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II. Theory, Application, and Evidence
B. Economic Preconditions
C. Social Preconditions
D. Timing, Sequencing, and Politics
E. Agency and Advocacy
F. External Actors
III. Policy Implications
IV. Future Directions
Over the past two generations, few topics in comparative politics have generated as much research and debate as the twin subjects of democratization and democratic consolidation. Scholarship in recent decades can be seen as part of what has been a longer-standing comparative politics literature dating back to the early post–World War II period that examined subjects such as “requisites of democracy” (Lipset, 1959, p. 69) and preconditions of democratic governance (Dahl, 1971). However, it was not until what would become known as the third wave of democratization started building with the overthrow of the Portuguese military government in 1973 that the debates about democracy became one of the preeminent topics in the field. Over the course of the past 35 years, there have been a multitude of spirited debates as scholars have sought to explain what leads to democratization and how, once democratic, governments can stay democratic. What follows is an attempt to synthesize this twin body of work by examining the key arguments that have been made in the most important works within the scholarly literature.
This research paper seeks to examine the different streams of the debates in the democratization and consolidation literatures over the past decades. The first section provides a lengthy discussion of the major theoretical contributions in the study of democratization and democratic consolidation, with special attention given to the larger debates that have gripped the field over the years. The 22 key factors thought to influence prospects for democracy are grouped into six categories and discussed at some length. The following section details the policy implications that stem from the processes of democratization and examines the broader impact these debates have had on democracy promotion and foreign policies of states, large and small. The next section sketches the likely future avenues of research that will be fruitful as further refinement of arguments about factors influencing a democratic turn (or departure) in states around the world. And the concluding section provides a summary of the bigger issues discussed in this research paper and synthesizes the wide-ranging information by listing the key conclusions that can be drawn from the literature. In addition, after the summary, there is a listing of the major works cited in this article and other scholarship that would be of interest for a more in-depth examination of the topic of democracy and democratic consolidation in the field of comparative politics.
II. Theory, Application, and Evidence
Theoretical debates about democratization and democratic consolidation have been some of the most contested and plentiful of any of the theoretical debates in comparative politics and political science. Over the course of the post–World War II period, scholars have researched and theorized as to the factors that best explain the turn toward democracy in nondemocratic regimes and the factors that lead to the continuity of democracy and the point at which a state can be considered “safely democratic” or a consolidated democratic country. This section of the research paper outlines the 22 explanations that are thought to be the most important ones influencing democratization and the movement toward democracy around the world. These factors are those that are thought to have influenced “early” democratizing countries like the United States and France, as well as impacting those cases that could be considered to be part of the grouping of countries that moved toward democratic rule in the latter part of the 20th century.
Samuel Huntington (1991), in his seminal book on democracy and democratization, has called these historical periods in which large numbers of countries around the world democratize the three “waves” of democratization. The first wave is considered to be the “long wave,” which took place from the late 18th century until the aftermath of World War I. Although the states that took the democratic path then were few, it was during this period that what would become key long-standing democratic states in North America, Europe, and other parts of the English-speaking world democratized. The second wave is considered to be the time that began in the aftermath of World War II and continued for the better part of two decades. The second wave was largely the result of decolonization and the systemic effects resulting from allied occupation of and involvement in certain countries and territories in the aftermath of large-scale war in Asia and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Huntington’s arguments, the third wave of democracy started in southern Europe in 1974 and continued into the 1990s. This period is associated with the ending of authoritarian regimes throughout almost all regions of the world and especially the fall of the Communist regimes in Europe in the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s.
This research paper breaks the explanatory factors thought to lead to (or promote) democratization into six different categorical groups. Recent decades have seen comparative scholars argue that a multitude of factors have led to countries’ becoming democratic. Likewise, many arguments have attempted to account for the consolidation of democracy in certain cases but not in others. Although there have been bitter disagreements in the subfield as to which variables are the most important, this research paper attempts to steer clear of “taking sides” and instead provides a template of the major debates within the literature. The variables discussed in this paper are based on discussions and synthesis by Huntington (1991), Linz and Stepan (1996), Sörensen (2008), and Tilly (2007) and represent the past several decades of scholarship.
The first category of factors that are thought to create a positive environment for democracy and democratization is modernization. This is the classic explanation for democracy and dominated our understanding in the early decades of the debate. The second category includes those variables that can be grouped into economic preconditions. These are factors that have distinct causal mechanisms related to economics or economic development. The third category contains all explanations that are based on what may be labeled social preconditions. This category includes a range of explanatory factors, from social structure to metalevel cultural explanations. The fourth group of factors is factors dependent on timing, sequencing, and politics. This category includes arguments that have some distinct and explicit treatment of the temporal element of democratization throughout the world. The fifth category includes agency and advocacy rooted explanations. These are factors rooted in the activities of social or civil organizations. The sixth category covers explanations related to external and foreign effects and democratic experiential arguments. All these explanations consider the impact of nondomestic sources of influences on democracy and democratic consolidation.
One of the longest-standing categories of explanations as to why countries democratize has to do with what can be called modernization or modernization theory. While this has been one of the most contested and tested arguments in the literature, even after 50 years it remains an important area of research into the sometimes necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) conditions for democracy and democratic governance in states. First formulated in the 1950s, during a period that much later would come to be thought of as the end of the global second wave of democratization, modernization theory suggested that certain factors were necessary for democracy to take root in states across the world. Basically, Lipset (1959), and later others, argued that certain factors such as high levels of wealth, higher degrees of urbanization, better educated populations, and increased industrialization would lead to pressures for democracy and democratization. All these factors that were typically associated with what was labeled modernization were thought to be the crucial underpinnings of the movement toward democracy in much of the world. As the state became more capable, thanks to economic development and the rationalization of state–society interactions due to modernization, democracy would become more viable and increasingly effective. These supporting pressures were thought to allow for “democratic awakenings” (and later consolidation) in states around the world.
However, Lipset and the early modernization theorists were not without their critics. Scholars in later years would argue that modernization theory was reliant on a handful of cases in North America and Europe and that the processes Lipset and others described did not necessarily always play a supportive role. Scholars would come to criticize many of the suppositions and causal linkages of modernization theory. Some would reverse the causation and say that in certain contexts, authoritarian regimes could be supported or empowered by the very factors thought to sustain democracy under the modernization model. For example, Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens (1992) would make the case that this growing state strength could allow authoritarian regimes to push back against democratic forces within a country. O’Donnell (1973) reversed the directional arrows altogether and made the case that the modernizers had it all wrong and that under certain conditions, a strengthened state and antidemocratic elites could forge an alliance to overturn democracy precisely because of modernization. He argued that the nature of lopsided economic development and empowerment of certain business and administrative factions in Latin American countries meant that an increase in incomes and gross domestic product could actually undermine democracy. Later, other scholars would argue that modernization arguments that democratic advocates would be activated in the middle classes as the result of improving social and economic conditions were faulty as well. Critics have also claimed that under certain cases of modernization, there could be an increase in societal tensions along group lines (Diamond, 1989) or an increase in antidemocratic tendencies among elites in modernizing societies (Moore, 1966).
B. Economic Preconditions
Closely related to modernization theory, economic factors have been thought to impact the likelihood of democratization in three particular ways. It is helpful to look more closely at each of them in isolation and examine the ways that previous comparative political theorizing has posited that economic factors are important in the movement toward democracy and democratic consolidation. The first economic variable that scholars have thought significant in democratization is wealth. This is typically considered to be measured by gross domestic product per capita so as to account for differential population size across nations. Lipset (1959) was among the first scholars to explain the manifest prevalence of wealthier countries among democratic countries. In later years, the thesis that wealth leads to democracy would undergo some amount of revision as scholars began to test the linkages put forward by Lipset and the modernization theorists.
As Przeworski and Limongi (1997) and Przeworski, Alvarez, Cheibub, and Limongi (2000) have detailed, we must break down our discussion of wealth and its impact into different temporal relationships with the likelihood of democracy. For example, they argue that we should think of the relationship as being either endogenous or exoge nous when we think of the mechanisms by which wealth is related to prospects for democracy. Their argument is that there is little support for the theory that higher amounts of endogenous wealth lead to greater likelihood of transition. Yet there does seem to be support for an exogenous relationship— that once democratic, countries that are wealthier tend to stay democratic to a greater degree than do those countries that are less wealthy. Although the distinction might seem minor, it gets at the heart of the debate about which processes and factors lead to democratization and to democratic consolidation. Many scholars argue that the effects are seemingly minor on the democratization side but paramount on the consolidation side. Later scholars have questioned whether these findings hold up for different regions and in different times. In certain regions in certain times, there is more likely to be a transition from authoritarian rule to democratic rule in any given year and in any given case as a country becomes wealthier.
Another notable exception to the wealth-causes-democracy line of inquiry in the literature is the antidemocratic tendencies seen to result from “bad” types of wealth. Specifically, an area of research suggests that countries with strong dependence on a resource that generates great wealth, such as oil, have greater difficulties transitioning to democracy and sustaining democracy over the longer term. Scholars in recent decades have used this argument to make the case that the problems with democracy over the years in countries as divergent as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, Mexico, and Nigeria are the result of oil wealth’s “cursing” democratic governance. In a related area of research, there is a long-standing finding in the economic literature that natural resource abundance can, under certain conditions, lead to depressed development and uncompetitive industry because of economic distortions caused by the very reliance on a resource that is generating a large amount of foreign currency and goods. The basic argument in terms of democracy is that the “easy wealth” captured by the state from the export of the natural resource (oftentimes thought to be most pernicious in the case of oil) leads to antidemocratic tendencies in the state because of increased reliance on corporatist and clientistic governing mechanisms. Although there are cases where this problem is thought to be minimal (Norway), many scholars make a clear distinction between “good wealth” and “bad wealth.”
The second economic precondition thought to condition the likelihood of democratization and prospects for democratic consolidation is the effects of capitalism and free market economies. Scholars such as Almond (1991), Dahl (1989), and others have argued that key supporting features of democracy built into the practice of capitalism and the functioning of free and open markets serve to reinforce democracy and democratic practices. Almond, in his seminal piece on capitalism and democracy, reviewed the various arguments that have sought to link the practice of capitalism with support for democracy. As well, Dahl has argued that the linkage is clear and that definite patterns of support result from economic development that comes about in capitalist systems. In addition, capitalism also allows for the creation of other independent factors thought to support the turn toward democracy. Specifically, it is thought to result in many instances in an expansion of the middle class and empowerment of social and economic interests via capitalist development. These are then thought to aid in democratization and democratic consolidation.
The third economic precondition thought to positively influence chances for democratization and democratic consolidation is the equitable distribution of, and access to, land and resources. The roots of this argument are based on the expectation that more equitable and egalitarian societies provide the support necessary for democracy to take hold. As Moore (1966) and Dahl (1989) have suggested, societies with less polarized resource distribution and less concentrated landholding patterns are thought to reinforce elite and interest group participation in stabilized “rules of the game” that democracy provides. In more polarized, less egalitarian land and resource situations, it is thought that a winner-take-all circumstance could lead to destabilizing and antidemocratic tendencies. Although both Moore and Dahl acknowledge that equitable distribution of land and resources is not a sufficient cause of democracy and democratic stability, it is thought that already polarized group-based societies could dangerously reinforce conflict that could harm progress toward democratization. Scholars in recent years have pointed to the lack of this condition in many cases around the world as one of the key reasons for the few “new” cases of democracy in the past decade or so.
C. Social Preconditions
The next category of causal mechanisms that have been thought to be supportive of democratization and democratic consolidation contains those that can be labeled social preconditions. The first of these is thought to be that the absence of a history of feudalism (as well as non-European feudalistic traditions) is better for the flourishing of democracy. Moore (1966) counts the longer-term effects of feudal social structures as one of the more important factors lessening the prospects for democracy in certain cases, with the basic tenets of the argument suggesting that a rigid social system casts a shadow and has debilitating effects in the longer term. While this condition is associated with some of the others discussed in this research paper (especially land use patterns and the degree of pluralism within society), it is distinct in that scholars have explored the narrower effects of previous feudal relationships on later relative strength of antidemocratic forces in certain cases.
The second social precondition is what can be labeled a “strong bourgeoisie,” in the words of Moore (1966), or a strong middle class. Although functionally different in classical definition, a strong middle class and a strong bourgeoisie have come to be discussed in unison in recent years. These concepts are also related to other social conditions discussed in this section. Moore’s comparative history of democratization in several important cases led him to argue that one of the most crucial inputs for successful democratization (and longer-term democratic sustainability) was the existence of a linchpin supporter of democracy in the form of a bourgeoisie class. The bourgeoisie serves as the stabilizing influence over and in favor of regularized and transparent political processes that can be best handled by democratic forms of government. After democratization, the bourgeoisie serves as the primary sustainer of consolidation in the face of antidemocratic tendencies among elites and lower classes, both rural and urban. Similarly, as argued by Putnam (1993) in his analysis of relative democracy across the regions of Italy, the middle classes can serve as a buffer between the extremes of the political landscape and lead to a necessary underpinning of democracy and democratic governance.
The third social precondition that is argued to be important to democratization and democratic consolidation is Protestantism. The root of this argument can be found in the much earlier arguments of the early-20th-century German sociologist Max Weber and his arguments about the supportive framework that Protestantism provides for capitalism. In later scholarship, researchers such as Wiarda (1982) argued that Latin America’s difficult experience with democracy and democratic stability during the post–World War II period was the result of the detrimental effects of Catholicism on the social structure in the region. Many of the arguments that have been made about Protestantism serving as a source of support for democracy are nested in reasoning that traces how it leads to higher levels of accountability and citizen participation in political life, which enables democracy to take hold in different cases. Nevertheless, these arguments are much contested by many scholars, and the longer-term viability of some of the findings has been limited.
The fourth social precondition that scholars have cited as being instrumental in supporting democratization and democratic consolidation is the basket of arguments that concern political culture, civic culture, and values. This line of inquiry argues that there are certain societies that have, at the macrocultural level, attributes and tendencies that support the democratic project. Almond and Verba (1963) and Inglehart (1990) make arguments that this is a key explanatory variable that determines the relative likelihood of successful democratization and consolidation. Scholars that have made these types of cultural arguments contend that these core, slow-moving, society-wide values greatly impact a country’s experience with democratic governance. In the end, it is thought by proponents of this line of thinking that unsupportive values and political cultures will lead to repeated democratic setbacks and reversals, with prospects for long-term democracy possible only after a change in those values and the macroculture.
The fifth and final social precondition variable thought to impact prospects for democracy is that cultural homo geneity is a positive force for democracy and democratic consolidation. This argument suggests that in situations in which there are significant societal cleavages or ingroup–outgroup patterns of polarization, democracy is difficult to promote and sustain. Scholars point to the early outposts of (relatively) homogeneous countries in North America and Europe as transitioning to democracy more quickly, and trace out the causes of democratic reversals in Asia and Latin America as being the result of group conflict and heterogeneous societies. There have been glaring exceptions to this precondition, with highly diverse countries such as India having successful democratic track records in the latter half of the 20th century.
D. Timing, Sequencing, and Politics
An additional category of explanations for successful democratization and democratic consolidations focuses on distinctly political patterns, sequencing, and timing. The first argument is that the development of contested politics before the expansion of suffrage and participation leads to a greater chance of a successful democratic experience. The logic here is that newly democratizing countries cannot handle the system shock of having the political system open up all at once and that a lasting commitment to democratic practices can result only after years or decades of successful political competition among a narrow band of a polity. Scholars point to the United States and Great Britain and their respective many-decades-long opening up of political participation by group and gender well after regularized political competition among a smaller band of society (in each case by landed, white males at the start). Although this argument is difficult to advocate in terms of a policy prescription, researchers have pointed to it as a source of democratic breakdown in Latin American and Asian cases in particular.
A second trait is this category is the importance of low levels of civil violence, polarization, and extremism in the likelihood of democracy and consolidation. The logic here is fairly straightforward: In conditions of instability and violence, actors at the elite and mass levels are less likely to commit to regularized and open democratic governance when there are immediate threats to their lives and livelihoods. Because democracy and democratic consolidation require commitments to future payoffs despite possible near-term loss of political power, violence and extreme polarization can stop a turn toward democracy in its infant stages. Until there is a brokered and longer-term cessation of these types of problems, scholars have argued, democracy is unlikely to be successful.
A third trait in this category is the fairly uncomplicated experience argument. Theorizing and empirical research have consistently demonstrated that democratization is rarely successful on the first go-round (Przeworski et al., 2000). Countries that have had prior experience with democracy are more likely to revert to it sometime in the future than are countries with no sort of democratic tradition or “practice.” Two sets of logic in the literature support this trait. One, if a country has had some form of democratic experience, democracy will be perceived by groups within that society as a possible “real” option in the future. And two, previous iterations of democracy have likely left behind building blocks of future democracy: political parties and civic groups that likely have a permanent openness toward democratic governance.
A fourth trait in this category is Tilly’s (2007) recent conception of trust networks and categorical equality. Specifically, he has argued that the subjugation of the state to public politics, along with expanding popular control over that political game, results in regularized control over governance. This regularized control over governance leads to the formation of trust networks as people become willing to abide by the set rules of the democratic game. And, in a supporting role from the other direction, the state monitors antidemocratic tendencies and groups and seeks to eliminate these threats before they undermine the democratic project.
E. Agency and Advocacy
The next category of explanations relates to specific actions and work by elements (individuals and groups) within society. It is thought that agency and specific activities can play a supporting role in democratization and democratic consolidation. The first of these agency-based explanations is what has come to be known as the “elite pacts” argument. First formulated by O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986), this argument holds that in order for transitions to democracy to be successful and long lasting, top-society groups must forge agreements about democracy’s ability to regularize political competition among competing elite groups. These privileged groups, therefore, would agree not to “kick over the table” (i.e., support nondemocratic and authoritarian governments). The argument here is that “pacted democratization” is necessary, especially in societies and cases in which elite groups have had extreme and polarized patterns of political interactions. O’Donnell and Schmitter pointed to many Latin American and southern European cases as having democratized successfully, primarily because of top-level agreements among politically powerful groups.
The second agency-based explanation for successful democracy and democratic consolidation revolves around arguments that active civil societies create the necessary conditions for the turn toward democracy and, later, its consolidation. This line of inquiry and theorizing is rooted in the type of analysis provided by Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French writer and political observer who identified the richness and diversity of civic life in the United States as the critical underpinning of its democratic life. The thrust of the argument is that an activated and engaged mass public will deliver sustained democratization pressures via the measures resulting from regularized, collective interaction.
The third explanation in this category is related to the richness of civil society argument noted above. However, this explanation is rooted in the impact of the character of the social groups themselves. The argument is that all social and civic groups are not created equal. Some have greater impact on prospects for democracy and democratic consolidation. Mass democracy becomes more likely when microlevel democracy is present in groups that have a direct or instrumental role in political life. Political parties and policy-oriented social groups that operate in a democratic manner are likely to lead to “spillover democracy” in general political life.
F. External Actors
The final set of explanations for democratization’s birth and growth all revolve around the role and legacy of external actors. First, it has been argued that intervention by a foreign party, under certain conditions, can lead to democratization. Likewise, according to some scholars, support and prodemocratic pressure from abroad can lead to increased likelihood of democracy’s taking hold. The successful and rapid democratization of Japan and West Germany following World War II is pointed to as a successful example of foreign influence on newly democratizing countries. Although the involvement of a foreign power in a country’s political affairs is oftentimes antidemocratic, there is some evidence that clearly prodemocratic influence from an outside force can lead to increased chances for democratic survival.
A second type of external argument is called the diffusion effect. Specifically, this argument suggests that the diffusion of democracy by geographical or temporal clusters has its own stand-alone effect separate from the component parts or similarities of cases. In other words, a distinct “wave effect” accounts for part of the democratization that occurs in similar time periods and in certain regions of the world. Whether this effect is due to creation of possible options in the minds of key actors within countries or reflects a metalevel supporting environment, many scholars have suggested that diffusion helps explain why and when democratization occurs and consolidates.
A third type of external argument is that something about the colonial experiences of certain states conditions pathways to democratic governance. In particular, scholars have argued that the British colonial experience is distinct from other colonial experiences (namely, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc.) and that former British colonies are more likely to be democracies than are other former colonies. The key argument here is that the specific components of the British colonial experience—especially professionalized bureaucracies, elements of the Westminster parliamentary system, and elite education systems—cast a long shadow that increases the likelihood of successful democratization and democratic consolidation.
III. Policy Implications
A host of policy implications result from the wider theoretical literature on democratization and democratic consolidation. Lessons from the research could be applied by individual countries, foreign powers, and nongovernmental organizations. Although the democratization literature contains some contradictory arguments, by and large it identifies a baseline level of standard supporting components for increasing the numbers of democracies in the world. Trends in many of these areas can be found in the yearly Freedom in the World Report by Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org). This section discusses briefly the key variables that should be improved in order to increase the number of democracies in the world and to stabilize and consolidate those already in existence.
On the economic front, it is generally thought that economic development and the alleviation of poverty will lead to increased prospects for democracy. Incorporation of some elements of the market economy and modernization will also lead to a supportive environment. In some cases, there should be a certain amount of land reform or redistribution if the society has skewed distributions of wealth, and natural resources should be held in a way that benefits the vast majority of the population. None of these policy suggestions are sufficient for democracy and the consolidation of democracy, but the theoretical literature generally agrees that these types of reforms and policies would be supportive.
On the social and political fronts, it is thought that all efforts should be made toward alleviating the tensions associated with civil strife that is the result of group difference. Institutional reforms should be adopted that would allow for less friction in a country’s political life. As well, it is believed that civic groups and nongovernmental organizations should be empowered so as to provide a further building block of regularized and peaceful political organization and interaction.
IV. Future Directions
Research in comparative politics and international relations on democratization and democratic consolidation has a long and rich history of theoretically informed scholarship. In addition, the subfield faces challenges and associated research questions. First, future research needs to do a better job of explaining the conditions under which these 22 factors positively reinforce democracy and democratic consolidation. Does their effect vary to a large degree by region and time? Research must also address the way these processes relate to each other and what the policy implications are for governments. Second, future research needs to explain democratic reversals and backsliding. The slowing of democratization around the world in the past decade has also corresponded to instances of democratic death and decline in certain cases. What can existing theory say about the reasons for these problems and what are the warning signs of a “failure to consolidate”?
As we move toward the 40th anniversary of the start of the third wave, we seem to have a limited understanding of what constitutes full consolidation, instead of what might merely be “not failed as of yet.” Tilly (2007) has attempted to sketch out an agenda for what research into “dedemocratization” might look like, but there is a long way to go before we have a comprehensive framework by which we can explain what leads to the formative stages of problems in democracy. And finally, it seems that with the “stabilizing” (or lack of democratic gains) of the number of democratic states around the world in recent years, we do not have a solid understanding of the most important factors in determining where democracy’s next footholds will likely be and when they might take place. Although comparative politics and students of democratization hesitate to engage in predictive and proscriptive analysis, because of the real security issues now faced around the world, a proper engagement of this line of inquiry must occur as theory building continues.
This research paper has surveyed the divergent strands of 50 years of comparative politics scholarship on the topic of democratization and democratic consolidation and concentrated on the most influential and most debated factors over recent decades. These factors coalesce into six categories: modernization; economic preconditions; social preconditions; timing, sequencing, and politics; agency and advocacy; and external actors and experience. Identifying these categories highlights the causal mechanisms that scholars think have increased the numbers of democratic states around the world. In addition, many of these factors promote the consolidation of democracy once it has been established in a particular case. Although many of the factors have had their respective advocates and detractors over the years, nearly all of them continue to be thought important, both in the academic world and in the real world of governance.
We can also see the broad outlines of what areas of research and theorizing still need attention after the past half century of debate. Lipset published “Some Social Requisites of Democracy” in 1959, and since that time, comparative politics research has made great strides in explaining the relationship between various factors and democratic governance around the world. Because of geopolitical realities and the continued debates surrounding democracy promotion and economic development around the world, it is likely that an examination of the processes of democratization and democratic consolidation will continue to be a key topic in comparative politics. Large numbers of scholars continue to ask important questions, and the nature of politics in many states around the world suggests that the real-world implications will continue to drive the debates forward. In all likelihood, the next half century will see further important contributions to this line of inquiry, and there will surely be additional sophistication in the models seeking to identify the causal mechanisms of democratization and democratic consolidation.
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