When we study why countries become democratic, we think about trends in democratization in waves.  As originally outlined by Sam Huntington, there are three big waves of democratization.

The first was not so much a wave as maybe a rising tide and was the democratization of some of Europe and the United States.  As Robert Dahl describes in Polyarchy, this was a process that extended from the 1850s to the 1920s and focused on the extension of the right to vote – the expansion of participation – in these countries.  The clearest example is the case of the UK, where successive pieces of legislation removed legal and financial barriers to vote first among the male population, then extended the vote to all citizens.  This wave ended in the 1920s with the failure of democracy in countries like Germany and the emergence of a wide variety of authoritarian regimes.

The second wave began with the imposition (or re-imposition) of democracy in European countries at the end of WWII and culminated in the anti-colonial independence movements of the 1960s, most notably in Africa and South Asia.  When former colonies obtained their independence, they held democratic founding elections, typically won by parties representing the leaders of those popular independence movements. Unfortunately, many of those leaders and parties then changed laws and constitutions to allow them to stay in power indefinitely, leading to the second contraction of democracy around the world.

The third wave technically began with the democratization of Spain, Portugal, and much of South America in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, but is most clearly shown with the fall of communism and institution of democracy in eastern Europe from 1989-1992.  It was also at this time that most authoritarian countries began holding multi-party elections and “competitive authoritarianism” became the most common type of dictatorship.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the end of communism marked the “End of History” – essentially arguing that liberal democracy would become the main form of government around the world.  While that didn’t happen, it is certainly true that the end of communism marked the end of a lot of the previous trends in democratization.  

While some people talk about a fourth wave of democratization reflecting current trends, it is more common to discuss specific regional trends.  “Color” revolutions in countries such as Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia overturned several authoritarian leaders in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s.  The Arab Spring did the same in the Middle East in 2010 and 2011.  These recent transitions have met with mixed success, sending some countries on more liberal paths and others into cycles of repression and liberalization.

While many countries have transitioned to democracy outside of these “waves,” we use them to organize our thinking for two reasons:  They highlight important historical trends in how and why countries become democratic and they demonstrate that democratization in one country can have “spillover” effects, as citizens in other countries see the impact protests have in their neighbors.