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Is Liberal Democracy in Retreat?

Although democracy has spread from one country to more than 100 countries in the space of two centuries, it has also suffered setbacks along the way, and continues to face resistance to this day. Democracy, after all, is not inevitable, and yet it remains the best system of governance compared to the known alternatives.

CAMBRIDGE – Though some countries (and cities) are faring worse than others, the world is becoming safer and more prosperous overall – hard as that may be to believe. This is especially true of democratic countries, which stand out for their higher rates of economic growth and higher levels of wellbeing. Democracies also tend to have fewer wars and genocides, virtually no famines, and happier, healthier, better-educated citizens.

The good news is that a sizeable majority of the world’s population now lives in a democracy. Yet in some of them – not least the United States – the rise of populist, nativist political parties and leaders with authoritarian tendencies has created an unmistakable sense of pessimism, leading many to fear for the future of democracy. Are people right to be worried?

Democratic Sea Change

Many people forget that liberal democracy is a relatively new idea. Most of its core precepts – the separation of powers, human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and assembly, pluralistic media, and free, fair, and competitive elections – did not genuinely take hold until the twentieth century. Until a few hundred years ago, most societies had swung between anarchy and various forms of tyranny.