4.2.1 How recent is democracy?

Back to 4.1.3

Unit 4 Contents

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Part of the definition of democracy given in 4.1.2 described it as “any form of political organization in which all adult citizens may participate by voting freely…” (italics added).  Many people would tend now to take it for granted that a political system is properly democratic only if all adult men and women can vote (say, all aged 18 and above, as in the UK), i.e. that there is ‘universal suffrage’.  A system in which, for example, all men but no women, or only 50% of men, can vote would be seen as, to that extent, undemocratic.

If we assess the history of democracy on the basis of the dates since when there has been universal suffrage, democracy appears strikingly recent.  This is so even in parts of the world in which it is generally seen as strongly established.  Very few countries had universal suffrage before 1917; the half-dozen countries that did are listed below.  The UK was, on that measure, not democratic until 1928 (when the voting age for women was lowered to the same as that for men, then 21).  Seen in this way, democracy is barely 100 years old.

However, here is a looser definition: a political system in which there is ‘government by the many’, that is, one in which a large number can participate, can be seen as democratic – at least relative to aristocracy (government by a small elite) and monarchy.  One prominent scholar of democracy, Samuel Huntington (whose work we shall look at in a moment), makes the measure for what he calls the ‘first wave’ in the history of modern democracy that 50% of males could vote.1. Seeing it in terms of a looser definition such as this, by far the two most significant events for giving momentum to democracy were:

(i)  the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, together with the decade of sustained debate which followed and which led to agreement on the United States Constitution in 1787

(ii)  the French Revolution just two years later than that, in 1789, and the even more intense debates in France of the succeeding years.

In the United States especially there was from that time onwards a highly participatory political system – even though it was not until the 1960s that all US adults, white and black, could actually vote.  In France the Revolution constituted a fundamental shift towards democracy that was never fully reversed, despite immense upheavals during the subsequent century.

Partly under the influence of those two tumultuous sets of events, participatory forms of politics became well established in some other countries during the nineteenth century, notably in a few European countries, and in most of the new Latin American nations that emerged after independence from Spain and Portugal between 1800 and 1830. In relation to the latter, one recent writer, focusing on Mexico and Peru, describes a vibrant form of ‘civic democracy’ in Latin America during the nineteenth century that was an expression, he says, of ‘civic Catholicism’.2

In order to summarize the modern history of democracy more fully, we can make use of Samuel Huntington’s distinction of ‘three waves’ of democratization.3. While this is only one way to convey that history, it is a helpful heuristic device.  The rest of this screen outlines them.

First wave: 1820s-1920s

Influenced especially by the American and French revolutions, gradual democratization during this 100-year period meant there were c.30 democracies by the late 1920s.  As noted above, Huntington did not make universal suffrage a necessary criterion for democracy in this first wave, but rather that 50% of males were eligible to vote.4. The first wave shows, therefore, moves towards democracy, if not its full realization.

Here are some highlights of the first wave:5

  • Adult male suffrage was introduced before 1900 in the following countries (although in some of these the franchise was later restricted, e.g. Liberia and France, before being reintroduced later still):

Liberia in 18396; Greece in 1844; Mexico in 1847; Switzerland and France in 18487; three Australian colonies in the 1850s8; the United States in 1870 in theory (in practice, many blacks were denied the vote until the 1960s); the German Empire in 1871; and New Zealand in 1879.

  • Universal suffrage (i.e. votes for all adult men and women) was introduced first in New Zealand, in 1893, and then in Finland in 1906, Norway in 1913, Denmark in 1915, and some US and Canadian states during the decade up to 1916.9
  • Several more countries introduced male suffrage or universal suffrage in 1917-20.  These years alone can be seen as a small ‘wave of democratization’.
  • In Britain, the 1867 Reform Act extended the franchise to about 40% of the male population, and the 1884 ‘Third Reform Act’ extended it to about two thirds.  Full male suffrage was introduced in 1918 and equivalent female suffrage in 1928.10

The rise of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in Europe, prompts Huntington to describe the first wave as followed by a ‘reverse wave’, away from democracy, from 1922 to the World War Two years of the early 1940s.  He says that “by 1942 [this] had reduced the number of democratic states in the world to 12”.11

Second wave: 1943-1962

In Western European states defeated in World War Two, notably Germany and Italy, and in Japan, democracy was (re-)introduced in the years immediately after the War.  This was followed by democratization in many of the former colonies of European states that became independent between 1947 and 1962.  These included India, where despite the challenges of its size – it now has more than one billion people, and is by far the most populous democracy in the world – the practice of democracy has survived.

From 1958 to the mid-1970s, there was a second ‘reverse wave’, as military coups in several countries in Latin America and in Africa led to democratic governments being replaced by military rulers.  One third of the working democracies in 1958 had become authoritarian by the 1970s.

Third wave: 1974 to the present

According to Huntington, the third wave of democratization began with the end of the dictatorial regime in Portugal in 1974 that had lasted since the pre-WW2 Fascist era.  After this, Franco’s similar dictatorship in Spain ended in 1975, since when democracy has become established in both countries.

In partly similar ways, military dictatorships in several Latin American countries ended in the 1980s, including in Argentina and Brazil, and were replaced by democratic governments.

Unexpectedly and dramatically, the Communist regimes of central and eastern Europe collapsed in the period 1989-91.  Democracy has become established in most of these countries, although not in Belarus, and many see Russia as struggling to become democratic.

Since then, several African countries have democratized, including South Africa (1994) and Nigeria (1999).

More recently, the period since the Arab Spring of 2011 has seen the beginnings of democratization in some Arab countries, notably Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  It is certainly too early (at the time of writing in early 2014) to say whether it will become strongly established in these countries.

Huntington’s ‘three waves’ give one helpful way of outlining the emergence of democracy across the world over the past 200-plus years plus.  Without doubt there are other ways of presenting this history.  The metaphor Huntington uses gives no reason for believing that there will not be another ‘reverse wave’, or that the long-term move to democracy of the past two centuries will continue.

One obvious question this history raises is: what did democracy replace, or what came before democracy?  It will be important to gain a sense of this, especially so that we can understand how the Catholic Church has reacted to democracy.

Before we turn to that, however, it will be helpful to give attention to a different aspect of the context of democracy – its context in the history of political thinking about different forms of government. 

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

End of 4.2.1

Go to 4.2.2 Forms of government, good and bad

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.


  1. See Samuel P. Huntington, ‘Democracy’s Third Wave’, Journal of Democracy, Vol 2. No.2 (Spring 1991), 12-34 and Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, University of Oklahoma Press, revised edition, 1993. 

  2. See Carlos A. Forment, Democracy in Latin America, 1760-1900: Volume 1, Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). 

  3. Huntington, ‘Democracy’s Third Wave’ and The Third Wave, cited above; see also How Countries Democratize, Political Science Quarterly, 106.4 (Winter 1991-1992), pp. 579-616. 

  4. This was one of two criteria that Huntington specified; the second was that there was an executive that had to maintain support from a majority of voters or from an elected parliament. 

  5. [5] Sources of the following include: Adam Przeworski, ‘Conquered or Granted? A History of Suffrage Extensions’, British Journal of Political Science, 39.2 (April 2009), pp. 291-321; UK National Archives, ‘Citizenship: Getting the Vote’, at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/getting_vote.htm, accessed 9 Aug. 2013; www.australianpolitics.com, ‘History Of The Voting Franchise In Australia’ at http://australianpolitics.com/voting/electoral-system/history-of-the-voting-franchise, accessed 9 Aug. 2013. 

  6. In Liberia in 1839, suffrage was limited to freed slaves from the USA who had founded Liberia and was then restricted in 1847; indigenous people could not vote until 1946 (see ‘History of Liberia: A Timeline’, at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/libhtml/liberia.html, accessed 19 Feb. 2014). 

  7. During the French Revolution, universal male suffrage had been introduced, in the Constitution of 1793, but this was in theory only as no elections were held under this before it was replaced in 1795 by a constitution that placed qualifications on which men could vote. See Przeworski, ‘Conquered or Granted’, 323. 

  8. These were South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and suffrage included Aboriginal men.  But when male suffrage was introduced in Queensland in 1872 and Western Australia in 1893, it did not include Aboriginal men. See P. Stretton, ‘Indigenous Australians and the Vote’, Australian Electoral Commission, Jan. 2013, accessed 9 August 2013 at http://www.aec.gov.au/indigenous/indigenous-vote.htm

  9. In 1902, the newly independent Australia introduced universal suffrage at federal level, but this was qualified in that, in those states in which Aboriginal people did not already have the vote, they were not granted it in federal elections either. See Stretton, ‘Indigenous Australians’. 

  10. The UK has had universal suffrage since 1928 for all elections, with the following exception: for elections in Northern Ireland to the Stormont Parliament and local councils until the late 1960s, there continued to be votes based on some other qualifications (e.g., in local elections, ratepayer and company director suffrage).  See Brendan Lynn, ‘Introduction to the Electoral System in Northern Ireland’, University of Ulster CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) Web Service (no date), at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/election/electoralsystem.htm (accessed 13 Feb. 2014).  I am grateful to Lisa Whitten for making me aware of this. 

  11. Huntington, ‘Democracy’s Third Wave’, p. 12  

Go to Top