Democracy – Inevitable? Or Not?

The first of a two-part series in which Samuel Steinbock* discusses whether democratisation is inevitable, once a society reaches a certain level of development.

In the 20th century there is perhaps no more powerful, energising idea than that of democracy. We live in an era where there are few states that don’t call themselves democratic, from those countries that broke up the former USSR to the ‘People’s Republic’ of China. Whether we describe all these nations as democracies, however, is another issue.

Whether democracy becomes inevitable once a certain level of development is reached in society has been much debated amongst political scholars, ranging from Fukuyama’s argument that we have reached the end of history, due to there being no alternative to capitalism and liberal democracy, to Huntington casting a critical eye over the ‘third wave’ of democracy and stating that democratisation is not inevitable. Given recent events and the abyss of authoritarian regimes, specifically in economically prosperous countries of the Middle East, it may be hard to see democratisation as inevitable even with a certain level of development.

The issue of ‘what is democracy’ is a contentious one with many different opinions, from Giddens “democracy isn’t all or nothing” assertion that there can be different forms, as well as different levels, of democracy and democratisation, to Held and Dahl’s postulates on linkage to ideas like the moral development of individuals, the achievement of common good, the respect of diversity and the efficiency of decisions made. Democracy is a term often interchangeable with freedom, and one of Dahl’s perceived main desirable concequences of democracy being wider general freedom.

The Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit categorises countries into full democracies, flawed democracies,Democracy hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes, with the five sections on which questions for this survey are based being the election process, civil rights, government capability, participation and political culture. But if democracatisation equals merely a growth of democracy, and democracy is be based on these measures, then even the smallest growth in one of these five conditions in a country is considered democratisation.

So it’s important to come up with a definition of democratisation that then makes it clearer what constitutes it. Inglehart et al give three different clear definitions: firstly, the introduction of a democracy in a non democratic regime, secondly, the deepening of the democratic qualities in a given democracy, and thirdly, the survival of democracy. The first quality is easiest to measure and the one that’s looked for most. The second quality is sustainability, so later, therefore, I will address to what extent it is possible, with increased development, for countries to experience a Huntington-style “reverse wave” retarding the process of democratisation and going back to an authoritarian or non-democratic regime. The third quality is measured in much the same way as the second: Huntington argues that a democracy needs to pass two ‘free’ elections before it can guarantee that democratisation was succesful. Democratisation means a discrete shift from non-democracy to democracy: therefore a relative shift within a dictatorship yet which fails to reach democracy is not democratisation.

It is even more difficult to decide how to not only define development, but also how to measure it: measuring simply economic development is too narrow.  When deciding a measurement, the dimensions taken into consideration are; life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living. This makes the Human Development Index (HDI) a both familiar and appropriate choice to measure development as it covers all of these values, and therefore development as a whole. It means that standard of living is taken into consideration as much as economic growth.

But the hypothesis that democratisation is inevitable given a certain level of development (“inevitable” being a certainty) implies that at a certain level of development, possibly a specific HDI score, democratisation takes place. Yet Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) both score “very high human development” in the official HDI rankings, with Russia scoring “high” on human development. The problem with this is that, in The Economist’s Democracy Index, none of these three countries ranks above “hybrid regime”, with Russia and the UAE both scoring as “authoritarian regimes”. This must call into question the argument that democratisation becomes inevitable once development reaches a certain level.

There are other measures of democracy: Freedom House on Russia states that the press is ‘not free’, with the Internet only ‘partly free’ thereby leading to the country having overall status as ‘not free’ and therefore undemocratic. The United Arab Emirates shares this reading, with the press ‘not free’ and the country as well therefore ‘not free’ overall and thereby undemocratic. Singapore achieved the result of ‘partly free’ but its press is still ‘not free’ and the country is given an overall ranking of undemocratic. These results share The Economist’s Democracy Index’s results with Singapore being ‘more democratic’ than both The UAE and Russia but yet still none are considered democratic despite their high rating on the HDI, confirming the results of democracy not being inevitable with high development.

*Samuel is a student at King’s College London, studying International Politics. He is pro-Israel, pro the political right, and a member of the Conservative Party. He tweets as @thebock69

In the second part of this two-part series, I’ll go on to look at how the argument stands up against political trends such as the Arab Spring.


  1. . “Democracy is a term often interchangeable with freedom,”

    I would dispute that assertion.

    ISTM that democracy is incompatible with freedom … it is the polar opposite … since individual’ liberties cannot long exist in any system which makes collective decisions.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here