The process of becoming a democracy. The word was first used by Bryce in 1888. Bryce identified the process as beginning with the French Revolution. If democracy is equated with the franchise, the first wave of democratization was a slow one, spreading from France and some states in the United States in the 1790s to most of the industrialized world by 1918. After both the First and Second World Wars, there were wavelets of democratization. Woodrow Wilson's championing of self‐determination encouraged the first one, and the second was encouraged by independence movements in Western colonies, particularly in Africa and in Asia. However, the rise of communism and fascism rolled back the first; and internal strife in former colonies rolled back the second. A so‐called Third Wave of democratization started in the early 1970s. By the year 2000 there were, according to Freedom House, one hundred and twenty democracies in the world, the highest number yet recorded. Moreover, the proportion of countries in the world that are democratic vis‐à‐vis non‐democratic ones is higher than ever before (63 per cent). The Third Wave started in Southern Europe with the demise of military dictatorships in Portugal (1974), Spain (1976), and Greece (1976), and then extended to Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, the Far East, South‐East Asia, and sub‐Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 1990s.
Scholars followed a substantive approach to analyse democratization in the 1960s. The core assumptions underlying this approach are that democratization in any given country is a gradual, long‐term historical process, and that democratization is a broad phenomenon, which is not only political, but also economic and social. This type of analysis emphasized the ‘prerequisites of democracy’. The basic hypothesis was that the richer and more prosperous a country gets, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy. The substantive approach's most important weakness was probably the fact that its core assumptions encouraged engagement with the analysis of long‐run historical processes at the expense of assessing the short‐run. This was clearly seen soon after the Third Wave of democratization started. The substantive approach was unable to account for the possibility of short‐term political democratization, particularly in countries outside the core of Western industrialized democracies. Moreover, once democratization spread from Southern Europe in the 1970s to Latin America in the 1980s, and to Central and Eastern Europe and the Far East in the 1990s, this approach did not possess the tool kit to analyse short‐term political conjunctures.
The so‐called procedural approach shifted the attention from democracy (an outcome) to democratization (a dynamic process). D. A. Rustow concluded that the factors that keep a democracy stable are not necessarily the ones that brought it into existence. Explanations of democracy must distinguish between function and genesis. This crucial distinction allowed analysts to overcome the emphasis on the long‐run and on democracy as an outcome, and to focus instead on the short‐run and on the dynamic process of democratization. As the Third Wave of democratization showed, democratic regimes could be, and indeed were, born and developed in a couple of years throughout the world. The possibility of democratization processes in the short‐run also allowed Rustow to establish concepts that became central to the study of the Third Wave such as transitions and consolidation (he called it ‘habituation’). These concepts established a time horizon that permitted one to distinguish stages of democratization in the short‐term.