Liberal democracy is in trouble. The great wave of democratization that spread across the developing world at the end of the Cold War has long since crested. Today, it is the undertow of dashed expectations that seems to define the fate of modern democracy: political gridlock, economic stagnation, increasing inequality, fraying social contracts, reactionary nationalism, and rising authoritarianism. In their illuminating collection, Diamond and Plattner have assembled leading experts who offer mostly grim assessments of the situation. Diamond, in his own contribution, sifts through the data and reports that the democratic world is in “recession,” sharing the stunning observation that during the past three decades, fully 24 percent of the world’s democracies have broken down. Some have been the victim of military coups, but more often, democracies have experienced a slow degradation of political rights and legal procedures through electoral fraud and the rise of authoritarian leaders. Robert Kagan emphasizes the importance of geopolitical leadership as a stabilizer and promoter of democracy. But such leadership is difficult to provide when the main leader—the United States—is itself so troubled. Francis Fukuyama points to the failure of new democracies to build functioning modern states, which is an essential precondition for high-quality governance. The only good news that the contributors offer is that authoritarian states remain unstable and incapable of mastering the long-term challenges of modernizing societies and economies.
What if the problem is that Western-style democracy simply does not fit the circumstances of non-Western societies? In The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy, Youngs explores the rich but muddled debate on African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern approaches to democracy. In his fascinating accounts of ideas, thinkers, and political movements in those regions, Youngs reveals a great diversity of alternative democratic forms. Some edge toward illiberalism, upholding political competition but abridging individual rights. Others resemble social democracy, in which rights are defined in terms of group solidarity and social justice. Still others are little more than cloaks for authoritarian agendas. If democracy has a future, Youngs concludes, it will feature a great variety of participatory mechanisms and forms of community. But, he persuasively argues, any successful variation on the democratic theme will need to maintain a deep commitment to individual rights and limited government.