March 16, 2013


Why Wait for Democracy? (Larry Diamond, Winter 2013, Wilson Quarterly)

These doubts about the suitability of democracy for other peoples are far from new. From the era of Western colonial domination well into what became known as "the Third Wave" of global democratization (which began with the Portuguese Revolution in 1974), writers and policymakers questioned whether democracy could travel beyond the West. They not only questioned whether other cultures (and religions) could sustain democracy, but also whether it was in the West's interest to have these other countries governed on the basis of elections that might mobilize the passions of the uneducated and poorly informed "masses." Moreover, there was an empirical basis for this skepticism. Although democracy had emerged during the post-World War II era in a few developing countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, and Botswana, most of the newly decolonized states had fairly quickly settled into authoritarian patterns of governance. During the Cold War, many countries were, in effect, forced to choose between becoming a right-wing, often military autocracy backed by the West or a socialist one-party state, frequently born of violent revolution, backed by the Soviet Union and China.

The cultural arguments against the prospects for democracy in developing nations were the most tenacious, and they came both from the West and from political and intellectual leaders in the developing world. Latin America came into focus first because of its many Marxist insurgencies, left-wing populist movements, and military coups in the 1960s and '70s. During most of the Cold War, many conservative scholars and writers in the United States dismissed the idea of establishing democracy in the region as infeasible (or at least contrary to American interests, since it would mean sacrificing U.S. ties to friendly anticommunist autocrats). Because of their long histories of centralized, absolutist rule deriving from their experience of Spanish or Portuguese imperial rule and the hierarchical and authoritarian traditions of the Catholic Church, the Latin American countries were said to lack the emphasis on individual freedom, the willingness among their citizens to question authority, and the appreciation of pluralism and equality necessary to sustain democracy. Similar arguments were made about Asia and the Middle East. "Asian values" and Islamic culture were seen to value order over freedom, consensus over competition, and the community over the individual. They not only lacked the intrinsic suspicion of authority that buoyed democracy in the West, it was said, but practiced a deference to authority that answered "deep psychological cravings for the security of dependency," in the words of Lucian Pye, one of the most respected scholars of Asian political cultures. Elie Kedourie, a famous British historian of the Middle East, dismissed "the political traditions of the Arab world--which are the political traditions of Islam," as completely lacking any understanding of "the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government."

In his influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington warned more generally of "fundamental [civilizational] divides." He stressed the cultural distinctiveness of the West, "most notably its Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and the rule of law," adding that "Western civilization," in its commitment to liberal democratic values, "is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.

Though they were not intended for this purpose, such cultural arguments served well the purposes of autocrats looking to justify their rule. [...]

The developments of the last four decades, however, have proved the skeptics wrong. Even as Huntington was writing the words quoted above, a wave of democratic expansion was gathering momentum, which Huntington himself would document and analyze definitively just seven years later in his influential book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. In the decade following his 1984 article, the world witnessed the greatest expansion of democracy in history, as political freedom spread from southern Europe and Latin America to Asia, then central and eastern Europe, then Africa. By the mid-1990s, three of every five states in the world were democracies--a proportion that persists more or less to this day.

While it remains true that democracy is more sustainable at higher levels of development, an unprecedented number of poor countries adopted democratic forms of government during the 1980s and '90s, and many of them have sustained democracy for well over a decade. These include several African countries, such as Ghana, Benin, and Senegal, and one of the poorest Asian countries, Bangladesh. Other very poor countries, such as East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, are now using the political institutions of democracy as they rebuild their economies and states after civil war. Although the world has been in a mild democratic recession since about 2006, with reversals concentrated disproportionately in low-income and lower-middle-income states, a significant number of democracies in these income categories continue to function.

The lower- and middle-income democracies that did come through the last two decades intact have shown that authoritarianism confers no intrinsic developmental advantage. For every Singapore-style authoritarian economic "miracle," there have been many more instances of implosion or stagnation--as in Zaire, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and (until recently) Burma-- resulting from predatory authoritarian rule. Numerous studies have shown that democracies do a better job of reducing infant mortality and protecting the environment, and recent evidence from sub-Saharan Africa (see, for example, economist Steven Radelet's 2010 book Emerging Africa: How Seventeen Countries are Leading the Way) shows that the highest rates of economic growth in Africa since the mid-1990s have generally occurred in the democratic states. Once they achieved democracy, South Korea and Taiwan continued to record brisk economic growth. When the G-20 was formed at the end of the '90s out of the old G-8 organization of the world's major economies, eight of the 10 emerging-market countries that joined were democracies, including India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, and South Korea.

Further refuting the skeptics, democracy has taken root or at least been embraced by every major cultural group, not just the societies of the West with their Protestant traditions. Most Catholic countries are now democracies, and very stable ones at that. Democracy has thrived in a Hindu state, Buddhist states, and a Jewish state. And many predominantly Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Bangladesh, Senegal, and Indonesia, have by now had significant and mainly positive experience with democracy.
Finally, the claim that democracy was unsuitable for these other cultures--that their peoples did not value democracy as those in the West did--has been invalidated, both by experience and by a profusion of public opinion survey data showing that the desire for democracy is very much a global phenomenon. Although there is wide variation across countries and regions, with low levels of trust in parties and politicians in the wealthier democracies of Asia, Latin America, and postcommunist Europe, people virtually everywhere say they prefer democracy to authoritarianism. What people want is not a retreat to dictatorship but a more accountable and deeper democracy.

Posted by at March 16, 2013 6:57 AM

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