Theories of Democratic Transitions

In the study of Democratic Transitions and regime collapse at the international level, there exist many theories that can be used to help explain the individual factors behind democratization. For example, some theories on democratization focus on the role that economic and social development plays in increasing support for democratic change. On the other hand, others concentrate on the political cultures present in democracy and discuss the social structures and processes that help to enhance overall stability. Different ideas on democratization vary in their effectiveness and may not be applied uniformly.

Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba explored attitudes towards democracy in countries including the US, Mexico, the UK, Italy, and Germany

Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba explored attitudes towards democracy in countries including the US, Mexico, the UK, Italy, and Germany

The first theory of democratization is that of Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba. As initially illustrated in the 1963 book “The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, An Analytic Study,” Almond and Verba explore the relationship between political culture and democracy by studying the overall values and attitudes of five different countries. Almond and Verba first discuss the idea of the civic culture, which is a mixed set of values that contains attributes from both modern and traditional cultures and allows both cultures to interact polarizing and destroying each other. Further, Almond and Verba identify three different types of political cultures. These categories include parochial political culture, subjective political cultures, and participatory political cultures. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba then discuss the relationship between the civic culture and democratic stability and the impact of political culture on political systems to which they belong.

One such view that Almond and Verba explore is the rationality-activist model, which stipulates that a stable democracy requires the population to be informed and active in politics. The rationality-activist model also requires citizens to base their voting choices on careful evaluation and weighing in alternatives. Almond and Verba determine that most citizens in democratic nations do not live up to the rationality-activist model based on their research. As such, Almond and Verba feel that the rationality-activist model is one component of, and does not explain all of, civic culture. Moreover, Almond and Verba discuss the civic culture as a mixed political culture that includes both citizens who are familiarized and take an active role in politics and citizens who take a less active role in politics.

Dankwart Rustow explores an entirely different theory of which factors result in democratization and ensure that democracy will remain stable. In his 1970 article “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a dynamic model,” Rustow argues that a dynamic model for democratic transitions is necessary to explain such processes in individual nations and that standardized approaches to democratization often ignore the factors that vary between countries. As opposed to theorists such as Almond and Verba, Rustow argues for a genetic theory on democratization, comparing evolution to democratization. Like natural selection, the possibility that instability may permit authoritarian regimes to adapt to democratization and that their beliefs may adjust over time. Dankwart Rustow’s model of democratization is based on four different stages. The first stage is the background condition, which starts out with national unity as its primary condition. The next phase is the preparatory phase, which consists of the political processes that set democratization off. In the decision stage, democracy is achieved through a process of a conscious action on the part of the top political leadership. The habituation phase institutes a process of selectivity for people who are supporters of democracy, among parties in general elections and politicians vying for leadership within these parties.

The theory on democratization by Seymour Lipsett focuses on the relationship between economic development and the likelihood of a country to become and remain a stable democracy. In the 1959 article “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development,” Lipsett hypothesizes that the more developed a country is in terms of economics, it is more likely that the country would be a democracy and be characterized by a more stable political situation overall. For his study, Lipsett looks at a number of countries in both Latin America and Europe and uses several different indices such as per capita income, education levels, the percent of a countries population employed in the agricultural sector, and urbanization. Even though the indices were presented separately, they point in favor of Seymour Lipsett’s initial hypothesis that democracy and the level of development within societies are interconnected and show that if a country is more economically developed, the chances for the emergence of a democratic political system is much higher than for underdeveloped countries. Lipsett’s study also suggests that the first step in modernization is urbanization, which is followed by media growth and literacy. The next stage is rapid industrial development, which fosters improved communication networks. The growth of advanced communication networks, in turn, encourages the development of formal democratic institutions such as voting and citizen participation in the decisions of their government.

Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman look at the effects of socioeconomic forces in transitions to democracy in the article “The political economy of democratic transitions.” Haggard and Kaufman focus on the effects of short-term economic conditions on the bargaining power and interests of incumbents and opposition. Drawing upon the experiences of ten middle-income Latin American and Asian countries, they trace the impact of economic crisis on the terms of democratic transitions and the nature of new political alignments. Haggard and Kaufman argue that elite bargaining is an element in democratic transitions. When such strategic interactions are put in the wider socioeconomic context, it is clear that there are significant policy dilemmas, political alignments of new democratic governments, and longer-term prospects for stability and consolidation.

Haggard and Kaufman argue that even though social interests and relations do not determine prospects for democracy, political elites can mobilize support or opposition in new democracies depending on how economic policy affects the distribution of income across different social groups. Moreover, economic performance over time changes preferences about democratic institutions, particular policies, and incumbents. Furthermore, Haggard and Kaufman state that the connection between the policies of new democratic governments and the long-term prospects for solidification must be addressed with caution. Consolidation, according to Haggard and Kaufman, is affected by political choices that modify the initial terms of the transition in addition to international and domestic developments out of the control of political leaders.

John Higley and Michael Burton argue that the decisions by societal elites play a role in democratic transitions regime breakdowns in their 1989 article “The elite variable in democratic transitions and breakdowns.” Higley and Burton state that democratic transitions and breakdowns can be understood by studying changes in the internal relations of national elites. The first type of national elite that they discuss is the disunified national elite, which produces a series of unstable regimes that tend to alternate between authoritarian and democratic on a regular basis. On the other hand, consensually unified elite results in a much more stable governmental system that has the potential to evolve into a stable democracy if socioeconomic conditions permit.

According to Higley and Burton, elite disunity stems from the process of nation-state formation. The construction of new states is typically a complicated process characterized by violence and conflict. Additionally, elite disunity involves the repression of certain elite groups by others, which makes disunity inevitable. A disunified elite may cause political instability and leave an opportunity for outside forces to overthrow the regime. Elite transformations, according to Higley and Burton, occur in two steps. In the first step, various factions enter into voluntary collaboration in electoral politics to mobilize a solid electoral majority and protect their interests by controlling government executive power. In the second step, the primary hostile factions opposing this coalition eventually abandon their ideological stances and adopt those of the winning coalition. As a result of this development, a consensually unified national elite is created, and a stable democratic regime typically emerges.

Adam Przeworski looks at the economic conditions that allow democracy to be consolidated in the 1991 book “Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America.” In his work, Przeworski attempts to identify the obstacles in building lasting democracy and transforming poor economies in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Przeworski charts the paths along which countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe from a political and economic organization. Przeworski looks at the way outcomes are enforced under a democratic system and offers several different views of compliance within the system. He determines compliance exists in the form of self-enforcing outcomes, bargains, and contracts, or as individual motivation to social order. According to Przeworski, Democracy becomes consolidated when either it becomes the only viable option for a particular set of political and economic circumstances or when all the relevant political forces find it best to submit their interests and values to the interplay of the democratic institutions. Przeworski’s hypothesis is based on three different assumptions. The first two assumptions are that the role of institutions is important in a democratic system and that there are various ways in which democracies are established. The third assumption is that institutions make a difference in efficiency of government as well as in the distribution of wealth.

In the book “Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states,” Albert Hirschman explores how organizations discern their wrongdoings and come back to the right track. Regardless of how well the core institutions are set up in society, it is presumed that individual members will fail to live up to the rules. Hirschman states that every society learns to live with a certain amount of this form of dysfunction, but that they must learn to correct such transgressions. Hirschman then goes on to discuss the ideas of exit and voice of the public. Individuals who run firms or organizations find out about their wrongdoings through two different routes. The first route is the exit path, which occurs when customers stop purchasing a firm’s products or leave an organization. As a result of the exit, a firm’s revenues may drop or membership to an organization begins to decline, thus convincing the leadership to correct any inefficiencies that led to the exit. The next route is the voice option, which occurs when either the customers or the members of an organization begin to express their dissatisfaction directly to the leadership of an organization or firm. As a result, the leadership engages in a search to discover and correct the factors that resulted in its constituents’ dissatisfaction. The exit route is connected to economics because it consists of a client who is displeased with a product using the market to defend their position. On the other hand, the voice route is related to politics because it serves as a way to convince organizations and firms to change their policies or be replaced by democratic competition.

The strongest theoretical approach to democratization, in my opinion, is that Dankwart Rustow. The primary reason why this approach is the strongest is that it takes into account the fact that various countries have different experiences regarding their political history and the development of formal societal institutions. The variations in development and history often play a role in determining the steps that a country takes to move towards democracy and the overall stability of the democratic government when it does emerge. Additionally, Rustows approach takes into account the fact that instability may result in an authoritarian leader modifying their views to allow for a greater level of democracy and political freedom. Another strength of Rustow’s theory on democratization is that it begins with national unity as the key factor that allows for democratic governments to eventually gain power. A common theme in many democratic transitions is that demands among the vast majority of citizens for democratic change are a key factor that allowed for democratic governments to gain power and legitimacy. Additionally, national unity often serves as a way to increase the overall stability and long-term survival prospects of democratic regimes.

The approach by Haggard and Kaufman is the second strongest theoretical approach to democratization. The main reason as to why the assumption by Haggard and Kaufman is the second most reliable approach is because they take into the fact that there exist two different types of democratic transitions, the crisis, and non-crisis transition. The crisis transition occurs when a country is faced with an economic decline, whereas non-crisis transitions occur when there is relative economic stability in a country. Haggard and Kaufman make a convincing argument that transitions to democracy are often dependent on the economic circumstances that a country is facing. For example, they state that countries that are economically stable are less likely to transition towards democracy, whereas countries facing economic uncertainty have a greater chance to see the decline in authoritarianism. The examples that they use in their cause study also show a high level of variation between both the crisis and non-crisis transitions. Additionally, the cases they include represent a diverse geographic array of countries located in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. The fact that they focus on countries in various geographic areas shows that their hypothesis that economic circumstances play a role in democratic transitions can be applied to many different scenarios and that is not dependent on particular geographic regions.

The third strongest approach is by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba. The main strength of Almond and Verba’s approach is that it takes into account the belief that democracy in a country is dependent on the creation of a values system that is supportive of it. Without the existence of a system of values that allows for democracy and widespread citizen participation in politics, the future stability and strength of any democratic political systems is reduced. Additionally, a values system in which individuals are accustomed to the ideas of democracy is widespread, the more likely that democracy will eventually emerge within an authoritarian political system. The primary weakness with Almond and Verba’s approach is that it only takes into account five different countries. Out of the five countries, they mention, the ones with the strongest history of democratic governance are the United States and Great Britain. Germany and Italy, on the other hand, were characterized by political instability and a relatively short history of democratic institutions Moreover, Mexico at the time of Almond and Verba’s study was marked as having a one-party political system and limited political freedom overall.

The fourth strongest theoretical approach to democratization is by Albert Hirschman. The reason why the democratization model of Albert Hirschman is the fourth strongest is that it focuses on the role of individuals in determining political change. Hirschman’s approach is based on the idea that people will either voice their dissatisfaction with the status quo and push authoritarian leaders to implement policies that allow for greater governmental efficiency or a higher level of political freedom, or exit from the current political situation and begin supporting alternative political systems such as democracy. Additionally, Hirschman argues that the ability for individuals to voice their opinions in an authoritarian society is based on the existence of exit options and the opportunity for members to shift towards competing political ideas. The approach by Hirschman also looks at the notion of gradual political reform by taking into account the possibility that efforts by individuals may force leaders into making lasting political changes. On the other hand, Hirschman does not take into consideration the fact that authoritarian leaders may not have the incentive to allow for gradual reform even with increasing demands from individuals. For example, authoritarian leaders may still be willing to keep the current political status quo in spite of increased citizen demands for change due to the existence of longstanding structural and institutional factors.

The fifth strongest approach to democratic transitions is by Adam Przeworski. The reason why the approach to Adam Przeworski is the fifth strongest is that it presents an in-depth view as to how outcomes are followed through in a democratic political system and how democracy becomes consolidated. Additionally, Przeworski looks at the underlying problems associated with democratic transitions and the dynamic between various elements within an authoritarian society. Understanding the issues defining democratic transitions and the number of factions in an authoritarian society is essential to having an understanding regarding how authoritarian countries ultimately transition to democracy. Moreover, Przeworski takes into account several different outcomes that societies tend to take regarding democratic transitions that are often ignored by other theorists. The main weakness of Przeworski’s approach is that he primarily focuses on economic factors and tends to ignore political and social factors and the ways in which they influence a countries transition towards democracy.

The sixth strongest model of democratization is by John Higley and Michael Burton. Higley and Burton look into the relationship between societal elites and democratization. The reason why such approach is valid is that elites have often played a significant role in pushing for democratization and have a role in determining the long-term success of democratic systems. Additionally, the approach of Higley and Burton focuses on the outcomes of democratic transitions, which serves as a contrast to the approach of other democracy theorists who mostly explore the processes behind democratic transitions. The main weakness of Higley and Burton’s democratization theory is that it assumes that the relationships of societal elites are the primary factor that influences democratic stability in society. Additionally, they argue that elite disunity is the main factor that creates political instability and does not take into account other factors such as economic uncertainty, ongoing societal issues, and political struggle in creating instability and weakening the effectiveness of new democratic governments.

The seventh strongest idea on democratization is by Seymour Lipsett. The main strength of Lipsett’s approach is that he used quantitative methods to explore how democracy emerges as opposed to the previous theoretical approaches used by previous theorists. Additionally, Lipsett looks at the emergence of democracy through both a sociological as well as economic perspective. The main weakness in Lipsett’s approach is the fact that he does not use a varied group of countries within his study. For example, Lipsett only includes countries from Latin America and Europe as his case studies. The fact that he uses a relatively small subset of countries limits the effectiveness of his research and prevents the data that he finds from being applied uniformly. Additionally, the methodology that Lipsett used to classify countries as being a democracy or not is questionable and is not uniform between both regions that he focuses his study on. For example, the main criteria Lipsett uses to locate European democracies are the uninterrupted continuation of democracy since World War One, and the absence of any significant political movement opposed to liberal ideas since the mid-1930s. He categorizes Latin American democracies by the level of freedom in political elections since the end of World War One. The relatively limited nature of his classifications does not take into account other factors that influence democracies such as overall political freedom.

In conclusion, political scientists and governmental leaders alike often ask the question as to what factors allow democracy to form and flourish in particular societies. To explain the factors that lead to democratization and the stability of a democratic system, there exist several different democratization theories. The theories of democratization often vary in their effectiveness and focus on the various aspects such as the economic, political, and social factors behind democratic transitions. Additionally, the theories of democratic transitions often concentrate on certain areas of the world more than others and sometimes are only applicable to the period in which they were initially developed in. Despite the differences between the theories of democratization, a common theme they share is that they promote the belief that countries will eventually turn towards democracy and that more open political systems will ultimately emerge.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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