Traditional thinking about democratic consolidation tells us that the risk of democratic breakdown declines over time. This expectation is based on the idea that democracy is, at least in part, a matter of culture. Democracy is thought to depend on certain norms and values, so prospects for its survival should improve as those norms and values deepen and spread. The causal mechanisms involved are learning and habituation. In theory, the passage of time produces positive feedback, and this virtuous circle eventually carries societies to a point where a reversion to authoritarian rule is collectively unthinkable.
That pattern, however, is not what I see in the data. The figure below plots the relationship between the age of a democratic regime (on the horizontal axis) and the risk of its breakdown (on the vertical axis) in a data set on episodes of democracy in “developing” countries from the past half-century. (Here, “developing” just means countries that are not members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) The estimates were derived with nonparametric smoothing splines, which can be used to identify nonlinear relationships without making prior assumptions about the functional form of the relationship (see Luke Keele’s book). The solid line shows the estimates, and the dotted lines show the upper and lower bounds of the associated 95% confidence interval. In addition to regime duration, the model also includes a country’s infant mortality rate (normalized to the annual global median and then logged), a measure of its civil liberties (Freedom House’s seven-point index), and indicators for the post-Cold War period and whether or not there’s been an alternation of the party in power since the start of the democratic episode.
As the figure clearly shows, risk actually increases over time, at least for the first 15-20 years of a democracy’s life span. Once a democratic regime has made it that far, the risk of breakdown appears to be unrelated to the further passage of time. Learning and habituation may be occurring, but they clearly aren’t the only thing going on.
This pattern has important practical implications. In the past, international efforts to support democratic transitions have focused heavily on founding elections, and attention has often waned quickly in the years that follow. If this evidence is correct, then the traditional approach may be a risky one.