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- Agency Factors of Democratization
- Factors of Democratization: Economic, Social, and Cultural Modernization
- External Threats and Group Hostilities as Impediments to Democracy
- Democratization and Transition in a Long-Term Historical Perspective
- Democratization and the Future of Politics
- Spreading Democracy to New Regions
- Consolidating and Improving New Democracies
- Deepening Old Democracies
Democratization can be defined as two different political processes:
- Democratization is the transformation from a nondemocratic regime to a democratic political regime. It is a transition from nondemocratic to democratic types of political regime and involves regime change.
- Democratization is the process of political transformation from an electoral or partial democracy toward a full or consolidated democracy. It is a transition between different degrees of democracy within a specific democratic political system.
This research paper covers both meanings, by discussing the actors who may bring democracy, the factors of and impediments to democracy, and historical and future perspectives of democracy and the democratic trend.
Agency Factors of Democratization
The main theory with emphasis on “agency,” as developed in sociological theory, is the transition approach, which was proposed by Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter (1986) and further developed by Gretchen Casper and Michelle Taylor (1996). This agency approach analyzes the process of transition toward democracy with political elites as the main actors and as the crucial and critical factor of democratization. One of the conditions that help initiate a transition to democracy in an authoritarian regime is if the ruling elite splits into factions with opposing interests. This is likelier to happen in more developed societies whose complexity creates multifaceted regime coalitions that are not as easily held together. Rifts within the ruling elite are also more likely when there is a mounting legitimacy crisis due to economic setbacks, unfulfilled policy promises, and failures in crisis management.
In heterogeneous regime coalitions, legitimacy crises encourage elite splits because they create an opportunity for some elite groups to try to strengthen their position in the regime coalition by pursuing a reform strategy that they hope will bring them popular support, thus regaining legitimacy. Accordingly, many transitions to democracy have been instigated by the emergence of a reform camp within the regime. Typically, the reformers initiate a liberalization program that opens a space for criticism and alternative voices.
As a result, opposition groups surface from the underground and, in many cases, advance further claims for democratization. If the opposition groups remain moderate in their methods (avoiding violence) and demonstrate their readiness for compromise but at the same time muster widespread public support, a negotiated transition to democracy becomes possible.
The emergence of opposition to a regime does not always result from an elite-initiated opening process. Sometimes, policy failures lead to spontaneous manifestations of widespread mass opposition, launching a legitimacy crisis that impels an intra-elite reform camp to surface and engage in negotiations with the opposition. Again, this configuration of events often leads to negotiated, or “pacted,” transitions.
The institutional basis of a given authoritarian regime is an important factor in this context because different types of authoritarian regimes show different vulnerabilities to democratizing pressures. For instance, the weakness of military regimes is that they lack an ideological mission that legitimates them on a long-term basis. Usually, they take power as crisis managers, so their justification is—often explicitly—only temporary. The legitimacy of military regimes is relatively easily questioned, either because the junta fails to manage the crisis, in which case its justification lacks credibility, or because things run smoothly, in which case the need for crisis management becomes obsolete. One obvious advantage of military regimes is that they control the means of coercion, so they can silence emerging opposition by brute force. But confronted with widespread mass opposition that proves resilient even in the face of oppression, the loyalty of the troops may erode if they are ordered to turn on peaceful protestors. On the other hand, even though military regimes sometimes exit quickly from power, they also easily return, as the repeated oscillations between military and civilian rule in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, or Thailand demonstrate.
Personalistic regimes put all their eggs into the basket of the central ruler’s charisma. Accordingly, when the ruler dies, there is an opportunity for political change, as has been clearly demonstrated in Spain. Whether or not this opportunity is used for a transition to democracy then depends on the power balance between prodemocratic and antidemocratic forces and their relative support among the population.
One-party regimes, whether leftist or rightist, profit from a more strongly institutionalized power basis. These regimes usually have an ideological mission that inspires their existence and provides legitimacy. It generally takes longer and is a bigger challenge for a potential opposition group to erode the ideological basis of one-party regimes. One strategy that proved successful in the former communist bloc is to demonstrate that a regime betrays its very own ideals. When communist countries signed the human rights declaration in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) while refusing to respect these rights in practice, civil rights movements such as the Charta 77 effectively publicized this contradiction and in doing so helped erode the regime’s legitimacy. Eventually, the legitimacy crisis went so deep that even within the communist parties no one believed any longer in the regime’s ideals. In this situation, reform camps surfaced in a number of communist parties (most notably in the Soviet Union and Hungary), together with organizations outside the party that were opposed to the regime, once Mikhail Gorbachev’s nullification of the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1998 made this seem like a viable strategy in Central and Eastern Europe.
Splits in the ruling elite are important because they give leverage to domestic as well as international actors, enhancing their bargaining options to push a democratization agenda through. The leverage that international actors have in pushing for democracy increases insofar as a country depends on international aid. In some cases, dependence on international assistance can be so strong that external powers can trigger democratization even in the absence of a prodemocratic opposition group within the country. In the extreme case, democratic powers can enforce democratic institutions by military intervention as was attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq. But externally triggered processes of democratization are unlikely to penetrate very deep unless there are strong domestic forces inside a country.
When parties of the ruling elite are unified to sustain an authoritarian system, the transition to democracy is less easily achieved, particularly if the regime is able to isolate itself from international democratizing pressures. In such cases, the chances to democratize depend strongly on whether a prodemocratic opposition group emerges, how massive it grows, and how skillfully it uses its repertoire of elite-challenging actions. If the opposition can mobilize support from all layers of the population, if it is able to demonstrate this support, and if it remains resilient even in the face of oppression, loyalty to the regime erodes, even among the armed forces, undermining the regime’s repressive capacities. Thus, massive, determined, and well-organized opposition groups can overcome the resistance of the ruling elite to democratization. If, however, the opposition remains limited to isolated sectors of society, is unable to demonstrate popular support across the country, and cannot remain resilient in the face of repression, its chances of success will be limited.
To a considerable extent, then, democratization is a matter of the skills and virtues of mass opposition leaders. It matters how willing and able they are to advance claims that resonate with many people, to mobilize resources for popular campaigns, and to make use of the full set of ruling elite-challenging actions even in the face of repression. Tactical and strategic factors, such as the presence of skilful political dissidents, benevolent reforms by the ruling elite, and international assistance, are important, but when it comes to full democratization, these factors can hardly compensate for deficiencies in the development of ordinary people’s capabilities and motivation to practice democracy.
Factors of Democratization: Economic, Social, and Cultural Modernization
Mounting and sustaining a prodemocratic opposition against authoritarian rulers require that societies embark on a process of human empowerment that develops organizational skills and resources among the population. It also requires that substantial segments of the population give high priority to democratic freedoms, making them able and willing to struggle for democratic institutions. Ordinary people’s readiness to struggle for democratic freedoms is necessary for deep democratization to be attained, for authoritarian leaders are unlikely to surrender their powers unless they are pressured to do so.
Paramount is a type of economic development that is knowledge driven and distributes human social and political resources widely throughout society rather than concentrating them in small minorities of the population. Industrialization and the rise of the knowledge society equip growing segments of the population with the material means, intellectual skills, and social opportunities needed to mount effective pressures on elites. As a consequence, ordinary people’s action repertoires expand in ways that make the value of democratic freedoms intuitively obvious, giving rise to emancipative worldviews that value freedoms highly. These long-term developmental factors enhance a society’s ability and willingness to struggle for democracy.
The crucial and critical importance of economic, social, and cultural modernization has been at the core of a modernization theory of democratization. The main author of such a theory of modernization as the most important factor of democratization is Seymour Martin Lipset (1994). This modernization theory of democratization was expanded and refined by Larry Diamond (1992). Hence, this theory of democratization can be called the Lipset-Diamond theory of democratization.
The human empowerment approach of democratization is a hybrid structure-agency theory of democratization and has been developed by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel (2005).
External Threats and Group Hostilities as Impediments to Democracy
Various situations can arise that prevent developmental factors from giving rise to the prodemocratic effects associated with them. Perceptions of external threats and internal group hostilities tend to be detrimental to democracy because they diminish tolerance of opposition—a basic principle of democratic organization. External threats help leaders use “rally around the flag” strategies that silence inner opposition. Group hostilities do the same within groups, closing ranks around leaders and silencing opposing views.
Involvement of a country in an enduring international conflict can undermine democratic institutions because they provide a sense of being threatened that allows skilful leaders to present suppression of the opposition as crucial to the nation’s survival. Similarly, internal group divisions are not inherently threatening to democracy, but ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other easily discernible group divisions can be manipulated to foment support for authoritarian leaders. Extremist leaders almost always mobilize support by playing on group hostilities. Thus, democracy has historically been more easily established and consolidated in societies that are relatively homogeneous culturally and relatively egalitarian economically.
Regardless of whether such hindering factors are present, deep democratization requires that a society’s people acquire the capability and motivation to struggle for the freedoms that define democracy. This is because democracy is a socially embedded phenomenon, not just an institutional machine that operates in a vacuum. Shallow democratization involves crafting institutions, but deep democratization involves the development of supportive values and skills among large segments of a society.
Democratization and Transition in a Long-Term Historical Perspective
How can we understand the fact that democratization processes in separate countries cluster into coherent and sweeping international waves, behaving as if they were centrally coordinated by a master agent when in fact neither that master agent nor central coordination of the international waves exists? The answer is that evolutionary forces are at work that go beyond the awareness and control of even the most powerful elites. These evolutionary forces bestow a systematic selective advantage on democracies over autocracies. To the extent that such selective advantages exist, it is essential to understand them in order to assess the future potential of democracy and in order to understand the limits and opportunities within which agents pursuing a democratic agenda are acting.
An evolutionary dynamic is present when processes are directed, behaving as if they were centrally coordinated, when in fact such coordination does not exist. Markets behave in this way and so does the long-term evolution of democracy. But why do levels of democracy evolve over time? Higher levels of democracy emerge as higher levels of action resources become available to the average person in a society. In an era of mass politics, democracies enjoy three distinct selective advantages over autocracies. First, there is a selective advantage by international confrontations. States have been involved in international conflicts and wars, and often the winning states’ political regimes replaced the losing states’ ones. Success in international confrontations has been related to the type of regime. Democracies usually won the wars they were engaged in, partly because in the long run, they could mobilize their people and resources more effectively. Moreover, democracies tend not to fight each other, avoiding extinguishing their own kind. Autocracies do not have this tendency.
Second, there is a selective advantage by economic performance. Democracies have emerged and persisted in technologically and economically more advanced and powerful states, which partly explains their superiority in international confrontations with autocracies. Democracies have been established in more prosperous economies from the start. In addition, democracies continued to outperform autocracies economically, greatly increasing their initial prosperity advantage over time. Equally important, autocracies repeatedly lost their more prosperous members to the democratic camp.
The third selective advantage of democracies is an advantage by popular support, which is a truly selective force. Because they grant power to the people and because their rulers are selected by the population, democracies tend to have more popular support than autocracies, which enables them to mobilize their people more effectively. This also allows them to limit mass disaffection more effectively than autocracies. Even autocracies that seem stable on the surface, lacking obvious signs of mass opposition, are vulnerable to the “element of surprise” that becomes apparent in democratic revolutions when massive opposition to a regime suddenly emerges and persists, toppling a regime that may have lasted for decades. Democracies are less vulnerable to extinction by popular revolutions. They simply change their rulers through elections.
Democratization and the Future of Politics
The selective advantages of democracy are of such a long-term nature and so deeply rooted in basic developmental processes that there is no reason to assume that the odds will fundamentally turn against democracy in the foreseeable future. Setbacks will occur in specific countries, but the achievements of the global wave of democracy are unlikely to be reversed. But this does not mean that there are no future challenges. Instead, we see a number of challenges on the democratic agenda, which can be formulated in terms of the following questions:
- Will democracy continue to spread geographically?
- Will the deficiencies of new democracies, such as those in the former Soviet Union, be overcome?
- Will the democratic qualities of established democracies be further deepened?
One might also question the viability of the democratic principle in an era in which the major organizational frame of democracy, the nation-state, is said to have lost its significance. And one might question the viability of the democratic principle in a world in which decisive ecological measures seem to be unpopular, though they may be necessary to save our planet.
Spreading Democracy to New Regions
Two important geographical areas have, so far, proved to be relatively immune to the democratic trend: China, and the predominantly Islamic Middle East and North Africa. Anchoring democracy in these two areas would without doubt constitute a major breakthrough for the democratic principle. As far as the Middle East and North Africa are concerned, a sweeping democratic trend throughout the region does not seem likely in the near future. The terror and violence nurtured by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamic fundamentalism, and the predominance of patrimonial states based on oil rents all amount to powerful obstacles to democratization. In addition, there is throughout much of the Islamic world, but especially in the Middle East, a cultural self-appraisal of Islam as the West’s countercivilization—an understanding that is sometimes mirrored in Western views of Islam as its countercivilization. On this basis, democracy is considered to be a Western product in much of the Islamic world, which might disqualify it in the eyes of many people. Evidence from the World Values Surveys indicates that even among those segments of Islamic populations that overtly support democracy, there is often a fundamental misunderstanding of democratic principles. Evidence from the World Values Surveys also suggests that patriarchal-authoritarian values, which are incompatible with democracy, are prevalent in much of the region, particularly the Arab-speaking countries. Although these factors hinder the emergence of democracy, the general idea of democracy is widely approved, and democratic institutions seem to be taking root in some historically Islamic societies such as Turkey.
Consolidating and Improving New Democracies
Many new democracies in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe show serious deficiencies concerning the rule of law, accountability, and transparency. Not surprisingly then, there is widespread popular cynicism about the integrity of representatives, the trustworthiness of institutions, and policy performance in these new democracies. This popular cynicism often leads to political apathy rather than mass political activism, weakening civil society and placing corrupt leaders under little popular pressure to behave more responsively. But in those new democracies where cynical citizens become “critical citizens” who sustain a high level of elite-challenging mass activities, government is consistently more effective, transparent, and accountable. Civic action matters: Both within new and old democracies, relatively widespread civic action helps in increasing accountable governance. This insight is important. It shows that the quality of democracy is not solely the concern of the ruling elite. It is also, and very markedly so, a matter that concerns the citizens. When they are motivated to put the ruling elite under popular pressure and actually do so, they can improve the quality and effectiveness of governance. There is no reason for civic defeatism.
Deepening Old Democracies
The most obvious aspect of the global democratic trend is the geographical spread of democracy. But the global democratic trend has a second, often forgotten aspect: the deepening of democracy. This occurs even where democracy has been in place for many decades. This trend is well documented in the book Democracy Transformed? Expanding Political Opportunities in Advanced Industrial Democracies by Bruce E. Cain, Russell J. Dalton, and Susan E. Scarrow (2005), showing that over the past 25 years most postindustrial democracies have widened the elements of direct democracy, opened channels of citizen participation in policy planning, extended the scope of civic rights, and improved accountability to the public. These institutional changes have been accompanied and driven by cultural changes that gave rise to emancipative values and high levels of sustained elite-challenging actions. In fact, a major reason why long-established democracies show high levels of accountable governance is because they are constantly exposed to popular pressure by increasingly critical citizens. This should affect our views of what kind of citizenry is needed to consolidate democracies and keep them flourishing.
In The Civic Culture, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba (1963) assumed that in order for democracy to flourish, citizen participation should be limited to the institutional channels of representative democracy, focusing on elections and the activities around them. This view was reinforced by Samuel Huntington’s (1968) influential work Political Order in Changing Societies, contributing to deep-seated suspicions of noninstitutionalized, assertive citizen action. This suspicion is so deeply ingrained in political science that, even today, prevailing concepts of social capital and civil society still focus on institutionally channeled participation, emphasizing membership and participation in formal associations. By contrast, noninstitutionalized forms of assertive citizen action are rarely recognized in prevailing conceptions of civil society. The dominant view of what sort of citizenry makes and keeps countries democratic needs to be revised. Democracy flourishes with an uncomfortable citizenry that makes life difficult for their rulers, exposing them to constant popular pressure. Democracy requires a citizenry who place a high value on democratic freedoms and are capable of struggling for them— to attain them when they are denied and to sustain them when they are challenged.
Unfortunately, such a citizenry cannot be ordered into existence by elite decree, nor can it be crafted by institutions. Its emergence reflects a more basic process of human empowerment and social and cultural modernization through which people acquire the resources and skills to demand responsive government and the values that motivate them to practice democracy. Democratic institutions can be imposed from outside, but if these conditions are absent, it is likely to be a flawed version of democracy if it survives at all. Anchoring democracy is not just about crafting institutions. It is about shaping the development of economic, cultural, and political modernization of a given society.
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