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Book Review: The Global Divergence of Democracies

The Global Divergence of Democracies was published five years ago just when the Nepali democray began to falter. With a renewed interest in democray-- a more radical one at that-- it may be worthwile to revisit the book which provides a global view of the concept. Review by DHARMA ADHIKARI.



The Global Divergence of Democracies. Edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner. Washington D.C.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, 380p. $18.95



The remarkable democratic developments of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s are reshaping world polities. In principle, democracy is being increasingly recognized as a universal value. However, in practice, there has also been a striking trend in recent years towards a “global divergence of democracies” (p. xvi). The divergence in the quality or depth of democracy is accompanied by a parallel departure in progress toward the consolidation of democracy.

That, in brief, is the thesis of the book The Global Divergence of Democracies, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner. Arguably one of the most comprehensive assessments of the state of democracy at the dawn of the millennium, the book, published in September 2001 by Johns Hopkins University Press, Washington, DC, is a selective compilation of outstanding articles that earlier appeared in the Journal of Democracy. This is an ambitious compilation, which attempts to address the varied concepts, ideals and practices of democracy in a myriad of geographic, religious, cultural and political settings around the world. In terms of approach, the contributions by twenty-six of the world's leading scholars of democracy are mainly analytic essays, supplemented occasionally by empirical evidences. Apart from the brilliant introduction, which serves as a synthesis of the ideas and debates covered, the book is divided into four sections. The first section is focused on the discussion of democracy and liberty as a universal value, the second section deals with the problem of consolidation, the third section examines the foundations of successful democracies, and the final section discusses the prospects and challenges for democracy in the new century.

The first section opens with a conceptual essay by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. In “Democracy as a Universal Value” Sen argues that though challenges to democracy’s claim to universality do exist, democracy is now recognized “as a universally relevant system.” He contends that “a country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy, rather it has to become fit through democracy” (p. 4). He dismisses the so-called “Asian Values” claim about democracy-- the monolithic interpretation of Buddhism and Confucianism as hostile to democracy and political rights-- and argues that the merits of democracy and its claim as universal value stem from three considerations: Political freedom and participation have intrinsic value for human well-being. Democracy also has instrumental value in enabling people to express their needs and claims. The constructive value of democracy lies in its capacity to aid society in forming its values and priorities (p.11-12). In this sense, he argues, people anywhere in the world may have reason to see democracy as valuable.

In “Buddhism, Asian Values, and Democracy”, the Dalai Lama, like Sen, rejects the Asian value construct. He argues that Democracy and Buddhism are compatible, because both are “based on the principle that all human beings are essentially equal, and that each of us has equal right to life, liberty and happiness” (p. 18-19). However, he also points out that Buddhism recognizes consensus and collective discourse. The Dalai Lama’s emphasis is on a “humane approach to democracy” (p.19), one that recognizes the importance of the individual without sacrificing a sense of responsibility toward all humanity.

The idea of individualism versus collectivism is further probed by Francis Fukuyama. He (“Confucianism and Democracy”, p. 23-36) writes that Confucianism has evolved over the centuries in accordance to historical changes. He argues that “political Confucianism”, embodied in the legitimized hierarchical authority structure, has now been gradually replaced by “the Confucian personal ethics” which values individual and family life. Fukuyama sees in Confucianism democratic elements such as its emphasis on meritocracy, universal education, religious tolerance, and family life. According to him, “Confucianism builds a well-ordered society from the ground up rather than the top-down” (p. 29). But there is a difference between Chinese and Japanese Confucianism; the former does not legitimate deference to state authority whereas the latter does. He finds modernization theory confirmed in case of Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, as increased economic development has been followed by democratic liberalization in the region. However, Fukuyama notes the future of democratization in Asia depends on the balance between the need for liberty (Western liberal democracy) and the need for community (p. 35).
Chapter four discusses democracy’s compatibility with Islam, another of the world’s great religions. Abdou Filali-Ansary (“Muslims and Democracy”, p. 37-51) argues that the notion that Islam is intrinsically opposed to the West, to modernity and to democracy and human rights is false. He writes that these tensions are products of historical developments, visible, for instance, in the nineteenth-century polarization “between Muslims and Europeans, between believer and secularist”, which have persisted to this day. He argues that recent historical developments—failures of nationalist, socialist, and other authoritarian regimes— have changed this perception. He notes that contemporary Islamic thinkers have begun to recognize that democracy responds to the needs of contemporary society. Filali-Ansary believes that this democratic trend could be accelerated by focusing on specific benefits rather than “utopianized” general concept of democracy, and by de-emphasizing the literal meaning of sacred texts. He hopes that the romanticized view of liberal democracy, as reflected in the principles of shura (consultation), may provide a basis for democratization in the Islamic world.

Giovanni Sartori (“How Far Can Free Government Travel?” p. 52-62) extends the debates towards political philosophy. He believes that the liberal constitutionalist aspect of democracy (“demo-protection” or freedom from tyranny) transcends cultures, but is somewhat skeptical regarding the sustenance of popular rule or electoral democracy (“demo-power”) across the world. He finds that the pressure for economic benefits (“demo-distributions”) has threatened the health of many democracies. But Russel Bova’s (“Democracy and Liberty: The Cultural Connection”, p. 63-77) empirical findings are in sharp contrast to Sartori’s arguments. He sees culture as a determining force. Bova finds that except for the countries with Western cultural heritage, many electoral democracies in every major region of the world are seldom accompanied by strong protections for individual liberty.
However, for Marc F. Plattner, freedom is evolutionary. He (“From Liberalism to Liberal Democracy”, p. 80-90) refutes the Lee Kuan Yew doctrine that enduring liberal good government is possible without democracy. Citing that all of the relatively liberal nondemocracies of nineteenth century Europe have now become democratic, he contends that liberalism ultimately leads to liberal democracies. Arguing that the philosophy of liberalism contains within itself the seeds of its own democratization, Plattner cites Locke’s Second Treatise to illustrate the logical progression of the idea of liberalism: liberty and equality to the “consent of the governed” and then to the sovereignty of the people.

The first section thus captures the dominant conceptual and philosophical debates on the subject. However, what is missing is an examination of other religious and philosophical traditions, such as Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism and other relatively obscure but powerful belief systems that can have profound influence on the way democracies function in the respective societies.

The second section of this volume is devoted to the hotly contested debate on the utility and meaning of the concept of consolidation. Scholars are divided into three distinct camps: those who reject the very idea of consolidation, those who argue for a qualified notion of consolidation, and those who recommend a dialogue between these two extremes

In chapter eight, Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (“Toward Consolidated Democracies”, p.93-112) argue that democracies are consolidated when their institutions, rules and incentives become “the only game in town” politically. They write that even though there may exist severe problems of governance, political conflicts, and distrust of government, consolidation entails adherence by elites and the public to the specific rules and constraints of the country’s constitutional system and an overwhelming belief in democracy and rule of law. This is a long process, illustrated by the continuing challenges faced by the Third Wave of democratization since 1974, in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa where democracy is yet to take firm roots.

But Guillermo O'Donnell (“Illusions about Consolidation”, p. 113-130) does not see any problem with the consolidation of the third wave democracies. He argues that many of the Latin American democracies are still standing though they do not resemble the matured democracies of the Northwest. These democracies have institutionalized elections and met standards of fairness and competitiveness that roughly meet Robert Dahl’s criteria for “polyarchy”. However, he notes that informal institutionalization of democratic practices-- particularism, clientelism, nepotism, and formally corrupt acts-- prevail, and as a result, the rule of law is weak, but democracy continues. He criticizes the theories of consolidation on the ground that they are vague, and cannot specify precisely when a democracy is consolidated. In brief, he is critical of the ethnocentric and teleological view of consolidation.

In a rebuttal to O’Donnell’s stance on consolidation, (“O'Donnell's "Illusions": A Rejoinder”, 131-39) Richard Gunther, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, and Hans Jürgen Puhle introduce the notion of “politically significant group” in the concept of consolidation put forward by Linz and Stepan. Gunther and his colleagues write that democracy is consolidated when “all politically significant groups regard its key political institutions as the only legitimate framework for political contestation and adhere to democratic rules of the game.” They claim that conformity with the rules of games can be identified through the behavior and public statements of the political leaders, and public opinion surveys. They do not see consolidation as teleological, but see it as nonlinear process, vulnerable to stagnation, reversal and even failure. They view consolidation in a continuum: “partial”, “sufficient” and “full consolidation”. While full consolidation, as an ideal type, may take generations to achieve, sufficient consolidation could be achieved within years through political consensus. Partial consolidation, which entails institutionalization of elections, may take less time. Yet, O’Donnell (“Illusions and Conceptual Flaws: A Response”, p. 140-148) dismisses in chapter eleven these classifications as imprecise stages, and argues that when democracies are viewed in terms of the degree of consolidation, many regimes tend to be defined by the attributes that they are lacking in relation to a paradigmatic endpoint.

In chapter twelve Andreas Schedler (“What Is Democratic Consolidation?” p.149-164) provides more clarity on the concept. He identifies five different meanings that have emerged for the term democratic consolidation: 1) Preventing democratic breakdown, by avoiding authoritarian regression or neutralizing disloyal actors, 2) Preventing democratic erosion, such as rule of law or civilian control of military, 3) Completing democracy, removing authoritarian enclaves, leveling the hegemony of long-ruling party, strengthening civil liberties and judicial independence, 4) Deepening democracy, by moving it from electoral to liberal or even advanced democracy, and 5) Organizing democracy, by establishing and institutionalizing democratic structures and institutions. Schedler argues for the restoration of the classical idea of consolidation, avoiding democratic breakdown and erosion. He sees the need to practice “transparent toleration”, providing conceptual clarity of the idea while at the same time remaining open to other explanations.

What is clear from the debate is that there is no consensus on the notion of consolidation, and the debate itself is often confusing. However, the lack of consensus points to the fact that consolidation needs to be seen not as a fixed, overarching principle but as a relative concept prone to historical and cultural forces as well as paradigmatic constructs.

The third section, which contains eight articles, examines some of the key building blocks of successful democracy, including political party systems, elections, federalism, the rule of law, a market economy, an independent judiciary, and civilian control of the military.

In opening chapter in this section (“What Makes Democracies Endure?” p.167-184) Adam Przeworski, Michael Alvarez, José Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi show the powerful positive correlation between economic development and economic performance to democratic survival. In a study covering 40 years (1950-90), they found that democracy had a 12 percent chance of breakdown in any given year among the lowest income countries, and with each level of increase in per-capita income the expected life of democracy increased. The poorest democracies are more likely to persist when they achieve real economic growth (over 5 per cent annually). Scott Mainwaring (“Party Systems in the Third Wave”) identifies well-institutionalized and stable party system as another building block for successful democracy. The third wave democracies in Latin America and post-Soviet states, he argues, have much volatility and split-ticket voting than more established democracies, hence their inclination towards deadlock and ungovernability. In contrast, they argue, democracy has moved smoothly towards consolidation in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Uruguay, and Chile, where party system has developed institutional strength.

In chapter fifteen, (“What Makes Elections Free and Fair?”) Jørgen Elklit and Palle Svenson underscore the importance of free and fair elections for consolidation. They write that the principle of freedom and fairness should apply not only on voting day (elections), but also in the preelection and post election period. Beyond regular elections, the fundamental structure of the state is also linked to democratic performance. Alfred Stepan (“Federalism and Democracy: Beyond the U.S. Model - Alfred Stepan”) addressed the issue of federalism. He writes that in countries where multiple ethnic or nationality groups coexist within the same polity, political participation could be problematic and unstable. He argues that federalism could be made viable in this context but cautions that the United States may not be the appropriate model in all cases. For instance, democratic federations (e.g. India, Spain, Belgium) emerge through a “holding-together” process by which power is constitutionally devolved and the threatened polities are turned into federations. This is quite different from the “coming-together” process, a bargain between previously sovereign polities to create a new federal state such as the U.S, with no significant linguistic or nationality variations.

Charles Fried sees a healthy relationship between free markets, law of the land, and democracy as crucial for the growth and consolidation of democracy. He writes (“Markets, Law, and Democracy”) that maintaining rule of law is a challenge for all new democracies. Laws provide “reasonable expectations” on the basis of which people can trust and respect one another and do business. The ensuing prosperity contributes to democratic development. Jorge I. Domínguez echoes (“Free Politics and Free Markets in Latin America”) Fried views, and contends that the impact of economic reforms has a direct bearing on democracy. He argues that the Latin American conventional wisdom that democracies do not generate growth-friendly economic policies is proven wrong by recent developments: Since 1980s, democracy and market reforms have gone together in the region. The increased likelihood in democracies of opposition support to market economy, the increased chance for reducing corruption, rent-seeking, and strengthening checks on the abuse of power have provided countries such as Chile, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, and Nicaragua an opportunity to advance economic reforms by democratic means.

Rule of law is another important element in democracy. H. Kwasi Prempeh’s essay (“A New Jurisprudence for Africa”) focuses on the African democracies, less vigorous and robust compared to democracies from other continents. However, his essay shows that the judiciary is gaining new power and autonomy in Africa. But he writes that a considerable effort needs to be put into reforming the judicial system because jurisprudence often lags behind formal constitutional provisions. Civilian control of the military, another important element in the rule of law, is the subject of Richard Kohn’s essay entitled “How Democracies Control the Military” (p. 275-288). Kohn’s analysis, based on Western experience, identifies several measures for fostering civilian control of military: democratic governance, parliamentary oversight and accountability, punishment for violations of civilian control of military, military’s socialization to the ethos of political neutrality, and a firm political leadership.
The building blocks of democracy largely relate to the structural and institutional dimension of democracy. Other important building blocks, such as universal (voters’) education, independent media (civil society), are conspicuously kept out of the discussion.

The final section of the volume discusses the prospects and challenges for democracy in the new century and concludes with an analysis of the divergent trends in democracy around the world. The section opens with an evaluation of the developed democracies. Susan J. Pharr, Robert D. Putnam, and Russell J. Dalton (“A Quarter-Century of Declining Confidence”, p.291-311) write that while commitment to democratic values is higher than ever in the “trilateral democracies” (the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan), public confidence in political parties and institutions has been on a decline. Based on extensive empirical data, they argue that partisan politics, diminishing capacity of political leaders to respond to citizens’ interests, failures of political judgments, and the repercussions of the broad declines in social capital have contributed to people’s dissatisfaction with the institutions of representative democracy. They see the need to creatively address these issues if developed democracies are to be managed well.

Divergence in Latin American democracies is also obvious, although there exists the same trend of eroding public confidence in political leaders and institutions in the region. Abraham F. Lowenthal (“Latin America at the Century's Turn”, p.312-326) argues that the Latin American democracies, because they lack democratic norms and practices of consolidated democracies, are generally more prone to political turmoil. This problem is compounded by economic sluggishness, slow reforms, poverty, inequality, personalistic and erratic leadership, lack of durable and broad coalitions, lack of transparency in judiciary and bureaucracy, crime, corruption, drug trafficking and tax evasion. However, the author shows that there is a clear pattern of divergence even among Latin American democracies, with Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay showing much better performance than the Andean and Central American democracies.

Similarly, the post communist states of Eastern Europe appear even more divergent in their democratic pursuits. Jacques Rupnik (“The Postcommunist Divide”, p. 327-332) argues that the post-Soviet states are in fact democratically regressing, a stark contrast to the Central European democracies who have made remarkable progress in democratization, especially in developing the building blocks of democracy, such as legitimizing democratic institutions, creating relatively stable market economy, a party system, and pluralism. The author notes that the relatively active civil society, aggressive market reforms, rapid progress in the institutionalization of the rule of law, the relatively homogenous ethnic nationality, lack of external security threats, and the process of integration with NATO and EU (all of these greatly lacking in case of post-Soviet states) helped speed up democratization in Central Europe.

In chapter 24 Michael McFaul (“Putin's Russia: One Step Forward Two Steps Back”, p.333-347) dissects the Russian experience, which is even more divergent from other democracies, and as he puts it, it “faces a much more uncertain future.” He identifies several factors that have a bearing on the Russian democratic experimentation, such as the lack of free and fair elections, state control of media, absence of an effective opposition, defeat of the liberal democratic forces, human rights violations in Chechnya, continued authoritarian tendency on part of the highest political leadership, and the lack of firmly rooted democratic norms among the public. These problems prompt the author to wonder if the current situation is only an autocratic interlude to the eventual democratic quest or an indication of the emergence of a de facto one party system.

Even while democratization in the former communist state, and to some extent the post-Soviet states, is far from satisfactory, Michel Oksenburg (“Will China Democratize?” p.348-354) suggests that democracy is inevitable in China. His argument that democracy may come to China more rapidly than most analysts think is based on his observation of several factors that affect the Chinese polity: increasing official consent and endorsement of local autonomy to preserve national dominance by the Communist Party, increased freedom with rapid economic growth, possibility of workers’ unrest and dissent, influence of open and free societies in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and China’s growing international stature.

But despite these many instances of the third wave of democratic experimentations, some of which are remarkably successful, the global democratic prospect is not all rosy. In the concluding chapter Larry Diamond (“Is Pakistan the (Reverse) Wave of the Future?” p. 355-369) cautions that unless proper attention is given to improving governance-- the empowerment of civil society, mediating conflict and reframing the national agenda, reforming the economy and state structure, rooting and strengthening political parties-- particularly in the “swing states” such as Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, or Peru; these strategic states may have to experience democratic reversal, much like Pakistan.

To conclude, the book provides a general trend of democratic divergence, with a very few instances of a focused look at individual democracies. This is understandable given the ambitious effort at addressing the countries across the globe, with varied cultures, histories, and developmental levels. Thus the volume is characterized by a comparativist dilemma: what to include and what to exclude. For instance, only the so-called “swing states” such as China and Russia have been devoted full chapters, but other countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America are discussed largely in the frame of the respective continents they represent. This leaves out room for lots of nuances that are part and parcel of the individual democracies in so varied geographies and cultures. Perhaps, the editors might already be planning several volumes on the 120 democracies that exist today.



Posted by Editor on June 4, 2006 11:46 AM