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No Shortcuts to Democracy: A Refutation of Rapid Democratization


In “Economic Backwardness in a Historical Perspective,” Alexander Gershenkron suggests that there are certain advantages that exist for nations that industrialize comparatively late. Does delayed democratization have similar advantages? The notion that latecomers to a process have advantages is seductive to modernization optimists, but doesn’t hold water when applied generally. Democratization and industrialization are two very different processes and the advantages afforded to Gershenkron’s “backwards” nations don’t apply to democratization. Namely, unlike industrialization, democratization does not benefit from being sped up. It’s decidedly more difficult for countries to democratize successfully after major world powers have already undergone the process because pressures, primarily exogenous in nature, ensure that late democratization is rapid democratization. When rushed, the process of democratization doesn’t furnish enough time for necessary cultural transitions to take place, leading to the formation of competitive authoritarian regimes rather than the consolidation of democracies.

First, a note of terminology: for the purposes of this paper the process of democratization, is just that: a processes. The phrase does not presuppose its completion; that a state transitions to an established democracy. When a regime is referred to as democratizing rapidly, it does not suggest that the regime becomes a democracy more quickly, but rather that various stages of the process are attempted more quickly than when compared to the path taken by more established western democracies.

Stable democracies in the West have, historically, required time to mature; time for the norms of political competition to develop and for systems of mutual security to be worked out. For Robert Dahl, this process is fluid. In “Polyarchy,” Dahl outlines a matrix describing the different stages of democratization, one dimension being the level of public contestation that is acceptable and the other the level of participation that a regime allows. The extent of public contestation varies with the competitiveness of the regime, that is, the capability for dissenting political positions and opposing parties. Participation, on the other axis, is a proxy for suffrage. The inclusiveness of a regime increases as suffrage expands (Dahl 206).

Dalh continues to define three main paths that can be taken from a state of closed hegemony to one of polyarchy, his term for an idealized democracy. This paper will focus on the gradual first path —the slowest and most common— approximating the developmental paths of England and Sweden, and then the perilous third path —the most rapid. On the first path, liberalization precedes inclusiveness or, in other words, competitive politics come before an expansion in participation. Political life is allowed, but only to a narrow minority. With the intensity of any conflicts tampered by similar ideologies and backgrounds, this ruling elite gradually develops the rules and practices of competitive politics. Dahl makes it clear that this search for a system of mutual guarantees is “likely to be complex and time consuming” but is entirely necessary for political conflict to be “safe to tolerate” (Dahl 221). Then, political norms already exist when members of a lower stratum of society are included in the democracy. This route is common among established, stable democracies.

Alternatively, the fastest path that traverses this matrix is the third path — Dahl’s shortcut, in which “a closed hegemony is abruptly transformed into a polyarchy by a sudden grant of universal suffrage and rights of public contestation” (Dahl 219). France’s transition from monarchy to fledgling democracy marks the beginning of the modern struggle for European democracy. Dahl cites France as one example of a democracy that took his third path to polyarchy — the shortcut — and succeeded. The French Revolution was a discontinuity, a shock which left France political inclusive and open to public contestation. Yet this was a brief moment of success. The blood letting of The Terror shows that this regime quickly reverted back from Liberté, Egalité, Fraternit. Less than a decade later, France would once again be under a monarch. Followed later, by a military dictatorship (Berman 288). Today, France is an established democracy, but the process of French democratization was not linear or rapid. It was a protracted, violent struggle that, from start to finish, took more than 150 years (Berman 292). Dahl is mistaken, his third path is a chimera, an accelerated transition from authoritarianism to stable democracy is not possible.

Late democratization tends to be rapid democratization due to external two factors, (1) the loss of legitimacy of authoritarianism, and (2) the pressure produced by the international demonstration effect. First, in the post Cold War environment the minimum standard for the legitimacy of a state was raised — blatant authoritarianism was no longer acceptable on the world stage if a regime wanted any degree of respectibility (or foreign aid). In it’s theoretical form espoused by Samuel Huntington, democratization is composed of three discrete steps, the end of an authoritarian regime, the installation of a democratic regime, and the consolidation that regime. International pressure can assist countries with the first two steps. As blatant authoritarianism is no longer viable, authoritarian regimes often created superficially democratic institutions of their own accord as “granting suffrage can clothe the [a] hegemony with the symbols and some of the legitimacy of ‘democracy’ — at little cost” (Dahl 221). This, to an observer, looks like democratization.

Second, the international demonstration effect suggests that the expectation of democracy is elevated in countries that are close geographically or culturally to other countries, in which the process of democratization is successful (Huntington 371). During England’s gradual march toward democracy, no expectations existed. The average British citizen did not presume to have a say in the functioning of the state. This afforded the British elite time to reach systems of mutual security and develop political norms. For late democratizers, the fruits of democracy are known and widely desired. There is less patience among the public to wait. “In Poland democratization took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks, in Czechoslovakia ten days and in Romania ten hours” (Huntington 373). These periods are just blips when compared to the centuries it took England to transition from monarchy to democracy. Democratizing at this rate “drastically shortens the time for learning complex skills and understandings and for arriving at what may be an extremely subtle system of mutual security” (Dahl 220). The cumulative effect of these pressures pushed many countries to begin to democratize quickly. And as could be expected, the outcomes were mixed.

To Gershenkron, the key lesson of late industrialization was that “relatively backwards” countries could attain similar levels of development at an accelerated rate. The distinct trajectories of Russian industrialization and democratization demonstrate that simply maximizing the speed of these processes can lead to different outcomes. The narrative of Russian industrialization is a story of unprecedented success. Russia industrialized faster than any nation in history. The process began late — after most other European countries — and still caught up within a span of decades. Russian industry was criticized as being “altogether imitative” but the results speak for themselves (Gershenkron 39). Gerschenkron highlights the case of the blast furnace. The Russian state did not start with light industry and progress from there accordingly. It entered heavy industry with the full force of the Russian state behind the effort — capital was provided not from the private sector but rather from state coffers. The English, the first to industrialize, had blast furnaces used for iron and steal production. German furnaces out paced their English counterparts, only to, in turn, be surpassed by the Russians (Gershenkron 40). Rather than undertaking the slow meandering path of innovation, Russia simply aped the most modern technologies and techniques and managed to “outstrip” its competition.

Gershenkron’s theory describes Russia’s industrial dynamic, but falls short when the notion is applied to Russia’s attempted ‘democratization’ after the fall of the Soviet Union. Democratic structures, copied directly from established western democracies, were put into place. The Duma, the legislative branch of the Russian government, is an allochochonous structures — it’s not native to Russia, modeled instead off the British parlimentary system. Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia, on the other hand, was “of the soil.” He was a cultural product of a country that hadn’t yet developed mutual guarantees of security. He bombed the parliament when they disagreed with his executive actions (Levitsky, Week 5 Lecture). His reelection campaigns were rigged, with massive electoral fraud and the embezzlement of millions of rubles worth of government bonds siphoned off to his campaign. His successor, Vladimir Putin, further restricted public contestation by seizing control of major media outlets and jailing the owner of Russia’s largest oil company for supporting the opposition party (Levistky 384). Under Putin’s rule, the opposition party was suppressed to the point of nonexistence. Russia adopted the trappings of democracy — a federalist system, a parliament and an elected president — but that wasn’t enough. The norms of competitive politics could not be imported as easily as, say, a better blast furnace.

When applied to industrialization, this increased in rate is a decidedly positive outcome — the manifold benefits of modernization come in to reach more quickly. However, the net effect of increasing the velocity of the democratization process is less clear. Industrial technology and know-how can be transplanted, but political conventions cannot. Rather than culminating in an established democracy sooner, the half measures and shortcuts taken often lead to an altogether different sort of regime.

For many late democratizers, democratization efforts began and then subsequently fell short of their intended goals. If not democracies, what are these transitional regimes that superficially liberalize and expand participation, but stop before giving up any real power? Levitsky provides the answer — competitive authoritarian regimes. These regimes look superficially like democracies (this is the “cheapest concession possible”) but are distinctly different (Dahl 221). They have courts, elections, and all the trappings of democracy, yet the substance is lacking. These regimes are systematically biased against the opposition and use the apparatus of the state to maintain power. Using libel laws, tax audits and the courts opposition is driven underground (Levistky 385). Competitive authoritarian regimes are regimes where assurances of mutual security didn’t have time to develop — where a precarious regime left by a hasty democratization process was displaced by hegemony. Regimes like this occur when nations are forced to adopt the structure of a democracy without also undergoing profound cultural shifts.

A key lesson is that getting rid of an authoritarian regime is comparatively easy; creating a stable democratic regime in its place is where most fledgling democracies stumble. There is no blueprint for democracy. States are different — separated from one another by innumerable different “critical junctures,” each with a distinct political culture. For a democratic regime to consolidate, cultural shifts have to occur and, unlike the technical skills required for industrialization, these changes can’t be imported, copied or “borrowed” from abroad. They require time, perseverance, luck and occasionally violence. Western democracies have an interesting penchant for forgetting their own tumultuous past. Why does the West expect modern undemocratic regimes to democratize successfully in a time period measured in mere years, when they, themselves, took centuries? Cultural change is gradual. And there are no shortcuts.


Economic Backwardness in a Historical Perspective, Alexander Gerschenkron

Lessons from Europe, Sheri Berman

The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington

Competitive Authoritarianism, Steven Levitsky and Lucas A. Way

Polyarchy, Robert Dahl

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