Putin and Chávez are using oil money to create other models, while others just step back.
The spread of democracy has been one of the defining geopolitical trends of the last 25 years. In 1975, 30 nations of the world had popularly elected governments. By 2005 that number had rocketed to 119.
But in recent years the growth of democracy and political freedom has slowed. In a number of countries – such as Venezuela and some of the former Soviet states – it's even begun to slip backward.
And for the first time since the heyday of communism, democracy may be facing competition from an ideology that styles itself as an alternative. Enriched by oil money, autocrats such as Vladimir Putin of Russia and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez are challenging the importance of checks on executive power, the rule of law, and unfettered media.
"They are trying to redefine democracy and dumb it down," says Thomas Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House, a think tank that promotes democracy and rates the performance of governments around the world.
First, the good news. The days when the United States and the Soviet Union seemed locked in a great wrestling match over the ideological fate of the world are long gone. After the collapse of Soviet-style communism as a competitive alternative to representational government, popular votes became the norm in much of the globe.
Historians of the future may judge this to be the era of democracy's triumph.
"In the last quarter of the twentieth century this form of government enjoyed a remarkable rise. Once confined to a handful of wealthy countries, it became, in a short period of time, the most popular political system in the world," writes Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
What we know as democracy today is really the fusion of two things, notes Mandelbaum: popular sovereignty, or voting; and individual liberty or freedom. It's easy to hold a national referendum, but establishing liberty is much more difficult, as it requires laws, police, legislatures, and other institutional trappings of freedom.