Samuel Huntington

Session 9
Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave, 1991, pp. 1-108
pp. 1-30
Chapter 1: What? (pp. 1-30)
Summary of the summary: Huntington explains his definition of democracy, traces the historical
process of modern democratization and highlights some of the benefits of democracy.
The meaning of democracy. Modern usage of “democracy” dates back to revolutionary
upheavals in Western society at the end of the 18th century. In the late 20th century, three general
approaches have emerged in debates over the meaning of democracy:
Democracy as a source of government authority
Democracy as the purpose served by government
Democracy as the procedures for constituting government
Serious problems of ambiguity arise when democracy is defined as the source of authority or as
the purpose of government, so a procedural definition is used in this study. In other words, the
“how?” of democracy is more important than the “why?” or “to what end?”
This view—that studies of democracy should focus on empirical, descriptive, institutional and
procedural definitions as opposed to idealistic definitions—won out from the 1970s onward. In
this tradition, we can define a 20th century political system as democratic “to the extent that its
most powerful collective decision makers are selected through fair, honest and periodic elections
in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually all the adult population is
eligible to vote.” This definition also implies that citizens enjoy the civil liberties (ie speech,
assembly, etc) needed to facilitate this electoral process.
This definition provides benchmarks by which we can better measure the development of a
democracy against other democracies or itself over time, ie how many people vote, how many
parties share power, is any group systematically excluded from power.
Several addition points on defining democracy in this way:
1. Democracy defined in terms of elections is necessarily minimal. A broader definition of
democracy—responsible government, informed and rational deliberation, effective citizen
control of policy, equal participation and power of all groups—is weak in this context
because “fuzzy norms do not yield useful analysis.”
2. It is important by this definition that citizens elect the real decision makers in a society,
not the freely chosen puppets of some external force, ie the military or another
3. Systems that qualify as democratic may vary significantly in their stability—the stability
of a system differs from the nature of the system.
4. Analysts disagree over whether democracy should be seen as a binary or continuous
variable; when you have a clear definition, one can treat it as a binary variable and avoid
the problems associated with weighting the characteristics of democracy as a continuous
5. Nondemocratic regimes do not have electoral competition and widespread voting
The Waves of Democratization
There have been three waves of democratization, the first two followed by limited reversals of that
First wave (1828-1926). This wave had its roots in the American and French revolutions. Two
criteria marked this first development: 50% of males were eligible to vote and a responsible
executive who had to maintain the support of a majority of voters or of an elected parliament.
First reverse wave (1922-42). This period was characterized by a shift away from democracy
toward traditional authoritarian or new ideologically-driven, mass-based totalitarian regimes.
Second wave (1943-62). Allied occupation post-WWII encouraged democratization in former
Axis powers, with exception of Soviet influence in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the
beginning of the end of Western colonial rule produced a number of new states with democratic
Second reverse wave (1958-75). Especially in Latin America, political development in the early
1960s took on an authoritarian cast. The decolonization of Africa led to the largest multiplication
of authoritarian governments in history. One third of the working democracies in 1958 had
become authoritarian by the 1970s.
Third wave (1974-). Democratic regimes start to replace authoritarian and considerable
liberalization occurs in authoritarian regimes. This takes place in every region of the world and is
intensified by the fall of Communism.
This analysis suggests a two-steps forward, one-step back record of success for democratization.
The issues of democracy
Social scientists have tried to assess the importance of democratization. The big issues are the
extent and permanence of democracy in nations and in the world. “Its form of government is not
the only important thing about a country, nor probably even the most important thing.” But
democracy still matters because:
The correlation between democracy and the existence of individual liberty is extremely
Democracies, while unruly, are rarely violent.
Democracies do not fight wars against other democracies.
As the world’s premier democracy, it benefits the United States for the rest of the world
to be democratic.