A longtime tyrannical leader is deposed by the military after massive street protests led by educated, middle-class liberals. An election is held and a new leader, supported by the working classes, wins. But that leader soon shows autocratic tendencies of his own, so the people, again steered by the educated classes, return to the streets and, in the name of democracy, demand that the existing democratically-elected leader be removed. The military again complies.

This outlines the current state of affairs in Egypt. But as Joshua Kurlantzick shows in his recent book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, similar scenarios have played out in recent years in such disparate countries as Thailand, Honduras, and the Philippines. The question is whether this pattern–street protests, followed by elections, followed by more street protests, followed (presumably) by more elections—represents fitful progress towards stable democracy or a destabilizing loop that leads back, eventually, to tyranny.

In the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the stars appeared to be aligned for conspicuous gains for democracy and human rights. Peoples whose governments had for decades denied basic freedoms suddenly enjoyed the real possibility of building systems that were based on the rule of law and respected civil and political rights. Figures like Václav Havel made the transformation from communist-era dissident to president of a free Czechoslovakia (and then of the Czech Republic) and became a globally recognized symbol for his indefatigable civic spirit and commitment to making democratic values work in practice. Meanwhile, the collapse of Soviet communism meant that there was no serious, systemic ideological alternative to liberal democracy. At that unique time, the United States and the European Union operated on uncontested terrain when it came to supporting the development of democracy.

The implosion of communism in Europe and the emergence in its wake of democratic systems in the post-Soviet sphere are only part of the story of that period’s democratizing surge; in the decade and a half leading up to the fall of the Wall, other parts of the world had begun moving in the direction of freedom. Latin America’s military dictatorships gave way to elected civilian governments in countries such as Argentina and Chile. Critical democratic advances were made in Asia, including in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. In southern Europe, the transition from clerical fascist (Spain, Portugal) and military (Greece) regimes to parliamentary democracy was achieved.

Democracy’s Third Wave therefore represented a period of democratic ascension that strongly suggested more of the same was to come. As it turns out, however, the further development of democracy has encountered a good deal more resistance. A diverse array of challenges has emerged that is directly testing earlier, more optimistic assumptions.

In his book, Kurlantzick seeks to diagnose the “democracy recession” and to offer policy prescriptions in order to more effectively combat the democratic downturn.

Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is well suited for this assessment. A scholar who devotes serious attention to issues of democratic development and governance, Kurlantzick has been a correspondent at Time and the New Republic and has given particular attention to Southeast Asia.

Kurlantzick identifies a range of factors hindering democratic progress, especially for developing countries, including weak institutions, shoddy economic growth, and graft. As suggested in the book’s provocative subtitle, the role of the middle class is pivotal for enabling democracy’s birth. But in the absence of established political parties and institutions of civil society, newly-elected democratic leaders can quickly become imperious—freezing out the opposition, censuring the press, exploiting religious and sectarian grievances for political gain. They also have a tendency to challenge the perks and privileges of urban, educated elites in favor of poor rural majorities. This combination of autocracy and populism can lead to the same educated classes that previously championed democracy to turn against democratically-elected governments. Kurlantzick himself witnessed such a cycle play out in Thailand in 2006, where the Thai military deposed an elected but illiberal president, Thaksin Shinawatra, after massive street demonstrations by a middle class that had earlier championed democracy via similar protests. While Kurlantzick’s contention that a discernible, widespread revolt of the middle class against democracy has taken root is a debatable point (by his own admission, many newly-democratic countries, such as Indonesia, have been spared such middle-class revolts), the more fundamental question of ordinary citizens’ satisfaction—or dissatisfaction—with democracy, especially in nascent democratic settings, is one that needs more dedicated attention.

Then there is the question of the “China Model,” which Kurlantzick delves into in some detail. China, too, experienced political and social ferment as its Soviet communist peers began to implode. But following the ruthless Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), devised policies that emphasized modernization and the role of economic growth and permitted a degree of personal liberty in the economic and social spheres of life, while maintaining strict political controls. With its prodigious economic growth, the CCP’s co-opting of the business class, and modernized propaganda and media management techniques—including cutting-edge Internet censorship—China’s authoritarian capitalist system has emerged as the most formidable challenger to democratic hegemony.

As Kurlantzick notes,

In recent years it is not just autocrats who have been learning from Beijing. China’s soft power offensive has given it increasing leverage over democracies in the developing world, and has made Beijing’s model of development more attractive to leaders even in freer nations, places where there has already been some degree of democratic transition. Increasingly, leaders and even average citizens of young democracies like Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal, Venezuela and Nicaragua, or Bolivia—countries where popular support for democracy has weakened—have taken an interest in China’s model, and as China’s model becomes more influential, it can weaken democracy in these countries, since it brings with it growing state control over both economics and politics.

Kurlantzick details the wide-ranging investments the Chinese government is making to exert influence beyond its borders. These include hundreds of “Confucius Institutes” at universities in developing and developed worlds alike, multibillion-dollar investments in international media platforms, and lucrative investments and aid packages to a host of developing countries. Kurlantzick asserts that “autocracies seem to be gaining not only strength but legitimacy.”

China has clearly gained strength and is staking a new, more influential role for itself. Upon closer examination, however, the idea of the China model that has taken hold in the public imagination may be more attractive than the model itself. China’s massive and corrosive “corruption epidemic,” as Kurlantzick describes it, will be impossible to rein in given the authorities’ systematic repression of the news media and civil society. The CCP’s tight grip on the judiciary hobbles ambitions to create an authentic rule of law. Stellar investigative reporting by the New York Times earlier this year, related the fantastic wealth accumulated through graft by China’s political elite.

The impunity the CCP enjoys in this regard increasingly touches a sensitive nerve in Chinese society and is contributing to what China scholar Andrew Nathan has recently suggested may be a critical tipping point in China’s current trajectory of development. The government in China, like that in Russia, heavily relies on performance legitimacy. As the performance in delivering economic goods loses its luster, these governments may well confront a crisis of political legitimacy sooner than many observers imagine.

But the China model alone cannot explain the current challenges to democracy. Kurlantzick points out that the debilitating economic crisis in the United States and Europe has caused the world’s advanced democracies to turn inward and has raised questions about the credibility of the democracies. The role of money in politics continues to erode confidence in aspects of democratic governance. And the landscape for advancing democracy abroad is much tougher today than during the 1990s.

To address these challenges, Kurlantzick offers ten prescriptions that he believes would help improve the prospects of developing countries to achieve democratic consolidation, including more effective and realistic management of expectations in young and aspiring democracies, crafting approaches that can retain the support of the middle class, and devising more effective ways to help these countries combat corruption. All sensible ideas.

While the points made in the book are generally accurate, in making an important argument for increased flexibility in the programming of U.S.-supported democracy assistance to help meet diverse challenges, Kurlantzick mistakenly refers to the National Endowment for Democracy (where I work) as a “contractor.” The NED is a private, nonprofit foundation that is congressionally funded. The book also alludes to the failure of the European Union to create a “European Endowment for Democracy,” in essence Europe’s analog to the NED. Since Democracy in Retreat went to print, the EU finally established the European Endowment, which should begin its democracy support work in the not-too-distant future. On the whole, however, the book puts forward a valuable set of ideas for supporting democratic development.

At a time when policy makers have tended to place support for democracy on a back burner, Kurlantzick reminds us that the stakes are very high for countries seeking to consolidate democratic systems. In his concluding chapter he writes, “When it comes to indicators of societies’ health and well-being, democracies that succeed in consolidating their political transitions fare better on all of them, over the long term, than do their autocratic peers.” The stakes are high for the United States and its allies, too. Further democratic regression and a shrinking number of democracies would have negative implications beyond any single country’s borders. It would shape, for instance, the treatment of human rights issues in international and regional bodies. Alternatively, if these countries make their way into the ranks of consolidated democracies, they could tip the global balance and reinvigorate democratic governance.

Kurlantzick’s book provides a timely and thoughtful examination of the serious and complex threats to the achievement of democratically accountable systems that are best able to deliver for their citizens, safeguard human rights, and be the best partners for the U.S. and its allies.

Christopher Walker

Christopher Walker is the executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. He can be followed on Twitter: @Walker_CT.