In his final essay as co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, Larry Diamond calls this moment the darkest for freedom in a half-century. Whether democracy regains its footing will depend on how democratic leaders and citizens respond to emboldened authoritarians and divisions within their own societies.
The Journal of Democracy began publishing in 1990 in an era of hopeful, even exhilarating, expansion of democracy around the world. Democracy was on the march not only literally—on the ground and at the ballot box—but normatively and intellectually. Yet even at the peak of democracy's "third wave" in the mid-1990s, scholars were worrying about the shallow nature of many democratic regimes. These illiberal, poorly governed democracies were identified as prime candidates for erosion, and many of them have since failed or oscillated. Beginning in 2006, the world entered a period of global democratic recession that has gathered considerable momentum in recent years. Now, with the deterioration of democratic norms and institutions in the United States, the growing doubts about democracy's efficacy, and the resurgence of authoritarian power and belligerence (led by China and Russia), democracy faces its most daunting test in many decades.