At a virtual panel discussion last week, Thomas Carothers, an expert on democratization at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed to a global trend that he said should inform democracy assistance programs going forward: the “equalization of the political terrain.”
“The old idea that there’s a set of countries called ‘established democracies’ that largely have solved their democratic problems and are working on the details, and then a set of countries, ‘new or struggling democracies,’ that are grappling with fundamental challenges—that old division is gone,” Carothers explained at the event, hosted by the Parliamentary Centre, a think tank in Ottawa, Canada. “Democracies all around the world are struggling with many of the same problems, and therefore the idea that there’s a ‘protected zone’ and a ‘struggling zone’ has to be removed from our minds. We have to think of democracy as a large terrain with a lot of similarities across the divisions that have existed in the past.”
It was a surprising statement. For decades, democracy experts like Carothers have discussed political systems in terms of their place on a spectrum, with strong, consolidated democracies—like the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom—on one end, and totalitarian states like North Korea on the other. In the middle are hybrid regimes, where citizens enjoy some rights and freedoms, but with significant restrictions on political space.