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.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (25): To What Extent Do Human Rights Depend on Large Numbers?

Let’s assume that the likelihood of a successful revolutionary overthrow of an authoritarian regime depends on how many people are involved in anti-government protests. (That’s a reasonable assumption, given the fact that mass opposition can grow so wide that repression becomes too costly. We’ve seen that recently in Egypt and elsewhere. See also here). If that is correct, then political freedom and respect for human rights (the latter almost always resulting from the former) depend on large numbers of individuals participating in protests. (It also depends on many other things, obviously. Democratization is a hugely complex process).

The next question is then: when will large numbers of individuals actually participate in protest and a revolution? A single individual will decide to participate after he or she has analyzed the possible costs involved. One element of the cost is the chance of being arrested, beaten up by the police or getting shot. The more people participate in the protests, the lower the probability for each individual of incurring this cost. It’s simply less likely that you get arrested, beaten or shot when there are many people surrounding you. In order to get many people involved, it’s therefore important that every individual has the impression or conviction that many people will be involved. This conviction can be encouraged by social networking websites, such as Twitter or Facebook. Communication about the protest through these media helps to spread the conviction that large numbers will be participating, which will encourage large numbers to participate.

One could argue that something similar happens in cases of racism, discrimination or bigotry. For example, when large numbers of gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, people who initially frowned upon same-sex marriage are now confronted with lots of married gay couples and may start to realize that their initial fears were unfounded. On the other hand, the close proximity between slave holders and large numbers of slaves didn’t reduce racism. Likewise, a larger number of immigrants usually – but not always – leads to more widespread and more intense anti-immigrant feelings rather than less.

Something more positive happens with the numbers involved in gendercide. When the number of sex-selective abortions reaches a certain point, the remaining women may start to escape their inferior position which was the original cause of gender selective abortions. They may do so because their bargaining power will increase: the gender ratio is now 1:<1 rather than the natural 1:1, and men – the majority of whom will still want a wife, I assume – will conclude that it’s necessary to make concessions to women as a means to gain the upper hand in their increasingly competitive struggle for mates.

When reporting of rape is taboo, rape will remain common. But when more and more women start to report rape, the stigma will move from the victims to the perpetrators. Also, when large-scale reporting makes people aware that rape is a widespread phenomenon, women will increasingly adapt their behavior so as to limit the risks. On the other hand, common knowledge of the widespread occurrence of rape can give (certain) men the impression that the practice is normal and acceptable.

Measuring Democracy (6): Three Waves of Democratization According to Polity IV and Google Ngrams

Following Samuel Huntington, many political scientists believe that there have been three waves of democratization in recent history. The first wave of democracy began in the early 19th century when suffrage was gradually extended to disenfranchised groups of citizens. At its peak, however, there were only about 20 democracies in the world during this first wave. After WWI, with the rise of fascism and communism, the wave started to ebb, and this ebb lasted until the end of WWII. The second wave began following the Allied victory in World War II. This wave culminated in the 1960s with around 30 democracies in the world. The third wave started in the 1970s and really took off in the late 1980s, with the democratization of Latin America and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today there are some 60 democracies in the world.

Maybe recent vents in the Maghreb and the Middle East are the start of a fourth wave, now focused on Arab countries.

Those numbers I cited above come from one of the two major democracy indexes, namely Polity IV. Polity IV gives countries a score ranging from -10 to +10; the numbers above are of countries achieving the rather ambitious score of +8 or higher (in other interpretations of the Polity IV score, +6 is already a democracy). Freedom House, the other index, usually gives a higher number of democracies, but is only available for the most recent decades. I don’t want to discuss the relative merits of either measurement system in the current post. Let’s just assume, arguendo, that Polity IV is a good measure (Freedom House probably measures something a bit different). In the graph below, the green line represents the Polity IV score (number of countries with a score of +8 or more):

vv

The three waves are clearly visible in the green line. Although some have expressed doubts about the quality of Huntington’s work and the reality of the three waves (see here for instance), there does seem to be at least some truth in the metaphor.

I’ve also included in the graph above the results of a search in Google’s Ngram tool. I searched for “democracy” (blue line) and “democratic” (red line) (democratic without a capital D because I don’t want results including mentions of the Democratic Party). As you may know, this tool allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s book collection. Such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use and popularity of a word at a certain time. One can assume that when there’s a wave of democratization there’s also an uptick in the frequency of the use of word such as “democracy”.

I find it interesting that both the first and the third wave of democratization are reflected in a rising popularity of the words “democracy” and “democratic”, but not the second wave. When the number of democracies was at its lowest point in the 30s and 40s, talk about democracy was most common, more common even than today. And the interest in democracy decreased steadily from the 50s until the 80s, while the number of democracies rose during those decades.

More posts in this series here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (12): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron?

When people look for reasons why countries haven’t made the transition from authoritarian government to democracy, they often mention economic development or culture, or both. And culture usually means religion more specifically. And religion usually means Islam. Now it’s true that if you look at the largest Muslim region, the Arab world (roughly North Africa plus the Arab Peninsula), you won’t find a single democracy. You can check the most common democracy indexes, Freedom House and Polity IV. That’s an anomaly: no other large region in the world is similarly devoid of democratic governance.

The question is of course: why? In our post-9/11 world the obvious answer is Islam, which is believed to be a religion that is particularly incompatible with democratic principles such as separation of state and church, pluralism, rule of law, human rights etc. Some even say that there will never be democracies in the Arab world as long as Islam remains an important force.

However, sometimes the obvious answer is also the wrong one. Some Muslim countries outside the Arab world have reasonably well developed democratic systems of government (Albania, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Turkey etc.) and are doing much better than some non-Muslim dictatorships out there.

But then, if it’s not religion, what is the reason for the absence of democracy in the Arab world? In an interesting new paper, Larry Diamond has a look at some possible reasons. He focuses on the so-called resource-curse and the correlated lack of accountability (accountability only emerges in countries that have to tax their people), but I think he’s wrong there. Lack of economic development could be a cause, but he rightly dismisses it. If you compare economic development in Arab and non-Arab countries, you see that per capita GDP of Kuwait is on the same level as Norway, Bahrain compares to France, and Saudi Arabia is on a par with South Korea. Conversely, you’ll be able to find non-Arab democracies that are much less developed than the average Arab country.

A more promising explanation of enduring Arab authoritarianism is FOTA: fear of the alternative. moderate opposition groups in Arab countries tend to accept their authoritarian governments. Their dislike of “modern pharaohs” is topped by their dislike of radical Islamist groups that could profit from free elections. Rather than the principle “one person, one vote, one time” followed by theocracy, they settle for the relatively mild yoke of secular Arab dictatorship. Something similar happened before in Latin America, when the feared alternative was communist rule.

Another explanation for the lack of Arab democracy is the large proportion of GDP spent on the security apparatus, and the relative efficiency of Arab security forces. This is probably linked to the support these countries receive from the West, which is another reason for their longevity. And finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient diversion: it allows public frustration to discharge outwards, without internal consequences.

As you can see, none of these causes condemn Arab countries to dictatorship. Compared to religion, these are things that can be changed quite easily, if the will is there. The FOTA is self-fulfilling: it’s likely that radical Islamist movements are encouraged by authoritarian rule, as much as they are restrained by it. So better give it up. And the West could use its leverage, resulting from decades of support, to push for reforms.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (12): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the topic – in which I argued that the case is very weak – I found this quote by Bill Easterly which I thought would illustrate my point:

Democracy doesn’t attract as much love as it deserves in aid and development circles. Many wonder if benevolent autocrats might be better for development than messy elections, even though there is no evidence to support benevolent autocracy. There is a strong positive association between democracy and LEVEL of per capita income, which at least some authors argue is causal. (It’s true there is no robust association between democracy and GROWTH of income, but then there is no robust association between GROWTH and ANYTHING.) But even if there had been SOME material payoff to autocracy, why don’t we care more about democracy as a good thing in itself? (source)

My argument for democracy is usually instrumental (see here) and prosperity is one of the values that can and should be promoted by instrumental democracy. But I’ve also written about democracy as a good thing in itself. Go here if you care about that sort of argument.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (9): The Resource Curse

If we value democracy, then it’s interesting to know

  • how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones
  • why other societies have failed
  • and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition.

This knowledge will help us to promote and sustain democracy in the future. Something we already know is that this isn’t simple. There are a huge number of factors at play and there’s no silver bullet. Some of the most widely discussed factors are economic development, levels of education, and religion and culture.

I’ll bracket two important issues here: what kind of democracy are we talking about, and how do we measure transition or development towards democracy? If you want to know what promotes or inhibits democracy and act on this knowledge in order to further the cause of democracy, you can’t avoid these questions, but discussing them here would take us too far.

What I want to focus on here is the so-called resource curse. This curse is believed to be a phenomenon that blocks countries’ development towards democracy. Promoting democracy means lifting the curse. Now, what is this curse, and is it real or just another simplistic explanation of the course of history?

Countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights. Resource wealth can trigger corruption and grabbing, can give autocrats the means to retain power by buying off opposition or building a repressive state apparatus, or can tempt democratically elected leaders to cling to highly beneficial positions of power.

This sounds good but even a cursory glance at reality reveals some counter-indications. There are many resource rich countries that are governed very well and are pinnacles of democracy (take Norway). Still, that may only disprove part of the resource curse. It may be the case that democracies benefit from resources and are able to solidify themselves, while non-democracies are doomed to remain as they are because of resource abundance. Resources then only create a curse when democratic institutions are absent. So we shouldn’t worry about democracies failing because of resources, but about autocracies failing to transform because of them.

However, there’s an article here claiming that

resource wealth is positively associated with both economic growth and institutional quality.

Much depends, it seems, on how to measure resource abundance. There also is a reversal of the direction of causation, a common mistake in statistics:

There is no evidence that resource-dependent countries end up with slow growth and bad institutions. Rather, countries with bad institutions attract little investment, and as a result they grow more slowly and remain dependent on exports of commodities.