In 1959 Seymour Martin Lipset wrote a highly influential paper called “Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” It was not the first-time statistical analysis was used in political science research. But it was the first time an academic paper demonstrated a correlation between economic development and democracy. Since then, political scientists have gone further and further down this rabbit hole. Economic development is considered an essential part of democratization.
Samuel Huntington’s classic work, Political Order in Changing Societies, was a response to political theorists who emphasized economic development as a way to produce political development. Huntington argued political development was distinct and separate from economic development. Instead, he emphasized the creation of political institutions as a prerequisite for effective democratization. But he did not directly explain why economic development is highly correlated with democratization.
The problem with statistics is they do not explain outlies. Rather they simply define them as exceptions. Statistics are designed to identify trends. But they are poor at explaining why some scenarios fail to fit the model. India is the outlier Lipet’s model fails to explain. India has been a democracy longer than most of Europe. Yet until recently it has lagged most economies in economic growth. Fukuyama argues, in Political Order and Political Decay, its early democratization may have slowed its economic development.
Nonetheless, the link between economic development and democracy remains strong among political scientists. So, it is not a surprise when a well-known theorist like Ronald Inglehart links the recent democratic slide to economics. Many believe the rise of populism was caused by the Great Recession. Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christoph Trebesch have written a paper, “Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crises, 1870-1914,” where they find far-right political parties increase their vote share 30% after a financial crisis. They are not alone. Many have drawn this conclusion without the same academic rigor.
But I keep coming back to India. Democratization is about more than economics. In a classic work known as Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore argued democracy depends on the rise of a strong middle class. Unfortunately, Moore based his theories on a Western process of democratization. Every nation he examined arose from the same cultural context. Statisticians might argue there is significant collinearity in the statistical sample. Moreover, his analysis came before the third wave of democracy, so his sample was limited to fewer historical periods of democratization.
It is likely economic development is not really related to democratization at all. Instead, it is correlated to a different factor. Perhaps the rise of the middle class represents the rise of pluralism. Scholars like Barrington Moore would respond, “Obviously.” Many assume the middle class is necessary for a pluralistic society. But what if it isn’t. Maybe the diversity of India strengthened its democracy by establishing multiple interests and identities. Perhaps economic development allows for the diversification of personal identity. But economic development was not the cause of democratization. Rather the diversification of personal identities necessitated a decentralization of political power to the voters. In Europe economic development was necessary for pluralism but India was already a diverse society, so pluralism was present without development.
Inglehart argues economic changes have brought about the rise of populism and the decline of democracy. I don’t think he is looking close enough. The centralization of identity brings about populism. Inglehart is right that economics plays a role. Too few people find identity in their career among the working class. Their old identities do not protect their interests. For many, identity is reformulated into a larger group. A more powerful group capable to protect their interests. This is the Democracy Paradox.
mk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com