Wave of democracy

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See also: History of democracy.

In political science, a wave of democracy refers to a major surge of democracy in history. Although the term appears at least as early as 1887[1], it was popularized by Samuel P. Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University in his article published in the Journal of Democracy and further expounded in his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century.

Scholars generally disagree about the precise number of democratic waves. Huntington describes three waves: the first "slow" wave of the 19th century, a second wave after World War II, and a third wave beginning in the mid-1970s in South Europe, followed by Latin America and Asia. Though his book does not discuss the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a number of scholars have taken the "Third Wave" to include the democratic transitions of 1989-1991. [2] Other scholars, such as Seva Gunitsky of University of Toronto, have referred to 13 waves from the 18th century to the Arab Spring (2011-2012).[3]


In his 1991 book The Third Wave, Huntington defined a democratic wave as "a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite directions during that period of time.” (Huntington 1991,15)

Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (2014,70) offer a similar definition: "any historical period during which there is a sustained and significant increase in the proportion of competitive regimes (democracies and semi-democracies)."[4]

Gunitsky (2018) defines a democratic wave as a clustering of attempted or successful democratic transitions, coupled with linkages among the transitions in that cluster. [3]

Huntington's three waves[edit]

First wave[edit]

The First wave of democracy began in the early 19th century when suffrage was granted to the majority of white males in the United States ("Jacksonian democracy"). At its peak, the first wave saw 29 democracies in the world. This continued until 1922, when Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy. The ebb of the first wave lasted from 1922 until 1942, during which the number of democracies in the world dropped to a mere 12.[2]

Second wave[edit]

The Second wave began following the Allied victory in World War II, and crested nearly 20 years later in 1962 with 36 recognised democracies in the world. The Second wave ebbed as well at this point, and the total number dropped to 30 democracies between 1962 and the mid-1970s. But the "flat line" would not last for long, as the third wave was about to surge in a way no one had ever seen.[2]

Scholars have noted that the appearance of "waves" of democracy largely disappears when women's suffrage is taken into account; moreover, some countries change their positions quite dramatically: Switzerland, which is typically included as part of the first wave, did not grant women the right to vote until 1971.[5]

Third wave[edit]

The Third wave began in 1974 (Carnation Revolution, Portugal) and included the historic democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s, Asia Pacific countries and regions (Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan) from 1986 to 1988, Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 1989. The expansion of democracy in some regions was stunning. In Latin America only Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela were democratic by 1978 and only Cuba and Haiti remained authoritarian by 1995, when the wave had swept across twenty countries.[6] Exact tallies of the number of democracies vary depending on the criteria used for assessment, but by some measures there are well over 100 democracies in the world today[when?], a marked increase in just a few decades.[citation needed] Many of these newer democracies are not fully "consolidated," however, meaning that while they have electoral institutions in place, political democracy remains fragile. Reasons for this fragility include economic instability, continued elite dominance of politics, ongoing military interference in civilian affairs, and others.[7]

Countries undergoing or having undergone a transition to democracy during a wave are subject to democratic backsliding. Political scientists and theorists believe that the third wave has crested and will soon begin to ebb, just as its predecessors did in the first and second waves.[8] Indeed, in the period immediately following the onset of the "war on terror" after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, some backsliding was evident. How significant or lasting that erosion is remains a subject of debate.

After the Great Recession of 2008, a number of countries backslid from democracy including Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Honduras and the Maldives. Some other countries have had democratic transitions however, such as Tunisia and the Gambia. There has also been limited democratic reform in some countries, such as Burma and Morocco.[citation needed]

Arab Spring[edit]

Experts have associated the collapse of several dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa, phenomenon known as Arab Spring, with the events which followed the fall of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The similarity between the two phenomena inspired hope for a fourth wave of democratization. However, a few months after the apparent beginning of the transition, most of the Arab political openings closed, causing an inevitable pull-back. One of the most alarming cases was that of Egypt, where the government, controlled by the military, did not facilitate the democratic transition in any way. On the contrary, it strove to silence the protests by arresting peaceful protesters and by “trying them in military tribunals.”[citation needed] A concrete example is provided by the story of Maikel Nabil, an Egyptian blogger convicted to be imprisoned for three years for “insulting the military establishment.” The main causes of the regression and crisis in all the affected countries are attributed to corruption, unemployment, social injustice, and autocratic political systems.

Despite the apparently unsolvable situation, the UN, under the administration of Ban Ki-Moon, tried to work as a mediator between the governments and the protesters. Moreover, according to Larry Diamond, the engagement of the United States of America in the democratic transition of the Arab world was fundamental. He attributed to the country the role of mentor and example for the newborn democracies.[9]

Digital media played a much longer term role in creating favorable conditions for uprisings, helped to publicize key igniting events, and then facilitated those uprisings and their diffusion; but digital media did not do this alone or as suddenly as some observers have claimed. The story of the Arab Spring, according to Howard and Hussain, began over a decade ago as Internet access and mobile phones began to diffuse rapidly through North Africa and the Middle East. The citizens that could afford internet access, the wealthy and powerful mostly, played a huge role in the Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain uprisings. Over time, online criticisms of regimes became more public and common, setting the stage for the Arab Spring. Digital media also allowed women and other minorities to enter these political discussions, and, ultimately, the ensuing protests and revolutions as well.[10]

Other waves[edit]

In a 2018 study in Perspectives on Politics, Seva Gunitsky of University of Toronto identifies thirteen waves of democracy [3]:

  1. The Atlantic Wave (1776-1798)
  2. The Latin American Wars of Independence (1809-1824)
  3. The First Constitutional Wave (1820-1821)
  4. The Romantic-Nationalist Wave (1830-1831)
  5. The Spring of Nations (1848)
  6. The Second Constitutional Wave (1905-1912)
  7. The post-WWI Wave (1919-1922)
  8. The post-WWII Wave (1945-1950)
  9. The African Decolonization Wave (1956-1968)
  10. The Modernization Wave, also known as the "Third" Wave (1974-1988)
  11. The Post-Soviet Wave (1989-1994)
  12. The Color Revolutions (2000-2007)
  13. The Arab Spring (2011-2012)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morse, Anson D. (1887). "The Cause of Secession". Political Science Quarterly. 2 (3): 470–493. JSTOR 2139185.
  2. ^ a b c "What Is Democracy? - Democracy's Third Wave". U.S. State Department. Retrieved 2007-08-07.
  3. ^ a b c Gunitsky, Seva (2018). "Democratic Waves in Historical Perspective". Perspectives on Politics. 16 (3): 634–651. doi:10.1017/S1537592718001044. ISSN 1537-5927.
  4. ^ https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/democracies-and-dictatorships-in-latin-america/9CC511C619C452594287644A905994A1
  5. ^ Paxton, Pamela. (2000). “Women's Suffrage in the Measurement of Democracy: Problems of Operationalization.” Studies in Comparative International Development 35(3): 92-111
  6. ^ Schenoni, Luis and Scott Mainwaring. "Hegemonic Effects and Regime Change in Latin America". Democratization. doi:10.1080/13510347.2018.1516754.
  7. ^ Diamond, Larry. (1996). “Is the Third Wave Over?” Journal of Democracy 7(3).
  8. ^ Zagorski, Paul W. (2003). "Democratic Breakdown in Paraguay and Venezuela: The Shape of Things to Come for Latin America?". Armed Forces & Society. 30 (1): 87–116. doi:10.1177/0095327X0303000104.
  9. ^ "A Fourth Wave or False Start?". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2016-03-04.
  10. ^ Howard, Phillip N. (2013). "Democracy's Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring" (PDF). OUP.

Further reading[edit]