What Causes Democracy?
Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law Working Papers, No. 38 (2005)
10 Pages Posted: 15 May 2016
Date Written: February 18, 2005
In pointing to a definition of “democracy,” there is no single concept of the term on which all scholars agree. The question of “what a democracy is … and is not,” to borrow the title of a well-known article, is better understood as falling along a continuum. The points of this continuum represent the minimum standards that modern theorists associate with the definition of a democracy, with the advent of new, more complex standards added as we move from one end of the continuum to the other. A minimalist definition of democracy, most famously advanced by scholars such as Joseph Schumpter, Samuel Huntington, and Adam Przeworski, merely associates democracy with elections. Meanwhile, more maximal definitions, which have been advanced by post-modern theorists, including feminists and other advocates of minority rights, requires democracy also to encompass political, and ultimately group, equality.
Most theorists are unable to agree on a definition of democracy. As such, over time, they have turned to answering a related question: What conditions make democracy possible and what conditions make it thrive? In other words, they have asked not what democracy is, but rather what causes it? Unsurprisingly, the answers to this second question can also be viewed along another continuum. At one end, we find that the scholars who initially tried to tackle this question began by arguing that there were certain conditions that a society needed to achieve before a stable democracy could exist. These scholars focused on examining the “prerequisites” or "preconditions" of democracy. Their theories came to be known as "structural theories" because they found that certain background conditions, or structures, needed to exist before one could determine where, or perhaps more importantly when, democracy would blossom.
A second group of theorists belong to what might be called the “sequence-based” or “historical-development” schools of democracy. Theses scholars are known for the proposition that what best explains the relative success or failure of democracy is the pattern of relationships among actors in society. Scholars working in this tradition argue that the order in which various crises of modernization appear and are settled determines whether democracy results. It is the configuration of things, in other words, rather than their condition, that is determinative. Many scholars who call themselves institutionalists (or neo-institutionalists) subscribe to these views.
Finally, at the end of the continuum, we get to “agency” theories of democracy. Agency theorists focus to the role of elites, as agents of change, to explain what causes democracy. Classical agency theory attributes the start of a democratic transition to a prolonged political struggle among elites, which is likely to begin from "the emergence of a new elite that arouses a repressed and previously leaderless social group into concerted action.” Agency theories have tried to explain how democracies come about by focusing on the role of elite actors within an authoritarian regime.
Many of today’s most innovative theorists tend to straddle the structure-sequencing-agency divide, and they understand that none of these three traditions can explain democracy alone. Social and economic preconditions, political institutions, and elite actors do not act exclusively of each other. Like the "idea" of democracy, its "causes" can also be studied along a continuum.
Keywords: democracy. democratic transitions, democratization, liberalization, Schumpter, Huntington, Przeworski
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