The flourishing diffusion literature has documented that external impulses matter and begun to explore why they matter, but it has not yet analyzed the substantial differences in the patterns and features of diffusion processes. Examining this issue, the book highlights a counterintuitive finding: Over the last 200 years, there has been a striking slowdown in the spread of political regime contention in the Western world – despite faster communication, easier transportation, and denser global networks. Surprisingly, the most dramatic wave of conflicts over regime change occurred early in democratization history, namely in 1848. By comparison, the much-discussed “third wave,” sometimes called a “tsunami” (Drake 2009: ch. 7) due to its momentous impact, unfolded in Latin America at a rather glacial pace from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s (Markoff 2009: 58), very different from the true tsunami of 1848.
At the same time, the success of externally triggered conflict in producing actual advances toward liberalism and democracy has increased. Whereas the riptide of 1848 left behind many failures and frustrations, the third wave was mostly successful in producing actual transitions toward democracy in the two regions under investigation, Europe and Latin America. This increase in goal achievement is especially noteworthy because with the elimination of suffrage restrictions and other formal-institutional limitations of democracy, gradual advances, such as the sequence of British electoral reforms from 1832 to 1928, became infeasible; in the late twentieth century, regime change tended to entail a full transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Yet although the task became more demanding, emulative regime contention during the third wave attained much more success in accomplishing this task. And while modernization theories argue that socioeconomic development produced a secular increase in the chances for democratic transition as well, these claims are hotly debated, especially with respect to Latin America (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán forthcoming: ch. 4). For this study, which does not explain the objective advance of democracy, but the success of externally inspired efforts to advance toward democracy, the increase in oppositionists’ rate of goal achievement is notable.