So far, we have discussed what the difference between democracy and dictatorship is.  This week, we discuss why some countries are democratic and some are dictatorships – and more specifically, what causes countries to become more democratic?

This video outlines three types of theories of democratization:  institutional theories, economic theories, and cultural theories. 

  • Institutional theories argue that the specific type of institutions (and the order in which you adopt them) can help or hurt democratization,
  • Economic theories argue that economic development empowers new social classes that demand democracy, and
  • Cultural theories argue that economic development creates a culture that demands democracy.

A quick comment before I begin.  All of these theories talk about democratic transitions – these are specific moments in time when you can clearly see that a dictatorship has become a democracy.  Good examples of transitions include mass protests leading to the resignation of a dictator (as when Arab Spring protests in Tunisia led to the resignation of former President Ben Ali) or when a ruling party loses power through an election for the first time (as when the PRI lost the 2000 presidential election in Mexico).  You will note this presumes we are using a binary definition of democracy – a country is either democratic or authoritarian, and there is a clear change between the two.  While this is not really true-to-life, it isn’t a terrible description of regime types and transitions during and before the Cold War, and so we will stick with it for this discussion.

Institutional Theories

Institutional theories of democratization focus on institutions, unsurprisingly.  They argue that the specific choices a country has made about its constitution and laws matter for whether it will become a democracy or not.  Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy is a good example of this type of theory.  He argues that democracies are more stable when they expand competition before they expand participation.  In other words, when they have a parliament for the elite before they expand voting rights, as was the case in the UK (and United States).  Since that path to democratization isn’t really an option anymore – most countries have universal suffrage – he argues that the type of transition a country had matters.  Countries that become democratic through national revolutions are more likely to remain democracies because they are able to define the nation as a democracy from the start.

This theory was designed to talk about the first wave of democratization – how European countries became democratic and why some of them (the United States) stayed democracies when others (Germany) became dictatorships.  It works better in today’s world than you might think, but we’ll leave that conversation for next week.

Economic theories

Our main topic this week is what is called modernization theory – the idea that economic development leads to democratization.

This argument starts with the very clear correlation between economic development and democracy.  Countries that are richer tend to be more democratic.  That leads to the question of why – does economic development cause democratization or does democracy promote economic development?  If economic development causes democratization, how exactly does that work?

Modernization theory has its intellectual roots in Marxism and the ideas both that economic relations are the most important thing ever and that development has a logical sequence of events, resulting in an ideal end state (in this case, democracy, not communism).  But the theory’s main originator is Seymour Martin Lipset, who in the 1950s argued that economic development leads to democratization because complex economies require new relationships between firms and workers.  Economic development both requires more skilled workers and gives them greater access to information.  These changes empower new social groups – particularly the middle class — who demand more political freedom to go with their economic power, and so you get democracy. 

This theory is often used to explain trends toward democratization in Europe and South America in the third wave (why Spain and Portugal democratized, for example) and is by far the most common assumption behind democratization today.

Cultural theories

Cultural theories of democratization are closely related to economic theories.  They focus not on the changing power of economic classes as the reason a country democratizes, but on the culture that is fostered by economic change.

This theory is currently most closely associated with Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, who argue that economic development moves countries from traditional values (emphasizing respect for authority) to values emphasizing the importance of self-expression because citizens in richer countries don’t need to worry as much about basic survival needs.  Citizens in countries with a greater focus on rational and self-expressive values are more likely to protest and demand democracy.

In cultural theories, democratic culture can be looked at as an intervening variable – that economic development leads to democracy because it changes a country’s culture first.  Inglehart and Welzel, though, argue that it is an independent cause – that holding levels of economic development constant, countries with more “emancipative” value systems are more likely to be democratic. 

These three theories all have their advantages and critiques – ones that we will be discussing in class.