Larry Diamond has described the current era as a democratic recession. Freedom House has tracked a consistent decline in democracy around the world since 2005. Yet the decline in countries they rank as Free has only fallen from 46% to 44% of the world. The countries ranked as Not Free have risen from 23% to 26%. The decline has been relatively minor especially when we compare it to the gains made between 1988 and 2005. During this period Free countries increased from 36% to 46% and Not Free countries decreased from 37% to 23%. Despite concerns to the contrary, the third wave appears to have held throughout much of the world.
The third wave redefined liberal democracy and authoritarianism. The democracies of the early twentieth century would have been ranked as partly free at best. Universal suffrage is a largely a twentieth century invention. Women did not gain the right to vote in Switzerland in federal elections until 1971. In fact, a single canton denied women the vote on local issues until 1991. The United States effectively limited the rights of African Americans to vote in Southern states until 1965. Yet from a historical perspective both countries are regarded as liberal democracies.
The Age of Napoleon was regarded as an age of liberalism. Indeed, the first democratic wave is considered the long wave. This neglects to recognize the nuance of historical events. Thermidor marked an end to democratization within France and a return to conservatism. Yet it also marks the start of a redefinition of political autocracy. In a few short years Napoleon legitimized a new style of autocrat. He incorporated liberalism and democracy into a new conservatism. The people participated through popular elections although the results were rigged. He established a new law based on equality under the law. And legitimized the new nationalist foundations of political states.
The third wave has continued to redefine autocracy. No longer do states legitimize authority through patrimonial claims. The few hereditary monarchies on the globe cannot define their rule purely through hereditary rights. Unlike the previous monarchs whose line extended beyond memory, their claims are traced back just a few generations. Autocrats are tyrants. Not simply in the pejorative sense, but in the classical sense of the Ancient Greeks. Older regimes with traditional claims of legitimacy have been swept away. New governments are legitimized through public acquiescence and international acceptability rather than a cultural foundation.
Democracy provides a justification for the state. The law becomes an agreement established by the people themselves. In a world where nothing is forgotten, traditional forms of governance have become an impossibility. Their legitimacy was derived from myth, legends and stories. Tyranny represents a breakdown in traditional political institutions without a sustainable replacement. Long-term political order relies on institutions. Modern autocracy has adapted to the new dynamics through incorporating institutions associated with democracy. In the end, today’s autocracy has become increasingly democratic even when the final product is both corrupt and misleading.
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