JoD at 25 Years: "Democracy’s Third Wave" by Samuel P. Huntington

Forum News

In anticipation of celebrating the 25th anniversary issue in January 2015, the Journal of Democracy will revisit five of the most influential articles on the study of democratization ever published in the Journal.

#1: “Democracy’s Third Wave” by Samuel P. Huntington

Before renowned political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published his book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, he wrote an article summarizing his analysis in the Spring 1991 issue of the Journal of Democracy. Reflecting on the unprecedented number of democratic transitions that occurred after the breakdown of authoritarian regimes and the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union, he raised critical questions about the nature of these changes and their implications for the future:

“Between 1974 and 1990, at least 30 countries made transitions to democracy, just about doubling the number of democratic governments in the world. Were these democratizations part of a continuing and ever-expanding ‘global democratic revolution’ that will reach virtually every country in the world? Or did they represent a limited expansion of democracy, involving for the most part its reintroduction into countries that had experienced it in the past?”

In addition to identifying the forces that contributed to the third wave of democratization, Huntington reminded readers that the first and second waves of democratization earlier in the twentieth century later were partly rolled back by “reverse waves.” Thus a significant part of his essay was devoted to anticipating developments that could threaten the democratic progress brought by the third wave, including “the weakness of democratic values among elite groups and the general public,” “severe economic setbacks,” “the breakdown of law and order resulting from terrorism or insurgency,” and “intervention or conquest by a nondemocratic foreign power.”

As the Journal of Democracy looks back on democracy’s trajectory over the past quarter-century, it is clear that formidable challenges remain ahead. Nearly 25 years later, the forces that Huntington explored in this foundational article still have the potential to shape the future of democracy around the world.

About the Journal of Democracy

The Journal of Democracy is the world’s leading publication on the theory and practice of democracy. Since its inaugural issue appeared in January 1990, it has engaged both activists and intellectuals in critical discussions of the problems and prospects of democracy around the world. Today, the Journal is at the center of debate on the major social, political, and cultural challenges that confront both emerging and established democracies. The Journal is published by Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies.