Sheri Berman – Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe

There is no clear demarcation between history and political science. There is an unspoken rule where historians establish an artificial line between current events and the historical past. Yet this line has always been artificial. The real difference between political science and history has been its academic approach. The historian analyzes specific events for their unique character while political scientists look for universal trends. This helps explain why historians continue to favor a more qualitative approach to their discipline while political scientists lean towards quantitative tools for analysis.

Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe is a political scientist’s account of history. She offers historical context for democratization. Samuel Huntington designated three waves of democratization. The third wave has been the most recent. It began with the democratization of Portugal but gained real momentum with the democratization of Spain. Over a three-decade period, democracies emerged in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. The Middle East was the only region left entirely unaffected.

Around fifteen years ago, the third wave began to recede. Some of the third wave democracies have collapsed while others have faced challenges. Larry Diamond has said there is a democratic recession. Huntington’s theory of democratic waves expects reverse waves to follow periods of democratization. Yet the third wave brought democracy into many cultures where scholars did not expect it to flourish. Its subsequent decline has met the expectations of those same scholars. Even Huntington posited a world view where democracy may not make sense within some civilizational contexts. His Clash of Civilizations has an implicit prediction that democracy will either fail in some cultures or evolve into something distinct from Western liberal democracy.

Berman has written her book as a response to the overreaction of Diamond’s “Democratic Recession.” It is a bit too simplistic to regard democracy as a Western political tradition. Indeed, democracy is a relatively new political system in the West. The consolidated democracies of Europe did not emerge until after World War II except for the United Kingdom which is why it is called English Exceptionalism. Many intellectuals did not believe democracy was appropriate for Europe. The gains of the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848 were quickly reversed. Although the reverse was never complete. Progress was slow. There is no reason the third wave democracies will not face a long transition with their own existential challenges.

Historical context is key for Berman. She wants the reader to recognize the challenges democracy faced within Europe’s transformation. Different regions made progress at different rates. English Exceptionalism begins with the English Civil War. Most intellectuals are aware of this historical period. But it continues to play a distant second to the French Revolution in the historical memory. Nonetheless, it is remarkable to consider the English beheaded a King about a hundred years before the French. English Exceptionalism is not limited to its lack of chaos throughout the nineteenth century. It begins with a chaotic seventeenth century.

This is not a work of deep political theory. Her aim was not to use historical context to change fundamental political theories. But Berman does believe it is necessary to understand the context of democratization before new theories emerge. In the preface, she says this book arose from a course she teaches at Barnard College. She was surprised to find there was no single textbook available on democratization in Europe. In the end, this book is best approached as a textbook where nothing is left out. But the reader ends each chapter recognizing quite a bit was left out. My biggest critique is the work might be too short. Some of the chapters feel like too much was left unsaid. Yet her aim was not to provide every detail. Rather her goal was to offer enough context for our ideas about democratization to make sense. For that reason, this work is not limited to those with an interest in European politics. It will help students understand regime changes within many cultures because it reminds us the story is rarely ever complete. She ends her work with a discussion about the new populist parties which threaten democracy in Europe. Perhaps the story of democratization is not complete even within Europe.

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