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The Puzzle of Liberal Democracy

Though more than 60% of the world’s countries are electoral democracies, the majority of these regimes fail to provide equal protection under the law. Whatever the reason for the emergence of democracies that uphold property, political, and civil rights at the same time, we should not be surprised by how uncommon they are.

PRINCETON – Nearly two decades ago, the political commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote a prophetic article called “The Rise of the Illiberal Democracy,” in which he worried about the rise of popular autocrats with little regard for the rule of law and civil liberties. Governments may be elected in free and fair elections, he wrote, and yet routinely violate their citizens’ basic rights.

Since Zakaria’s piece, illiberal democracies have become more the norm than the exception. By Freedom House’s count, more than 60% of the world’s countries are electoral democracies – regimes in which political parties compete and come to power in regularly scheduled elections – up from around 40% in the late 1980s. But the majority of these democracies fail to provide equal protection under the law.

Typically, it is minority groups (ethnic, religious, linguistic, or regional) that bear the brunt of illiberal policies and practices. But government opponents of all stripes run the risk of censorship, persecution, or wrongful imprisonment.

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