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The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on its way to Syria: Has democracy reached its high-water mark? (©Digitalglobe/Scapeware3D/Getty Images)

The spread of liberal democracy around the globe over the past four decades is rightly understood by defenders of political and economic liberty to be among the most profoundly positive developments achieved by humanity in the modern era.

As Emmanuel Kant predicted in his celebrated essay, “Perpetual Peace” (1795), a world dominated by sovereign liberal democracies dramatically reduces the risk of war among nations and is the form of government least likely to inflict violence on its own citizens or degenerate into civil war.

Economically too, liberal democracy is far superior to the alternatives, and historically economic and political freedoms have tended to go hand in hand. A few authoritarian regimes may brandish double-digit growth rates for a few years, but in the long run democracies grow more and they do so more consistently. In fact, democratisation increases GDP per capita by about 20 per cent in the long run, because it encourages trade and investment, increases schooling, improves public goods provision and reduces social unrest. No democracy has ever experienced famine. Conversely, measures curtailing free enterprise, trade and finance — so popular with demagogues and tyrants — almost invariably end up in tears. Just ask the people of Venezuela.

And yet we not only tend to take for granted the peace, freedom, and prosperity brought to us by the global spread of liberal democracy over the past decades, but demonstrate an astonishing lack of gratitude or commitment to its preservation.

This is not new. As late as the mid-1970s, many Western experts argued that liberal democracy was done for. Some even relished its demise. For them liberal democracy was a fickle, obsolete model of government ill-suited for all but a few, and bound to wither away before the forward-marching forces of central planning and authoritarian efficiency. In 1975, for example, the American sociologist and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that liberal democracy “increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19th century: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there, and which may even serve well enough for special circumstances, but which simply has no relevance to the future. It was where the world was, not where it is going.”

Moynihan was dead wrong at the time. At almost exactly the moment democracy was being written off, it began an ascendance that rapidly transformed it from an endangered species to the predominant form of government across large swaths of the world, and an even wider human aspiration. On April 25, 1974, the Portuguese Revolution of the Carnations overthrew the longest- standing dictatorship in southern Europe. Portugal’s domestic revolution heralded the launch of a global one. Democratisation quickly spread to the rest of the Iberian Peninsula and Greece, then in the 1980s to Latin America, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and, with the demise of Soviet Communism at the turn of the 1990s, to Central and Eastern Europe and more countries in Africa and Asia.

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January 18th, 2017
4:01 PM
I agree wholeheartedly with Lorna. This article is somewhat confused. Firstly followers of Trumpism (whatever that is)are not turning their backs on the values and institutions underpinning liberal democracy, although the author does not actually specify what these are, but simply voted for the wrong candidate in his eyes. Whatever you may think of Trump he won a free and fair election, and just because he panders to certain voters fears to suggest he is a danger to democracy is a falsehood. Secondly Amichai seems to then go on to conflate the Trump voters with a growing number of younger citizens 'more willing to entertain the notion of living under authoritarian rule'. I am pretty sure these young people are not Trump supporters, but have grown up being told by the left that the 'gentle authoritarianism' of institutions such as the EU are a better form of government than liberal democracy within a sovereign state. People are voting outside the 'system' because they no longer trust the political elite and are sick of being patronised by them if the only alternative is a Trump of a party of the extreme right or left then that's where they will turn.

December 1st, 2016
8:12 PM
Good comment Lorna

Lorna Salzman
November 26th, 2016
2:11 AM
A close comprehensive look at the history of democracy, with only one flaw: depicting opposition to 'free trade" and immigration as regressive anti democratic populism. But this is typical of liberals (including George Soros) and institutions like the EU who cling to their own kind of "gentle"authoritarianism" in order to promote what are actually anti democratic policies as well as trying to persuade us that opposition to unlimited unvetted immigration is pure xenopohbia and racism. It is this arrogance that pushes people into the arms of the populists and right wing. The author of this piece has regrettably joined forces with the neo liberals in denigrating genuine public concern over terrorism and globalization policies written by and for the corporate elite. The Democrats lost the election in the US because in the end they couldn't fool the American electorate about what they stood for.

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