In Which I Acknowledge Adam Przeworski’s Brilliance and Then Argue with Him in Absentia

A few weeks ago, the blog ABC Democracy posted a video of Adam Przeworski speaking at a Kenyon College conference entitled “Should America Promote Democracy Abroad?” Przeworski is widely and justifiably considered one of the preeminent scholars on comparative democratization, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say on a topic that greatly interests me.

It turned out that I agreed wholeheartedly with Przeworski on the conference’s titular topic, but I disagreed with a few assertions he made along the way about the state of our knowledge on transitions to and from democracy. I thought I would take advantage of my blogger’s platform to engage in a virtual dialogue with Przeworski on those issues and then close on some points of agreement.

Point of Disagreement #1: We Can’t Predict Transitions to Democracy

Here’s what Przeworski said, starting at about the 46-minute mark, with the part to which I’m responding in bold:

In spite of an enormous amount of research over the past 30 years, we don’t have a general understanding of why dictatorships fall. There are [sic] statistical work that introduces every possible factor you can imagine–not just the kitchen sink, the grandmother’s attic. And the results are, one, not robust, and, two, in statistical terms, have very weak predictive power. Which leads me, after many years of this kind of work, to believe that, in fact, dictatorships run many different, idiosyncratic risks and fall for idiosyncratic reasons.

Przeworski is surely correct that there are many pathways to democracy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use statistical models to forecast where and when democratic transitions will occur. In fact, we’ve got solid evidence that we can.

In a report I wrote for my old job as research director for the Political Instability Task Force, I summarized the results of modeling exercise aimed explicitly at assessing the likelihood of transitions to and from democracy in countries worldwide since the early 1970s. As the report describes (pp. 22-24), a relatively simple statistical model discriminates fairly well between impending transitions and durable autocracies. In an out-of-sample forecasting exercise using a simple decision rule (Top 20), that model correctly flagged 26 of the 29 impending transitions (sensitivity of 90 percent) as “high-risk” cases while producing roughly nine false positives for each of those true positives (specificity of 73 percent).

Those accuracy rates are far from perfect, but they’re also a lot better than chance, which is what I hear in Przeworski’s phrase “very weak predictive power.” The specific causes and catalysts of democratic transitions may vary widely over space and time, but there seem to be enough commonalities across recent cases that we can get a decent read on which ones are “ripest” for this kind of change.

Point of Disagreement #2: Well-to-do Countries Never Backslide

According to Przeworski,

We do understand quite well conditions under which democracies survive…There is a fact, which you probably know because I know that some of you have read it, but which continues to be astonishing, which is that no democracy ever fell in a country with per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1976.

This fact may not be as, well, factual as Przeworski believes. As I noted in a recent post, using economist Angus Maddison’s estimates of GDP per capita, I can think of at least two breakdowns of democracy in countries richer than Argentina in 1976: Thailand in 2006, and now Hungary in 2011.

To be fair to Przeworski, Thailand in 2006 was not much richer than Argentina in 1976–their per capita incomes were $8,238 and $7,965, respectively–and not everyone would agree that Hungary’s crossed the line into authoritarian rule in 2011.

Still, that there’s some doubt about this “iron rule” of politics has deeper implications for our understanding of democratization, and “development” more generally. In American political science, at least, the prevailing view is that democracy is the best and final form of government attained by countries as they modernize and “mature,” politically and economically. This view seems to find confirmation in a world where democracies that have crossed some developmental threshold never fail. If democracy sometimes does fail even in richer countries, however, then the whole premise of modernity as the end stage of a process of growth and maturation becomes a bit muddled. The strong correlation between wealth and the survival of democracy is still there, but the inference from that correlation that modernity is a package deal looks a bit shakier.

Point of Disagreement #3: The Risk of Democratic Breakdown Falls with Each Passing Election

Around minute 49, Przeworski says:

One thing that’s striking is that elections seem to be a self-institutionalizing mechanism. By this, I mean the following: that once a country holds one decent election, the probability that the democratic regime will be overthrown in the future declines rapidly. I can tell you, without an election is 1 in 8; after one election, 1 in 25; after two elections, 1 in 55; after three elections, 1 in 90. So that first decent election–and not even with alternation that was Sam Huntington’s criterion–just having an honest election in which there’s some competition and somebody wins, the winner occupies the office of government and runs an honest election again, that’s enough.

Once again, that’s not the pattern I see. In the report I mentioned earlier–and blogged here in September–I find that the risk of backsliding actually increases over time until democracies are in their teens or even early 20s. In Przeworski’s terms, the pattern I see implies that democracies have to survive at least a few election cycles before their risk of breakdown starts to decline, other things being equal. At the same time, I also find that alternation in power does make a big difference; other things being equal, democracies that have seen at least one alternation of the party in power are less than half as likely to fail as ones that have not.

Maybe this disagreement is, at least in part, an artifact of differences in the measures of democracy employed by our respective studies. Unsurprisingly, I happen to think my measure is more useful, but plenty of people use the version on which Przeworski’s assertion is based.

Still, that we can’t be sure Przeworski’s pattern is real is a big deal, not the least because it suggests very different strategies for interested parties seeking to support the survival of democracy in cases that have recently established it. In Przeworski’s world, a strategically minded supporter might focus her efforts on the first one or two elections. In my world, that supporter pretty much needs to keep worrying until a democratic alternation in power occurs. If we’re not sure which of those worlds we inhabit but we care deeply about the survival of democracy, then we’ll probably want to err on the safe side and assume the risk persists much longer than Przeworski’s inference about elections as a “self-institutionalizing mechanism” would lead us to do.

Points of Agreement

Alongside those points of disagreement, there were many things Przeworski said with which I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll close with a couple of those bon mots:

Identifying the causal effects of any kind of policy intervention is extremely tricky.

Yes, in a world with no “control” group, a relatively small number of events, and a dense web of causes and interventions, it’s virtually impossible to say anything with confidence about the marginal effects of specific policies and programs on the prospects for democratic transitions and consolidation.

Last, and without comment:

Look at the United States from the point of view of Russians or the Chinese…It’s a country where half of the population doesn’t vote, even in presidential elections; where barriers of entry to politics are enormous; in which practices which in other countries would be considered political corruption are ubiquitous; a country with the highest degree of inequality among the developed countries; a country in which, at least for black American males, being free means only being out of jail; the oldest democracy in the world which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. I think that, if democracy promotion is to be at all credible and at all effective, it should begin at home.

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Jay Ulfelder, I agree with you.

    A recent paper entitled ‘Income and the stability of democracy’ especially in relation to your ‘Point of Disagreement #2’

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10602-014-9175-x

    Reply

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