Democracy in World History Today

Steve Muhlberger, Associate Professor of History, Nipissing University

Originally posted June 1, 2004

When Phil Paine, my collaborator, and I began systematically investigating the history of democracy in the mid-1980s, there was little obvious guidance.  I remember picking up the 1984 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and finding that it contained far more about the history of demography than about the history of democracy.  I was looking in the wrong place:  the investigation of democracy was the province of political scientists or sociologists.(1)  Yet I do not think that historians were alone in their indifference.  If the development of democratic theory, institutions and culture were not compelling subjects for many historians, public debates, too, were much more concerned with “freedom,” or “human rights” or “social justice” than with old-fashioned democracy (in other words, practices that allowed an inclusive citizenry to choose their governors in an honest and orderly way).  Democracy in that sense – “political” democracy – seemed to be an almost irrelevant, 19th century idea.

It was not scholars nor, despite their best efforts, activists in free countries who brought democracy back into the center of public debate.  It was instead ordinary people in unfree countries on every continent.  During the 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s and 90s, those who had been deprived of any say in the direction of their own societies and indeed of their personal lives demanded to be heard.  They had many complaints – poverty, devastation of the environment, lack of basic freedoms, corruption of every sort.  It was remarkable, however, that they saw lack of democracy, the absence of honest, effective elections, as basic to their predicament, and the introduction of free elections and free expression as an essential part of any solution.

The events of the last few years do not permit easy optimism that the world is moving in a freer direction – war, terrorism, government repression and crushing poverty still victimize millions.   It is important to remember, however, that in the last third of the 20th century, democracy was restored or introduced into many countries that had been written off as not ready – and maybe never ready – for democracy.  And although in some of these places democratic regimes have failed or are in perilous condition, in others – for instance, South Korea, Taiwan, Poland, and Portugal – democracy seems as healthy as it is anywhere in the world. 

Further, despite various failures, democracy enjoys greater prestige than at any time since the end of the Second World War.   With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the supposed equivalence between “(bourgeois) democracy” and “people’s democracy” collapsed with it.   Once opened to thorough investigation, the “people’s democracies” had little to offer in self-justification.  Those who criticize the “capitalist” world order today are more likely to be concerned about the “democratic deficit” – an intriguing term – of such institutions as the World Bank or the European Community than to sing the praises of central planning.  Indeed, too much central planning and too little political choice are their main complaints.

Recent history has challenged historians to make the development of democracy and its vicissitudes an integral part of the human story.  To a great degree, that challenge has been evaded.  Despite the growing popularity of world history, many of those interested in the big questions of history are preoccupied with “European” or “Western” exceptionalism and whether it has been a benign or malignant influence.  Debates about the origins and ideological underpinnings of the modern world – whatever that is taken to mean by any given scholar – bear a strong resemblance to older debates about the origins of development and underdevelopment.  In such debates, the history of democracy tends to be seen as a subsidiary or even irrelevant question.

This is a shame.   The relative neglect of the world history of democracy by historians no only saps our understanding of democracy, but also I would argue diminishes our understanding of how world history works.  The events of the last three decades cast severe doubt on one of the most popular theories of the development of democracy, that it is essentially the product of a single culture and is unsuited to the needs and capabilities of other cultures.   Recent history instead demands a world perspective.

Before the late 1980s it was commonly believed, by historians and non-historians alike, that the failure of democracy to take firm root outside of Western Europe and former British colonies in North America and Australasia indicated that democracy was culturally foreign to most inhabitants of the globe.   Anglo-European democracy was seen as rooted in the development of certain specific ideas and values over the very long term:  the classical heritage, Christian respect for the worth of the individual believer, a tradition of “feudal” or limited monarchy, bourgeois commercial culture, etc.  The road to modern democracy was marked by unique milestones that “Westerners” had passed in good time, but that everyone else had missed:  the Protestant Reformation, England’s Glorious Revolution, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, etc.(2)  The necessity of passing through these stages in a timely fashion seemed to be proved by the subsequent failure of many countries – notably in Latin America and Africa but also in southern Europe – to establish stable democratic regimes in the 20th century.

The prospect in the 1970s was in some ways more conducive to pessimism than fifty years earlier.  In 1920, it might be argued that if people in most regions of the world had had little experience of democracy, they might just be waiting for their chance.  In 1970, it was easy to conclude that many of them had had a chance, and failed to make good use of it.  Both critics and defenders of so-called “Western” values could claim that people outside the “West” neither wanted democracy nor were capable of making it work.(3)

The next two decades, however, increasingly cast doubt on both propositions.   The various revolutions of 1989 in particular demanded a thorough re-evaluation of many old ideas.  Despite politically-motivated retrospective claims, few if any academic experts, journalistic commentators, or political leaders in 1985 would have dared to predict the imminent collapse not only of the Iron Curtain but of the Soviet Union, and the mainly peaceful replacement of European and Central Asian regimes with little choice but to claim that they represented democracy. 

When the Goddess of Democracy rose in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, outside observers were at least as surprised as the Chinese leadership that supposedly “Western” values of democracy and human rights should have so much potential support among not only students but also ordinary people.

Such events did not owe their origins to finely calculated missionary efforts or consistent support from “the West” but from a native appreciation of the deficiencies of dictatorships and one-party states, and the relevance of democratic institutions – the protection of individual rights, greater economic freedom, the active involvement of the citizenry in government, and real elections – in correcting those deficiencies.  The experience of established democracies was indeed relevant to those denied democracy - so clearly relevant that even new regimes with repressive ambitions had to present themselves as offering to democracy to some group.

Such dramatic events posed a big problem to historical understanding.  The fact that the balance between democratic and undemocratic regimes could shift so quickly – against democracy in the 1960s and 70s, and then even more quickly the other way – called for a new historical analysis.   The struggle for democracy and the more or less successful of democratic aspirations began to look like an important theme in modern world history.

The realization the recent wave of democratic revolutions was not unique, but perhaps the third such wave added a new dimension to thinking about democratic aspirations as a factor in historical change.(4)    The idea of “waves of democracy” emphasized the interaction between local political events and the global political environment.  It also gave new relevance to the study of numerous failed democratic experiments of the 19th and 20th centuries.  They could now be seen not as the doomed planting of foreign ideals in unpromising soil, but as manifestations of a continuing current in human affairs – one that might not be the undoubted “wave of the future” but which could hardly be dismissed as irrelevant, after 1990, in any part of the globe.

The new wave also drew attention to the fact that there was more democratic history to study at the beginning of the 21st century.  Two examples are worth noting:  the recent history of India and Spain.

The politics of independent India has appeared to many observers as violent, corrupt, and uninspiring, certainly not the best example of democracy one might hope for.  Yet a few comparisons put India in a better light.  Who would choose the horrific political experience of China since 1945, involving the death, uprooting, and repression of tens of millions, over that of India in the same period?  To take less extreme examples, has India not been a more successful democracy than Argentina, Brazil, or Colombia?   Indeed, a comparison of early democracy in the United States with early democracy in the Republic of India would not necessarily favor the United States.  (No need to pick on the USA – one might say the same of the early democratic histories of France or Italy.) 

Given the unrelenting social, economic, and environmental challenges that have always faced independent India, and its unpromising political past, the maintenance of a working if imperfect democracy in India is something of a wonder.   It is hard to see, despite long British rule, India as an essentially “Western” society, nor does it fit most people’s idea of a developed, modernized economy.  India challenges our ideas of what makes for promising or unpromising soil for democracy; it redirects our attention to the fact that democratic solutions to problems are seldom easy for any society.(5)

Spain also is a puzzle for any historian of world democracy.  It was early on affected by the French Revolution, but for more than a century and a half thereafter, Spanish democracy seemed like an impossible dream.  Spain appeared doomed by its culture and history to either authoritarianism or chaos.  Yet in the mid-1970s democracy emerged in post-Franco Spain, and despite separatist sentiment and intermittent domestic terrorism, it has survived and flourished.   The case of Spain, like the similar case of neighboring Portugal, confounds easy generalizations about the historical roots of democratic development.

For a very long time it was obvious that Spain, with its absolutist monarchical tradition and its intolerant religious establishment, must be outside the grand democratic tradition of the “West;” yet somehow despite all that historical baggage, in a moment and without attracting much attention, Spain transformed itself into a member in good standing of the democratic club.  I cannot claim that this democratic transition has not been studied.(6)   But one wonders how many historians not concerned with modern Spain have thought seriously about it, and whether any of them have revised their understanding of Spanish or European history in light of it.

No historian would be caught dead dismissing the importance of historical baggage as an influence in the life and development of societies and individuals. Yet the long-standing emphasis in both academic circles and in public discourse on national history evidently has led us astray in the past when it comes to evaluating and anticipating the course of democratic development.  The events of 1989 in particular have sensitized (or re-sensitized) some scholars – most of them not historians – to the international dimension of this important political movement, and the way cross-border and cross-cultural influences can be extraordinarily powerful at the right moment.(7)

Similarly the rise of viable democratic regimes in the unlikeliest of places should remind us of a pertinent fact:  democratic innovation has seldom taken root first in the great cultural and economic centers of the world, where inertia militates against it.   For instance, male resistance to women’s suffrage was overcome first in the remote British colony of New Zealand, not in Britain itself; in newly settled US territories, not in established states of the union; in the Bohemian town of Mlada Boleslav i Nymbork, not in the sophisticated Habsburg capital of Vienna.(8)   Democracy abroad may inspire democratic aspirations and strategies at home; individuals and institutions may give needed aid; but successful democratic movements must arise from local conditions and initiatives, and this in fact gives them the freedom to take on new challenges.(9)

The history of democracy is hardly over.  Indeed in the last decade the course of democratic change has become more complex.   Regimes that once looked to be on the road to democracy have ceased to evolved; there are now many hard-to-classify hybrid regimes, not openly anti-democratic but allowing only as much opposition as is convenient to the local power holders.(10)   Further, there is the widespread concern that supranational institutions are not sufficiently responsive to the people in many countries who are affected by their actions.   Such phenomena as these are quite rightly mainly the concern of those with practical needs to understand current politics – foreign policy experts, political scientists, and especially democracy activists.  Those fields privilege the possibilities of the present moment.  But surely historians with their different perspectives can and should contribute to the understanding of current issues.

Accounting for the complex history of democratic aspirations and attempts to implement them put before historians a perfect problem of world history.   The development of democracy – whether one is examining political institutions, democratic theory, or their social underpinnings – cannot be understood by studying individual countries alone. All these things must be seen in a world perspective.  Yet if we are to avoid the overconfident generalizations of the past, we cannot do without detailed and respectful analysis of the many different societies of modern and even pre-modern history.   If there is one thing that the recent history of democracy teaches, it is that something interesting and significant may happen anywhere.


1.  For instance, the important book by Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule:  Tentative conclusions about uncertain democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) was published in 1986; the less known but interesting comparative work of Tatu Vanhanen, The Emergence of Democracy: A comparative study of 119 states, 1850-1979 (Helsinki) was published in 1984.  In it, Vanhanen suggested that based on historic trends, there should soon emerge a number of new democracies.

2.  The contested significance of democracy is underlined by the fact that unambiguous milestones were hard to find after the mid-19th century.   Even in the late 20th century, debates about what was politically desirable in the present made impossible wide agreement about whether the rise of socialism, women’s suffrage, or demands for racial equality were undoubted, important parts of the history of democracy.

3. For a reminder of one, late, version of this kind of self-interested argumentation in favor of undemocratic regimes, see Mark R. Thompson, “Whatever Happened to ‘Asian values’?” Journal of Democracy 12.4  (2002): 154-165.  Even in Islamic countries, appeals to democracy are hardly lacking.   Numerous articles in the Journal of Democracy give access to the debate about the relationship between Islam and democracy.

4.  Samuel P. Huntingdon first used the phrase “third wave” in the Julian J. Rothbaum Lectures at the University of Oklahoma in November, 1989; he wrote at book length in The Third Wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century (Norman and London:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).  The idea of “waves of democracy” has been fruitfully explored by John Markoff in Waves of Democracy: Social movements and political change (Thousand Oaks, Calif.:  Pine Forge Press, 1996).  Note that the latter book, which may be the best existing history of democracy, was written by a sociologist and is part of a series called “Sociology for a New Century.”

5. The politics of India are indeed a mixed bag, and evaluations of its success vary.   See the favourable perspectives in Sumit Ganguly, “India’s Multiple Revolutions,” Journal of Democracy 13.1(2002): 38-51, and Susan Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, “New Dimensions in Indian Democracy, Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002): 52-66; and the less optimistic remarks of Larry Jay Diamond, “Thinking about Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy, 13.2 (2002):  28.

6.  Indeed, O’Donnell and Schmitter’s pioneering Transitions from Authoritarian Rule was quite concerned with this early manifestation of the “third wave.”

7.  Markoff, Waves of Democracy, p. 20 and passim; Markoff admits his insights on the “transnational dimension” of democratization (and anti-democratic movements, too) have been influenced by David Brion Davis in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1873 and R.R. Palmer’s classic The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A political history of Europe and America, 1760-1800, 2 vols. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1959-64).

8.  Markoff, “Paradigmatic history of women’s suffrage,” Signs: a journal of women in culture and society   29 (2003): 85-116.   My thanks to Prof. Markoff for sharing a preliminary version of this paper with me.   Of course, the rise of representative democracy in the United States in the 18th century is one of the most important examples of a peripheral area leading the way.  Although American colonists were prosperous and highly literate by world standards, they had neither a cultured royal court, a settled and public-spirited aristocracy, nor an established church, all of which were considered essential for civilization in most parts of Europe.

9. It should be remembered that Scandinavia’s influential attempts at “social democracy” took place in a region that had always been considered a poor backwater of Europe; even today these countries have influence that is far out of proportion to their population and wealth.   Scandinavian success has always rated far less interest than the catastrophes that have taken place in 20th century Germany, Russia, or China.

10. See Thomas Carothers, “The End of the Transition Paradigm” Journal of Democracy 13.1 (2002): 5-21 and responses in Journal of Democracy 13.2 and 13.3.

Copyright (C) 2004, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
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