The End of the Democratic Century

Autocracy’s Global Ascendance

At the height of World War II, Henry Luce, the founder of Time mag­a­zine, argued that the United States had amassed such wealth and pow­er that the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry would come to be known sim­ply as “the American Century.” His pre­dic­tion proved pre­scient: despite being chal­lenged for suprema­cy by Nazi Germany and, lat­er, the Soviet Union, the United States pre­vailed against its adver­saries. By the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, its posi­tion as the most pow­er­ful and influ­en­tial state in the world appeared unim­peach­able. As a result, the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry was marked by the dom­i­nance not just of a par­tic­u­lar coun­try but also of the polit­i­cal sys­tem it helped spread: lib­er­al democracy. 

As democ­ra­cy flour­ished across the world, it was tempt­ing to ascribe its dom­i­nance to its inher­ent appeal. If cit­i­zens in India, Italy, or Venezuela seemed loy­al to their polit­i­cal sys­tem, it must have been because they had devel­oped a deep com­mit­mentto both indi­vid­ual rights and col­lec­tive self-deter­mi­na­tion. And if Poles and Filipinos began to make the tran­si­tion from dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­ra­cy, it must have been because they, too, shared in the uni­ver­sal human desire for lib­er­al democracy. 

But the events of the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry can also be inter­pret­ed in a very dif­fer­ent way. Citizens across the world were attract­ed to lib­er­al democ­ra­cy not sim­ply because of its norms and val­ues but also because it offered the most salient mod­el of eco­nom­ic and geopo­lit­i­cal suc­cess. Civic ideals may have played their part in con­vert­ing the cit­i­zens of for­mer­ly author­i­tar­i­an regimes into con­vinced democ­rats, but the astound­ing eco­nom­ic growth of west­ern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, the vic­to­ry of demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries in the Cold War, and the defeat or col­lapse of democracy’s most pow­er­ful auto­crat­ic rivals were just as important.

Taking the mate­r­i­al foun­da­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic hege­mo­ny seri­ous­ly casts the sto­ry of democracy’s great­est suc­cess­es in a dif­fer­ent light, and it also changes how one thinks about its cur­rent cri­sis. As lib­er­al democ­ra­cies have become worse at improv­ing their cit­i­zens’ liv­ing stan­dards, pop­ulist move­ments that dis­avow lib­er­al­ism are emerg­ing from Brussels to Brasília and from Warsaw to Washington. A strik­ing num­ber of cit­i­zens have start­ed to ascribe less impor­tance to liv­ing in a democ­ra­cy: where­as two-thirds of Americans above the age of 65 say it is absolute­ly impor­tant to them to live in a democ­ra­cy, for exam­ple, less than one-third of those below the age of 35 say the same thing. A grow­ing minor­i­ty is even open to author­i­tar­i­an alter­na­tives: from 1995 to 2017, the share of French, Germans, and Italians who favored mil­i­tary rule more than tripled. 

As recent elec­tions around the world indi­cate, these opin­ions aren’t just abstract pref­er­ences; they reflect a deep groundswell of anti­estab­lish­ment sen­ti­ment that can be eas­i­ly mobi­lized by extrem­ist polit­i­cal par­ties and can­di­dates. As a result, author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulists who dis­re­spect some of the most basic rules and norms of the demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem have made rapid advances across west­ern Europe and North America over the past two decades. Meanwhile, author­i­tar­i­an strong­men are rolling back demo­c­ra­t­ic advances across much of Asia and east­ern Europe. Could the chang­ing bal­ance of eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pow­er in the world help explain these unfore­seen developments? 

That ques­tion is all the more press­ing today, as the long-stand­ing dom­i­nance of a set of con­sol­i­dat­ed democ­ra­cies with devel­oped economies and a com­mon alliance struc­ture is com­ing to an end. Ever since the last decade of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the democ­ra­cies that formed the West’s Cold War alliance against the Soviet Union—in North America, west­ern Europe, Australasia, and post­war Japan—have com­mand­ed a major­i­ty of the world’s income. In the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, estab­lished democ­ra­cies such as the United Kingdom and the United States made up the bulk of glob­al GDP. In the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, as the geo­graph­ic span of both demo­c­ra­t­ic rule and the alliance struc­ture head­ed by the United States expand­ed to include Japan and Germany, the pow­er of this lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic alliance became even more crush­ing. But now, for the first time in over a hun­dred years, its share of glob­al GDP has fall­en below half. According to fore­casts by the International Monetary Fund, it will slump to a third with­in the next decade. 

At the same time that the dom­i­nance of democ­ra­cies has fad­ed, the share of eco­nom­ic out­put com­ing from author­i­tar­i­an states has grown rapid­ly. In 1990, coun­tries rat­ed “not free” by Freedom House (the low­est cat­e­go­ry, which excludes “par­tial­ly free” coun­tries such as Singapore) account­ed for just 12 per­cent of glob­al income. Now, they are respon­si­ble for 33 per­cent, match­ing the lev­el they achieved in the ear­ly 1930s, dur­ing the rise of fas­cism in Europe, and sur­pass­ing the heights they reached in the Cold War when Soviet pow­er was at its apex. 

As a result, the world is now approach­ing a strik­ing mile­stone: with­in the next five years, the share of glob­al income held by coun­tries con­sid­ered “not free”—such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—will sur­pass the share held by Western lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. In the span of a quar­ter cen­tu­ry, lib­er­al democ­ra­cies have gone from a posi­tion of unprece­dent­ed eco­nom­ic strength to a posi­tion of unprece­dent­ed eco­nom­ic weakness. 

East Germans climb the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate to cel­e­brate the open­ing of the bor­der, November 1989.

It is look­ing less and less like­ly that the coun­tries in North America and west­ern Europe that made up the tra­di­tion­al heart­land of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy can regain their erst­while suprema­cy, with their demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tems embat­tled at home and their share of the world econ­o­my con­tin­u­ing to shrink. So the future promis­es two real­is­tic sce­nar­ios: either some of the most pow­er­ful auto­crat­ic coun­tries in the world will tran­si­tion to lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, or the peri­od of demo­c­ra­t­ic dom­i­nance that was expect­ed to last for­ev­er will prove no more than an inter­lude before a new era of strug­gle between mutu­al­ly hos­tile polit­i­cal systems. 


Of all the ways in which eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty buys a coun­try pow­er and influ­ence, per­haps the most impor­tant is that it cre­ates sta­bil­i­ty at home. As the polit­i­cal sci­en­tists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi have shown, poor democ­ra­cies often col­lapse. It is only rich democracies—those with a GDP per capi­ta above $14,000 in today’s terms, accord­ing to their findings—that are reli­ably secure. Since the for­ma­tion of the post­war alliance bind­ing the United States to its allies in west­ern Europe, no afflu­ent mem­ber has expe­ri­enced a break­down of demo­c­ra­t­ic rule.

Beyond keep­ing democ­ra­cies sta­ble, eco­nom­ic might also endows them with a num­ber of tools to influ­ence the devel­op­ment of oth­er coun­tries. Chief among these is cul­tur­al clout. During the apogee of Western lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, the United States—and, to a less­er extent, west­ern Europe—was home to the most famous writ­ers and musi­cians, the most watched tele­vi­sion shows and movies, the most advanced indus­tries, and the most pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties. In the minds of many young peo­ple com­ing of age in Africa or Asia in the 1990s, all these things seemed to be of a piece: the desire to share in the unfath­omable wealth of the West was also a desire to adopt its lifestyle, and the desire to adopt its lifestyle seemed to require emu­lat­ing its polit­i­cal system. 

This com­bi­na­tion of eco­nom­ic pow­er and cul­tur­al pres­tige facil­i­tat­ed a great degree of polit­i­cal influ­ence. When the American soap opera Dallas began air­ing in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, for exam­ple, Soviet cit­i­zens nat­u­ral­ly con­trast­ed the impos­si­ble wealth of sub­ur­ban America with their own mate­r­i­al depri­va­tion and won­dered why their eco­nom­ic sys­tem had fall­en so far behind. “We were direct­ly or indi­rect­ly respon­si­ble for the fall of the [Soviet] empire,” Larry Hagman, one of its lead­ing stars, boast­ed years lat­er. It was, he claimed, not Soviet cit­i­zens’ ide­al­ism but rather “good old-fash­ioned greed” that “got them to ques­tion their authority.”

The eco­nom­ic prowess of Western democ­ra­cies could also take on a hard­er edge. They could influ­ence polit­i­cal events in oth­er coun­tries by promis­ing to include them in the glob­al eco­nom­ic sys­tem or threat­en­ing to exclude them from it. In the 1990s and the first decade of this cen­tu­ry, the prospect of mem­ber­ship in orga­ni­za­tions from the European Union to the World Trade Organization pro­vid­ed pow­er­ful incen­tives for demo­c­ra­t­ic reforms in east­ern Europe, Turkey, and parts of Asia, includ­ing Thailand and South Korea. Meanwhile, Western sanc­tions that pre­vent­ed coun­tries from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the glob­al econ­o­my may have helped con­tain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the years fol­low­ing the Gulf War, and they were arguably instru­men­tal in bring­ing about the fall of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic after the war in Kosovo. 

Finally, eco­nom­ic pow­er could eas­i­ly be con­vert­ed into mil­i­tary might. This, too, did much to enhance the glob­al stand­ing of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. It ensured that oth­er coun­tries could not top­ple demo­c­ra­t­ic regimes by force and raised the domes­tic legit­i­ma­cy of such regimes by mak­ing mil­i­tary humil­i­a­tion a rar­i­ty. At the same time, it encour­aged the spread of democ­ra­cy though diplo­mat­ic lever­age and the pres­ence of boots on the ground. Countries that were phys­i­cal­ly locat­ed between a major demo­c­ra­t­ic pow­er and a major author­i­tar­i­an pow­er, such as Poland and Ukraine, were deeply influ­enced by the greater mate­r­i­al and mil­i­tary ben­e­fits offered by an alliance with the West. Former colonies emu­lat­ed the polit­i­cal sys­tems of their erst­while rulers when they gained inde­pen­dence, leav­ing par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies from the islands of the Caribbean to the high­lands of East Africa. And in at least two major cases—Germany and Japan—Western mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion paved the way for the intro­duc­tion of a mod­el demo­c­ra­t­ic constitution. 

In short, it is impos­si­ble to under­stand the sto­ry of the demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­tu­ry with­out tak­ing seri­ous­ly the role that eco­nom­ic pow­er played in spread­ing the ideals of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy around the world. This also means that it is impos­si­ble to make informed pre­dic­tions about the future of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy with­out reflect­ing on the effects that the decline in the rel­a­tive eco­nom­ic clout of the demo­c­ra­t­ic alliance might have in the years and decades to come.


At first glance, the con­clu­sion that afflu­ence breeds sta­bil­i­ty seems to bode well for the future of North America and west­ern Europe, where the insti­tu­tions of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy have tra­di­tion­al­ly been most firm­ly estab­lished. After all, even if their rel­a­tive pow­er declines, the absolute lev­el of wealth in Canada or France is very unlike­ly to fall below the thresh­old at which democ­ra­cies tend to fail. But absolute lev­els of wealth may have been just one of many eco­nom­ic fea­tures that kept Western democ­ra­cies sta­ble after World War II. Indeed, the sta­ble democ­ra­cies of that peri­od also shared three oth­er eco­nom­ic attrib­ut­es that can plau­si­bly help explain their past suc­cess: rel­a­tive equal­i­ty, rapid­ly grow­ing incomes for most cit­i­zens, and the fact that author­i­tar­i­an rivals to democ­ra­cy were much less wealthy.

All these fac­tors have begun to erode in recent years. Consider what has hap­pened in the United States. In the 1970s, the top one per­cent of income earn­ers com­mand­ed eight per­cent of pre­tax income; now, they com­mand over 20 per­cent. For much of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, infla­tion-adjust­ed wages rough­ly dou­bled from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion; for the past 30 years, they have essen­tial­ly remained flat. And through­out the Cold War, the U.S. econ­o­my, as mea­sured by GDP based on pur­chas­ing pow­er par­i­ty, remained two to three times as large as the Soviet econ­o­my; today, it is one-sixth small­er than China’s. 

Of the 15 coun­tries in the world with the high­est per capi­ta incomes, almost two-thirds are nondemocracies.

The abil­i­ty of auto­crat­ic regimes to com­pete with the eco­nom­ic per­for­mance of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies is a par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant and nov­el devel­op­ment. At the height of its influ­ence, com­mu­nism man­aged to rival the ide­o­log­i­cal appeal of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy across large parts of the devel­op­ing world. But even then, it offered a weak eco­nom­ic alter­na­tive to cap­i­tal­ism. Indeed, the share of glob­al income pro­duced by the Soviet Union and its satel­lite states peaked at 13 per­cent in the mid-1950s. Over the fol­low­ing decades, it declined steadi­ly, falling to ten per­cent by 1989. Communist coun­tries also could not pro­vide their cit­i­zens with a lifestyle that would rival the com­fort of the cap­i­tal­ist West. From 1950 to 1989, per capi­ta income in the Soviet Union fell from two-thirds to less than half of the west­ern European lev­el. As the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger put it, play­ing off the title of an essay by Lenin, Soviet social­ism proved to be “the high­est stage of underdevelopment.” 

New forms of author­i­tar­i­an cap­i­tal­ism may even­tu­al­ly suf­fer sim­i­lar types of eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion. So far, how­ev­er, the form of author­i­tar­i­an cap­i­tal­ism that has emerged in Arab Gulf states and East Asia—combining a strong state with rel­a­tive­ly free mar­kets and rea­son­ably secure prop­er­ty rights—is hav­ing a good run. Of the 15 coun­tries in the world with the high­est per capi­ta incomes, almost two-thirds are non­democ­ra­cies. Even com­par­a­tive­ly unsuc­cess­ful author­i­tar­i­an states, such as Iran, Kazakhstan, and Russia, can boast per capi­ta incomes above $20,000. China, whose per capi­ta income was vast­ly low­er as recent­ly as two decades ago, is rapid­ly start­ing to catch up. Although aver­age incomes in its rur­al hin­ter­lands remain low, the coun­try has proved that it can offer a high­er lev­el of wealth in its more urban areas: the coastal region of China now com­pris­es some 420 mil­lion peo­ple, with an aver­age income of $23,000 and grow­ing. In oth­er words, hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple can now be said to live under con­di­tions of “author­i­tar­i­an moder­ni­ty.” In the eyes of their less afflu­ent imi­ta­tors around the world, their remark­able pros­per­i­ty serves as a tes­ta­ment to the fact that the road to pros­per­i­ty no longer needs to run through lib­er­al democracy. 


One of the results of this trans­for­ma­tion has been a much greater degree of ide­o­log­i­cal self-con­fi­dence among auto­crat­ic regimes—and, along with it, a will­ing­ness to med­dle in Western democ­ra­cies. Russia’s attempts to influ­ence the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion have under­stand­ably drawn the most atten­tion over the past two years. But the coun­try has long had an even greater influ­ence on pol­i­tics across west­ern Europe. In Italy and France, for exam­ple, Russia has helped finance extrem­ist par­ties on both sides of the polit­i­cal divide for decades. In oth­er European coun­tries, Russia has enjoyed even more remark­able suc­cess in recruit­ing retired polit­i­cal lead­ers to lob­by on its behalf, includ­ing for­mer German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and for­mer Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer.

The big ques­tion now is whether Russia will remain alone in its attempt to influ­ence the pol­i­tics of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. The answer is almost cer­tain­ly no: its cam­paigns have proved that out­side med­dling by author­i­tar­i­an pow­ers in deeply divid­ed democ­ra­cies is rel­a­tive­ly easy and strik­ing­ly effec­tive, mak­ing it very tempt­ing for Russia’s author­i­tar­i­an peers to fol­low suit. Indeed, China is already step­ping up ide­o­log­i­cal pres­sure on its over­seas res­i­dents and estab­lish­ing influ­en­tial Confucius Institutes in major cen­ters of learn­ing. And over the past two years, Saudi Arabia has dra­mat­i­cal­ly upped its pay­ments to reg­is­tered U.S. lob­by­ists, increas­ing the num­ber of reg­is­tered for­eign agents work­ing on its behalf from 25 to 145.

If the chang­ing bal­ance of eco­nom­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal pow­er between Western democ­ra­cies and author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries makes the for­mer more sus­cep­ti­ble to out­side inter­fer­ence, it also makes it eas­i­er for the lat­ter to spread their val­ues. Indeed, the rise of author­i­tar­i­an soft pow­er is already appar­ent across a vari­ety of domains, includ­ing acad­e­mia, pop­u­lar cul­ture, for­eign invest­ment, and devel­op­ment aid. Until a few years ago, for exam­ple, all of the world’s lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties were sit­u­at­ed in lib­er­al democ­ra­cies, but author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries are start­ing to close the gap. According to the lat­est Times Higher Education sur­vey, 16 of the world’s top 250 insti­tu­tions can be found in non­democ­ra­cies, includ­ing China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. 

Perhaps the most impor­tant form of author­i­tar­i­an soft pow­er, how­ev­er, may be the grow­ing abil­i­ty of dic­ta­to­r­i­al regimes to soft­en the hold that democ­ra­cies once enjoyed over the report­ing and dis­sem­i­na­tion of news. Whereas the Soviet mouth­piece Pravda could nev­er have dreamed of attract­ing a mass read­er­ship in the United States, the clips pro­duced today by state-fund­ed news chan­nels, includ­ing Qatar’s Al Jazeera, China’s CCTV, and Russia’s RT, reg­u­lar­ly find mil­lions of American view­ers. The result is the end of the West’s monop­oly over media nar­ra­tives, as well as an end to its abil­i­ty to main­tain a civic space untaint­ed by for­eign governments. 


During the long peri­od of demo­c­ra­t­ic sta­bil­i­ty, the United States was the dom­i­nant super­pow­er, both cul­tur­al­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly. Authoritarian com­peti­tors such as the Soviet Union quick­ly stag­nat­ed eco­nom­i­cal­ly and became dis­cred­it­ed ide­o­log­i­cal­ly. As a result, democ­ra­cy seemed to promise not only a greater degree of indi­vid­ual free­dom and col­lec­tive self-deter­mi­na­tion but also the more pro­sa­ic prospect of a vast­ly wealth­i­er life. As long as these back­ground con­di­tions held, there seemed to be good rea­son to assume that democ­ra­cy would con­tin­ue to be safe in its tra­di­tion­al strong­holds. There were even plau­si­ble grounds to hope that an ever-grow­ing num­ber of auto­crat­ic coun­tries would join the demo­c­ra­t­ic column. 

A demon­stra­tor out­side the European Parliament, in Brussels, April 2013.

But the era in which Western lib­er­al democ­ra­cies were the world’s top cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic pow­ers may now be draw­ing to a close. At the same time that lib­er­al democ­ra­cies are show­ing strong signs of insti­tu­tion­al decay, author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulists are start­ing to devel­op an ide­o­log­i­cal alter­na­tive in the form of illib­er­al democ­ra­cy, and out­right auto­crats are offer­ing their cit­i­zens a stan­dard of liv­ing that increas­ing­ly rivals that of the rich­est coun­tries in the West. 

It is tempt­ing to hope that Western lib­er­al democ­ra­cies could regain their dom­i­nance. One path toward that end would be eco­nom­ic. The recent eco­nom­ic suc­cess of author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries could prove to be short lived. Russia and Saudi Arabia remain over­ly reliant on income from fos­sil fuels. China’s recent growth has been fueled by a soar­ing debt bub­ble and favor­able demo­graph­ics, and it may end up being dif­fi­cult to sus­tain once the coun­try is forced to delever­age and the effects of an aging pop­u­la­tion hit home. At the same time, the eco­nom­ic per­for­mance of devel­oped Western economies could improve. As the resid­ual effects of the Great Recession wear off and European and North American economies roar back to life, these bas­tions of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy could once again out­pace the mod­ern­ized autocracies. 

Projections about the exact speed and degree of the shift­ing pow­er bal­ance between demo­c­ra­t­ic and author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries should there­fore be tak­en with a large grain of salt. And yet a cur­so­ry glance at Western GDP growth rates for the past three to four decades shows that, due to demo­graph­ic decline and low pro­duc­tiv­i­ty growth, Western economies were stag­nat­ing long before the finan­cial cri­sis. Meanwhile, China and many oth­er emerg­ing economies have large hin­ter­lands that have yet to expe­ri­ence catch-up devel­op­ment, which sug­gests that these coun­tries can con­tin­ue to make con­sid­er­able gains by fol­low­ing their cur­rent growth model.

The era in which Western lib­er­al democ­ra­cies were the world’s top cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic pow­ers may be draw­ing to a close.

Another hope is that emerg­ing democ­ra­cies such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia may come to play a more active role in uphold­ing an alliance of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies and dif­fus­ing their val­ues around the world. But this would require a rad­i­cal change in course. As the polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Marc Plattner has argued, these coun­tries have not his­tor­i­cal­ly thought of “the defense of lib­er­al democ­ra­cy as a sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nent of their for­eign poli­cies.” Following the Russian annex­a­tion of Crimea, for exam­ple, Brazil, India, and South Africa abstained from vot­ing on a res­o­lu­tion in the UN General Assembly that con­demned the move. They have also opposed sanc­tions against Russia. And they have tend­ed to side with auto­crat­ic regimes in seek­ing a greater role for states in reg­u­lat­ing the Internet. 

To make things worse, emerg­ing democ­ra­cies have his­tor­i­cal­ly been much less sta­ble than the sup­pos­ed­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed democ­ra­cies of North America, west­ern Europe, and parts of East Asia. Indeed, recent demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slid­ing in Turkey, as well as signs of demo­c­ra­t­ic slip­page in Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, and the Philippines, rais­es the pos­si­bil­i­ty that some of these coun­tries may become flawed democracies—or revert to out­right author­i­tar­i­an rule—in the com­ing decades. Instead of shoring up the dwin­dling forces of democ­ra­cy, some of these coun­tries may choose to align with auto­crat­ic powers.

By Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa

The End of the Democratic Century