The Democratic Recession That *Still* Isn’t

Freedom House dropped its annual Freedom in the World report today, and its contents give me cause once more to bang a drum I’ve been banging for a while: democracy is not in retreat. Here are the numbers, are summarized by Freedom House:

The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2013 stood at 88, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and 40 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries decreased by two from the previous year’s report.

The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 59, or 30 percent of all countries assessed, and they were home to 25 percent of the world’s population. The number of Partly Free countries increased by one from the previous year.

A total of 48 countries were deemed Not Free, representing 25 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 35 percent of the global population, though China accounts for more than half of this figure. The number of Not Free countries increased by one from 2012.

The number of electoral democracies rose by four to 122, with Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan acquiring the designation.

So, summing up: the global shares of countries designated Free, Partly Free, and Not Free remained more or less unchanged from 2012, while the share of countries designated as electoral democracies increased two percentage points, from 60.5 to 62.5 percent.

In its own topline judgments, Freedom House looks at the data from a different angle than I do, calling out the fact that the number of declines in scores on its Political Rights or Civil Liberties indices outstripped the number of gains for the eighth year in a row. This is factually true, but I think it’s also important to note that many of those declines are occurring in countries in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East that we already regard as authoritarian. In other words, this eight-year trend is not primarily the result of more and more democracies slipping into authoritarianism; instead, it’s more that many existing autocracies keep tightening the screws.

I don’t think it’s accidental that this eight-year trend has coincided with two waves of popular uprisings in the very regions where those erosions are most pronounced—the so-called Color Revolutions and Arab Awakening. A lot of that slippage has come from autocrats made anxious by democratic ferment in their own and neighboring societies. If we notice that correlation and allow ourselves to think longer term, I think there’s actually cause to be optimistic that these erosions will not hold indefinitely, at least not across the board. Oh, and let’s not forget about China.

It may also be true, as some have argued, that the quality of democracy is eroding in long-established electoral regimes in Europe and the Americas. If that is happening, though, it’s not showing up yet in Freedom House’s data. We can argue about whether those indices are sufficiently sensitive or properly tuned to pick up that kind of variation, and given the depth of concern around these issues right now, I think that’s a debate worth having. That said, the fact that these permutations don’t yet register on measures designed to compare the scope and scale of freedoms worldwide over the past 40 years should also remind us to keep those concerns in comparative perspective.

On the whole, I think Larry Diamond nailed it in a recent Economist-hosted debate on this issue:

Concern about the health of democracy is necessary to reform and improve it. Apathy permits the decay of democracy and could eventually bring its demise. But the fear that democracy may now be in global retreat is not simply overblown, it is wrong.

Legitimacy Revisited…and Still Found Wanting

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that “legitimacy” is a solution to a theoretical puzzle that isn’t really so puzzling.

One of the central concerns of contemporary political science is political development—that is, understanding how and why different systems of government emerge, survive, and change.  Many of the theories we’ve crafted to address this topic start by assuming that those dynamics depend, in no small part, on the consent of the governed. Yes, all states sometimes coerce subjects into obedience, but coercion alone can’t explain why people don’t more often ignore or overthrow governments that fail to make them as happy as they could be. Taxes are costly, there are always some laws we don’t like, and subjects usually outnumber state security forces by a large margin.

Legitimacy is the idea we’ve concocted to fill that space between the amount of cooperation we think we can explain with coercion and the amount of cooperation we actually see. In its contemporary form, legitimacy has two layers. The first and supposedly deeper layer is a moral judgment about the justice of the current form of government; the second, surface layer is an instrumental judgment about the utility that government is providing. If we imagine the relationship between a state and its subjects as a marriage of sorts, we might think of the two layers of legitimacy as answers to two different questions: “Do you deserve my love?” and “What have you done for me lately?”

This two-layered notion of legitimacy is made clearest in contemporary thinking about the origins and survival of democratic regimes. According to Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset in Politics in Developing Countries (p. 9, emphasis mine),

All governments rest on some mixture of coercion and consent, but democracies are unique in the degree to which their stability depends on the consent of a majority of those governed…Democratic stability requires a widespread belief among elites and masses in the legitimacy of the democratic system: that it is the best form of government (or the “least evil”), “that in spite of shortcomings and failures, the existing political institutions are better than any others that might be established,” and hence that the democratic regime is morally entitled to demand obedience—to tax and draft, to make laws and enforce them, even “if necessary, by the use of force.”

Democratic legitimacy derives, when it is most stable and secure, from an intrinsic value commitment rooted in the political culture at all levels of society, but it is also shaped (particularly in the early years of democracy) by the performance of the democratic regime, both economically and politically (through the “maintenance of civil order, personal security, adjudication and arbitration of conflicts, and a minimum of predictability in the making and implementing of decisions”). Historically, the more successful a regime has been in providing what people want, the greater and more deeply rooted tends to be its legitimacy. A long record of successful performance tends to build a large reservoir of legitimacy, enabling the system better to endure crises and challenges.

So, to recap, legitimacy is a common answer to a question about the roots of consent, and this question about consent, in turn, emerges from a particular understanding of the relationship between governments and subjects. We think that forms of government only survive so long as subjects choose to keep cooperating, and we expect that subjects will only choose to keep cooperating as long as their moral beliefs and evaluations of regime performance tell them it is in their interest to do so. The math is a bit fuzzy, but the two layers of legitimacy are basically additive. As long as the sum of the moral and instrumental judgments is above some threshold, people will cooperate.

But what if this underlying model isn’t true? What if people actually don’t scan the world that way and actively choose between cooperation and rebellion on a regular basis? What if most of us are just busy getting on with our lives, operating on something more like autopilot, unconcerned with this world of high politics as long as it doesn’t disrupt our local routines and compel us to attend to it?

The more I read about how we as humans actually think—and the more I reflect on my own lived experience—the more convinced I become that the “active optimizer” assumption on which the puzzle of consent depends is bunk. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 394-395),

Our emotional state is largely determined by what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment. When happily in love, we may feel joy even when caught in traffic, and if grieving, we may remain depressed when watching a funny movie. In normal circumstances, however, we draw pleasure and pain from what is happening at the moment, if we attend to it.

One big reason “we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment” is that we are creatures of habit and routine with limited cognitive resources. Most of the time, most of us don’t have the energy or the impetus to attend to big, hard, abstract questions about the morality of the current form of government, the available alternatives, and ways to get from one to the other. As Kahneman surmises (p. 354),

We normally experience life in the between-subjects mode, in which contrasting alternatives that might change your mind are absent, and of course [what you see is all there is]. As a consequence, the beliefs that you endorse when you reflect about morality do not necessarily govern your emotional reactions, and the moral intuitions that come to your mind in different situations are not internally consistent.

Put all of this together, and it looks like the active assessments of moral and instrumental value on which “legitimacy” supposedly depends are rarely made, and when they are made, they’re highly contingent. We mostly take things as they come and add the stories and meaning when prompted to do so. A lot of what looks like consent is just people going about their local business in a highly path-dependent world. If you ask us questions about various forms of government, we’ll offer answers, but those answers aren’t very reliable indicators of what’s actually guiding our behavior before or after you asked.

Put another way, I’m saying that the survival of political regimes depends not only on coercion and consent, but also, in large part, on inattention and indifference.

I think we find this hard to accept because (when we bother to think about it) we’ve bought the Hobbesian idea that, without a sovereign state, there would be no order. Hobbes’ State of Nature is philosophically useful, but empirically it’s absurd. As James Scott observes (p. 3) in The Art of Not Being Governed,

Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self-governing, kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything that one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.

Clearly, nation-states aren’t the “natural” condition of the human animal, and they certainly aren’t a prerequisite for cooperation. Instead, they are a specific social technology that has emerged very recently and has so far proven highly effective at organizing coercive power and, in some cases, at helping to solve certain dilemmas of coordination and cooperation. But that doesn’t mean that we need to refer to national political regimes to explain all coordination and cooperation that happens within their territorial boundaries.

The irrelevance of legitimacy is the other side of that coin. We don’t need to refer to states to explain most of the cooperation that occurs among their putative subjects. Likewise, we don’t need a whole lot of consent to explain why those subjects don’t spend more time trying to change the forms of the nation-states they inhabit. We’ve concocted legitimacy to explain why people seemingly choose to go along with governments that don’t meet their expectations, when really most of the time people are just stumbling from immediate task to task, largely indifferent to the state-level politics on which we focus in our theories of regime survival and change. “Legitimacy” is a hypothesis in response to a question predicated on the false belief that we’re routinely more attentive to, and active in, this arena than we really are.

Will Democracy Survive in Europe? Part 1

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.

Economic Growth and the Survival of New Democracies

Last week, a senior official in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood warned the U.S. against cutting aid to his country at a time when Egypt is, he suggested, on the brink of economic collapse. In an interview with the Washington Post, Khairat Al-Shater said that reductions in Western aid would exacerbate an economic crisis that could “transform a peaceful revolution into a hunger revolution.”

Al-Shater’s warning reflects a widely held view that new democracies can be made or broken by their economic performance. “It is a cardinal principle of empirical democratic theory,” democratization scholar Larry Diamond writes, “that hard economic times are supposed to mean hard times for democracy.” This principle has been confirmed by a few statistical studies on the survival of democratic regimes: other things being equal, the risk of democratic breakdown does seem to be higher when GDP growth rates are slower. (See here, here, here, and here for affirmative findings and here for a negative one.)

After reading Al-Shater’s warning, I decided to revisit this question with an emphasis on the real-world concerns of the moment. Instead of looking at the entire life course of all democracies, as previous studies generally do, I wondered what economic performance around the time of a democratic transition–like we saw in Tunisia in 2011 and like we might be seeing right now in Egypt and Libya–would tell us about the prospects that a democratic regime will survive well beyond its founding elections. Perhaps these earliest years create impressions and encourage strategies that enable or afflict the ensuing regime during this formative period in ways we can’t see when we lump entire episodes of democracy together.

To test this conjecture, I used a global data set to identify all transitions to democracy that occurred during the period 1955-2008. With that case list in hand, I built a logistic regression model of the relationships between the conditions under which those transitions occurred and the odds that the ensuing regimes would survive for at least five years. (As it happens, surviving for just five years is actually a pretty big deal. Of the 103 transitions to democracy that occurred during that period, only 62 produced regimes that lasted longer.)

From prior research, we know that higher levels of economic development, the absence of political polarization, prior democracy, and the end of the Cold War are all associated with improved prospects for democratic consolidation, so all of those factors were included in the model. To capture the marginal effects of economic performance on prospects for democratic survival–the original point of this exercise–I added measures of annual percent change in GDP per capita for the three years bracketing the transition: the one before, the year of the transition, and the year after. (See the end of the post for more details on the modeling.)

As expected, I found that a new democracy’s survival prospects are indeed better when its economy grows faster around the time of its birth. In contrast to al-Shater’s gloomy prognostication, however, the effects I observed were not large. The marginal effects from GDP growth in the year of the transition are illustrated in the line plot below. As the chart shows, a difference of several percentage points in GDP growth–a large swing in most real-world situations–would produce only a very modest difference in the estimated likelihood of surviving past five years, other things being equal. (I don’t think p-values are as informative as estimates of marginal effects, but for those of you wondering, the p-value in this instance is 0.28; the coefficient is 0.046.) The association with growth on either side of the transition are not captured in that chart, in part because they were even weaker (coefficients of 0.027 and 0.018 and p-values of 0.54 and 0.70, respectively).

We can also see the weakness of this effect in the modest contribution of those growth rates to the statistical model’s ability to accurately assess risk in the historical cases. The figure below plots Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curves for versions of my model with and without the measures of initial GDP growth. ROC curves summarize a model’s ability to discriminate between cases with and without some feature of interest–in this instance, surviving past five years. The better the model does, the farther the line pushes toward the upper left-hand corner, and the larger the area under the curve (AUC). As you can see, adding measures of GDP growth to the model doesn’t improve the accuracy by a whole lot, producing just about a 2% bump in AUC.

On the whole, I’d say these results run counter to the spirit, if not the letter, of prevailing expectations. The marginal effects of economic performance flow in the anticipated direction, but they don’t have anything close to the kind of “make or break” impact that Al-Shater and Diamond’s statements imply. A new democracy’s level of economic development and the occurrence of acute political polarization tell us the most about its survival prospects, and variations in economic performance around the transition don’t seem to move the needle a whole lot beyond that.

I wonder if the prevailing wisdom about the dire consequences of poor economic performance for democratic consolidation isn’t at least in part a case of the availability heuristic at work. Historical cases of economic crisis followed by democratic collapse easily spring to mind (Weimar Germany, anyone?), and it’s not hard to generate a plausible story linking those two events. What those plausible stories seem to overlook, though, is that many of those attempts at democracy probably would have failed anyway, even in the absence of economic crisis, because that’s the fate of most democracies across a wide range of conditions. Meanwhile, there are plenty of countervailing examples of young democracies that survived sharp economic contractions (say, Greece after military rule, or much of post-Communist Europe), but these null cases seem to be more forgettable.

Even if economic growth had a stronger impact on prospects for democratic survival than my analysis indicates it does, I’m skeptical that this information would be as useful to policy-makers seeking to promote democracy as I suspect they think it is. Assume for a moment that a bump of a few percentage points in GDP growth in the transition year would double the odds in favor of democratic survival. Can anyone tell me what policy interventions will reliably pump growth rates that far, that fast? If foreign aid or economic policy could work that kind of magic, wouldn’t the “developing” world already be a lot richer?

I’ll wrap this post up by going back to where we started, namely, the Middle East after the “Arab awakening.” Even though GDP growth doesn’t contribute much to it, the model’s overall performance isn’t bad. After looking at those ROC curves, I wondered what the model would say about the prospects for the survival of new democracies in three Arab countries on the cusp of new tries at democracy: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Of the three, only Tunisia would already qualify as democratic by my definition, but Egypt and Libya are both in the midst of transitions from authoritarian rule that could put them over the threshold soon. So I took the IMF’s latest projections of their growth rates and plugged them into the model, along with recent data on their levels of economic development and my best guess as to whether or not they would qualify as acutely polarized according to the data set I used for that indicator. Here’s what came back as estimates of the  probability that each of those new democracies would make it to their sixth birthday, assuming that, of the three, only Tunisia would not qualify as acutely polarized:

  • Tunisia: 82%
  • Egypt: 48%
  • Libya:  89%

The contrast between Tunisia and Egypt’s survival prospects did not surprise me, but the high estimate for Libya did. Interestingly, expected economic growth seems to be contributing to this result. According to the IMF, Libya’s economy contracted by more than 60% in 2011, but it’s expected to recoup some of those losses in 2012 with an astonishing annual growth rate of nearly 70%. That value is so unusually large that it packs a lot of wallop, even though the weight for GDP growth in the equation is small. Whether that anomalous leap translates into a tremendous boost for democratic consolidation in the real world is another matter. Color me dubious.

Details of the Modeling

The sample for the statistical analysis described here comprises 103 democratic transitions that occurred in countries worldwide during the period 1955-2008.  These transitions were identified using the same data set on episodes of democracy that was summarized in my book. To focus on transitions most like the ones occurring in the Middle East today, cases where new countries were “born” with democratic regimes were excluded from the analysis. I did not use the well-known and widely-used Democracy and Dictatorship Data Set because, as elaborated in this working paper, I have serious concerns about its utility for survival analysis. (That said, I would be very interested to see how sensitive the results reported here are to the choice of measures of democratic transitions and breakdowns. I’d do it myself if this were an academic paper, but, hey, it’s just a blog post.)

Once I’d assembled a roster of relevant cases, I used the ‘glm’ command in R to estimate a logistic regression model that included the covariates listed below (with sources in parentheses). The analysis file includes one record per transition. The dependent variable in this model was a binary one indicating whether or not a democratic episode lasted more than five years beyond its transition year. As noted above, 62 of the 103 cases did.

  • Annual percent change in GDP per capita in years t-1, t, and t+1, where t is the year in which the democratic transition occurred (World Development Indicators)
  • Infant mortality rate, relative to annual global median and logged (U.S. Bureau of the Census)
  • Political polarization (a.k.a. “factionalism,” indicated by a score of 3 on Polity’s PARCOMP variable)
  • Any prior episodes of democracy
  • Post-Cold War period

The ROC curves were created using ROCR.

If you’d like to replicate and tinker with this analysis, please email me to ask for the data set and R script. My address is ulfelder <at> gmail <dot> com.

Update: The code I used for this analysis is now on Github, here. The data set in .csv form can be downloaded from my Google Drive, here.

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