Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Putin spoke during the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum at the China National Convention Center in Beijing on May 14. (Pool photo by Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

For nearly a decade, pundits and academics have sounded the alarm that fraudulently elected or unelected rulers such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez have masterminded a downturn in democratic governance around the globe. Recent articles and books have painted a more nuanced picture, showing that the most shocking claims of “authoritarianism promotion” are not exactly true.

In a new article, I examine trends in democratic breakdown during the post-Cold War period and the 2000s. After combing the data, I found that authoritarianism is not, in fact, on the march. Leaders of nondemocratic states have actively promoted their interests abroad but have not subverted young republics or wrecked vibrant democracies. With respect to global trends, both democratic and nondemocratic regimes have been generally stable, while relatively few countries have been oscillating between regime types. If anything, aggregate trends slightly favor democratization.

How to measure democratic (and autocratic) trends

There have been some major democratic setbacks, of course, such as Mali and Thailand. However, recent military coups and civilian autogolpes (self-coups in which a democratically elected leader imposes undemocratic changes) primarily occurred in countries where democratic rule was already tenuous for domestic reasons. In particular, limited economic development remains a strong correlate of democratic breakdown. More affluent democracies have tended to survive, even amid a supposed autocratic maelstrom.

To see whether autocracy was expanding, I began by using Freedom House to determine whether a country was labeled an “electoral democracy” in the past 16 years. A comprehensive sweep of the data turned up little volatility in the global picture of regimes since 2000. Contrary to grim comparisons with the rise of fascism, this period saw nothing like the “reverse waves” of the interwar and immediate post-World War II years, when dozens of democracies faltered.

In fact, from 2000 to 2015, the total number of electoral democracies fluctuated only between 115 and 125, a relatively narrow range. In 2016 (coded after the article went into production), the tally was 123, three higher than in 2000. Path dependence characterized most of the countries not involved in these shifts: The lion’s share was either stably democratic (about 55 percent of cases) or robustly nondemocratic (roughly 25 percent of cases).

Within that combined 80 percent of countries, there have been some disturbing and high-profile cases of democratic setbacks. But differences in degree do not constitute changes of regimes. A country like Egypt, for example, may exhibit more authoritarianism than 10 years ago. That contrast does not, however, constitute an alarming trend for democracy around the world. The more pivotal cases are those where a meaningful stretch of freely elected representative government is broken by less-than-democratic rule. There are fewer of those cases than expected and their political setbacks seldom display signs of foreign malfeasance.

Dictators aren’t causing democratic breakdown abroad

Digging into the examples of democratic breakdown, there is no evidence that external authoritarian rulers were primarily culpable for the coups, autogolpes and civil wars that disrupted electoral democracies. If Putin and Xi were sowing dictatorship in democratic terrain, we should observe autocracy taking hold in surprising locales, places where local conditions would normally favor civilian-led representative government. Instead, the pattern of shaky democracies manifests mainly in lower-income developing states where political scientists would conventionally predict a high likelihood of democratic breakdown anyway.

Again, I tested this against the Freedom House data. I set a low bar for democratic breakdown: any period of two or more consecutive years of electoral democracy followed by two years or more without electoral democracy. By this inclusive criterion, from 2000 to 2015, there were 31 cases of democratic breakdown across 27 countries. Four countries experienced two breakdowns in this period: Haiti, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau and Thailand. These events no doubt have varied causes, but one simple explanation — unfavorable economic conditions — provides tremendous initial leverage.

Why economies matter more than autocrats

One of the most powerful predictors of whether electoral democracy will persist or collapse is non-oil GDP per capita. Nearly 90 percent of the cases fell below the conventional threshold for self-sustaining democracy of $6,055 GDP per capita in 1985 purchasing parity power dollars. In addition, roughly one-third of the cases had less than $1,000 GDP per capita. At that level of income, the typical duration of an electoral democracy is only about eight years. In such contexts, authoritarian takeovers are to be expected, if not welcomed. 

The correlation between economic conditions and democratic breakdown casts doubt on new claims about authoritarianism promotion even as it invites questions about the process through which democracy collapsed. The article looks closely at where and how global powers such as Russia and China, and regional powers such as Venezuela, have been involved. There again, though, the evidence points to a largely domestic story, in which alleged “black knights” played little to no role.

All of this adds up to a surprisingly upbeat prognosis for democracy. If authoritarian governments were rolling back democracy, all the well-known material difficulties of establishing democracy would be exacerbated by foreign mischief. Instead, it looks like the recent stumbles of some democracies have little to do with autocratic intervention.

The research points to the need for revising narratives that depict democratization as a Manichaean battle among the world’s most powerful states. Viewing the world pragmatically, leaders in Beijing and Moscow — perhaps not unlike their counterparts in Washington and Brussels — may be less concerned about regime types and more interested in the specific policies and figures (democratically chosen or not) that will benefit their countries. The alternative is they have been working to overthrow democracies but doing a lousy job.

Jason Brownlee is a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he researches and teaches about authoritarianism, war and diplomacy. His latest article is “The Limited Reach of Authoritarian Powers,” (Democratization 2017).