Empowering Democracy


This article discusses one of the most basic assumptions of modernization theory, that is, the assumption of a positive relationship between economic achievements of a nation and stability of its democratic institutions. The main focus of analysis here is on the socio-economic aspects able to influence the levels of satisfaction with democracy. The basic hypothesis is that the lower the socio-economic achievements of citizens, the lower will be their satisfaction with the way democracy works in their country. Citizens facing greater socio-economic instability are, in fact, supposed to show lower levels of satisfaction with democracy than citizens living in richer and better socio-economically equipped countries. Does this hypothesis still hold true?


Economic Achievements and Stability of Democratic Institutions

One of the most common arguments about the stability of a democratic system concerns the relationship that exists between the economic achievements of a country and the consolidation of its democratic institutions. In the most classical, but also more often criticized, formulation of modernization theory, the stability of democratic institutions is seen has strictly linked to the economic performance of a country, often expressed in terms of GDP growth. Countries that perform better in economic terms are also assumed to achieve more positive results in terms of democratic stability. As Lipset (1959: 56) affirms, “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances it will sustain democracy”. Other more recent versions of modernization theory have called attention not to the economic growth of a country per se, but rather to the redistributive impact of its economic achievements (see Vanhanen 1997; Prezworski et al. 2000). As Przeworski (2005, 3-4) shows:


“The probability that a democracy survives rises steeply in per capita income. Between 1950 and 1999, the probability that a democracy would die during any year in countries with per capita income under $1,000 (1985 PPP dollars) was 0.0845, so that one in twelve died. In countries with incomes between $1,001 and $3,000, this probability was 0.0362, for one in twenty-eight. Between $3,001 and $6,055, this probability was 0.0163, one in sixty-one. And no democracy ever fell in a country with per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1975, $6,055. This is a startling fact, given that throughout history about seventy democracies collapsed in poorer countries, while thirty-seven democracies spent over 1000 years in more developed countries and not one died”.


Despite the comforting effect of these data, which assures the reader that the probability of transition from democracy to authoritarianism is unlikely to occur in richest Western industrialized nations, other elements could also play a key role in altering the stability and consolidation of democratic institutions. Studies on social change, for example, have repeatedly highlighted how the transformations occurring in post-industrial societies are producing new forms of social stratification that are leading to the formation of new interests and unprecedented patterns of political representation (see Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992; Inglehart 1997; Crouch 1999; Schmitter 2006). Nowadays, interests and values are not only more diversified, but also tend, always more frequently, to be in conflict. Winners and losers of post-industrial societies differ in their expectations and support for the democracy, but also the institutional setting of the democracy (e.g. the system of rules) seems not to be able to ensure a homogenous access to the democratic benefits promised to the citizens (such as income security, wealth, education).


Opponents of modernization theory have, as a consequence, criticized its simplicity in explaining extremely complex and problematic processes of social and institutional change. In the German school, where modernization theory has recently received much of its conceptual strengths, modernization has been described as a process of rationalization (Rationalisierung) and differentiation (Differenzierung) of the systems of production and allocation of labor, but also it has been described in terms of a transition from simple agrarian to complex industrial (or post-industrial) societies (Zapf 1960, 1994, 2002). In addition, while emphasizing processes of differentiation and rationalization, modernization theory has not paid a serious attention to the self-destructive mechanisms that may exist in capitalist societies (Offe 1986). The term reflexive modernization (Beck et al. 1995) has, thus, been used to capture the inadequacy of modern societies to deal with their internal contradictions. Modernization, it is argued, can help to foster system stability, but it can also bury its own grave through an inadequate management of new, emerging social risks, ultimately leading to system instability.


Implications for Democracy Studies

What do these considerations imply for the study of democracy? The first point to which it is important to pay attention to concerns the multifaceted and multi-dimensional character of democracy. Attitudes and opinions of citizens about the way democracy works in their country are not simply driven by endogenous, income status-related factors, but also by exogenous, performance-related dynamics. Hence, citizens do not simply assess democracy in terms of the immediate benefits they receive, but also in terms of the satisfaction and trust they have developed in institutions. If democracy has to be sustained over-time, economic gains alone will clearly not be enough. Citizens could, in fact, stop to support democracy if an authoritarian alternative is perceived as more satisfying and trustworthy in economic, political and social terms. As highlighted by Brustein (1996) in The Logic of Evil, the fascist and nazi regimes in Italy and Germany succeeded to ensure their survival not simply through force and repression, but also through the comparative advantages they were able to provide (or promise) to their citizens. These corresponded, for example, in the case of Germany, to a barrier against the supposed political, cultural and economic invasion of the Jews, while, in the case of Italy, to the modernization of a rural society through agrarian-oriented policies and a more comprehensive welfare state.


The relation that exists between political legitimacy and system stability is, however, much more complex than the way modernization theory would portray, even though the importance of economic factors cannot be denied. Economic achievements may clearly influence the trust and satisfaction with the way democracy works in one country, but trust and satisfaction could also be evaluated independently by short-term economic gains. Democracy as a system of governing the life of citizens is, as we have seen, constantly subjected to the approval of citizens, who legitimize its survival on a daily basis. Waking up in the morning, having breakfast, buying the newspaper, sending the children to school, and going to work should not, necessarily, be seen as less legitimizing actions for a democracy than regularly going to vote during the elections, since they presuppose not only the acceptance of the economic and political order in place, but also the refusal of violence as a means for obtaining long-term objectives.



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