But let’s put this democratic recession in perspective: While we may worry about authoritarian trends in Russia, Thailand or Nicaragua, all of these countries were unambiguous dictatorships in the 1970s. Despite those thrilling revolutionary days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the Arab Spring doesn’t look like it will yield a real democracy anywhere but the country where it started, Tunisia. Still, it is likely to mean more responsive Arab politics over the long haul. Expectations that this would happen quickly were extremely unrealistic. We forget that following the revolutions of 1848—Europe’s “Springtime of Peoples”—democracy took another 70 years to consolidate.
In the realm of ideas, moreover, liberal democracy still doesn’t have any real competitors. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the ayatollahs’ Iran pay homage to democratic ideals even as they trample them in practice. Why else bother to hold sham referendums on “self-determination” in eastern Ukraine? Some radicals in the Middle East may dream of restoring an Islamist caliphate, but this isn’t the choice of the vast majority of people living in Muslim countries. The only system out there that would appear to be at all competitive with liberal democracy is the so-called “China model,” which mixes authoritarian government with a partially market-based economy and a high level of technocratic and technological competence.
Yet if asked to bet whether, 50 years from now, the U.S. and Europe would look more like China politically or vice versa, I would pick the latter without hesitation. There are many reasons to think that the China model isn’t sustainable. The system’s legitimacy and the party’s ongoing rule rest on continued high levels of growth, which simply won’t be forthcoming as China seeks to make the transition from a middle-income country to a high-income one.