A military junta seized power in Myanmar in February, triggering ongoing popular protests met by violent force, U.S. sanctions, and now a special summit on Saturday by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Meanwhile, an increasingly autocratic China is cracking down harshly on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, arresting 36 activists in March and sentencing nine of them to prison in mid-April. Thailand’s military-dominated government proposed a new law this month to exert greater control over civil-society organizations. Across Southeast Asia, the resurgence of authoritarian rule only makes it more likely that Freedom House will in 2021 record a decline in its global measures of democracy for a 16th consecutive year. Is democracy failing in the world?

According to Christian Welzel—a professor of political science at Leuphana University in Germany, the former president of the World Values Survey Association, and the author of a recent study of authoritarianism’s long-term prospects for the Journal of Democracy—it isn’t. Even though we’re seeing multiple examples in Southeast Asia of a trend toward expanding authoritarianism and contracting democracy, this trend appears to Welzel to be a predictable step backward in the course of a much longer and more durable arc of democratic progress. Data from values surveys reveal that people worldwide express more and more support for emancipative values: freedom, individual choice, and equality of opportunity. And as Welzel sees it, when younger people adopt these values, they tend to keep them throughout their lives.


Michael Bluhm: What’s really going on in Southeast Asia?

Christian Welzel: We have a wave of “autocratization” right now in the world. There’s a democratic recession. Over the last 120 years, we clearly had a democratic ascension—an upward rise. But it was always happening in waves, so there were setbacks. You go two steps forward and one step back. And now we are in a cycle where we have a step-back period.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in