The Elite Variable in Democracy

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, a 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.

This article is a response to “The elite variable in democratic transitions and breakdowns,” by John Highley and Michael Burton. It is found at:

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Matt studies and analyzes politics at all levels. He is the creator of, a scholarly resource exploring political trends, political theory, political economy, philosophy, and more. He hopes that his articles can encourage more people to gain knowledge about politics and understand the impact that public policy decisions have on their lives. Matt is also involved in the preservation of recorded sound through IASA International Bibliography of Discographies, and is an avid record collector.

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