Research Spotlight: Can We Prevent Democratic Breakdowns and Help Democracies Endure?

The world is facing an erosion of democratic institutions. But this erosion is not an equal opportunity offender. Elections, a standard feature of democracy, have rarely been more popular. Today, democrats and autocrats alike employ elections to legitimize their rule. At first glance, we might be encouraged by this. However, despite this potentially positive trend, other features associated with so-called Liberal democracy (not to be confused with liberal/conservative ideology) have been in decline. Liberal democracy is characterized by strong limits on government, which include protected civil liberties, rule of law, and independent judiciary and strong checks and balances and has been backsliding globally for several decades. 

Figure 1, below, illustrates this recent phenomenon with new data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) data project. The figure plots a country’s 2018 democracy score (vertical axis) against its score in 2008 (horizontal-axis). Countries above the line have experienced an increase in Liberal democracy over the last decade, and those below a decrease. One take away from the data    is that merely ‘holding elections’ no longer discriminates between autocracy and democracy. Instead other core features of democracy better sort autocrats from democrats. Critically, the decline in core Liberal democratic features has been occurring among notable democratic states including Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil. And while the United States is not among the largest decliners, is it nevertheless below the line, highlighting reason for concern. Whether the process displayed in the figure is labelled democratic backsliding, recession, rollback, or retreat, scholars and practitioners alike have argued that due to threats posed by anti-democratic forces across the world, democracy is in peril.

The paramount question facing the international democratic community is what levers can be engaged to counter threats to democracy. What, if anything, can be done to prevent democratic breakdowns and help democracies endure? This is the question that I and my coauthors take up in our forthcoming publication, “Parties, Civil Society, and the Deterrence of Democratic Defection.”

In this research, we argue that two regime features, institutionalized political parties and robust civil societies, represent potential safeguards against anti-democratic movements. Institutionalized parties have strong, stable bases of support, robust organizations, and labels that are distinct and valuable to both voters and candidates. By contrast, weakly institutionalized parties are often ephemeral, with poorly articulated platforms, weak organization, and lacking stable bases of support. Robust civil society is characterized by civilian participation in organizations that include interest groups, labor unions, social movements, professional associations, and welfare organizations among others. We argue that these two regime features embolden citizens to credibly threaten sanctions against anti-democratic behavior, making democratic institutions more effective and democracy more durable.

Despite the widely held belief about the salutary effects of a strong civil society and institutionalized political parties, until recently, comprehensive testing has been difficult if not impossible. The novel and fine-grained cross-sectional time series data on civil society participation and the institutionalization of political parties, makes it possible to provide a rigorous assessment of whether this is really the case. Our article presents the first set of rigorous empirical tests, using newly available data from all democracies between 1900-2010. Of the 203 episodes of democracy during this period, 83 ended in democratic collapse. We sought to identify whether democracies with institutionalized parties and robust civil society organizations were less likely to end in collapse. Our results suggest that these features have substantively large influences on inhibiting democratic breakdown. These forms of political activity deter other actors from defecting from democratic bargains, thus enhancing democratic durability. The integrity of democratic institutions is protected by the ability of democracy-supporting actors to mobilize in defense of their interests. Institutions that encourage such mobilization become more than mere parchment when they become focal points for collective and coordinated action. Our results here underscore a similar, broader role for the organized public’s ability to hold elites institutionally accountable in ways that protect a democratic regime’s survival. 

If democracy’s essence is the ability of diverse actors to represent their interests in a fashion that allows them to determine who holds power peacefully, then the degree to which those interests are effectively organized in strong civic organizations and political parties is consequential for deterring the arbitrary seizure and exercise of power. Our results suggest that a strong civil society and institutionalized political parties should be seen as bulwarks to ensure democratic stability. Democratic states and the international community ought to invest in and embolden these institutions, where possible, in the face of the current wave of autocratization. This is an important and essential insight for this day and age in which democracy seems imperiled globally.

This paper was published in the journal Studies in Comparative International Development and was coauthored with Michael Bernhard, Allen Hicken, and Staffan I. Lindberg.

Dr. Christopher Reenock is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science.

The feature image is from

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