Democratic Waves in Historical Perspective
by Seva Gunitsky, University of Toronto
For over two centuries, the evolution of democracy has been marked by repeated democratic waves. Yet these cross-border bursts of revolution and reform have varied widely in their origins, intensity, and success rates. How do we compare cascades of regime change, and what lessons do they offer about the spread of democracy? I lay out a historical framework of democratic waves that focuses on recurring causal mechanisms across time. Thirteen democratic waves are categorized according to two dimensions: 1) the origins of external influence, located in either vertical hegemonic transformations or in horizontal cross-border linkages; 2) the strength of external influence, taking the form of contagion when outside forces dominate and emulation when domestic focal points shape the timing of contention. This approach allows for more meaningful comparisons between these important, recurring, yet seemingly incomparable democratic waves. More generally, it suggests that the global history of democracy cannot be reduced to the sum of its national trajectories.