Monday, February 17, 2014

Preliminary Hypotheses

I am not ready yet to bring any specifics to my proposed series looking at how various democratically elective governments have failed. But I do have some more general predictions to add to it. Previously I proposed four preliminary hypotheses:
  1. Democracies fail as a result of extreme, out-of-control polarization and strife;
  2. Simultaneous a cause and a symptom of such polarization are parties that abandon all respect for the rules of the game and democratic fair play and pursue victor at all costs;
  3. Political violence is a very bad sign;
  4. Although violent revolution from the Left is a real danger under authoritarian governments, the danger to democracy is usually from the Right.  This is not to deny that left wing parties often contribute to the polarization, but the right wing is usually the one that prevails.  The main exception is in the case of formally democratic government that have degenerated into cozy little oligarchies.  In that case, left wing populist dictators are a real danger.
To these four hypotheses, I would add the following:

Understanding the need for political parties and a loyal opposition is essential to the success of democracy.  Democracy calls for difficult skills that require learning -- accepting disagreement and dissent as normal, and learning to be a gracious loser (or winner).  Everyone loves freedom in the sense of not being constrained.  Not everyone is willing to respect the freedom of others.  Everyone is eager for the opportunity to choose their own leader.  Not everyone is willing to accept defeat.  People untrained in the habits of democracy and dissent (and even many who are so trained) tend to assume that everyone agrees with them, or at least should, and that a leader lacks popular legitimacy unless elected by near-unanimity.  For democracy to succeed, people have to accept large amounts of disagreement as a normal condition.  Losers have to learn to yield to the winners and winners to respect the rights of the losers.  Without these things, any attempt at democracy will fail.  One thing I hope to learn is how many failures of democracy were failures to overcome this most basic obstacle, and how many were something else at stake.  Because even when these rules are understood, democracy can fail.  Which leads to my next point.

Democratic governments are ill-suited for radical reforms that endanger important, entrenched interests.  This is a disturbing hypothesis for me because I goes against what I had been taught to believe -- that democracy is to be valued precisely because it has open avenues for reform and therefore is protected from violent revolution.  That appears to be only half-true.  Democracy does, indeed, appear to be a good preventive against violent revolution from the Left.  But it provides powerful interest with the tools to block major reforms, even necessary ones.  Major social transformations my occur under democratically elective governments, and sometimes democracy may facilitate dealing with the change.  But a fierce reaction invariably ensues when people start to press major reforms.  Indeed, a major catalyst for the failure of democracy is resistance to proposed reforms that threaten an important interest.

Democracy is more likely to fall as a result of fear than ambition.  This is a closely related point, and closely related to my point that the danger usually resides on the Right. Anti-democratic movements within a democracy tend to be motivated by fear, particularly fear of change and fear of displacement from below. These fears are oft-defining traits of the right wing.  The fears may or may not be justified.  When powerful interests are threatened, fears very often run riot far out of proportion to the facts.  That is part of my point from my previous post, that one of the biggest danger signs is when the right wing loses its ability to distinguish moderate reformers from true radicals.

The support of a strong middle class is essential to the health of democracy.  This is not, as some people flatter the middle class, because it is inherently more democratic than any other sector of society. Rather, it is because the middle class is strong enough to make or break democracy.  When the middle class turns against democracy, democracy's prospects are not good. When the middle class is not large enough to carry much political weight, there is nothing to buffer class struggle, and again the prospects of democracy are not good.  When the middle class turns against democracy, it is usually because it fears displacement from below.  This is the perfect set-up for a right-wing anti-democratic movement.

I expect the pattern of the minority of democracies that fall to the left to differ from the ones that fall to the right.  My predictions based on some very preliminary reading would be as follows:
  1. Left-wing failures of democracy are more likely to depend on a charismatic leader than right-wing ones.
  2. Left-wing failures of democracy are less likely to be driven by fear than right-wing ones and more likely to be driven by ambition.  This means both the ambition of the charismatic leader for power and of the followers for a better life.
  3. Left-wings failures of democracy are more likely to occur when the middle class is too small to carry much weight.
  4. Left-wing populist dictators are most likely to succeed when they are aligned with broad historic trends and are simply overcoming resistance by a hidebound elite.  In such cases their rule can be benign and even constructive, though undemocratic.  But when they are fighting against broad historic trends, they are unlikely to succeed except through the most fearsome means, and the choices are limited to maintaining the status quo and enduring the horrors of revolution from the left.  That latter does not seem to happen in democratic countries, at least not in modern times.
Some democracies fall to foreign conquest.  When it is simply a matter of being overcome by military force, it is a mere misfortune and need not concern us.  But sometimes factions may place their triumph in domestic politics ahead of patriotic loyalty.  In those cases, there is widespread collaboration with foreign conquerors to achieve domestic political goals.  In these cases, the failure of democracy is at least partly due to internal failings.

When democracy fails it can fail in different ways.  Sometimes it is subverted from within by anti-democratic parties.  (That was the case under classical fascism).  Sometimes it is overthrown in a military coup.  Sometimes it dissolves into civil war.  (That was our experience, and it must be accounted a failing of democracy, even though both sided maintained democratically elective government throughout). There may be other forms of failure as well that I will discover along the way.  And perhaps there will be patterns that can predict which of these is most likely.  As of yet I do not have a sense of it.

Finally, I want to learn about the role of paramilitaries.  Certainly Mussolini and Hitler subverted democracy with their paramilitaries (although there were plenty of other paramilitaries floating around).  The Roman Republic was brought down largely by the rise of private armies.  But I do not know how commonly paramilitaries play a role.  Another thing to learn.

Very well, then.  Let me do as I have done in law school -- draw an outline of all this and plug in each example to see how well it fits.  Here is my outline:


I.       General traits of failing democracy
             A.    Extreme polarization
             B.     Abandonment of procedural norms
             C.     Frequently
                      1.            Political violence
                      2.            Private or partisan paramilitaries
            D.    Usually the danger is on the right

II.    Sub-categories of democratic failure
            A.    Failure to understand parties and a loyal opposition
                    1.            Traits unknown
            B.     Right wing (major category)
                      1.            Driven by fear
a.       Elite fear of reforms threatening power
b.      Middle class fear of displacement from below
                     2.            Failure to distinguish between radicals and moderate reformers
                     3.            Not usually dependent on a charismatic leader
                     4.            Middle class in danger of being squeezed out
          *5.     Most common triggers
                    a.  Economic crisis (major category)
                    b.  Past or present loss of a war (minor category)
           C.     Left wing (minor category)
                    1.            Driven by ambition
a.       Of leader for power
b.      Of followers for a better life
                    2.            Dependent on a charismatic leader
                    3.            Middle class usually weak
                    4.            Most likely to succeed if it follows broad historic trends  
         *5.     Most common triggers -- unknown
          D.    Foreign invasion
                  1.            Faction places triumph in domestic politics over patriotism
                  2.            Widespread collaboration to promote domestic goals

III.  Types of failure
       A.  Subversion from within
       B.  Military coup
       C.  Civil war
       D.  ????

Right now I am beginning on classical Greece.

*Update:  I add this last based an earlier hypothesis: that two that the two things most likely to bring down any government, democratic or non-democratic, were losing a war, and economic crisis.  I further hypothesized that democratic governments are usually resilient to losing a war, possibly because they have a peaceful method of getting rid of the people to be blamed for losing.  Nonetheless, democratic governments formed in the wake of military defeat can be fragile.  The threat in such cases comes almost entirely from the right.  By contrast, democratic governments (both in the 1930's and now) do not seem good at handling economic crises.  Granted, they seem good at asking people for ever greater sacrifices and inflicting pain.  But they do not seem to be able to push past people's intuitions and and take the real, painless but counterintuitive, measures needed to defeat an economic crisis.  I further hypothesized that economic crisis normally turns politics to the right, unless the right has been discredited, in which case it turns politics to the left.  So in economic crises, the threat to democracy will come predominantly from the right, though there may be danger on the left as well.  So if the two things most likely to bring down democratically elective government are the shadow of a lost war and economic crisis, and if the danger in both these cases lies mostly on the right, what triggers the crisis that makes democratic governments fall to the left?  I don't know, so far.  But I hope to find out.

1 comment:

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