Threats to Democracy: Plenary Session IV

A Research Perspective

Sidney Verba

I am going to talk about the threats to democracy that can still exist even after democracy has been installed. As with people, the threats to life really come in the early years. One's life expectancy, particularly if one is born under circumstances where there is poverty or ill health, is better after a number of years than it is at birth, and I think that is true of democracies. Democracies begin with a great burst of light, but as one Eastern European said recently, “At the end of the light is the tunnel.” And I think that indeed is what new democracies are faced with--most democracies, if they can survive 20 years, seem to survive forever. At least, historically speaking, this has been true.

The question this raises, of course, is what one can learn for newly developing democracies, newly democratizing countries, from the experience of those democracies that have been around for a long time. This is the old question of what it is one can learn from history; are the circumstances today so different that one cannot really generalize from the past? Most of us who think about the lessons of history accept Santayana's famous aphorism that those who do not learn from history are forced to repeat it. There is, unfortunately, the opposite aphorism as well--that those who do learn from history are forced to make the opposite mistakes the next time. It is not easy to learn from history, but we have to learn from something.

Democracies have been defined half a dozen times in this meeting, and I assume here that we mean the most rudimentary definition: a society in which there is some kind of control over the rulers by the ruled. This means rule by the people, and that involves some kind of regular procedures whereby citizens can hold their leaders accountable. This probably means regular free elections that are meaningful, in which almost all people can participate as voters and as potential candidates. It means, also, the auxiliary features that are necessary for meaningful elections, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to organize.

There are several implications of that definition. One is that democ-



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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop Threats to Democracy: Plenary Session IV A Research Perspective Sidney Verba I am going to talk about the threats to democracy that can still exist even after democracy has been installed. As with people, the threats to life really come in the early years. One's life expectancy, particularly if one is born under circumstances where there is poverty or ill health, is better after a number of years than it is at birth, and I think that is true of democracies. Democracies begin with a great burst of light, but as one Eastern European said recently, “At the end of the light is the tunnel.” And I think that indeed is what new democracies are faced with--most democracies, if they can survive 20 years, seem to survive forever. At least, historically speaking, this has been true. The question this raises, of course, is what one can learn for newly developing democracies, newly democratizing countries, from the experience of those democracies that have been around for a long time. This is the old question of what it is one can learn from history; are the circumstances today so different that one cannot really generalize from the past? Most of us who think about the lessons of history accept Santayana's famous aphorism that those who do not learn from history are forced to repeat it. There is, unfortunately, the opposite aphorism as well--that those who do learn from history are forced to make the opposite mistakes the next time. It is not easy to learn from history, but we have to learn from something. Democracies have been defined half a dozen times in this meeting, and I assume here that we mean the most rudimentary definition: a society in which there is some kind of control over the rulers by the ruled. This means rule by the people, and that involves some kind of regular procedures whereby citizens can hold their leaders accountable. This probably means regular free elections that are meaningful, in which almost all people can participate as voters and as potential candidates. It means, also, the auxiliary features that are necessary for meaningful elections, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to organize. There are several implications of that definition. One is that democ-

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop racy is not everything: democracy is not free markets, democracy is not an effective set of social welfare policies in a society. It may be that these things are useful for democracy, it may be that they are necessary for democracy--these are debatable propositions--but they are certainly not the same thing as democracy. The corollary of that is that democracy is not necessarily positively related to all other good things. One of the main things that everyone needs to face is the great tension between democracy--rule from below--and other things that we might value. Let me mention two of them. One is that the very term “democratic government” is internally contradictory. There is a tension between fostering democracy and fostering governance. Democracy comes from below; governance is making effective decisions from above. And as we know, the two may not easily go together. An old theme in democratic thinking is “are the people really capable of ruling?” The answer, of course, is “no” if one is thinking of the people directly running the government. With the exception of very, very small social units, that seems to be impossible. Are the people capable of selecting rulers and influencing them in ways that lead to effective, coherent policies? On that, the answer is by no means clear. Democracy by its nature frees and expands the number of conflicts in a society, it releases selfish and short-sighted interests, it creates and allows factions. A question people ask is “Can one have a democracy in a multi-party system with many conflicting factions?” Some studies have suggested that overall economic performance in countries is inhibited if there are too many special interests because these interests, out for their own benefit, impede the development of coherent national policies leading to effective performance. One might make the argument that this is the case with American economic performance. If you simply look at the budget process as it goes on in Washington these days, one can certainly see that democracy and effective governments do not easily go together. A second tension is that between democracy and citizen welfare. This is clearly related to the first tension. To put it in Lincoln's terms, we can raise the question of whether government by the people is the best way of getting government for the people. Most of us can imagine circumstances under which we think the world would be better run, certainly our own country would be better run, with an intelligent, rational, benevolent leader. If we had someone to make those kinds of decisions, we would do better in dealing with the homeless, drugs, our weak economy, our bad schools, and the like. That idea has two limitations. First, it is hard to know what it is to be rational, to make intelligent policies. Policies always are contested and therefore the problem is not with doing something; it comes even earlier, with knowing what it is that one should do. The second problem, of

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop course, is with the term “benevolence” when speaking of a benevolent leader. Are leaders likely to be benevolent; more importantly, once they are in office are they likely to stay benevolent if they are not under control of the citizenry? The experience with governments around the world certainly supports one generalization in political science--Lord Acton's famous aphorism that power tends to corrupt. And looking at the experience of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, we see them as evidence for the strong version of Acton's aphorism: absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. So it is hard to think of citizen welfare, though it may not be dealt with efficiently, being dealt with for a long period of time by leaders who are not in some manner under the control of the citizenry. What that means is not that the citizens are particularly effective in developing the right kinds of policies, but that they are effective in being negative, in blocking bad policies. And I think that perhaps that negative check was a major philosophical impetus behind American government, and that it is one of the major reasons for having democratic government. Let me turn to the theories of democracy, and what we know from democratic history to see what it is we might possibly learn. One issue that is not often dealt with, that we do not know very much about, and do not have very good theories about, is the basic, often unanswered issue of the political units within which democracy should take place. There is a lot of writing about the way in which decisions can be made in a democracy. Should they be made by majority rule? Should they be made by some rules of proportionality? Should we aim for consensus? How many people should participate? What are the consequences of more or fewer people being given the franchise? But there is little on what is the proper unit in which those decisions can be made. Majority rule is a wonderful democratic rule, it is one of the best--but there is nothing in the theory of majority rule, its strengths and its weaknesses, that says majority of what. And obviously that is crucial. It makes a difference for language policy in Canada, for example, if it is the majority of Quebec, or the majority of Canada. There is nothing that can tell you what that is supposed to be, and as we know, in most societies the nature of the unit is contested. We think of the United States as a democracy for the last 200 years, and yet one-third of the way into those 200 years, we had to fight one of the bloodiest wars in history to decide the size of the unit. And in almost all cases the answer--should it be many separate states or one big state--is something that is quite morally ambiguous. In retrospect, the Civil War was a great moral crusade because slavery was an unambiguous evil. But in terms of Lincoln's initial goal, to preserve the Union, if not for the issue of slavery we might look at that conflict in an ambiguous way. Was it worth fighting a war that large in order to preserve the Union? Maybe yes, but maybe no.

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop Democracies all over the world are facing challenges to their boundaries. Usually these are subnational challenges, the desires of separate groups to break apart, but there will also be supernational challenges to their boundaries, whether decision units should be larger than the nation-state. Usually it is the nation-state that we focus on, but the nation-state is to some extent an arbitrary institution. One easy answer to what the proper unit should be is wrong. The easy answer is that we should look around the world to find natural units in which people are homogeneous, that are small enough so people can work together easily, share the same language, share the same culture, share those things that we think of as qualities of nations in some general sense or of societies. Such natural units do not exist. To find them one has to go to units so small that they cannot possibly survive in the real world. And second, even the smallest political units are really extremely heterogeneous. Boundaries are mixed, populations are spread out, the possibility of the small, easy-to-govern, homogeneous political unit is a romantic ideal of the past. I visited Estonia in May, one of those small republics where a homogeneous population is trying to set itself off as separate from the Soviet Union. But 40 percent of the population is Russian, half of the capital's population is Russian. There is no possibility of its becoming that kind of old-fashioned, Rousseauian ideal of a homogeneous political unit. What that means is that we are unavoidably dealing with large, complex political units. It also means that when we talk about democracy, we probably have to talk about representative democracy. The notions of direct, participatory democracy, of consensus decision-making, do not make sense in the modern world. And when we talk about representative democracy, we talk about elections. When we talk about elections, we probably talk about political parties. It is very hard to imagine democracies with elections without organized political parties. But this illustrates, again, one of the great tensions of democracy. Political parties are divisive. It is their job to battle with each other, to exacerbate differences in society. They create conflict. Nevertheless, they may indeed be necessary institutions. This shows one of the dilemmas of democracy, that it is by nature a conflict ridden system. The main problem in democracies, I would argue, is not achieving the common good, not finding a just policy and efficient government. The main problem in democracy is managing conflict, avoiding conflict that becomes so great it tears a society apart. James Madison's great achievement as a democratic theorist was turning the earlier view of democracy upside down. The earlier view from Rousseau was that democracy would only work in small homogeneous societies where there were no great conflicts of interest. Madison said that was

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop impossible; people have differences of interest and will always have conflict. He tried to make the differences of interest into the basis of democracy, arguing for a large, diverse society in which people could battle it out for success. It means that democratic politics is not rational decision making, not balancing costs and benefits, not planning for development. Democratic politics is conflict, it is coalition building, it is log rolling, it is messy. And above all, democratic politics involves, almost always, lots of unsavory characters, people whose views one finds unattractive, even antidemocratic, certainly unpalatable. One of the glories of American democracy is the First Amendment and the protection of freedoms when the First Amendment works. If you read the history of the First Amendment, the sleazy characters that are defended by it overwhelm you, but that is the nature of democracy. What can we learn from the history of those fortunate nations that have learned how to manage conflict peacefully and democratically over an extended period of time? Is there general knowledge about democracy, or do we understand democracies only in specific places in their individual contexts? This is an old problem in the social sciences and in comparative politics: we search for general knowledge, we search for reusable knowledge from one place that can then be applied to someplace else. Yet when we look at each specific place, we always find things are different. This is an issue that is too complex to work out here; I suppose the answer is a little bit of each. We cannot go around the world in pure “ad hocery,” dealing with each country totally on its own terms. We have to have some general sense of where we are going, but we cannot apply it blindly and mechanically in different places. How did the democracies we recognize today develop? It is relatively a new form of government. There were some democracies in the nineteenth century, but most of today's democracies began in the twentieth century. There is no single answer, there is no single feature that makes a successful democracy. For a long time those who looked at the failure of some democracies before World War II argued that it had something to do with the nature of the electoral system. Proportional representation was highlighted as the reason for the decline of the Weimar Republic, for example. It turns out, however, that there are many democracies that do very well with proportional representation. Sometimes it does good, and sometimes it does harm. If there is no single feature, there are a few general things. One is clearly that political leaders, if they could get away with it, would probably suppress opposition. I have a feeling that runs through George Bush's mind daily as he looks down Pennsylvania Avenue. Why not suppress the opposition--the leaders are trying to accomplish something and the other guys are standing in their way. Therefore, one of the things one needs for

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop democracy is some limits on the autonomy of coercive power, some control by civilians over the military, some ways in which the threat to democracy from those people who control coercive power can be controlled. There are many other features that clearly underpin or seem to go along with democratic government. The list is fairly well known: high income, economic growth, an educated population, a diverse economy, a relatively free and autonomous economy, many autonomous interest groups, high levels of well being, long life expectancy, and on and on. It is a syndrome we label as “modernization,” “development,” or what have you. And it is clear that it does foster democracy and that it is very important for it. For a variety of reasons, it creates wealth and people's satisfaction. It creates the kind of diverse society that makes it more difficult for any governmental group to dominate, that allows the formation of groups that can then be part of a complex political process, and that fosters the civil society on which democracy rests. Education is probably still the single most important thing that underlies and ensures democracy. Most of the literature shows that in any place, at any time, educated people are more likely to be politically active, more likely to be committed to democracy. One ought not to overstate this. A long, long time ago, I wrote a book called Civic Culture in which we found that educated people were more committed to democratic values. And we wrote a conclusion saying, “Isn't it wonderful that the world is getting more and more educated, therefore we're going to get a citizenry that is going to participate more, be more satisfied because they'll understand what's going on, and they'll play a greater role in society.” But that was a long time ago, and since then the citizenry, certainly in this country, and most democracies, has become much more educated. Has it led to democratic satisfaction? Of course not. What education does is teach you how complex the world is, that a lot of what you think should be accomplished cannot be accomplished. Education does not necessarily lead to a more satisfied citizenry, but it does lead to a more democratic citizenry. It leads to a citizenry that is more active in politics and that is less likely to accept violations of democracy. As a colleague and I, paraphrasing an old cigarette ad, wrote in the conclusion of a book looking at how people in the United States were participating in politics that was published many years after Civic Culture: Americans were participating more and enjoying it less. There are other features that are important for democracy. One is the absence of deeply antagonistic subgroups or subcultures that do not trust each other and are not willing to turn over power to the opposition. We who are Democrats probably do not fully trust Republicans, we who are Republicans probably do not trust fully Democrats. Nevertheless, we are basically willing to turn over government to the opposition because we do

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop not think our interests will be that substantially harmed. A great problem and puzzle for newly-formed democracies is that they are filled with groups so antagonistic that they are unwilling to alternate or share power. There are many techniques to try to have a democracy that is not majoritarian, where the fundamental interests of minority groups are protected with the possibilities of mutual vetoes, with the possibilities of having certain areas of social policy--about language, about religion--kept out of the governmental decision process to allow for the autonomy of groups that do not want to see someone else exercising power over them. Federal arrangements that maintain some local autonomy are also a way of dealing with it. One very important way of dealing with the problem is the existence of plural institutions within the government. Not pluralism in the society, but plural institutions in the government, so that various groups have alternative mechanisms by which they can get some governmental response. Imagine a society in which there is a permanent minority, which because of the social tensions and issues in the society cannot form a coalition with other groups and therefore in some way, at some times, share political power. Those circumstances are very, very bad if there are no alternative ways in which those minorities can get their way. A simple comparison may be between Northern Ireland and the United States. Northern Ireland, with a government that is roughly parliamentary (and therefore where almost all decisions are made by one institution), becomes a society in which the Catholics really have no chance of having any force. Religion is the major conflict within their society, they are a permanent minority, and they are permanently kept out of power. In the United States, the nearest analogy, of course, is race. For a long time American blacks were in that position. They were a permanent minority vis-a-vis the U.S. Congress since there was no way in which they could join a coalition with any other group to be part of a majority. But the United States, by having a variety of other institutions, offered other possibilities for the exercise of influence and power. There were courts, which is where the NAACP turned, there were local governments, which is where black representatives have been elected, and there was a multiplicity of ways in which the government operated. This is one way in which having a complex government is not very efficient, but does gives minorities some opportunity. Let me talk about one more theme, the relationship of democracy to free markets, of democracy to capitalism. It is clear these are different sets of institutions. It is clear, furthermore, that free markets and capitalism are perhaps necessary for democracy because they create an open, autonomous sector of society that remains out of the government 's control. I do not necessarily mean free markets à la Milton Friedman;

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop certainly the markets in Sweden are free enough to have supported democracy for a long, long time. We can argue whether their policies are good or not, but I do not think anyone can argue that Sweden is not a democracy. Free markets and capitalism have a complex relationship to democracy. The tension grows out of the fact that they are based on somewhat different principles. Democracy is based on a very clear principle: equality, on the notion that each individual is of equal worth. It is also based on the somewhat weaker notion, which I think democrats accept, that not only is each individual of equal worth in terms of interests, each is equally competent to know what his or her own interests are and express them in the political process. This is reflected in such principles as “one person, one vote.” Capitalism, of course, rests in a way on inequality. It rests on the opportunity of individuals to make money and get ahead. And one of the greatest and most interesting problems in understanding modern democracies is the tension between these two systems side by side. The tension can be seen by the way in which people at both ends of the political spectrum look at democracy. For the right, democracy is the ultimate threat. It is a threat to their property, to what they think are their rights to be autonomous in the market, because the mass of people will vote in governments that will take away their rights. Looked at from the left, capitalism is a threat to democracy in the opposite direction. Inequalities in wealth, inequalities in control over resources have a major effect in distorting the extent to which democracy is a system whereby each person has equal influence. Where does this all lead me? What kind of advice can one give on the basis of some of these tensions in democracy to those who have to face what to do about it? In thinking about that, I am reminded of the story of the owl and the rabbit who are on a little strip of land during a flood. As the water comes up and up, the rabbit gets very nervous and says to the owl, “What am I supposed to do? ” The owl says, “It's very simple. Turn yourself into a pigeon and fly away.” The rabbit says, “What a terrific idea, I'll turn myself into a pigeon and I'll fly away. But how do I turn myself into a pigeon?” The owl, as he takes to the air, says, “I just do policy, I don't bother with implementation.” One conclusion I have come to is that if we know so little for certain about what is necessary for democracy, if we know that we cannot specify any particular thing that is sufficient for democracy, and if we know that various combinations of factors work differently in different contexts, we should be very modest about our expectations of how well we can understand the formation of democracy in other nations and how well we can direct it. Democracy is not easy to design from inside and probably

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop impossible to design from outside. So we must not overstate our ability to effect change. We know that it is hard to steer any society, including our own. As one person put it, we want results and we get consequences. Above all, it is very difficult to design and implement structural changes in the way a government operates. One of the best examples is the attempt to change the structure of our elections and the campaign finance laws. The campaign finance reform was supposed to limit the power of money over elections. It had two consequences: it increased the power of money over elections and it deeply damaged our political parties. And that was not intended by anyone at the time. If that is true here, where we speak the language as native speakers, where we have a feel for what is going on, imagine what the risk is in other parts of the world. Does that mean that one can do nothing? Of course not; one has to do something and there is probably much that one can do. The first advice I suppose I would give is “do no harm.” It is easier to harm democracies, I think, than to create them or foster them. There probably are more clear examples of effective harm than there are of effective help. Certainly there are examples of American policy doing harm to democracy. I think now that the Cold War has simmered down, there are fewer pressures for policies that serve other goals, but that is still something to keep in mind. The second is: “Do not expect too much.” Some of the underlying features of things that we know foster democracy, such as higher levels of education or more autonomous social groups within a society, reduce conflict between intensely antagonistic groups. These clearly foster democracy, but they are very difficult to design and to implement. One supports them because in the long run they are likely on average to do good, but one does not expect results to emerge rapidly, nor in any very precise and measurable way. This underscores my notion that we are to be modest in our goals. This, of course, goes against the American grain. When we have a problem, we declare war on it. We have a war on drugs. The problem is that when you declare war on something, you can be sure you are going to lose. A good example is the Great Society. We wanted to create a Great Society, so we declared a war on poverty. Obviously we lost the war, obviously we do not have a great society. The irony is that much of the research that now looks back at what happened--programs like food stamps, the Voting Rights Act--finds that we did accomplish a great deal during that period. Many things were done that reduced the level of poverty and people's level of misery. But we did not win the war, and therefore we set ourselves up for failure by setting our goals too high. The last point is that one gives support, one does not manage. We do not know how to manage change, we do not know how in any precise way to create democracy out of nondemocracy. Therefore we can provide

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THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY: Proceedings of a Workshop support, but whatever grows probably has to grow uncontrolled and grow outside our control in ways that are sometimes negative. So, I suppose what we do is to help and to hope for the best. I was trying to think of whether I should end on an optimistic or a pessimistic note. Again, I am reminded of what I think is the best definition of the distinction between an optimist and a pessimist, which I will use as my conclusion. It is simply that an optimist is someone who looks around and says, “This is the best of all possible worlds,” and a pessimist is someone who reflects for a moment and says, “You know, you're right.”