Will Democracy Survive in Europe? Part 2

In the first part of this two-part post, I stayed close to the statistical evidence from the past half-century to argue that, as dismal as the economic crisis may be, we should expect Europe’s older democracies to survive it. At the same time, I acknowledged that we can’t be sure of that outcome, because the international system that generated the data on which those statistics are based might be have changed.

In this second part, I’m going to venture into more speculative territory by applying my own toy model of democratic consolidation to Europe today. A thorough application of this model would require a lot more time and prose than I can devote to a blog post–this thing’s already going to be longer than my usual missive, and that’s after splitting it into two parts–so I’m going to aim instead for a cursory version that uses a few broad brush strokes in place of lots of case-specific detail. As I do so, I would invite anyone who knows these cases better than I to fill in or correct those details and to identify the alternative futures they might imply.

Much of the thinking in recent decades about how democracy arises and survives is rooted in structural theories of political development. By contrast, my model of democratic consolidation uses game theory to redirect our attention to the strategic concerns of three powerful political actors: ruling parties (the incumbent), their electoral rivals (the opposition), and the military. This redirection is useful because structural conditions don’t really cause change, at least not directly. For democracy to fail, one of these three organizations actually has to break it. Those actors’ motivation to do so is shaped by external conditions, as structural theories suggest, but it is also affected by internal features of their organizations and uncertainty about their rivals’ intentions and capabilities.

This uncertainty turns out to be particularly important. Because of it, democracy isn’t just vulnerable to the machinations of groups who stand to benefit directly from a return to authoritarian rule, as we generally (and correctly) assume. In this version of the world, democracy can also be undermined by the fears of groups who would prefer to see democracy survive but must worry that their rivals will steal it out from under them. Under these conditions, even committed democrats may decide to strike preemptively to avoid getting stuck with their least-preferred outcome, namely, a dictatorship led by one of their political rivals. As a result, the risk of democratic breakdown will often be greater than we realize when we concentrate on things like economic development or popular attitudes.

What does this model suggest about the survival of democracy in Europe now? Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have occurred when ruling parties have rigged the system to ensure that they remain in power, so we can start by considering the likelihood of this sort of self-coup.

Viewing the scene from high altitude, I’d say the risk of self-coups remains extremely low in contemporary Europe for reasons that Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (NWW) enumerate in their excellent book, Violence and Social Orders. NWW locate the fulcrum of political and economic development in the (still-rare) transition from “natural states,” characterized by oligarchy and rent-seeking, to open access orders, characterized by competition and impersonal exchange. For thinking about the staying power of democracy in Europe, their crucial point is that, once established, open access orders are resilient because openness across the various parts of the system–political, economic, and social–is mutually reinforcing.

Open access orders exhibit a virtuous circle linking the control of violence and open access. The political system limits access to the means of violence; open economic and social access ensures that access to the political system is open; credible prohibitions on the use of violence to compete maintains open economic and social access; and political and judicial systems enforce prohibitions on the use of violence. Similarly, open access to organizations in all systems sustains competition in all systems. Competition in all systems, in turn, helps sustain open access.

Would-be autocrats have the most to gain by usurping power in situations where the state directly commands, or controls access to, lucrative economic assets–things like oil or mining contracts, large industrial enterprises, or valuable real-estate markets. Absent those ready sources of revenue, it’s hard to extract a profit from political power. In open access orders, those economic disincentives are reinforced in the political sphere by the presence of well-organized interest groups outside of ruling parties and dynamic competition within them. In the economic sphere, they are also reinforced by price mechanisms and international markets which quickly impose costs on sharp policy changes. In Europe today, the status quo may be quite painful, but the depth and breadth of openness and competition means there’s little profit to be won by grasping at oligarchy, and the direct and indirect costs of breaking democracy only make the expected payoff down that pathway look even worse.

Opposition parties confront all the same disincentives, only with several added degrees of difficulty. For an opposition party to usurp power, it has to organize and pull off a successful revolution, and it turns out that’s really, really hard to do. In the past half-century, there have only been a dozen or so democratic breakdowns by revolution, and most of those involved civil wars and state collapses in which the rebellious opposition never managed to gain control of central authority. These disincentives don’t mean we won’t hear calls for rebellion or see more social unrest and even terrorism. They just mean that those calls and acts will fail to snowball into well-organized political movements that realistically threaten to seize state power by non-democratic means.

Last but not least is the military, the chief agent of democratic breakdown during the Cold War. There are basically two situations in which military leaders are tempted to try a coup: either they covet power for themselves, or they want to prevent a rival from clinging or coming to power. The former fits many of the coups in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, while the latter applies to cases like the anti-Communist coup in Greece in 1967, the “coup by memorandum” in Turkey in 1971, and the Thai coup of 2006.

As far as I can tell, the militaries of contemporary Europe have little appetite for political power. Appeals to organizational culture sometimes feel like hand-waves to me, but in this case I think the concept is quite relevant. European and American armed forces routinely extol the importance of civilian control, and that norm is now deeply embedded in these organizations and the societies from which their members come. Tellingly, in November 2011, when Greece’s defense minister sacked his service chiefs, it was left to opposition parties to decry the move as a politicization of the military; as we would expect from professionalized services, nary a peep was heard from the officers themselves.

What seems more plausible are scenarios in which military leaders are tempted to inject themselves into politics by fears that parties they consider radical will win power, or that political paralysis will sow prolonged disorder. In Greece, for example, politically conservative military officers might see the growing electoral appeal of far-left parties as a profound threat and decide that they need to prevent those parties from forming a government. This is the problem of strategic uncertainty identified in my game-theoretic model, and it’s potentially significant at a time of radicalization and polarization.

Even here, though, the benefits of that preemptive strike would have to be weighed against the expected costs of governing and aggressively suppressing popular unrest. Financial markets often punish coups, and those officers will probably recognize that governing and policing will be hard and thankless work, especially in the depths of an economic crisis with no obvious exit path.

In short, I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll see any military coup attempts in Europe in the near future, even in the countries hit hardest by the Euro crisis. As bad as the status quo gets, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which direct military rule looks any better to the people who would actually have to pull it off than stumbling along the current track.

Considering all of this theory and evidence together, I expect that democracy will survive the current crisis in Europe, even if the politics sometimes takes ugly turns in response to the disruptions of a deep recession and the structural changes that will have to ensue. Consideration of the base rate for democratic breakdown among rich countries and my beliefs about the incentives facing European parties and militaries today leads me to guesstimate the odds of democratic breakdown in even the most troubled countries—Greece and Spain for now, but maybe Italy or Portugal soon, too—at less than 1:50 (and you can hold me to that if you like).

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  1. Great posts, Jay. Thinking about democratic breakdown, could we perhaps consider options other than the democracy-dictatorship binary choice? A political version of stagnation where democracy doesn’t function properly, and none of the three main actors you mention feel incentivised or legitimised to take action? Citizens still need to flourish, to grow, to eat, to survive, and they can feel their system breaking down and not responding to their needs, either present or future. What happens then? What comes next? A return to dictatorship is one option. Anarchy would be at the other extreme, and I’m sure there are several middling options that might ‘work’ for a while too.

    • Great questions, Matthew. What do you think?

      Me, I came to this topic as a theorist of democratic breakdown, recognizing that the current crisis in Europe is a huge test for all the assumptions we’ve accumulated over the past 50 years about how and why democracy–in its basic procedural forms, anyway–survives in rich countries. So, for me, the motivation was to think about whether or not those assumptions would hold. But, as you point out, from a wider perspective, that’s just one of many big questions right now, and arguably not the most essential one for everybody.

      • I think it’s a fundamental question right now, urgent even, if we are to have any chance of stopping things going badly wrong in Europe over the next few years.

        I think we need to think about the different types of democracies, too. I’m not sure what type of democracy Portugal and Greece received 35-40 years ago, but here in Spain they opted for a closed list system in which there is no direct relationship at all between the voter and the elected representatives. Getting ahead in politics here implies being very friendly with the party boss, not doing right by your voters. This system also means it’s impossible for voters to hold their representatives to account politically (notwithstanding any legal liability for corruption or embezzlement or whatever it is). The word ‘accountability’, in fact, doesn’t even exist in Spanish (if you try and differentiate it from plain ‘responsibility’). This is all very different from the democratic options available to voters in the UK or the US. The anglo-saxon models seem much more responsive and adaptable in this sense.

        On the economics side, do the models you mention (I’ve had a read through Svolik’s paper) take into account the severity of the recession and the differences between recession and depressions? If consolidated democracies hold under recession, do we know if they also hold under depression-level deleveraging (Grantham, Dalio, etc…)? What happens to them when the combined effects of climate change, peak oil and 8 billion people start becoming more apparent?

        From a systems perspective, surely if you have a weak, or overly-rigid structure (the democratic model), that is subject to the impact of a larger force (the severity of the recession/depression), it is more likely that the structure breaks or becomes dysfunctional in some way?

        Portugal, Greece and Spain might be an interesting group for you to study right now. Political leaders shout out that “Portugal/Spain/Greece is not Spain/Portugal/Greece” at every opportunity, but there are clearly parallels in the sense you’re talking about. They¡re all 35-40 years into what the models say should be consolidated democracies by now, they were all previously dictatorships, their geographies and cultural histories are similar, and all are being subjected to quite sever economic strain, certainly the severest since they transitioned, although they all seem to have survived so far. It seems Greece is leading the breakdown right now: the Nazis are in the Greek parliament already and we have witnessed the democratically unedifying spectacles of i) party thugs demanding respect and obedience from journalists at the party leader’s press conference and ii) a male Nazi MP repeatedly hitting a female communist MP on a live TV debate show. That’s already quite a big step away from proper democratic functioning, I think.

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