Is Democracy in Danger?

Opinions on Debatable Issues #44

With the escalation of Russian aggression against Ukraine, many raise the concern that the world’s democracies might be in danger of being overrun by authoritarians. According to Merriam-Webster, overrun means “to defeat decisively and occupy the positions or to invade”. Therefore, this concern stands true if authoritarian countries/regimes are going to take control of some currently democratic countries and pose serious threats to many major democracies like the UK, and the US.  

Journal of Democracy

In my opinion, this is not the case both from historical and futuristic perspectives. Since the 20th century, the world has been going through a process of democratization, which is a shift of political system towards election-oriented authority and switching from rule by law to rule of law. We have witnessed 3 waves of democracy. According to Huntington, “the first “slow” wave of the 19th century, a second wave after World War II, and a third wave beginning in the mid-1970s in South Europe, followed by Latin America and Asia”. According to Encyclopedia, the first wave happened in the 19th century with many gained suffrage in the US, France, Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy, Argentina, and a few others before 1900. Then, after the breakup of the Russian, German, Austrian and Ottoman empires in 1918, 29 democracies were established worldwide. 

According to the US state department, the Second wave began following the Allied victory in World War II and crested nearly 20 years later in 1962 with 36 recognized democracies in the world. Though this number dropped to 30 in 50 years, democracy is still the more prevalent type of regime. The third wave began in 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal and Spanish transition to democracy in the late 1970s and Latin America in the 1980s, Asia Pacific countries (Philippines, South Korea) from 1986 to 1988, Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sub-Saharan Africa beginning in 1989. Those trends show that democracy is gradually strengthening. Some setbacks were real as some countries reverse back to an authoritarian regime, but the general trajectory is optimistic. The current Russian Ukraine is resembling the beginning of WWII. Putin claimed the Russian military seeks “demilitarization and denazification”. With this crafted premise, just like Hitler did to purify his race and ethnicity, Russia invaded Ukraine and have taken over Kerson. And similar to the Alliance forces, European countries are more united than ever in the 21st century to sanction and fend off Russia’s aggression. If this conflict escalates into WWIII, this trajectory implies another victory of democracy as Russia does not have sufficient economic support, human resources, and long-term military advantage against European countries and the US. Of course, that is not the only possible development. As we’ve seen, negotiations are happening between Russia and Ukraine, and the US government has said not to send an army to fight on the ground. If that is the case and if Ukraine ends up unable to join NATO, Democracy remains to be where it is a year ago. It just did not expand to more countries but it certainly is not threatened by authoritarians. 


Though Putin indeed wants to recreate the glory of the Soviet Unit, which means weakening democracy, this is an unlikely goal as NATO, which has a collective defense that combines the military capability of the US, UK, and many other countries, are more powerful than Russia. The US has an overwhelming advantage over Russia in conventional forces, according to Russian military analyst Aleksandr Golts. This advantage intensifies as NATO complies to its Article 5, ‘which holds that any attack on a NATO member country is to be considered an attack on all its members”. 

Digital media also facilitates democracy as it allows greater publicity and transparency in most instances. In its essence, democracy gains authority through representing the interests of the people and making them satisfied with their freedom and protection by the law. However, the authoritarian regime relies on force and violence to instill fear among citizens to gain authority. The former is fueled by transparency and flourishes when accountability is abundant. Digital media, which spreads information via video, text, images, and sound more quickly than anything else in human history makes actions of the government not just visible to the citizens but also international communities. It is a great tool for democracy to prevail since it prevents the abuse of power and keeps citizens informed and engaging. Yet it is poison for an authoritarian regime, who conveys its brainwashing messages through state-controlled channels. The prevalence of digital media makes censorship and punishment no longer enough to limit and manipulate the mind of the people, who can easily see the brutal truths and violence perpetrated by their government. Though fear might deter some, grievance and hate will ultimately accumulate to the point that revolution breaks out, calling for more freedom and democracy. Or at least, protest against brutality occur. 


For instance, despite Russia’s authoritarian rule and Putin’s dictatorship in practice, the Russian people are taking the risk of getting arrested, threatened, or beaten to protest against the invasion of Ukraine. Aljazeera said the Rights watchdog reported more than 5,000 demonstrators detained across the country since President Putin launched the war on Ukraine. According to The Time, in addition to street protests, tens of thousands of people in recent days have endorsed open letters and signed petitions condemning the invasion. Celebrities and famous TV personalities spoke out against it, too. One online petition, launched hours after Putin announced the attack, has gathered over 930,000 signatures in four days, becoming one of the most widely supported petitions in Russia in recent years. No matter how glorious the government propagandizes their military operation to be, the people can see videos of the battleground, civilians dying on social media, and independent news sources. 

Some see China as a threat to democracy. Yet, according to the New York Times’ analysis of China’s role in the world, it is in China’s favor to not challenge democratic nations. China has risen to the world’s superpowers mainly through its economy. Conflicts, wars, and economic sanctions gravely undermine China’s development. Also, China lacks the necessary military power and weaponry to directly confront NATO. Thus, despite Russia’s aggression and its call for support, China did not openly support Russia. It cannot afford to make dozens of enemies. Also, the interconnectivity of China’s economy with Ukraine and other democratic countries makes it super unwise for China to back Russia and join this authoritarian expansion. Therefore, China does not pose a serious threat to the world’s democracy in the short run. 

In short, though Russia’s expansionist envisions and actions seem daunting or at least concerning, it is not likely that democracy will decline under the pressure. Rather, the “common enemy” might provide a compelling incentive to unite democratic nations, strengthening the liberal spirit.

International Institute of Islamic Thought


  • Peter Stearns, Encyclopedia of World History (6th ed. 2001), pp. 413–801. For a narrative history, J. A. S. Grenville, A history of the world in the 20th century (1994) pp. 3–254. 
  • “What Is Democracy? – Democracy’s Third Wave”. U.S. State Department. Retrieved 2007-08-07. 
  • Schenoni, Luis and Scott Mainwaring (2019). “Hegemonic Effects and Regime Change in Latin America”. Democratization. 26 (2): 269–287. doi:10.1080/13510347.2018.1516754. S2CID 150297685.

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