to show that they can generate economic growth for large percentages of their populations while ensuring freedoms and good governance.

The connection between economic growth and democracy is critical, Diamond said.

Changing values

As economies grow, as in South Korea and Taiwan, people's values change and they come to demand more liberties. They shift from material gain to individual empowerment and "emancipation from authority," he said.

"Closely intertwined with this psychological shift is the rise of civil society – of independent organizations and flows of information, opinion and ideas," Diamond wrote, adding that these values ultimately undermine authoritarian regimes.

Another factor is generational change in places like the Middle East, where the Arab Spring protests of 2011 have thus far brought more promises than results – it is democracy's most fragile region in the world.

"The 16 Arab states of the Middle East are a diverse group with widely varying near-term possibilities for sustaining pluralist politics … All of them are showing signs of frustration and exhaustion with the stagnation and injustice of authoritarian rule," he said.

All around the world, he observed, "persistent popular aspirations for better governance" and the rise of "civic vitality" indicate a demand for more openness and accountability among governments.

Diamond said democracy needs to continue to flourish in the wealthy, advanced countries of the West for it to serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. In our Internet-driven world, people pay more attention to their governments, he said.

"It is worth considering the intrinsic political dilemmas of authoritarian regimes," Diamond wrote, "and the tenacity of popular aspirations for government that is open and accountable, before we conclude that the historical moment for democracy has passed."

Still, the road to democracy is sometimes perilous.

Democratic breakdowns

Diamond acknowledged that "democratic breakdowns" have occurred at a troubling pace since an expansion of freedom around the world since 1974. Many would-be experiments in democracy failed – in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, for example. Some countries reversed their nascent steps toward democracy and returned to authoritarianism.

"A number of factors fed the (previous) authoritarian Zeitgeist," Diamond said, including the "spectacular failures of some democracies to govern effectively or maintain order, the successes of East Asian developmental dictatorships, the popularity in poor countries of authoritarian socialist models and ideologies" and Cold War politics.

Since 1999, the rate of democratic failures has accelerated significantly to nearly 20 percent of all existing democracies, he said. This includes Pakistan, Nigeria, Venezuela, Russia and Thailand. Democracy also faltered in the Philippines, but has since returned.

Diamond pointed out that Freedom House data show that today, more countries are losing than are gaining freedoms associated with democratic traditions. Democratic institutions – such as court systems and the rule of law – have not taken root deeply in some nations. As a result, loyalty to leaders trumps fidelity to institutions and rules.

Media Contact

Larry Diamond, Hoover Institution: (650) 723-1928, ldiamond@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu