Modernization Theory and “Third Wave Democracy”: Internal and External Impediments to Democracy and Development


Known mostly for The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order(1996) Samuel Huntington, like Francis Fukuyama (End of History and the Last Man, 1992), caught the interest of apologists of Western capitalism’s triumph over Soviet Communism during the 1990s and early 2000s. The quest to articulate a unifying theory that explained the demise of the Cold War ‘bi-polar world order’ based on the two superpowers and the emergence of the new multi-polar order led many Western scholars right back to Cold War assumptions about the importance of maintaining Western global hegemony in every area from determining the balance of power to the political economy.

This became especially important after 9/11 when the US institutionalized a counter-terrorism regime with Homeland Security, followed by a US-NATO war against Afghanistan and US war in Iraq. A permanent global war on terror, that replaced the old Cold War became the new rationale for perpetuating Pax Americana despite the realities of a US economy that could not possibly sustain such costs in the absence of downward socioeconomic mobility for its middle class and an unwinnable campaign focused on military solution to a political problem.

If jihadists carrying out unconventional attacks against US and its allies were the new enemies instead of Communists, then the US and its allies needed to construct a new ideological justification for an imperial reach. In this respect, a number of scholars, including Huntington provided the ideological ammunition Washington needed.  Because globalization under neoliberal policies had been in effect already since the Reagan administration, the only question was to forge domestic and international political and a modicum of popular consensus for such policies.

At the same time, however, there was the question of the degree to which developing nations would be able to develop economically and democratize politically under a world order of Western imperial hegemony carrying out neoliberal policies to accommodate large capital at home and existing as well as new foreign investment. Globalization apologists promised that neo-liberalism would deliver these goals for the world, while at the same time they threw their support behind the war on terror as though it is just another conventional war with soldiers in a defined geographic location rather than dispersed in more than fifty countries.

This essay briefly examines how “Modernization theory” and the “Third Wave Democracy” thesis explain the evolution of the world political economy and how the empirical evidence in developing nations do not support the theory. I will analyze the inherent contradictions between the West publicly pledging to modernize and democratize the world when history has demonstrated that its imperial policies preclude both development and democratization. The essay concludes with the question of the degree to which modernization theory and the “Third Wave” democracy thesis explain the decline of democracy in the Western World and the concomitant decline of the middle class as the popular base of bourgeois democracy. In the interest of full disclosure, the theoretical framework of my scholarly work is based in part is the dependency school of thought and the structuralist interpretations usually associated with the UN Commission on Latin America.(1)

The “Third Wave” and the Modernization Theory as “Cold War Democracy”

Huntington’s, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1993) analyzes the transition from authoritarianism to ‘democracy’ in Portugal, Spain and Greece during the mid-1970s, in Latin America, Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan during the 1980s, and Eastern Europe after the Soviet bloc in the 1990s. The study is a theoretical attempt to analyze global trends and to attribute credit to the success of America’s transformation policy applied across the world since the end of WWII. Transformation policy as a means of integrating the world economically, politically and geopolitically under the aegis of the US as the Western superpower in a struggle against its rivals Russia and China marks its triumph at the time that Huntington was writing his “Third Wave” study.

The “Third Wave” thesis as an integral part of the post-WWII Modernization theory developed in the US amid the early Cold War to justify Pax Americana’s global reach. In practice, US global reach has precluded democratization and development in periphery countries because of their economically dependent and politically and militarily subservient relationship with the advanced capitalist countries led by the US under a patron-client integration model. Even in traditional societies where Islam dominates such as those in the Middle East and North Africa had uprisings during the first half of the 2010s, the chance of their success was severely limited. This is because of opposition from the domestic elites including the military and the small capital class linked to Western interests, but also the US and its northwest European partners determined to impose their economic, political and military influence and deny national and popular sovereignty that would entail greater autonomy and less dependence on the West. (2)

It is important to emphasize that the definition of democracy by those embracing the “Third Wave” and Modernization theories is based on assumptions of American-style democracy equated with socioeconomic inequality and marked absence of social justice. This has been evident in the US socioeconomic structure historically with problems ranging from institutional racism and xenophobia to gender inequality, from the wealthy elites financing elected officials to political party establishment conducting policy to perpetuate an unequal and socially unjust society. (3)

Of course, this is not the case only in the US but across the developed nations where capitalism is equated with bourgeois democracy where citizens select among the competing elites presented to them by the established political parties inexorably linked to the socioeconomic elites. This is the position that Joseph Schumpeter argued inCapitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) where he advanced the “elite model of participatory democracy”.

American and European scholars conducting research during the Cold War accepted without much criticism the Modernization theory using to explain the transition from traditional preindustrial societies to the modern industrial world. After all, if the non-Western areas did not industrialize and adopt Western liberal-bourgeois institutions it must be because the obstacles to development and democracy are internal and not because the West imposed colonial control, or divided them into spheres of influence. One reason that Modernization theory became popular immediately after WWII was that Westerners were encouraged by the defeat of the Axis Powers and the decolonization movements that followed after the end of the war.  Condemning Stalinist Russia and its satellites, the same scholars, and along with them journalists and politicians assumed that democratization flows from the modernization development model, thus equating democracy with industrial and finance capitalism and its social order of inequality.

Like William McNeill (The Rise of the West, 1964) who embraced the modernization theory, Huntington believed that the different parts of the world democratize as they modernize in stages. This is a theory that assumes their integration into the American-dominated world economy, political and military network whose goal throughout the Cold War was to bring down the Soviet Union and perpetuate Pax Americana. Walt Rostow (Economic Stages of Growth, 1960) was an advocate of modernization and implicitly the “waves” theory that Huntington later articulated. Influential not just during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations throughout the second half of the 20th century among politicians, Rostow’s thesis was part of the mainstream in media and academia.

Like the paternalistic assumptions of Modernization theory with its categorical political goal, Rostow’s stages of growth theory implied that development entails diffusion emanating from the core (advanced capitalist countries) to the periphery (less developed); in other words, an endorsement of imperialism justified in the name of anti-Communism and a single path to development and democracy. Included in Rostow’s stages of economic growth and Huntington’s ‘Third Wave’ thesis is the transition from traditional society to democracy only in theory.

In reality, the transition has been from corrupt clientist authoritarian regimes to corrupt semi-democratic ones under integration into the US-dominated economic and geopolitical global framework. In all cases without exception, countries falling into the “Third Wave” and Modernization theory framework in their political institutions became even more thoroughly dependent economically. This is as true for Latin America under US hegemony since the Spanish-American War as for Africa, Asia and Eastern and southeastern Europe under northwest European dominant influence.  Post-Cold War regional economic blocs have been dominated by the US, German-dominated Europe Union, and Japan and more recently China competing with the core countries in the world economy for spheres of influence and market share. (4)

If we accept the Modernization and Third Wave theories, then we accept the assumptions of Joseph Schumpeter (“Democratic Method”, 1947 and Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) that democracy does not entail popular sovereignty and social justice, but it is simply an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions – presumably through consensus by the socioeconomic and political elites in which individuals acquire power to determine who captures the popular vote. In other words, this is a top down process not very different than corporations competing for a consumer base where the consumer is able to choose corporation A vs. B.

Even if we accept this definition and Huntington’s argument that the “First Wave” of ‘minimal democracy’ in the 19th century to the second wave after WWII and the defeat of the Axis Powers, elements of authoritarianism existed within Western Democracies, especially the US that excluded minorities from the institutional mainstream. Unless one invokes the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” both in foreign affairs as well as US apartheid practices with regard to Native Americans and Africa-Americans, democracy explained by Modernization theory provides a distorted picture of what has actually taken place throughout history.(5)

Studies carried out by scholars and institutions such as the World Bank on the correlation between high income level countries and democracy, and low-income level countries and authoritarianism throughout the Cold War contend that the catalyst to democracy is a viable middle class, not social justice and equality. Of course, it is possible to have an ascendant middle class without democracy as has been in the case of China, thus proving the “middle class-democracy” correlation is not necessarily true. (6)

It is interesting to note that the same studies linked traditional societies, especially Islamic ones where religion was at the core of the value system and institutional structure, as less compatible with democracy while secular societies much more so.Western scholars assume compatibility between Christianity and democracy while rejecting the same when it comes to Islam and Eastern religions, despite the empirical reality if India where Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are the main religions. (7)

When it comes to the most populous Muslim nations of Indonesia, Western critics praise the compatibility of Islam and democracy because the country has embraced globalization and Westernization. Along similar lines, the West has historically embraced Turkey, a NATO member and candidate for the EU, despite its Muslim heritage and traditions.

The Third Wave, Arab Revolution and Counter-Revolution

At the cultural level and to a degree social level, there has been greater ‘pluralism’ in societies that transitioned during the ‘Third Wave’ because of decolonization following WWII. However, this has not translated to greater popular sovereignty and social justice comparable to what the Scandinavian countries enjoy, and after the austerity of 2010 there has been a decline both in democracy and living standards in countries that were part of the “Third Wave Democracy” trend.

During the “Third Wave” with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution 1974, women and minorities acquired more rights; human rights became a basic component of government, freedom of the press and assembly was a reality. From the 1980s until the Great recession of 2008 there was upward social mobility in southern Europe. Largely because living standards needed to be raised for the periphery countries to qualify entranced into the euro zone after under Maastricht Treaty conditions as established in 1992, northwest European countries adopted an interdependent integration model rather than the patron-client model the US pursued in its relationship with Mexico under NAFTA.(8)

After the austerity that the EU and IMF imposed on the periphery in 2010, it also imposed the patron-client model of integration that reduced the southern and eastern European members of the zone into subservient status serving the interests of the northwest core. This new model has meant decline not just in living standards but in social mobility for college graduates most of whom are unable to find employment in their fields of study if at all; weaker welfare state and trade unions, and weaker democratic institutions as there has been a transition from the welfare state to corporate welfare under the advocacy of neoliberals that includes the IMF and the European Central Bank. The benefits of the “Third Wave” in the periphery countries of Europe accrued mostly to those in the upper income groups and not across the board, and certainly there were not sustainable as the post-2008 recession crisis has proved. (9)

Whether part of the “Third Wave” or not, developing nations have compromised their sovereignty by surrendering to the globalized market economy to a much greater degree than they had in some cases under authoritarian regimes that tended to support ‘national capitalism’ more than international capitalism. This is as true of Eastern Europe as it is of Latin America. The people of Portugal, Greece and Spain, all previously under authoritarian regimes that were part of the ‘Third Wave’ continue to elect their national leaders who only follow and execute policies in accordance with the rules of the market economy and under considerable pressure from the US and EU directly or indirectly through the IMF, World Bank, OECD, European Central Bank.

To what degree do Portugal, Greece and Spain enjoy national sovereignty when the monetary and fiscal policy that impact living standards and result in social engineering comes as a result of what the IMF, central banks, and the domestic and foreign financial elites? The ballot box gives the illusion of freedom of political choice and popular sovereignty when all aspects of the citizen’s life are surrendered to an institutional structure under the control of the financial elites whose interests the political class serves. The national economy and public finances are surrendered to national and global finance capitalism that operates with comprador bourgeoisie at the national level. This is especially true in Greece, one of the “Third Wave” countries reduced to a virtual semi-colony under IMF-German imposed austerity since 2010. (10)

If the ‘Third Wave’ did not result in the type of social justice that one would associate with a Norwegian model of democracy but rather with a Latin American one, why would the imaginary ‘Fourth Wave’ be any different taking place now in the Middle East, especially after the failed uprisings that NATO countries and regional players like Saudi Arabia subverted as part of a counter-revolution that followed? Furthermore, the suggestion that modernization can come solely or primarily as a result of diffusion of ‘ideas’ from the West to the rest of the world is in many respects a reflection of Western imperialism, merely another version of Kipling’s White Man’s Burden thesis.

The assumption among many Westerners arguing that Muslim countries are or ought to be undergoing democratization is based on the Western model of “liberal bourgeois” democracy under the neoliberal economic model that favors international finance capital. Even the “Third Wave” is not based on assumptions of social, economic, and political equality or grassroots democracy, any more than it is based on self-sustaining horizontal economic and social development. Considering the assumptions of “Third Wave” about democracy of limited popular and national sovereignty, then the Afro-Arab Spring uprisings were probably more successful than it may appear on the surface. (11)

There are several hundred books dealing with Afro-Arab Spring uprisings, as well as counter-revolution leading to even greater political instability, polarization and socioeconomic inequality than before. This is not only the case in Libya and Egypt, but across all countries that tried to have genuine grassroots revolts. Most authors agree these were indeed unfinished revolutions and subverted by forces other than the grassroots participants who were themselves ideologically and politically divided on what kind of regime they wanted. The democratization wave was never given a chance to evolve because domestic elites, neighboring states among them Saudi Arabia fearing any spillover impact of political change as well as the US and its European allies played a role in undermining the popular movements through various means including NGOs posing as friendly democratic entities. (12)

The grassroots movement to democratize Egypt failed after former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi muscled his way into power. Despite the veneer of the electoral process, the reality since 2013 has been repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and secular Egyptians wishing popular sovereignty rather than a military-dominated state. Nevertheless, President al-Sisi insists his government is democratic, despite ruling by decree. Western governments back him despite Human Rights Watch and other independent organizations condemning the regimes as repressive. Not much different than Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, Sisi is following an existing pattern of cronyism. Because Sisi has cooperated with the West on geopolitical issues and is not confrontational toward Israel like Iran, and because he has worked with the IMF and is open to foreign capital and neoliberal policies that have resulted in sharp cuts in subsidies and other welfare state measures, Western politicians, media and pundits view Egypt more favorably as democratic than Iran that has only recently agreed to economic integration with the West and cooperation on the nuclear weapons development issue; this despite the fact that Iran has been fighting against al-Qaeda and ISIS. (13)

Regardless of how Western powers view social movements in Islamic countries and how they try to manipulate them so they could exert hegemonic influence, Islam as a coherent ideological force is an integral part, but not the only one, of societal issues intertwined with the faith, especially in Egypt where the Islamic Brotherhood played a key role. This was also the case in Yemen, Tunisia and everywhere where grassroots movements took place during Arab Spring. In the absence of a secular political ideology, religious doctrine is what the masses rally around, Islam played a catalytic role, although various religious factions – sectarian politics especially Sunni vs. Shiite – were engaged in a struggle for dominant influence and control.

The Arab Spring uprisings were heterogeneous in their ideological orientation, as much as the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that the Shiite clergy eventually dominated and used to create an Islamic Republic. Precisely because of the heterogeneous nature of opposition to authoritarian regimes in Islamic countries reflecting largely the urban-secular middle class vs. the rural and some urban traditional masses clinging to Islam as the unifying force in society it became easier for the armed forces as in Egypt or comprador bourgeois class linked to foreign interests to prevail over the disparate masses. The question for the advocates of Modernization theory is whether revolution inspired by Islam intended to bring about social justice to society fits the theory, a question that a number of scholars raise as they try to place Arab Spring into a theoretical framework.  (14)

By August 2013 the counterrevolution was in full swing with the backing of the US northwest Europe, and reactionary Arab regimes. In Egypt the duly-elected government of Mohammad Morsi was toppled and the Raaba Massacre took place resulting in more than 1000 people dead all in an effort to crush the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. Although this massacre was far worse than Tiananman Square (1989), there was hardly the US or European outcry against it because the West and its regional Middle East allies did not want democracy in Egypt any more than they did in the region as a whole. Whereas the Western media, politicians, pundits, and various apologists of Western capitalism vociferously condemned the Chinese government for crushing democratic protests in 1989, the reaction in 2013 by the same sources was one of outrage for the massacre but support for law and order against Egyptian democratic protesters because they Muslim Brotherhood elements viewed with suspicion as potential jihadists. (15)

Using the “jihadist” theme, implicitly intertwined with the war on terror, as the explanation for siding with the new elites that emerged from counterrevolution, analysts argued that there must be an alternative to jihad as the opposition force to regimes – authoritarian or elected – closely integrated with Western interests and policies.  Crony capitalism that existed before Arab Spring continued after the dust settled, just as the Western influence that existed before remained very much alive in geopolitical and economic domains.  Post-Islamism manifesting itself in the rise of urbanization and youths embracing the new communications technology as a means of grassroots organizing and consciousness-raising was just one factor in the revolts during the first half of the 2010s. This does not mean that there is a shortage of hypocrisy on the part of leaders in the opposition embracing the uprising in the name of Islam any more than on the part of rulers claiming to defend the faith. Piety has its limits when it comes to political goals as much in the Islamic Middle East, as in the Christian West. Nevertheless, there is no stigma of “jihadist terrorism” attached to Christianity and Judaism. Whereas the identity of a Muslim emanates from the faith as well as the nation-state, social status and lesser factors, the identity of a Christian in France or US is rooted in multiple institutions mostly secular, that may or may not include nation-state and faith.

Accepting some of the theoretical assumptions of the Modernization theory, French-Moroccan author Rachid Benzine emerged in Europe as a representative of the Arab Spring generation to articulate the events and dynamics in North Africa and the Middle East in the early 21st century. Following a long-standing tradition started by Bernard Lewis, Fazlur Rahman, and Edward Said who was a critic of conventional scholarship, Benzine argued that the failure of the Arab world, and more widely the Islamic world, to undergo an intellectual revolution (Renaissance and Enlightenment like Europe), invariably linked to social development, owed to a ‘misreading’ of the Koran and in failing to recognize and respond to specific historical situations? (16)

As a traditional society that has not undergone a Renaissance, a Scientific Revolution, an Age of Reason and Industrial Revolution, and in addition it has been subject to foreign conquest that imposed monocultural economic structures (export-oriented economies), the Arab world finds itself confronting the contradictions of wanting to preserve its cultural identity on the one hand, keeping up with the western world on the other in order to lessen exploitation of its resources and labor, and strengthen national sovereignty, while finding it impossible to avoid integration into the world-system of the market economy which entails dependency at some level. Embracing Modernization theory as a framework to understand Arab Spring in essence suggests trying to fit Islamic institutions and society into a secularized Western-dominated world is not revolutionary, but actually conservative.

Is Egypt and the entire Islamic world  part of a ‘Fourth Wave’ toward democracy and development merely another dream designed for the convenience of those who want to make sense of events and be optimistic that the modernization theory works – equating modernization  with Western concepts of bourgeois capitalism. ‘Transformation policy’ that the US began implementing after WWII as a means to integrate the rest of the world into the global system of capitalist institutions was inevitable not just for Egypt, but the entire Arab world, as the counterrevolutions proved once the dust settled and regime change took hold. (17)

In the absence of a regional (Middle Eastern-North African) economic bloc, in the absence of some revival of Nasser’s dream for Afro-Arab solidarity with a multilateral foreign economic policy as leverage in the international arena, Egypt along with the rest of the Islamic world will remain thoroughly integrated into the capitalist system as it was under Mubarak who had set up his own fiefdom and made billions in the process. The only question is what leverage does Egypt or any Islamic countries have?  As much the US, as the Europeans and Chinese demand that Islamic nations conform to the rules of the marketplace, to the IMF and World Bank, to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and that they observe all of its foreign treaty and other obligations; exactly as the US demanded from the Egyptian army under Sisi so that the foreign aid can continue pouring in under Obama, despite human rights violations.(18)

Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, and the entire Arab world, will remain Western dependencies in most cases worse off than before Arab Spring, with the possible exception of Tunisia despite more than 6000 Tunisians joining ISIS in a nation with about 16% unemployment rate and per capita GDP average of just under $11,400 or 65% of the world’s average in PPP terms. External dependency on the core countries entails few changes in the status quo throughout the Arab world; merely enough to satisfy those that have fought to end authoritarianism in some countries, while disappointing to the vast majority.

While it would be a great development to have greater social justice, more respect for women and broader observance of human rights in general, the trend for the Middle East is westernization through commercialism – consumer products and services, pop cultural influences, telecommunications, media and technology – which entails influencing the value system so that gradually Islamic countries becoming more like Turkey that seeks full membership in the European Union and Indonesia inviting foreign capital investment. This subtle form of infringement on Muslim sovereignty to which Arabs object for economic, political and cultural/religious reasons comes slowly, and it contributes to popular uprisings. Along with the broader recognition that the Muslim world is made up mostly of poor people, while the Christian West is prosperous, immersed in materialistic, hedonistic values and lifestyles, there needs to be a realization that the Christian West has been profiting off the Muslim Middle East since the Treaty of Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774). The closely integrated globalized economy entails withering cultural identities and that is the case in the Muslim world where just beneath the relative calm a new wave of social uprisings is brewing and will explode eventually.

Undermining Self-determination and Popular Sovereignty in Traditional Societies

According to the Modernization theory obstacles to democracy and progress are all internal, resting within national borders. The US government, politicians, media and pundits have been claiming ever since Wilson’s Missionary Diplomacy (denying recognition to Mexico and Latin American government if their policies were antithetical to American interests) that the goal is to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. The record of US foreign policy especially toward developing countries since the Spanish-American War has demonstrated that the US accomplishes the exact opposite of the stated goal because democracy in less developed countries minimizes US economic and geopolitical influence in those countries. As the following list of CIA operations that undermined democracy indicates, the US was hardly a promoter of democracy as the advocates of Modernization theory and those claiming the only goal is freedom and democracy claim.

  1. Italy 1948 elections sabotaged by CIA to make sure that the pro-US Christian Democrat Party;
  2. Iran 1953 CIA-engineered coup that results in the overthrow of duly-elected Mohammed Mossadeq;
  3. Guatemala 1954 CIA-engineered coup that results in the overthrow of duly elected Jacobo Arbenz and the installation of a pro-US military dictatorship;
  4. Dominican Republic 1961 CIA assassinates a formerly-backed pro-US dictator Rafael Trujillo,
  5. Congo (Zaire) 1961 the CIA assassinates democratically-elected president Patrice Lumumba.
  6. Ecuador 1961 CIA forces democratically-elected president Jose Velasco to resign.
  7. Brazil 1964 CIA-backed military coup if democratically elected Joao Goulart ;
  8. Indonesia 1965 the CIA helps overthrow democratically elected President Sukarno and replaces him with the dictator Suharto who went on a reign of terror against his political opponents;
  9. Greece 1967 the CIA helps to remove the duly-elected government of George Papandreou and back a military Junta for the next seven years;
  10. Chile 1973 the CIA overthrows democratically-elected Salvador Allende.

The above list includes only the most blatant cases of US intervention and does not list military interventions or countries where the US backed authoritarian regimes, including South Africa under apartheid regimes.(19)

Even in cases where there have not been counterinsurgency operations but direct or indirect military intervention, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Libya to Syria, the net result is greater destabilization under a new type of authoritarian regime. Just two days after Vice President Joe Biden visited Iraq to announce an additional 250 US troops, mass demonstrators stormed the fortified Green Zone on 30 April 2016 in a show of popular anger against the corrupt, unrepresentative and ineffective regime that the US set up. Although these were backers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who has been calling for sweeping reforms, the reality is that US invasion and occupation left the country utterly devastated and it will take decades for it to recover, let alone become free and democratic as the US government argued it was there to deliver.  Despite Washington’s shallow claims that its goal is freedom and democracy, its actual goal is economic, political and economic integration under American aegis in an era of intense global competition owing to China’s ascendancy.(20)

Considering that there has been a long-standing policy of subverting national and popular sovereignty abroad because it clashes US and more broadly Western corporate and geopolitical interests, how do we reconcile the Modernization theory with the empirical reality of American foreign policy record?  Under the aegis of the US, Wall Street, and international finance capital, IMF austerity programs since the early 1950s have been responsible throughout the developing countries of undermining democracy by lowering living standards for the working class and the middle class. If external economic and financial intervention thwarts economic development and democracy, how can advocates of Modernization theory argue that all obstacles to development are internal? (21)

Because Modernization theory advocates accept the capitalist political economy as “natural”, they do not analyze how austerity policies result in downward socioeconomic mobility and polarized sociopolitical conditions that either takes place under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian conditions or result in such regimes. IMF austerity is intended to concentrate capital among the domestic elites and foreign corporations, thus resulting in diminished democratic commitment of regimes that carry it out. In the process, the middle class and workers become disillusioned and often turn to right wing or left wing political parties or movements, abandoning the bourgeois consensus of the liberal center. This is as much the case in the EU’s periphery countries since 2010 as it has been the case in developing nations from the 1950s to the present.(22)

In addition to monetarist austerity that results in further capital concentration and weaker middle class and working class, the neoliberal policies of weakening the welfare state to strengthen corporate welfare while strengthening defense have also accounted for increased political orientation toward the politics of illiberal democracy. In an integrated world dominated by core countries led by the US as the world’s largest military power compelling both allies and foes to spend more on defense that deprives the civilian economy of resources it is simply naïve to claim that the sources of undemocratic regimes are archaic traditions and non-Western religions when it is in fact Western governments and the considerable power that multinational corporations enjoy over governments. (23)

Neo-liberalism and the Decline of Democracy in Core Countries

The triumph of the capitalist West over the Communist bloc coinciding with the global economic ascendancy of China has actually delivered less democracy, greater socioeconomic and political polarization, fewer human rights, and decline in social justice under the neoliberal model of development. How do we then reconcile the Modernization theory that assumes a Hegelian model of steady economic development and democratization under capitalism and the “Third Wave” that assumes developing countries emulate the Western political economic model when the same is showing very clear signs of fracture?  Even if one accepts Modernization theory and Huntington’s “Third Wave Democracy” as theoretical frameworks to explain development and evolution toward bourgeois democracy, how do we explain the decline of democracy in the advanced capitalist countries since the end of the Cold War? On the 25th anniversary of Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, The Atlantic published an article arguing that “history isn’t over, and neither liberalism nor democracy is ascendant”. (24)

As much in Europe as in the US, right-wing populist demagogues are challenging bourgeois political elites that come from the business elites, or become wealthy in the process and join the business elites in the pursuit of neoliberal policies that concentrate wealth? While a handful of billionaires own most of the world’s wealth, the corporate owned media has moved to the right as much in the US as in Europe, paying only lip service to political correctness regarding racism, xenophobia, while hammering at the rights of workers and all issues pertaining to social justice while defending neo-liberalism. This has in turn emboldened extreme right wing groups whose differences are not so distinct from mainstream conservative political parties.(25)

According to a State Department public opinion poll in 2000, Europeans and Americans generally favored globalization.  By 2014, things had changed largely because the Great Recession (2008) resulted in massive income transfer from the middle class and workers and into the pockets of the top one percent income earners. A Pew Research poll in 2014 found that only 17% of Americans believed that (free) trade leads to higher wages, and only 28% believed that foreign companies buying US companies was good for the country, thus reflecting a sharp rise in economic nationalist sentiment. (26)

Anti-globalization from the right in the US as well as Europe comes in the form of opposition to trade agreements favoring large multinational corporations at the expense of the national economy. Just as the right wing is split on the issue of globalization, it is so split on the issue of regional military blocs, especially NATO and the burden of its costs. The neo-isolationist foreign policy agenda of a number of Republicans in the US, including Donald Trump reflects exactly this trend. Although it is unlikely the US will isolate itself from military blocs any more than it will retreat from globalization despite the costs to its public debt and shrinking middle class, these matters will only become more pronounced as Asia assumes an increasingly dominant role in the world economy and outcries about costs and benefits become louder. (27)

With a history of fascism and authoritarianism, Europe has extremist political groups that emerged on anti-Islam, anti-foreign, anti-progressive platforms designed to attract the masses guided by fear, ignorance, and insecurity about the future as well as assertion of cultural/ethnic identity myths. Right wing populist demagogues tend to become increasingly part of the mainstream. With each cyclical economic crisis that leaves people questioning the present and longing for ‘the good old days’ of ‘traditionalism’ when the masses obeyed authority and the social order worked just great as far as the elites were concerned, Europe and the US will become more right wing because this is where the media and the elites will lead the masses. The debate not just among Americans but also European political elites regarding isolationism and economic nationalism reflects a concern that globalization increasingly favors China and other non-Western countries rather than the West that enjoyed global economic hegemony from the end WWII until the end of the Cold War. (28)

Many in the West were caught up in the enthrallment of the moment when the Soviet bloc came down and George H. W. Bush proclaimed the New World Order in his State of the Union address. The media and pundits were predicting the “end of history” and the end of ideology. Twenty-five years after Bush’s New World Order speech, these same people cannot explain why Europe and the US have been taking a turn toward the politics of the “illiberal democracy” and a quasi-authoritarian system has emerged. Why is it that so many scholars are convinced that not just the US has lapsed into a surveillance regime spying on its own citizens and increasingly relying on police state methods that violate the Constitution, but Europe has become much more rightist in its ideological and political orientation? (29)

Much is defaulted to the ‘war on terror’ and Muslim refugees that the ‘war on terror’. Some blame the interventionist Western foreign policy toward Syria, Iraq and the entire Muslim World at a time that the Western economies were less competitive with those of Asia. As much in Eastern Europe as in Western that claims greater tolerance and democratic commitment, public opinion polls indicate a sharp rise in xenophobia directed especially at Muslim migrants and viewing Islam in general as a threat. Perceptions are not much different in the US especially among Republicans voters considering the media’s demonization of Muslims as the new existential threat that replaced Communism. (30)


Waning of democracy in a socio-politically polarized society is a reality throughout the Western World, thus obviating not just the “End of History” thesis that so many have criticized but also the Modernization theory and Huntington’s “waves of democracy” thesis. In the next contracting economic cycle, there will be further erosion of what people associate with ‘bourgeois democracy’ and a greater tilt toward authoritarianism concealed beneath the facade of democracy. What happens to the social fabric if during the next contracting cycle Western democracies will need to spend more than half of the GDP to bailout corporations while still maintaining high defense spending? What signal does this send to the rest of the world about the Western political economy and institutions? Western democracy as the world knew it in the second half of the 20th century is rapidly sinking toward quasi-authoritarianism while maintaining a façade of freedom and democracy. (31)

Will greater social justice and popular sovereignty evolve as a result of the contradictions that develop within the market economy and the emerging social structure to which such a political economy gives birth? Social discontinuity is unfolding before our eyes so slowly so cannot see it. All empirical evidence indicates that the neoliberal model is leading toward varieties of authoritarianism. The irrelevant vacuous theoretical rhetoric of the Modernization theory, Third Wave Democracy, End of History are intended to obfuscate the empirical realities of peoples’ material lives when history has proved Joseph Schumpeter correct. Democracy is simply an electoral process where citizens have the right to select competing elites whose goal is to perpetuate their economic, social and political privileges.


  1. Jon V. Kofas, The Sword of Damocles: US Financial Hegemony in Chile and Colombia. 2003; Jon V. Kofas, Independence from America: Global Integration and Inequality, 2005.
  2. Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America, 2007; Edward D. Gonzalez-Acosta, CENTRAL AMERICA – CAFTA and the U.S. Patron-Client Relationship with Dominican Republic and Central America. 24 May 2007,; Rhoda H. Halperin, Cultural Economies Past and Present, 1994.
  3. G. Williams Domhoff, Myth of Liberal Ascendancy: Corporate Dominance from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, 2013.
  4. Raymond Lotta, “World Economy and Great Power Rivalry: The Challenge to U.S. Global Dominance.”
  5. Michael Kennedy and Miguel Centeno, Internationalism and Global Transformations in American Sociology” 680-85, in Sociology in America: A History ed. by Craig Calhoon, 2007.
  6. Jie Chen, A Middle Class Without Democracy: Economic Growth and the Prospects for Democratization in China, 2014.
  7. Daniel Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East, 1958; Hermant Shah, The Production of Modernization: Daniel Lerner, Mass Media and the Passing of Traditional Society, 2011.
  8. F. A. Lopez, et al eds, Transitions from Dictatorships to Democracy, 2016.
  9.; James Wickham, Unequal Europe: Social Divisions in an Old Continent, 2016.
  11. Said Amir Arjomand, ed. The Arab Revolution of 2011: A Comparative Perspective, 2015, 233-35.
  12. M. A. Mohamed Salih, Economic Development and Political Action in the Arab World, 2014; Fatima al-Samak, Islam and Democracy: An Obscure Relationship, in
  13. Rula Jebreal, It’s Time for the US to Support Democracy, Not Dictatorship, in Egypt. (June 5, 2015 );

  1.; Rachid Benzine, Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam,2004.
  2. Ahmed Bensaada, Arabesque$: Enquête sur le rôle des États-Unis dans les révoltes arabes, 2015.
  6. Shaun Ferguson, “Diagnosing Constraints to Industrialization in the Arab World” and Alfredo Saad-Silho, “Transcending Neoliberalism through Pro-Poor and Democratic Economic Development Strategies” in Development Challenges and Solutions After Arab Spring, ed. Ali Kadri, 2016).
  7. S. B. Kaplan, Globalization and Austerity Politics in Latin America, 2013; Lorenzo Smaghi, Austerity: European Democracies Against the Wall, 2013.
  10.; T. Akkerman, et al., Radical Right-Wing Parties in Western Europe: Into the Mainstream? 2016.
  13. Marcos, Ancelovic, “Organizing against Globalization: the Case of ATTAC in France”.
  14. Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the world (83% vs. 53%) and in the U.S. (65% vs. 38%), according to a December 2015 survey. That survey also found that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers (68% vs. 30% of Democrats) and that Muslims should be subject to more scrutiny than people of other religions (49% vs. 20%).
  15. Tom Engelhrtd, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World, 2014;
  16. Ernesto Gallo and Giovanni Biava, “Democracy in the Asian Century” Open Democracy, 18 February 2014,
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