Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics
Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks
Norris, Pippa. "Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP17-012, March 2017.
The predominantly sunny end-of-history optimism about democratic progress, evident in the late-1980s and early-1990s following the fall of the Berlin Wall, has turned rapidly into a more pessimistic zeitgeist. What helps us to understand whether we have reached an inflection point—and whether even long-established European and American democracies are in danger of backsliding?
This essay draws on Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation which theorizes that consolidation occurs when three conditions are met: Culturally, the overwhelming majority of people believe that democracy is the best form of government, so that any further reforms reflect these values and principles. Constitutionally, all the major actors and organs of the state reflect democratic norms and practices. Behaviorally, no significant groups actively seek to overthrow the regime or secede from the state.
Evidence throws new light on the contemporary state of each of Linz and Stepan’s conditions in Western democracies. Culturally the data suggests that, when compared with their parents and grandparents, Millennials in Anglo-American democracies express weaker support for democratic values, but this is not a consistent pattern across Western democracies and post-industrial societies. It is also a life-cycle rather than a generational effect. Constitutionally, trends from estimates by Freedom House and related indicators provide no evidence that the quality of institutions protecting political rights and civil liberties deteriorated across Western democracies from 1972 to end-2016. Most losses occurred under hybrid regimes. Behaviorally, the most serious contemporary threats to Western liberal democracies arise from twin forces that each, in different ways, seek to undermine the regime: sporadic and random terrorist attacks on domestic soil, which damage feelings of security, and the rise of populist-authoritarian forces, which feed parasitically upon these fears.