In writings on foreign affairs for popular audiences, there’s a whole sub-genre that can be identified by the tagline: “It’s impossible to predict; now let me offer a prediction.” These stories usually drive me crazy, but Jack Snyder–of democracies-can-also-be-belligerent renown, if there’s such a thing as renown in the microscopic world of popularized political science–recently delivered an unusually successful one with an essay on the future of China. In it, he writes:
Predicting China’s future is a seemingly impossible task that people choose to take on anyway…People want to know because they feel their lives—and their actions—depend on it. Having a vision of possible and likely futures of China matters because outsiders think their choices might affect China’s trajectory and because they want to be prepared to respond to China’s outsize presence.
The same could be said of the future of democracy in Europe. Will democracy survive in the European Union’s Cold War-era members in the face of tremendous economic and social pressures, the likes of which the continent arguably hasn’t seen since the last World War? It’s impossible to say for sure; now let me try anyway.
Snyder’s piece on China works better than most because he considers competing predictions; he is explicit about the theories generating those predictions; and he tries to base his adjudication of those competing predictions on evidence from careful studies. That’s the model I’m going to attempt to follow here.
Like China’s trajectory, the survival of democracy in Europe carries historic weight for the whole planet. The failure of democracy in any one of these countries would mark a momentous turn in a world where liberalism is supposedly ascendant, and Europe is liberalism’s geographic center of gravity. At the same time, the survival of these democratic regimes in the face of such extreme pressures would help exorcise the specter of fascism that has haunted European politics since the 1930s.
Available theories suggest different futures. The dominant take on democratic consolidation among American political scientists comes from modernization theory, which posits that rich countries with post-industrial economies have undergone certain social and cultural changes that effectively “lock in” democracy. The eminent scholar Adam Przeworski famously claims that democracy has never failed in a country with a per capita income higher than Argentina’s in 1973, and Ron Inglehart and Christian Welzel muster survey data to show that the political and economic transformations underlying that factoid correlate with changes in citizens’ beliefs and values in more liberal directions.
There are at least two knocks on this theory, though. First, there are some recent exceptions to Przeworski’s rule of thumb, and they suggest that the innoculative effects of socio-economic modernization may not be as powerful as modernization theorists have supposed. Thailand is one, and Hungary is another. According to Angus Maddison’s widely used estimates, in constant dollars, Argentina’s GDP per capita in 1973 was $7,962. When Thailand’s democratically elected government was swept aside by a military coup in 2006, its GDP per capita was $8,238. Ironically, that figure had stood at $7,886 the year before, meaning Thailand only crossed the Argentina-in-1973 threshold in the same year its democracy was usurped. Hungary didn’t cut it so close. As it has slid back into authoritarian rule in the past year and a half, its GDP per capita was roughly twice as large as Argentina’s in 1973, having crossed Przeworski’s virtual finish line sometime in the mid-1990s.
Second–and, in my view, more significant–all of the data on which this “iron law” of democratic consolidation is based come from a specific historical era that was arguably exceptional in some important regards. Modernization theory was formulated in a period of bipolar world politics in which the threat of apocalyptic war with the Soviet Union compelled an unprecedented degree of political cooperation in Western Europe. That bipolarity coincided with a period of global economic integration and liberalization that was driven in no small part by the deliberate efforts of policy-makers in the polar power with which Europe was aligned.
When we use cross-national data to look back on this era, we see a strong correlation between wealth, liberal values, and democracy. What we lack is the counterfactual history in which these socio-economic trends occurred without the supporting international architecture. Without that “control group” world, we can’t be confident that the observed patterns in democratic consolidation don’t depend on features of the international system that are no longer present.
One major alternative to modernization theory as a lens for looking at present-day Europe comes from theories emphasizing the effects of economic performance on the risk of democratic breakdown. This perspective is nicely summarized by Larry Diamond, who in the late 1990s asserted that, “It is by now a truism that the better the performance of a democratic regime in producing and broadly distributing improvements in living standards, the more likely it is to endure.”
The causal chains in mental models emphasizing the effects of economic performance generally run through popular legitimacy. The trouble starts when economic malaise erodes popular confidence in the ability of democracy to “deliver the goods.” As faith in democracy wanes, support for authoritarian alternatives waxes. Economic slumps can also produce social unrest that may tempt military leaders to seize power in an attempt to preserve or impose order.
Or so the thinking goes. In fact, the empirical evidence is a bit squishy on this point. Some statistical studies have confirmed this claim, but others have not. Importantly, in the statistical models these studies have produced, any increased risk associated with slow growth is overwhelmed by the effects of national wealth, so that rich countries appear to be “cured” of their vulnerability to democratic breakdown in response to poor economic performance. This immunity is implicit in my own research, where I only see increased risk of breakdown when I restrict the analysis to non-OECD countries. This immunity is made more explicit in Milan Svolik’s split-population modeling, which shows that economic recessions do affect the timing of democratic breakdowns, but only in countries where democracy has not yet consolidated. Among consolidated democracies–identified primarily by their high levels of per capita income–the risk of democratic breakdown is virtually nil, however the economy is performing.
As I read it, then, the empirical evidence on economic performance actually ends up supporting the “lock-in” argument from the modernization model. In the period covered by our cross-national data sets, recessions have sometimes helped to undo new democracies, but wealthy, long-established democracies like Europe’s have proved immune to these maladies.
Again, though, what we can’t learn from these theories and the studies that have tested them is the extent to which this pattern depends on the geopolitical peculiarities of the past half-century–or, for that matter, some other system-level feature I’ve failed to consider. That, to my mind, is where we reach the limits of current evidence. Statistical studies of the Cold War and post-Cold War periods can reassure us that we’ve never seen a democracy as rich and long-lived as the ones in the E.U. before enlargement fail before, and they can show that these democracies haven’t been vulnerable to coups and collapse in the way that newer and poorer democracies have. What they can’t tell us is whether this year is now different. Within the system those studies have examined, Western Europe’s democracies have proved to be resilient–but are we still inhabiting that system, or has the world changed in ways that re-open the door to democratic breakdown? To try to answer that question, historically informed speculation is the best we can muster.
This post is the first of a two-parter. I split it up because I know my attention starts to wander after 1,000 words, so I figure yours probably does, too. In Part 2, I’ll apply my own game-theoretic model of democratic consolidation to contemporary Europe to see where it leads.