Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (23): The Great Leader Theory of Democratization

The death of Nelson Mandela is the perfect occasion to clear up some myths about the Great Leader Theory of democratization. Mandela has become almost the archetype of a great man and a great leader, and deservedly so. He was certainly instrumental and some would say essential in the democratization of South Africa. But what can we say in general about the role of leaders? That’s a lot harder and I’m afraid the answers will reveal some of our deep seated biases.

When countries turn to democracy, to what extent does it help to have a charismatic leader leading the process? Either an insider leading the old system to a new one, such as Gorbachev who in a sense started a top-down transformation. Or outsiders such as Wałęsa, Mandela and perhaps also Aung San Suu Kyi leading a popular opposition movement against those in power, overthrowing the old leaders, taking over from them and riding on a wave op popular support towards a new democracy. The opposite theory is also common: the Great Dictator who almost single handedly destroys democratic forces at home and wards off supposedly overwhelming international pressure. Castro comes to mind here.

Political science has shown that there are many causes of democratization, and that several causes are effective simultaneously, with different weights for each effective cause in each particular case. I hope my blog series on democratization has left no doubts about that. This reality is often obscured by the temptation to give undue weight to the “Great Leader” factor, because that is a cause that can be readily observed, as opposed to many other causes such as internal friction within elites, the economy, outside pressure etc. The appeal of the “Great Leader” theory hinges on the mysterious talent or faculty of charisma: no one knows what it means, what it does or how it does it, but it’s widely believed that charisma yields great power and influence. Combined with a view of the “populace” as dimwitted sheeple easily impressed – for good or for bad – by this mysterious faculty of charisma, it becomes almost self-evident that great leaders must have an overriding effect on regime change (or regime continuation as the case may be). It’s obvious that there are some biases at work here: we give more weight to what we can easily observe and ignore deeper causes that often need both detailed knowledge of specific circumstances and statistical or scientific analysis.

Note that I don’t claim leaders have no role to play. On the contrary. Mandela is a great historical figure – as are the others I’ve cited – precisely because he had an effect. All I’m saying is that we should be aware of our biases. The Great Leader Theory becomes all the more suspect when we look at the long term survival and flourishing of democracy – as opposed to the democratic revolution itself. It’s clear that leaders by themselves play only a limited role in the long term prospects of democracy: institutional development, economic prosperity, rule of law, the diminishing role of violence and of the military, bureaucratic development and other indispensable building bricks of democracy can never result from the actions of a single person. I’m afraid this is all too obvious when we look at Mandela’s country, or many other democracies for that matter.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (22): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron? Ctd.

I already wrote about and dismissed the claim that Islam is the main reason why democracy seems to fail in Arab countries (see here). Now I’ve found a new study that seems to support my argument:

The Arab world’s so-called “democracy deficit” is not tied to the Islamic religion but rather to the Arab world’s history and the institutions introduced following conquest by Arab armies over 1000 years ago. (source)

Territories conquered by Arab armies during the Middle Ages still have weak civil societies and strong states today. Countries that are predominantly Muslim today but outside of this area of medieval conquest are not more or less democratic than the average country.

If this is true, then we can be somewhat optimistic about the possibility of real democracies emerging from the Arab Spring. If Islam were the problem, we could forget about democracy.

However, I have my doubts about the importance and validity of this explanation. It’s not the historical distance of the causal link that troubles me. You may be skeptical about the long-lasting effects of events that occurred centuries ago, but I think such effects are commonly accepted in other areas: the slave trade still causes poverty in Africa to this day, and poverty and inequality in present-day Peru for example are partly the result of the mita system of the Spanish colonizers.

What troubles me is that I can see other, more or equally important reasons for the democratic deficit in Arab countries: the resource curse, foreign intervention (motivated by the FOTA principle) and, yes, some elements of Islam (Islam’s hostility to equality, to the separation of state and church etc.). The latter point should not be understood as implying fatalism with regard to the prospect of democracy: Islam is only one causal element among many, and it’s a cause that can be eliminated. After all, Catholicism as well was once believed to be an insurmountable obstacle to democracy.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (21): Education Again

The claim that education leads to democracy has a lot of intuitive appeal. Educated people are probably more inclined to demand political participation, and those in power who hesitate about granting democratic rights will be less hesitant when they have to grant these rights to educated people. The claim is also supported by the fact that democracy requires some level of education in order to function adequately.

And there is indeed a correlation between levels of democracy and levels of education. Furthermore, it seems that the causation goes mainly from education to democracy. Some evidence for this is here and here – although it’s also true that democracies are better educators. There’s also evidence here that it’s mainly primary education levels that drive democracy. The effect of primary education even outstrips the effect of GDP on democracy.

And there’s even more, albeit quasi-anecdotal evidence for this claim. Let’s have a look at the Arab Spring. Although one can’t possible argue that democracy is now the common form of government in the Middle East, a first step towards democratization has been taken, and it’s likely that the push came from the fact that education levels in those Arab countries that have witnessed recent uprisings have risen sharply in recent decades.

[T]he Arab Spring was partly predictable, as Middle Eastern countries displayed levels of democracy that were lower than those predicted by their level of education and income. … [The f]igure [below] focuses on these countries in particular, showing that their levels of democracy as predicted by our empirical model [based on education levels] lie above their pre-2011 actual levels. In other words, the Arab Spring could be expected based on a dynamic statistical model of the factors that drive democracy (interestingly, the same observation holds for Iraq and Cuba). (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (20): Education Again

It’s a common assumption that democracy is driven by levels of education:

  • Less educated people are – supposedly – easier to oppress and more willing to accept extreme and simplistic ideologies that authoritarian rulers can exploit. They are also said to be less tolerant, and therefore less willing to accept freedoms and rights that protect outgroups.
  • Once people become more educated, they start earning more. And because they earn more, they have more leisure time. And because they have more leisure time, they have more opportunities to engage in various activities. And because they have these opportunities, they start to demand the freedoms they need to take up these opportunities. Better education itself, irrespective of the higher earning potential that goes with it, opens up opportunities to do things, and hence drives the demand for the freedom necessary to do things.
  • More educated people are also more aware of the ways in which their governments oppress them and of the liberties enjoyed in other countries, and they are better able to organize and mobilize against their governments.
  • Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs also plays a part: when lower needs – such as food, clothing and shelter – are met, then the preconditions are fulfilled for the appearance of higher needs. Higher education levels, because they help to fulfill lower needs, assist the appearance of needs such as self-actualization, self-esteem and belonging, needs that require freedom for their realization.
  • Democracy requires a certain level of education among citizens in order to function properly. Of course, it’s not because B requires A that A results in B; claiming that education results in democracy because democracy needs education would mean committing a logical error. However, the fact that democracy needs education does probably increase the likelihood that democracy will follow from more education. At least the absence of some level of education will diminish the chances of democracy.
  • And, finally, more education improves the capacity to make rational choices, and democracy is essentially a system of choice. Democracy will therefore intrinsically appeal to the higher educated.

And indeed, there is a correlation – albeit not a very strong one – between levels of education and degrees of democracy.

The correlation may be due to the fact that democracies are better educators, but there are some reasons to believe that part of the causation at least goes the other way. Anecdotal evidence is provided by the recent Arab Spring: education levels in Arab countries have risen sharply in recent decades.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (19): Psychological Reactions to the Threat of Disease

There sure are many reasons why countries become or fail to become democracies. In this blog series I’ve mentioned climate, geography, inequality, external triggers, prosperity, religion, resources, education etc. An original approach to this question looks at psychological reactions to the threat of disease:

Conventional explanations for a country’s political system would draw on its history, economy and culture. Randy Thornhill from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, however, thinks it might be determined by the threat of disease in a region. This triggers psychological biases, which originally evolved to prevent illness spreading, that also hinder the emergence of democratic ideals. (source)

The logic is that people develop psychological reactions – call them biases – which they need to protect themselves against infectious diseases, and these reactions in turn make it difficult to adopt democracy, individualism and an attitude of criticism of authority.

The starting point for Thornhill and Fincher’s thinking is a basic human survival instinct: the desire to avoid illness. In a region where disease is rife, they argue, fear of contagion may cause people to avoid outsiders, who may be carrying a strain of infection to which they have no immunity. Such a mindset would tend to make a community as a whole xenophobic, and might also discourage interaction between the various groups within a society – the social classes, for instance – to prevent unnecessary contact that might spread disease.

What is more, Thornhill and Fincher argue, it could encourage people to conform to social norms and to respect authority, since adventurous behaviour may flout rules of conduct set in place to prevent contamination. Taken together, these attitudes would discourage the rich and influential from sharing their wealth and power with those around them, and inhibit the rest of the population from going against the status quo and questioning the authority of those above them. This is clearly not a situation conducive to democracy. (source, source)

What is, initially useful for public health, becomes detrimental for self-government:

[S]pecific behavioural manifestations of collectivism (e.g. ethnocentrism, conformity) can inhibit the transmission of pathogens; and so we hypothesize that collectivism (compared with individualism) will more often characterize cultures in regions that have historically had higher prevalence of pathogens. Drawing on epidemiological data and the findings of worldwide cross-national surveys of individualism/collectivism, our results support this hypothesis: the regional prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism. (source)

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (18): External Triggers

In the previous posts in this blog series, I only discussed internal reasons why a particular country moves towards or away from democracy. But of course, no country stands on its own, unaffected by what happens in the rest of the world. Democratization is hardly ever a purely domestic event or the sole result of internal democratic forces. There are and have been important external triggers, both helping and impeding the transition to democracy.

The fall of the Soviet Block in 1989 and the defeat of the Axis powers after WWII were global events that led to the overthrow of a whole series of authoritarian governments. On the other hand, the Cold War meant that authoritarian leaders everywhere in the world were buttressed or installed as a buffer against communism or capitalist imperialism (“he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch“). Furthermore, the economic interests of powerful countries often convinced them and sometimes still convince them to support dictators in oil-rich countries (Saudi Arabia for instance). And besides oil there are other strategic interests that may make it “necessary” to support dictators in other countries (for example, concern for the security of Israel led the US to support Mubarak in Egypt).

Sometimes, powerful countries decide that they should use their military to directly intervene in a country and install democracy by force (Grenada may be an example, and people sure try hard in Afghanistan and Iraq and perhaps also in Libya). Another form of intervention intended to support democracy is conditional aid: wealthy countries or international institutions often tie aid to “good governance” requirements.

And a final external trigger for democracy development is the dominance of the West in the international entertainment industry. When people in authoritarian countries consume western entertainment, they learn to associate democracy with prosperity and freedom.

Of course, external triggers alone won’t produce an enduring democracy, and certainly not when those triggers don’t encourage domestic aspirations. For example, it’s futile to force a country to hold elections through the use of conditional aid or military intervention when the rule of law isn’t in place, when there’s sharp polarization between groups or when a democratic culture isn’t in place. Democracy depends on internal support. People have to believe in democracy and participate, and the institutional structure has to be in place. However, the appetite can come while eating: a certain amount of experience with democracy may be required for institutions and mentalities to grow. Hence, it’s just as futile to wait with external triggers until all the preconditions for democracy are in place.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (17): Inequality

A transition to democratic government is very unlikely when the population of a country is sharply divided in unequal classes or groups. Some of these groups will try to monopolize political power in order to repress rival groups and maintain the distributional status quo. For example, when there’s a division between a landowning class or an industrial class on the one hand, and a group of impoverished rural or urban workers on the other hand, then the former group will fear election victories by the latter group because such victories will lead to redistribution of land or other assets. Privileged classes will therefore work against democracy. As a result of this, the working classes will radicalize and aim for a revolutionary overthrow and the abolition of property rights altogether, thereby also making democracy less likely.

Something like this is arguably a good description of much of the recent history of Latin America. Positively stated: more economic equality – perhaps following the expansion of a middle class – will make democracy more viable, since different groups have less to lose from a democratic power shift.

But polarization doesn’t have to be exclusively economic in nature. Religious or ethnic divisions can also hinder the creation and continuity of democracy, especially when there’s also a spatial division between groups. This is probably what happened in Africa since decolonization. Of course, non-economic divisions are often exacerbated by economic ones, in which case we can hope that more economic equality will take the sting out of ethnic divisions.

More posts in this series are here.