The Third Dictatorial Wave:
The Impending Global Transition Towards Authoritarian Government
We are currently headed towards a new era of dictatorship. Authoritarian governments are on the rise in Hungary, India, the Philippines, Turkey, Brazil, and in much of Central America. The United States is increasingly seeing government by gerrymandering and restriction of the right to vote. All of these nations are still technically democracies. However, there is increasing suppression of political opposition – and increasing popular support for conservative strong-men at the top.
Strangely, there is nothing unusual about this. The world has regularly cycled between waves of democracy and waves of dictatorship. The definitive treatment of this subject is Samuel Huntingdon’s Third Wave. Huntingdon, a political scientist at Harvard, is the world’s pre-eminent expert on democratization. He argues that the nations of the world routinely jettison dictatorship in favor of democracy, and then jettison democracy in favor of dictatorship. Nations tend to make these transitions all at the same time, producing giant bursts of simultaneous transition from one system of government to the other.
Why do countries move from democracy to dictatorship at the same time? There is an element of social imitation here. When one nation leads the way and gets good results, people want the same thing for their own country. The American Revolution made a big impression on liberals in France and Latin America. The French Revolution and the Latin American wars of independence followed.
However, the larger issue is widespread dissatisfaction with governments that cannot deal with persistent problems. You elect Government Number One. They don’t do anything. You elect Government Number Two. They sit and they argue. You elect Government Number Three. Big speeches, but nothing happens. Finally, after Ineffective Governments Four through Eight, people just get sick of elected government. A strongman comes along saying he will fix everything by taking charge. Dictatorship begins to sound like an excellent idea.
This is how fascism arose in the 1930’s. The global economy was in a trough because of the Great Depression. Nothing seemed to create jobs. A lot of what the democratic governments were doing was flagrantly ineffective. When the fascists came and said they could get the economy moving again, the failures of the democratic regimes gave the dictators credibility.
The process works the other way as well. There are problems that authoritarians cannot solve. In the 1980’s, neither the Communists of Eastern Europe or the generals of Latin America could create economic growth. Both regions were in long-term stagnation. The promise of shaking things up by giving power to the people was increasingly irresistible.
* * *
The most recent wave was the Third Wave, a transition from dictatorship to democracy. If there were to be a next wave, it would be one from democracy to dictatorship. What could produce such a transition? Permanent enduring problems that no democratic government can seem to solve.
Right now, the world faces three persistent issues that stymie democratic governments.
1. Economic Regions That Are Dying from Globalization.
The old factory regions of the Global North are in deep decline. Employment is moving from manufacturing to services. The manufacturing that still exists is increasingly outsourced to the Global South. There is little left for blue-collar workers in America’s Michigan, Britain’s Tyneside, or Belgium’s Wallonia. The coal mining towns, the steel towns, the automobile towns - none of those are coming back.
The Global South has its own economic issues. Regional disparities are just as strong in poor nations as in industrial ones. Even in China where the Pearl River Delta is an economic juggernaut, economic prospects are dimmer in Manchuria. Nigeria may be having an economic renaissance, but the Hausa North is as poor as ever.
Economic problems in the Global South are not limited to disadvantaged regions. The economies of Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, have suffered from a variety of problems including losing manufacture to East Asia, recovering from debt crises, or dealing with the dislocations from dispossession-based strategies of rural development. A Tanzanian farmer who has lost his land and is living in a slum can be just as bitter as an ex-coal-miner in Pennsylvania or Germany.
2. Crime and Corruption.
Crime rates are currently fairly low in the Global North. They are not at all low in the Global South. Drug gangs rule. Kidnapping is not uncommon. Organized crime controls whole neighborhoods.
Crime and corruption go hand in hand. When criminals are strong and successful, they have the cash to buy police, judges and jail wardens. When police, judges and jail wardens are bought, criminals run amok. Law enforcement personnel are not the only public officials you can buy. Elected politicians are on the payroll as well. They get paid with election wins rather than with suitcases of cash. When the local druglord tells his followers, “Make sure Candidate X wins”, Candidate X wins. Often, the druglord has enough followers to win the election from their votes alone. If not, well, ballot boxes have a funny way of both appearing and disappearing on election night.
Crime is a major deal in the Global South. People get sick of kidnappings. They get sick of the gangs. They get sick of not being able to go out at night. They get sick of having their neighborhoods invaded by prostitutes and thugs. People are afraid because they are genuinely physically insecure. The politicians make a lot of noise but do nothing, nothing, nothing.
People don’t like migrants. This is incredibly unfair, but it’s just the way it is. People don’t like the fact that migrants compete with the locals for jobs. (Never mind the fact that migrants start a lot of firms and make large numbers of new jobs.)
They don’t like the fact that their hometowns and home-cities often don’t feel like home as much because the stores and facilities are different, and there are people who don’t look like the locals hanging around on the streets. (Never mind the fact that migrants have lower crime rates than native-born citizens. You would avoid committing crimes too if attention from a policeman could get you deported.)
Migrants are unpopular and globalization has brought migration. Migrants are unpopular and crime in the Global South has brought migration. Migrants are unpopular and civil wars have brought migration. El Salvador has over 65,000 active gang members. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have had the highest female homicide rates in the world. Over a third of the population of Syria has had to emigrate to avoid that nation’s civil war. Building walls, or taking children away at the border is not going to stop people who are fleeing for their lives.
Governments try to reduce the inflows of migration. Generally, they fail or as has occurred in the U.S., they have limited success. The experience of locals is that the migrants are still there. In the population’s eyes, the numbers of migrants keep growing.
* * *
All of this gives the perception of persistent government failure. President after president is unable to provide jobs for the residents of economically dying areas. Prime minister after prime minister is unable to reduce crime. Ruling party government after ruling party is unable to reduce corruption; government after government is unable to keep the migrants out. Elections never seem to change anything.
This is a tremendous opportunity for a charismatic authoritarian. A big tough guy who promises to clean up the mess by kicking butt, throwing out migrants, firing corruptos, killing criminals and standing up for little guys in the dying regions, there are a lot of people who are going to listen to him. They will take his message very, very seriously.
* * *
One additional consideration. Waves can occur under egalitarian and inegalitarian conditions. However, social inequality particularly favors authoritarian governments. Democracies have to make all the voters happy, so they apportion government benefits to rich and poor alike. Dictatorships only have to satisfy the power elite. So, a larger share of government largesse goes to the rich in authoritarian systems. This makes the super-rich particularly open to authoritarian governments. As the elite gets a larger share of economic and political power, this increases their ability to get the pro-wealthy strongman governments they want.
It is no accident that Spain and Portugal, the most inegalitarian nations in Western Europe with historical power concentrated in the hands of large landowners, have been the nations with the most persistent governance by monarchy or dictatorship. Democratic revolutions consistently failed in nineteenth century Iberia while Britain, France, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia democratized. In the twentieth century, Spain was ruled with an iron hand by General Francisco Franco. Portugal was under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
Inequality is rapidly increasing around the world.
Inequality is Rising or Staying Extremely High Nearly Everywhere
Top 10% income shares across the world, 1980-2016
The figure shows the rate of social inequality for the nations of the world from 1980 to the present day. Social inequality is rising in many of the world. The United States and Canada (in red) have seen a steady and marked increase in social inequality. India has seen a much more dramatic increase in inequality. Inequality is increasing significantly in China and to a lesser degree Europe. Russian inequality is relatively stable because between 1992 and 2008, because inequality had already become sky high. The Middle East, Brazil and Africa show no worsening of inequality because all three were already the three most inegalitarian regions of the world.
None of this, changes the fundamental dynamics of waves from dictatorship to democracy or democracy to dictatorship. But it means that when the anti-democratic transition comes, it will come with greater speed and effect, because of the social strength of wealthy elites.
An anti-democratic revolution does not require tanks rolling into the capital city, or the military seizing the halls of Congress. The assertion of authoritarian control can be subtle. It can mean the rigging of elections so that the party in power always wins. It can mean the suppression of minority views. It can mean various minor changes in political process that give the aspiring dictator greater powers, one step at a time. Mussolini had to share power with other democratically elected officials when he first became Prime Minister in 1922. Italy was not a totalitarian state – yet. It took normal parliamentary process for him to obtain dictatorial control. A series of laws had to be passed, each one incremental, that eliminated the various checks on his power. It wasn’t till three years later, in 1925, that he had the absolute power over Italy that he wanted.
Will the same thing happen with Orban in Hungary, with Erdogan in Turkey, with Moti in India, with Duterte in the Philippines or with Trump in the United States? We will have to wait and see. But the seeds of anti-democratic transition have been planted. It is up to us to determine whether those seeds grow.
For More Information
Readers who want more can read Samuel Huntingdon’s The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. That book also contains a brief discussion of inequality and democracy.
For more on inequality and democracy, see Levin-Waldman’s review of the issue at
For crime and corruption, see Desmond Arias’s Criminal Enterprises and Governance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
On some of the details concerning the recent global increase in migration see the following three links.
The inequality statistics come from