Research into democratization is as old as the democratic idea. Aristotle studied, with some prejudice, the democracy of Athens. Much later, James Madison tried to design a “republican remedy” for the “disease” of too much democratization. For most of western history, democracy was mistrusted by most of those most famous for having studied it.
Democracy as a positive ideal had a rebirth in the nineteenth century, eventually attaining hegemony after World War II as the political ideal appropriate for all nations (even Communist nations such as East Germany—the German Democratic Republic—claimed to be democratic). Research into democratization therefore is perceived by many today to be research into the best possible form of political society.
What, however, are we researching when we research democratization? Most western political scientists have defined democracy in ways that mirror the political and legal institutions and political culture of western liberal states, including ideas about citizenship, constitutions and rights, market economy, and separation of the public and private spheres. In this, political scientists have moved the ideal of popular rule in a decidedly liberal, republican, and market-oriented direction.
This predilection was reinforced by a mid-twentiethcentury turn in the study of politics away from political science, broadly conceived, toward a social science presumed to be modeled on the natural sciences. Many students believed that “operationalizable” standards with which to measure democratic performance could only be “scientifically” derived from existing democracies—that is, from the west. Although this model is open to the charge of being culturally and ideologically biased, it contains important democratic features, and it is the one that has been most often used as the standard for democratization research.
In the 1960s modernization theory, premised on the developmental path of western industrial societies, took hold among western political scientists studying newly (re)emerging nations. Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s some scholars sought to discover prerequisites for establishing stable democracies, mirroring modernization theory. As authoritarian regimes fell in the mid-1970s, democratization studies grew rapidly. By the 1980s, instead of developing a general theory of democratization, scholarship moved to trying to understand strategic interactions between elites, downplaying the importance of masses in democratic transitions, and to categorizing the forces at work in democratic transitions, the type of democratic political system being created, and the requirements for democratic consolidation. In the 1990s studies shifted to also trying to study democratic development over time. Scholars popularized the metaphor of three democratization “waves”: the first from 1826 to 1926; a shorter post–World War II wave; and the famous “third wave,” beginning around 1974. It is this third wave, encompassing developments in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and East Asia, that most democratization research explores.
Overall, the literature recognizes four stages in the transition to democracy: decay of authoritarianism, transition, consolidation, and maturation. Democratization is facilitated by a decline in legitimacy of authoritarian rule due to either an inability to solve problems or a shift in values. It is supported by the development of civil society, increasing education and income levels, external democratic pressures and/or support, the “snowball” effect of being within a democratizing region, and citizens valuing it as an intrinsic good rather than for economic or social performance. Many scholars now believe the reasons for democracy’s emergence are not the same as those for its consolidation or maturation, and they see ebb and flow and sideways movement rather than linear progress.
In addition to regime type and patterns of transition and consolidation, scholars devote attention to the impact of democratization on regime performance; the need for a “mature state” for democratization; the importance of external actors, whether they be states or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in trying to promote internal democratization; and the effect of democratization on citizen well-being. Some who see strategic interaction among elites as decisive argue that third-wave democracies are fragile because democratic elites are forced to bargain with nondemocratic elites, and are further constrained by undemocratic constitutions that protect privilege. Some fear that fragile democracies can be overloaded with citizen demands, making the development of competitive economies problematic, thereby undermining the regime. Others think robust citizen participation is essential in democracy, and see international constraints on domestic democracy emanating from the “world market” and its key institutions.
Although analysts empirically find democratic features within “third-wave” regimes, such as free elections, other critical features of these regimes are found by some to be problematic, especially inadequate civil rights and concentration of power in the executive. They use a variety of terms to define these problematic regimes, such as “illiberal,” “delegative,” “imperfect,” and “immature” democracies. Scholars have begun to rethink whether some of these “hybrid” regimes should be called democratic at all, and have coined terms such as “electoral,” “competitive,” or “contested authoritarianism” to indicate a notion of “enhanced authoritarianism” rather than “qualified democracy.” Some “third-wave” scholarship indicates that democracy emerges through a complex process that varies from country to country with few preconditions or causing factors. Scholars often emphasize elite interaction as decisive in the foundation and consolidation of democracy, but some also still point to the importance of mass mobilization for both.
Democratization research has been criticized in a number of ways that are relevant for future twenty-first-century researchers. Some criticism points to the need to further refine concepts and measurements, or to the need to be more selective in developing new concepts, or to how the “wave” metaphor can be misleading; others point to biases in the research itself and the inadequacy of past approaches to a more rapidly “globalizing” world.
An important line of criticism is that the overall emphasis on terminology is confusing and occludes the fact that although third-wave democracies may be less effective, the kind of problems they face—such as inequalities of rights, institutional power imbalances, and failures of accountability—were, and to a degree still are, faced by first-wave democracies. Favoring “minimalist” procedural definitions rather than robust ones that stipulate deeper notions of political equality and social justice, therefore, runs the risks of repressing the history of conflict and struggle in western democracy and of evaluating newer democracies by a sanitized and static metric.
Some caution researchers against trying to implicate other states or NGOs into the process of democratization, recalling the difficulty of efforts to “transplant” democracy, including through war, for example, in Vietnam and Iraq. Others temper this by suggesting that research into efforts to aid democratization can be successful if they are culturally sensitive and invoke a broader standard than western liberalism.
Internationalization of the world economy brings both economic development and new ideas, which can aid democratization. However, it can also promote greater inequality and/or foster constraints on the choices open to democratically elected officials, which generally impede it. Research shows that lessening inequality and insulating politics from inequalities do advance democratization and make de-democratization less likely. The sources of inequality, however, are shifting to include not just domestic, coercive control characteristic of industrial and agricultural production, but also transnational niches of elite control of finance, science, technology, information, and media, characteristic of postindustrialism and global neoliberalism. These international forces of economics, business, politics, culture, communication, migration, and ideas such as democracy bring religions, cultures, and subcultures into closer contact, possibly stirring popular movements of political action and resistance. The democratic idea may even take on unfamiliar forms. Although procedural definitions and certainly constitutional protections remain very important benchmarks in the study of democratization, in this context, how are we to judge what should count as critical democratic supplements to them?
Researchers should also ask: Have elected representatives within western liberal democracies ceded significant new power to unaccountable international markets, administrators, and elites, thereby diminishing the real impact of the voting power—the democracy—of their citizens? Does research therefore need to evaluate global as well as national, regional, religious, and cultural obstacles to democratization, obstacles applicable to all societies, including those in the west? If so, the freedom and ability of citizens to organize across borders and to engage in international political participation and agenda setting become important measures of democratization for all societies.
As economic and political integration, and resistance to it, proceed toward an uncertain future, as new groups emerge and define their rights, democratization research faces another powerful challenge. Just as democratic theory has needed to—and continues to need to—address the harms done to those left out in the consolidation of liberal institutions, systems of representation, and even concepts of normal citizenship, whether of race, gender, ethnicity, or economic standing, so too, does democratization research need to open itself even more to the unfamiliar on all these registers. None of this obliges researchers to cede valuable standards—quite the contrary. It asks them to go back to the root and engage the primary but difficult question: In today’s world, what advances popular rule and what stands against it?
SEE ALSO Aristotle; Citizenship; Democracy; Democracy, Indices of; Democratization; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Politics; Sociology, Political; Strategic Behavior
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Tom De Luca