Democratization Is Not Like Growing Up

Scholars and journalists often talk about the development of democracy in the same ways they might talk about human development, about people growing up and getting old. Some regimes are described as “fledgling democracies” while others are labeled “mature.” Countries with uncertain prospects for holding free and fair elections are made to sound like unruly teenagers with overactive political hormones, while countries that have strung together many consecutive free and fair elections are portrayed as wiser and steadier adults. In World Bank-speak, the latter are “developed,” but the former are still “developing.”

These growth metaphors are rooted in the idea that democratization follows a set sequence akin to human maturation. In a critical 2002 essay called “The End of the Transition Paradigm,” Thomas Carothers summarized this presumed sequence as follows:

First there occurs the opening, a period of democratic ferment and political liberalization in which cracks appear in the ruling dictatorial regime, with the most prominent fault line being that between hardliners and softliners. There follows the breakthrough–the collapse of the regime and the rapid emergence of a new, democratic system, with the coming to power of a new government through national elections and the establishment of a democratic institutional structure, often through the promulgation of a new constitution. After the transition comes consolidation, a slow but purposeful process in which democratic forms are transformed into democratic substance through the reform of state institutions, the regularization of elections, the strengthening of civil society, and the overall habituation of the society to the new democratic “rules of the game.”

Well, this is a blog post, so you probably know where I’m going: these growth and maturation metaphors really just don’t fit. Although some countries have followed the kind of glide path those metaphors suggest, most have taken much jerkier trajectories through political space–trajectories that look more like EEGs than growth charts. A few plots will show you what I mean.

Let’s start with Mexico, one of the few “developing” countries that has followed something like the idealized glide path imagined under the transitions paradigm. The chart below plots Mexico’s estimated degree of democracy annually over the period 1960-2008. (For data hounds: the estimates are mean unified democracy scores, a scalar measure of democracy derived from several leading sources of democracy data using a Bayesian measurement model. In the global data set, values range roughly from -2 to 2. Credit to James Melton, Steven Meserve, and Daniel Pemstein for developing these scores.) As we would expect from a process of growth and maturation, we see a fairly steady rise over the past half-century, with something like a leveling off in the past decade.

Now, though, let’s take a look at a few other “developing” countries to see some of the other forms these data can take. First, here’s Ghana, a country often hailed in recent years as an African success story. If we only focus on the past two decades, we see a growth pattern similar to Mexico’s, albeit in a more compressed time. But what about the first 30 years of independence? Instead of steady maturation, we see a series of sharp swings occurring in short succession.

Thailand’s trajectory has been just about as erratic than Ghana’s. Here again, there does seem to be a long-term trend toward more democratic government, but that trend consists of democratic episodes punctuated by authoritarian interludes, all of them the result of military coups. Since 2000, the basic trend has been downward.

If democratization were really like human development, then Venezuela would be “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” After electoral democracy was established in 1958, the country held steady for a few decades at a higher score than many “developing” countries have ever attained before starting a steady decline in the late 1980s that’s persisted to the present.

So what? Well, the growth metaphors aren’t just florid language. How we talk about democratization reflects what we think about how the process works. The maturation construct suggests that democratization is a cumulative process driven by changes in habits and learning, but that’s not what the data suggest. The sharp swings we see in cases like Ghana and Thailand show that changes in the institutions we associate with democracy are usually abrupt rather than incremental. The decline we see in a case like Venezuela suggests that “consolidation” is more ephemeral than many theories of democratization assume. At this time scale, at least, political change is characterized by volatility, not growth, and volatility cannot be explained by unidrectional trends in sociological conditions–say, the emergence of a middle class–on which democratization theory has traditionally rested. As Charles Tilly wrote in the Preface to his 2007 book Democracy (p. xi), “Democratization is a dynamic process that always remains incomplete and perpetually runs the risk of reversal.” That’s true because the institutions and procedures that comprise it don’t magically arise on their own. Instead, they emerge from political struggles that sometimes tip sharply and never really end.

Leave a comment


  1. Trey

     /  July 13, 2011

    Seems like a good topic for the debate surrounding the “punctuated equilibrium” model of institutional path dependence versus a Thelen-esque “institutional layering” and gradual change model.

  2. Excellent. If something like Acemoglu and Robinson’s ideas in “Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” are correct, you really would not expect to see a “gradual” democratization process in most cases, though.

    • Thanks, and agreed. I didn’t mean to indict all theories of democratization, just the ones that focus on sociological trends as the engines of political change. I think those trends are relevant, but they operate on a different time scale and cannot explain the institutional oscillation about which we’re usually trying to theorize.

  3. The notion that “democracy develops” can also blindside democratic leaders: “we’ve achieved democracy, so we can coast along on everything else…”. In Venezuela many politicians believed that an authoritarian regime was a thing of the past and, moreover, that the people would not support the return of such a regime. And Political Science supported this for years, until the democratic idea became a bit complicated for Venezuelans: we do support democracy, but have no common or overriding inkling on the concept (apart from a Shumpeterian sense…).

  1. Electoral Authoritarianism in Latin America: Important, but Not “New” « Dart-Throwing Chimp

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