Political Development and Modernization Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Modernization Theory

III. Applications, Empirical Evidence, and Critiques

A. Political Order in Changing Societies

B. Dependency Theory

C. Natural Resource Curse and Modernization Theory

D. Survival Theory

E. Summary of Lessons From Modernization Theory

IV. Policy Implications for Promoting Democratization

V. Future Directions

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Political science has long been concerned with how to establish systems allowing us “to be free from hunger and repression.” Political development implies that some governments are better at accomplishing these goals than others are. Although we should be careful not to idealize democracy with all its imperfections— and indeed Samuel Huntington would remind us that political order matters more—many agree that democracy in some form is preferable to the wide array of nondemocratic systems of government. Modernization refers to economic development and the transformation from agricultural to industrial societies, along with corresponding social and cultural shifts (although the use of terms such as modern and primitive has been criticized as inappropriately stereotyping certain cultures from a Western perspective).

The central question of how economic conditions are linked with the emergence of democracy or dictatorship has been a topic of interest from the time of ancient scholars through contemporary political science. Aristotle noted that democracy could not function well in a society in which a large proportion of the population lived in poverty. In a study of early American democracy, Tocqueville (1835) also noted that democratic systems would suffer in societies with great economic inequality; where inequality and democracy coexisted, class cleavages would define politics and the poor would vote to redistribute wealth from the rich. Reacting to the spread of Communism around the world beginning in the 1950s, scholars and politicians in democratic countries concerned themselves with the necessary prerequisites of a democratic society, including economic factors, in order to predict which countries were likely to become or stay democratic. On the collapse of many communist regimes in the early 1990s, our attention again turned to explaining the relationship between economics and politics as countries struggled to transition to democracy and to market-based economies simultaneously. Questions about the prerequisites for successful democracy have continued to be relevant more recently in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

This research paper traces the study of political development and modernization. First, it discusses the origins and development of modernization theory, which encompasses a set of explanations linking economic, social, and cultural changes with shifts in political systems. Modernization theory is a starting point for understanding how contemporary political scientists approach this topic. It puts forth the notion that economic development leads to social and cultural changes that alter the political behavior of citizens and ultimately result in democratic governments. Second, the paper turns to the empirical evidence supporting modernization theory and critiques of the theory’s larger applicability around the world. Critics suggest that some types of economic development might actually prove to be destabilizing, rather than advancing the social and cultural elements that provide the foundation for democratic societies. Others have suggested that although wealth does not explain the emergence of democracy, the odds of a country’s remaining democratic are higher in richer countries. Third, this research paper reviews the policy implications of what scholars have learned about the connection between economic and political changes. Finally, it looks to future directions in research on political development and modernization.

II. Modernization Theory

Modernization theory refers to a group of explanations linking economic development and accompanying social transformations with the type of political system that emerges. The basic story of modernization theory is as follows: As countries modernize economically, they transition from agricultural to industrial societies. Industrialization results in urbanization, which means that more of the population lives in cities in which they have greater access to information, media, and education. Increasing economic wealth, which accompanies industrialization, results in a growing middle class that begins to participate more in politics and make demands on the government. Ultimately, the resulting changes in mass political behavior make the emergence and survival of democratic governments more likely. The emphasis in this branch of research is on the stages of development from more traditional to more advanced societies. Countries are all on a similar path, but some countries are further along than others, and ultimately we should expect to see all countries develop democratic systems, albeit at different rates. For instance, in The System of Modern Societies, Talcott Parsons (1971) examines the development of the state in the context of Western Europe, detailing how societies evolve from traditional to modern ones.

Critically, these early sociological explanations of modernization were based almost exclusively on the Western European context. As economic development progressed according to Western trends such as industrialization, politics would change as well. Karl Deutsch (1953, 1961) suggested that socioeconomic development alters mass behavior in politics. In doing so, Deutsch developed the concept of social mobilization, a critical component of the modernization process. Social mobilization denotes changes happening in a large portion of a society as it transitions from being traditional to being modern. For instance, as countries industrialize and rely less on agricultural production, urbanization provides individuals and groups with the exposure to information and the resources with which to participate in politics. Urbanization, education, and the development of new social networks and roles in society are all part of social mobilization, which, ultimately, leads individuals to make new demands on their governments. Deutsch notes, however, that the democratic participation resulting from social mobilization might manifest as communal riots and civil wars, not the peaceful types of participation, such as voting, that we typically associate with democracies today. In whatever form it takes, mass political participation should threaten the continued existence of governments that do not respond to citizens, thereby paving the way for more democratic societies.

In keeping with the important role of social mobilization in development, the effects of modernization alter how citizens view themselves in connection with the state. In The Passing of the Traditional Society, Daniel Lerner (1958/2000) uses a case study of a Turkish village to examine the effects of the transition from a “traditional” to a “modern” society. Lerner concludes that modernization—through exposure to mass communication, increasing literacy, and new transportation networks— profoundly alters the way that individuals see themselves in the state. Individuals go from seeing themselves as subjects of the state to citizens who have the leverage to make demands on their rulers.

Seymour Martin Lipset (1959, 1960) argues that modernization is likely to spur the establishment of democracy as well as its survival. As countries develop economically, they also become more complex, and in particular, the development of a stronger middle class will allow for the development of a more politically active civil society. Lipset notes that education is likely to encourage the development of citizens who are aware of their government and are more likely to participate by making demands. Even in developed countries, we know that more educated citizens are more likely to participate (although the effect of individual education and wealth on political participation varies by country). Through this process, governments will be forced to make concessions to the empowered and increasingly politically aware middle class, or the regimes will fall due to uprisings. These concessions will eventually produce democracies.

The middle class was thought to be a critical component of the modernization process such that, in explaining the origins of democracy, Barrington Moore (1966) concludes, “no bourgeois, no democracy” (p. 418). One example of the critical role played by the middle class can be seen in the English state-building process. The development of wool manufacturing in England created an increasingly wealthy middle class. Sheep were easier to hide from the state than resources such as land, making the taxation of the wool industry difficult. To successfully collect revenue, the English state was forced to make concessions to the middle class, which in turn spurred the development of a different type of citizen–state relations. Thus, the development of an empowered middle class was the beginning of a more democratic basis of government in which citizens had more influence.

Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens (1992) offer a twist on class-based explanations, arguing that it is not an expansion of the middle class, but rather a shift in the balance of power among the classes, that explains democratization. When economic changes weaken the powerful upper class in relation to subordinate classes, democratization will occur. In a notable departure from traditional modernization theory, they conclude that the middle class often opposed further democratization after having gained some initial concessions from the state. Carles Boix (2003) also argues that it is not the growth of the middle class alone, but the balance of power among social classes, the nature of economic resources, and the distribution of wealth that influence the formation of democracy. Nonetheless, even by these different accounts, class politics and the middle class play a central, if not exclusive, role in changes in the political system.

Building on modernization theory, scholars have also suggested that democracies emerged and succeeded when certain norms and beliefs were present. The idea that certain norms are necessary for democracies to function well suggests an important qualification to modernization theory. If socioeconomic changes do not alter the beliefs and norms of citizens, then we should not expect modernization to increase the likelihood that a successful democracy will be established.

In seeking to understand the cultural basis of democracy, political scientists began to bring survey research into the discipline. The Civic Culture, by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba (1963), is a seminal study in comparative political behavior and relies on survey research. They argue that a certain set of beliefs makes it likely that a country will be able to establish a well-functioning democratic system of government. According to Almond and Verba, democracies flourish in pluralistic cultures based on communication and persuasion, consensus building, diversity, and representation in governing bodies. They identify three types of citizens—parochials, subjects, and participants. Parochials are those who are completely politically unaware; subjects are politically aware and are subservient to the state but do not participate; and participants are politically aware and actively engage in the political system through activities such as voting. Democracies have the largest number of participants. The least developed systems have many parochials, as in a feudal system or very poor, nondemocratic countries in which citizens have little awareness or knowledge of the government. Other nondemocratic systems, such as communist ones, may ensure that citizens are aware of the state’s presence and power (thereby fostering subjects) but do not allow for the meaningful participation that is associated with participant citizens.

Almond and Verba support their claims using survey evidence from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Mexico (ranked from the most to the least democratic country). For instance, they explain differences in the histories of British and German democracies by pointing to the presence of different types of citizens. Both countries had histories of deference to political leaders, but the United Kingdom became the epitome of democracy, whereas Germany saw the rise of a fascist political system with the Nazis. Almond and Verba’s argument was that the British state did not have a history of maintaining the same exhaustive power over its people as existed in Germany; as a result, British citizens were more resistant to fascist measures than Germans were. Nearly 30 years after The Civic Culture, Ronald Ingelhart (1990) again conducted surveys to establish the underlying cultural aspects of democracy. Using survey evidence from 25 industrial nations in the 1980s, he found that certain social characteristics, such as high levels of interpersonal trust and support for gradual change in society, are correlated with more stable democracies.

Survey research such as that done by Almond, Verba, and Ingelhart provided the basis for broader studies of political culture, including the World Values Survey at the University of Michigan, which tracks opinions on social and political questions in more than 80 countries around the world. However, there is an important question of causality in applying such studies to understanding the origins of democratic societies. We do not know whether these values produce democratic societies or whether democratic societies foster citizens with these values. Consider again the example of the United Kingdom’s remaining a democratic country while Hitler’s fascist regime was able to come to power in Germany. Almond and Verba argue that the civic culture was stronger in the United Kingdom, thereby precluding fascist developments. However, we do not know what determined the type of citizen in the first place. Political institutions are as likely to shape citizens as citizens are to shape their institutions. If the type of citizen determines the nature of the political system and the nature of the political system shapes citizens, then this explanation is circular and unhelpful.

Despite the difficulties of assessing causality from this survey evidence, such research suggests an important qualification to modernization theory by identifying the presence of different political beliefs in different systems. This research suggests that if one wants to promote successful democratic societies, one should pay attention not only to economic growth but also to the promotion of certain norms and beliefs.

III. Applications, Empirical Evidence, and Critiques

Modernization theory has faced several serious criticisms. The terminology used in modernization theory has been criticized in part because it assumed that lesser developed countries were simply more primitive than countries such as the United States and those in Western Europe, implying that lesser developed countries should end up looking like Western governments. Substantive objections have been raised as well, including dramatically different explanations of the connection between economic and political developments. The more enduring criticisms, such as the destabilizing effects of modernization, emerged from a consideration of a wider range of cases. Other counter-explanations, such as dependency theory (discussed below), have now been rejected because they were largely based on the experiences of a few Latin American countries during a specific era.

A. Political Order in Changing Societies

One of the major challenges to modernization theory was posed by Huntington (1968) in Political Order in Changing Societies. Huntington noted that economic modernization and political development are not synonymous but rather are distinct processes. Furthermore, economic development and the rapid social changes accompanying it are as likely to result in the political decay of societies as in their development. Instability is most likely to occur in the early stages of modernization, or when there is growth followed by sudden setbacks. If socioeconomic changes lead to rapid social mobilization that outpaces the development of political institutions, then decay will certainly occur. Huntington went so far as to suggest that political order trumped other concerns, producing the controversial view that stable authoritarian systems would be preferable to unstable democratic ones.

By some accounts, Huntington “killed off modernization theory” by highlighting the destabilizing effects of rapid development. However, although Huntington’s work created debate about the consequences of economic development, his explanation rested on an understanding of the link between social mobilization and economic development— two factors central to modernization theory. Therefore, although Huntington created a significant challenge to the then existing understanding of modernization theory, some scholars would nonetheless classify him as a modernizationist, albeit one who emphasizes the importance of political institutions.

B. Dependency Theory

In economics and the social sciences, modernization theory was originally developed through a comparison of Western European development with the less economically developed countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Economists and economic historians such as W. W. Rostow (1959) concluded that all countries would eventually reach a more advanced stage of development similar to that of the United States and countries in Western Europe. However, out of the Latin American context came one of the greatest challenges to modernization theory.

Dependency theory directly countered modernization theory, arguing that economic development might hinder social modernization and the emergence of democracy (but for reasons very different from those raised by Huntington). Dependency and modernization theory shared a similar topic of interest—why some states were developed while others lagged—but differed in their assumptions and approaches. While modernization theory focused on individual- level factors such as political behavior, dependency theory maintained that development could be explained only by considering a country’s historical role in the global political and economic system. In this sense, dependency theory represents a difference in approach (i.e., the factors it considers most relevant) rather than a distinct theory of global development.

Support for dependency theory came from scholars studying Latin American countries who noted a cycle of weak countries being exploited by powerful countries in the international economy. In the 1960s and 1970s, the experiences of Latin American countries suggested that economic modernization—through integration into the world economy— might not be enough to produce stable growth or democratic systems. Scholars argued that, not only did development not promote democratization, but globalization put small states at an economic disadvantage in the larger international economic systems. This meant that developing countries would never experience stable economic growth because they were trapped in an inescapable dependence on wealthier nations.

In “The Development of Underdevelopment,” Andre Gunder Frank (1970) cites Chile and Brazil as examples of poor countries trapped in a cycle of economic growth that benefits richer countries but not the satellite territories that are the origins of production. This pattern of development began in the 16th century with Spanish conquest of the modern-day Chilean territory and Portuguese conquest of Brazil. While both countries went through periods of what appeared to be successful economic growth, their ultimate success hinged on how they fit into the larger international economy and whether there was foreign and domestic interest in the production of local economies. When international interest and subsequent financial investment waned, local economies foundered.

Today, dependency theory has been discredited because of a lack of evidence supporting its central arguments in other regions of the world or over long periods of time. Evidence refuting dependency theory emerged in the late 1970s, when Latin American economies in countries such as Argentina began to grow rapidly, breaking from the cycle of poverty on which dependency theory focused. Because dependency theory had predicted continued stagnation where growth emerged, it was discounted as a credible explanation of the connection between political and economic development.

C. Natural Resource Curse and Modernization Theory

Another shortcoming of modernization theory was its inability to explain the persistence of countries that were wealthy but not democratic. For instance, scholars refer to a natural resource curse in which countries with large amounts of natural resources (and which rely on those resources for a large proportion of state revenue) have difficulty in attaining stable economic growth or maintaining democratic systems of government.

In the title of her book, Terry Lynn Karl (1997) refers to the natural resource curse as “the paradox of plenty” faced by oil-rich countries. She studies several oil-rich countries— Venezuela, Iran, Nigeria, Algeria, and Indonesia— which are diverse on an array of political and social characteristics but share striking similarities resulting from their oil wealth. In these oil-rich states, politicians did not have incentives to think about the long-term economic efficiency of how they generated state revenue and distributed resources because there were strong incentives to give undue favoritism to the oil industry. The presence of large quantities of oil promoted political and economic systems that gave undue advantages to the oil industry at the cost of long-term economic efficiency (by investing more broadly in the economy). This meant that oil wealth promoted the development of centralized states, with the result that democratic processes, including widespread societal participation in politics, are unlikely to emerge. Karl refers to this problem as a kind of modern-day Midas touch, in reference to the mythical king who wished, at his own peril, that everything he touched would turn to gold.

The central risk factor for countries with the natural resource curse is that the economy relies primarily on a single commodity (or good), and this applies not just to oil. For example, Michael Shafer (1994) documents the problems posed by economies dominated by a single sector, including copper in Zambia, tea in Sri Lanka, coffee in Costa Rica, and light manufacturing in South Korea. Nor is the problem posed by natural resource wealth limited to a handful of countries. Some 75% of states in sub-Saharan Africa and more than two thirds of the countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa, and the Middle East depend on primary commodities for a minimum of half of their income from exports (Ross, 1999).

In relation to modernization theory, the existence of wealthy countries with stable dictatorships (or weak democracies) is very surprising. These oil-rich countries have proved to be stable nondemocratic systems, challenging the notion that wealth breeds a demand for rights and goods from the government that results in democracy. If modernization theory is correct, we should expect economic wealth to be associated with social and cultural shifts that promote democratic systems of government. Thus, the existence of wealthy dictatorships—and the natural resource curse—is unexpected from the perspective of classic modernization theory. In particular, in keeping with modernization theory, we would expect the citizens of wealthy countries to become more educated, participate more in their own governance, and ultimately create the pressure for a more democratic system of governance in the world.

To explain this seemingly strange outcome, we must consider the consequences of economic growth from natural resources, in which Karl’s explanation of the paradox of plenty offers some insight. If Karl is correct that oil shapes the centralization of the state and creates incentives for the state to offer undue influence and privileges to the oil industry, this suggests that oil wealth does not promote the type of overall, long-term economic development that promotes democratization. Even though education may become more widespread and citizens may become increasingly exposed to the outside world, the state will maintain highly centralized power and will be dominated by one powerful interest group—the oil industry—such that democratic participation will be limited.

Consider the example of Iran. Iranian citizens have increasingly significant exposure to the outside world, particularly through the availability of satellite television offering anti-regime perspectives and foreign news sources such as the Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Dissent can also be seen in the emergence of independent newspapers and increasing Internet access in Iran. While the growth of these media outlets has prompted the state to react by expanding its own presence in satellite television, significant competing sources of information still exist. As such, modernization theory would predict that Iranian citizens should become increasingly interested in being politically active. Nonetheless, an Iranian democracy is not likely to emerge in the near future.

According to Karl’s argument, an important part of the reason Iran has not, and likely will not, become more democratic is that its reliance on oil for wealth has encouraged the development and persistence of state structures that are highly centralized and favor a small group of economic elites. There are, of course, other reasons that Iran is not democratic (including possible cultural reasons), but Karl offers one important reason that we would not expect political change there anytime soon. In this way, research on the natural resource curse makes a compelling case that even if education and media become more prevalent, states relying primarily on a single natural resource are unlikely to become democratic.

In reviewing existing approaches, Michael Ross (1999) points out several distinct theories for why oil-rich states have difficulty establishing democratic systems of government and notes that previous research on the natural resource curse does not offer insight into which theory is correct (factors that some theories, such as Karl’s, do not acknowledge). One explanation is called the rentier effect, which proposes that governments give special privileges to the oil industry to avoid being accountable to the general population in order to stay in power. Another explanation is the repression effect, in which governments use oil revenue to develop their internal security, thereby repressing political participation and popular demands for public goods. Finally, there is a modernization effect, which harkens back to traditional modernization theory, arguing that oil wealth does not encourage the social and cultural shifts thought to underpin successful democracies (Ross, 2001).

Relying on statistical analysis of 113 countries from 1971 to 1997, Ross finds evidence for all three of these theories of why oil-rich states might not promote democracy. Notably, he emphasizes that the effects of the natural resources curse are not limited to the Middle East or oil-based economies. He finds not only that oil is bad for democracy but that the presence of large amounts of any mineral resource impedes democratic societies, as can be seen in countries as diverse as Angola, Chile, Cambodia, Congo, and Peru.

Research on the natural resource curse suggests that we must consider the type of economic development occurring and its specific consequences in order to understand the effect on democracy. Another explanation for the existence of wealthy dictatorships—which is consistent with Ross’s argument—is that wealth makes any political system less likely to change, whether that system is democratic or not. This means that wealthy dictatorships are likely to remain dictatorships and wealthy democracies are likely to stay democratic. This is the basic argument of survival theory.

D. Survival Theory

Modernization theory, having faced some significant objections, was brought back to life, at least partially, by proponents of survival theory. According to Przeworski and Limongi (1997), the problem with traditional modernization theory is that it observes that democracies tend to be wealthier than non-democracies but cannot account for two conflicting explanations of this observation. On one hand, as countries become wealthier, they may become more likely to establish democratic governments. On the other hand, democracies may emerge regardless of the level of wealth but are more likely to last when they are wealthier. We would observe the same outcome—that democracies tend to be wealthier—in either case. Based on this outcome, we cannot simply assume, however, that wealth is the cause of democracy, because wealth may merely be the cause of democratic survival, not its emergence.

Przeworski and Limongi (1997) argue that rather than economic development’s being responsible for the emergence of democracy, wealth makes all political systems, including democracies and dictatorships, more likely to endure. If this is true, then we should expect democracies to arise irrespective of their level of wealth but to be less likely to last when they are poor. Likewise, poor dictatorships are likely to face instability although not necessarily a transition to democracy. By this account, democracy “survives if a country is ‘modern,’ but it is not a product of ‘modernization’” (p. 159). Przeworski and Limongi conducted statistical analysis on an impressive data set of 135 countries from approximately 1950 to 1990, tracking when a country became a democracy or dictatorship, how long it lasted, and the levels of development and growth rates. Their findings reveal that as dictatorships become wealthier, a transition to democracy is more likely, but only up to a point. Once dictatorships reach very high levels of economic development, they are remarkably stable, and democracy is unlikely to emerge. Furthermore, Przeworski and Limongi found—contrary to what Lipset and Huntington would have predicted—that rapid growth is not destabilizing for democracies. Relatively poor countries with some economic growth are more stable than rich democracies that experience decline.

In summary, survival theory does not take a strong stance on the reasons countries become democratic in the first place, but rather it emphasizes that democracies arise regardless of the level of development (for whatever reason) but are more likely to be sustained when the level of wealth is high.

E. Summary of Lessons from Modernization Theory

Despite extensive study on the connection between politics and economics, scholars are still divided about the relationship between political development and modernization. One major reason for this uncertainty is that researchers often struggle with a dearth of data that is comparable across countries. Some measures of economic and political characteristics are available only for particular regions or periods, thereby limiting the scope of a project, or researchers may be interested only in specific regions. Przeworski and Limongi (1993) list some of the major studies, conducted from the early 1960s through the 1990s, that tried to determine the connection between democracy and economic development. These studies include as few as 10 underdeveloped countries or as many as 100 countries. Some studies are limited to a single region, such as Latin America, while others are more cross-national, including several regions. The time over which these countries were studied varies as well. The inevitable result of drawing conclusions based on different countries during varying time periods is a myriad of results, some of which are contradictory.

There are, however, a couple of lessons that we can draw from the wide array of research examining political development and modernization. First, economic growth is probably not necessary for the emergence of democracy. There is compelling evidence that democracy emerges at all levels of development. At a minimum, we can safely say that the economy alone does not predict democratization. Second, economic growth may aid in the survival of democratic governments, but it is likely not sufficient. Other factors matter too, as evidenced by the so-called natural resource curse. For instance, excessive inequality may hamper citizens’ ability to participate and may encourage the development of institutions dominated by a few powerful elite rather than an active civil society. Furthermore, Moore’s (1966) central thesis is that only certain paths of modernization result in democratic systems. Robert Bates (1991) similarly lays outs different paths of economic modernization, some of which explain the developments of historical Europe and others, the experiences of formerly socialist countries.

These lessons are hedged in probabilistic terms because much research remains to be done to definitively establish the political consequences of economic changes. One of the most important lessons that we can take from this research is that when explaining the connection between politics and the economy, we must fully consider the nature and pace of economic development and its specific consequences. Specifically, we must consider which groups are empowered or hurt by growth or decline, the incentives of the state and politicians under such circumstances, and the behavior of citizens. Only by addressing these intermediary links can we fully understand the connection between modernization and political development.

IV. Policy Implications for Promoting Democratization

Research on political development and modernization has often been explicitly motivated by a desire to shape foreign policy, revealing a clear connection between academic theories and the policy realm. When writing The Civic Culture in the early 1960s, Almond and Verba were responding to the spread of Communism around the world and attempting to identify the necessary prerequisites for democratic systems. They even expressed concern that some Western European nations would fail to find a stable form of democracy. Likewise, Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth was a guide for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which sought to formulate a policy to prevent the spread of Communism to South Vietnam and Indonesia. More recently, Huntingon’s The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) includes sections devoted to advice for politicians seeking to establish democracies in their own countries.

Depending on which theories we accept, prescriptions for foreign policy and democracy promotion around the world change drastically. Modernization theory in its original formulation suggests that those interested in promoting democratization around the world should encourage countries to pursue policies of economic development as a minimum prerequisite for a democratic society. However, research suggests that the ways in which governments promote economic development will influence whether the net effect actually promotes democratization. As suggested by survey research, economic growth alone may not be sufficient to produce democratic systems of government.

In The Logic of Political Survival, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow (2003) offer a different way of conceptualizing types of political regimes, and their approach has important implications for foreign policy. According to traditional definitions of democracy, countries are democratic if they hold free and fair elections and meet other important procedural requirements, including a free press and civil liberties. However, Bueno de Mesquita et al. put forth the selectorate theory and argue that the crucial characteristic for understanding how a government will behave lies in knowing to whom leaders are accountable. The selectorate are all those who have a say in the selection of the leaders (and that selection may or may not be through voting in democratic elections). The winning coalition is the group of individuals whose support is necessary for a leader to stay in power. For instance, in a democracy, the selectorate is very large, encompassing all possible voters, and the winning coalition consists of the majority necessary to win an election. In contrast, in a military dictatorship, the selectorate is likely to be a small group of officers, and the winning coalition is the minimum number of those officers necessary for the dictator to maintain power.

Distinctions between the size of the selectorate and the winning coalition are significant because they have important implications for the types of goods leaders will provide to their citizens. When there is a large winning coalition and a large selectorate, as in democracies, leaders have an incentive to provide public goods in order to maintain the support of the large proportion of the population needed to win elections. Conversely, when there is a small selectorate and a small winning coalition, it is more efficient for leaders to provide private goods to the small group on whom they rely for power.

This logic of political survival suggests that foreign aid—even if it is designed to promote economic growth— may have the reverse effect by providing dictators with resources that can be diverted to a small winning coalition rather than used to promote development. Foreign aid, therefore, may not be favorable to the type of economic development that promotes the establishment of democracy if it goes to a dictator who can pay off supporters. This is why it would not have been advisable to give foreign aid directly to Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, who could have used it to his own ends and specifically to prop up support for his regime among his small winning coalition. Doing so would have made him and his few supporters more powerful without encouraging the growth of a middle class or the broader education of the population, which we hope provides the basis for a democratic society. Rather than giving aid directly to Hussein, the United Nations attempted to set up an “oil for food” program by which oil revenues were traded for food provided directly to the Iraqi people.

Existing research suggests that although modernization may lead to democratization, it is likely a condition that is neither necessary nor sufficient. Selectorate theory suggests that we should seriously consider the incentives of political leaders to provide public goods and create free democratic systems. Other prominent works, such as that of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (2006), Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, suggest that the success of democracy depends on elites’ not having incentives to oppose it. This research indicates that in developing foreign policies intended to promote democratization, we should not limit ourselves to promoting economic development and broader education among the population but should explicitly consider the motivations driving political leaders.

V. Future Directions

There are many remaining questions about the connection between political development and modernization. There are three areas at the forefront of research about the link between politics and economics—understanding the shared foundations of development and freedom, expanding our knowledge about the wide variety of nondemocratic systems, and better understanding the preferences of groups in reaction to socioeconomic changes.

First, scholars have recently suggested that there are shared foundations for both economic growth and democracy. For instance, James Robinson (2006) suggests that there are underlying causes—such as secure property rights and the rule of law—that explain why countries are economically successful and more democratic. The result is that we observe that democracies are typically wealthy, not because wealth causes democratization, but because the same factors make both more likely. In a similar vein, Amartya Sen (1999) advances the idea of shared underlying causes of democracy and economic growth by making the case that development should be conceptualized as removing “unfreedoms” from society. In writing that “development is indeed a momentous engagement with freedom’s possibilities,” he expresses the idea that individual freedom is both the end and the means of development (p. 298). Only by ensuring a social commitment to the protection of individual freedom can societies progress. This is a radically different and integrated conception of political and economic development, one that is largely responsible for Sen’s Nobel Prize in economics.

A second area of future research examines the tremendous variation among nondemocratic systems. This research paper has focused on the determinants of democracy without considering the many different types of nondemocracies. However, research has suggested that nondemocracies vary in politically significant ways. For instance, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan (1996) trace differences in the democratic transitions of nondemocratic governments, which they classify as authoritarian, totalitarian, postto talitarian, and sultanistic. However, many questions remain, including why military dictatorships arise in some countries but rigged-election systems emerge in others.

Selectorate theory offers a starting point for understanding the differences among nondemocratic systems. Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003) note that some nondemocracies are more successful than others at achieving economic development and providing citizens with public goods such as roads and schools. The reason is that the loyalty of a leader’s winning coalition—the people on whom the leader relies for power—varies markedly in different nondemocratic systems. For instance, in dictatorships with rigged elections, it would be difficult for the small group of supporters (who help the leader cheat in the election) to defect and bring another ruler to power because there are many people available who can help rig an election. The result is that the leader does not need to spend a lot to buy the support of the winning coalition because it provides a very loyal base. Because the leader does not need to spend a lot to maintain support, he does not need to be overly concerned with producing national wealth through economic development. In contrast, in a military dictatorship in which the winning coalition (a handful of military officials) can successfully and relatively easily transfer their support to another dictator, the leader needs a lot of resources to continue to buy support. As a result, the leader in a military dictatorship has more incentive to promote economic development in order to obtain the wealth necessary to pay off a more fickle group of supporters. This research provides a starting point for understanding variation among nondemocratic systems, but much work remains to be done on the origins of the many different types of nondemocratic systems and other ways in which their political systems vary.

A final area of future research is inquiry into how groups such as private businesses and citizens react to socioeconomic changes. Groups should not simply be lumped together as a whole in studying the connection between politics and economics. A notable reason is evident in research on the welfare state. Businesses are often thought to oppose national welfare programs, whereas citizens are assumed to support them. However, Isabela Mares (2003) notes that businesses have not always opposed the introduction of welfare state programs, as is often assumed, but that their preferences depend on the kind of business. Business support for national welfare programs hinged on whether businesses would have control over the national system and whether they perceived benefits in the reduction of risk (due to illness and old age in the workforce) that could be beneficially distributed across all businesses.

Likewise, there is evidence that citizens are not always opposed to retrenchments in the welfare state. In Democracy and the Market, Przeworski (1991) frames the dilemma of market-oriented reforms in Latin American and post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe as being one of forward-looking politicians attempting to overcome the opposition of citizens hesitant to accept the uncertain costs of transitions. However, evidence suggests that there are instances in which citizens can be convinced of the benefits of market-oriented reforms. Such research suggests an interesting direction for a better understanding of the ways economic actors play a role in political developments.

Advancing our understanding of the connection between political development and modernization requires us to be more nuanced in our understanding of what constitutes development, the different types of nondemocratic systems, and the diversity of group responses to economic changes.

VI. Conclusion

This research paper has reviewed the major developments in research on political development and modernization. Global problems persist in highlighting the importance of studying why and how economic and political systems should be designed. According to Freedom House, as of 2008, a little more than half of all people in the world (about 3.6 billion) lived in political systems that are not free. Although the World Bank notes some progress on poverty alleviation—from 1981 to 2005, rates of extreme poverty have declined from more than half to about a quarter of the global population—this means that about 1.7 billion people continue to live without their basic material needs being met. Addressing why these problems arise and persist is of paramount concern in achieving freedom from hunger and repression—two basic, yet still elusive goals, for most of the world’s population.


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