It is impossible to study the subject of democracy without coming across Huntington’s Third Wave. It is a landmark study of democratization. Moreover, it has a scholarly thoroughness which is rarely matched. Every author has a distinctive style. Dahl has an awkward optimism. Fukuyama has a teacher’s approach where he tries to bring complex subjects down to the student’s level. Huntington overwhelms the reader with information in a tone which borders on condescension. He wrote surprisingly few books for a writer of his caliber, yet every book feels like a subject he took the time to truly master before committing himself to the endeavor.
Huntington is a controversial writer. I have seen academics dismiss him entirely because of his later writings like Who We Are or even Clash of Civilizations where he begins to cross the line from cultural critiques into racial prejudices. But Huntington was always a scholar with conservative views. It set him apart during an era where Marx and socialism captured the academic imagination. Indeed, Huntington’s conservatism was unique for its approach during its time and would remain unique today. He was not a movement conservative nor was he a cultural conservative although he may offer a less volatile path for Trumpism after Trump has gone. But this is a remote possibility because populism has always favored pathos over logos.
What is remarkable upon reading The Third Wave is how Huntington became so committed to democratization. His earlier works Soldier and the State and Political Order in Changing Societies both focus on the value of political stability and order. He gives credit to the Soviet Union for the political modernization of Russia through the Communist Party. Indeed, it is difficult to read Political Order in Changing Societies without walking away with the sense that authoritarian regimes are often necessary for political modernization. Huntington seems to commend authoritarian governments which offer political order during periods of social change.
The third wave of democratization reflects a period of political instability where regime change began to spread through nearly every region of the globe. So, it is surprising the author of Political Order in Changing Societies embraced this era of instability. It helps to understand the underlying construction of political order for Huntington. Order for Huntington depended on a sense of balance. His Clash of Civilizations offered a new sense of global balance. It is easy to read that work as a response to The End of History. But Clash of Civilizations was not so much a challenge against the primary thesis of The End of History, the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, rather than a challenge to the role of American superiority in geopolitical affairs. But Clash of Civilizations was also a response to the globalization of politics. His thesis of cultural spheres resembles the arrangement of the great powers within Europe.
Writing about military affairs, he channeled the military mind which simultaneously prepares and avoids war. The professional soldier believes a commitment to national defense serves as the best antidote to war. But this outlook presupposes a military balance among nations. He channels the Cold War mentality of mutual assured destruction between the United States and the Soviet Union. War became an impossibility between the two great powers because of the disastrous consequences from such a conflict. In contrast, demilitarization invites military conflict, according to Huntington’s professional soldier, because it gives its neighbors the expectation of an easy conquest.
It is difficult to reconcile Huntington as a champion of democracy because his other work focuses on the values of order and stability over the traditional ideals of liberalism. Historically democracy has been viewed as a challenge to the political order offered by autocratic rulers. But Huntington saw authoritarian governance as naturally unstable because it relies on the submission of political rivals to its government. The only avenue for political change which remains is rebellion and revolution. Democracy offers a balance between parties who compete through elections. It is true Huntington relies on a Schumpeterian definition of democracy, but he transforms it into a new meaning. He reorients it from a process-oriented approach to a wider political environment. Competition becomes the means to achieve balance within democratic governance. This makes the two-turnover test for democratic consolidation an essential part of his theory. It symbolizes the realization of the hopes of the political opposition as they are given control of the government. And makes revolution or rebellion not just unnecessary but obsolete because political change becomes more likely through electoral means. But this is only possible when there are competitive elections. The dominance of a single party may be democratic, but Huntington did not consider it consolidated. The political environment needs a credible alternative for the electorate.
The second element of Huntington’s notion of democracy is restraint. Political parties may experience periods of electoral dominance. But they must avoid the temptation to reform the electoral process to their benefit. There is a parallel between the military mind and the political mind. The politician may prepare for electoral dominance but does not abuse this power. The abuse of power may bring about the election of the political opposition who may use the same behaviors against them. Both parties retain a sense of restraint which preserves the basic constitution, institutions and norms of democracy. He looked to the administration of FDR when the Democrats made massive policy reforms but avoided making significant reforms to the constitution or the political process despite an overwhelming two-thirds vote in both chambers in addition to the control of the Presidency.
It is the idea of democratic restraint which has broken down over the course of the current democratic recession. Viktor Orbán led his party, Fidesz, to a supermajority in the Hungarian Parliament which allowed him to rewrite the constitution and reshape the electoral map. The Republican Party made a successful effort to win state legislatures with the intended goal to gerrymander electoral districts. Milan Svolik has shown “the subversion of democracy by democratically elected incumbents” has become “the most common form of democratic breakdown.” It is the cultural emphasis on competition brings about instability because it encourages incumbents to seize political advantage while they can rather than to practice political restraint.
Huntington offers an alternative to the idealized conception of liberal democracy. He does not reject liberal democracy per se but offers a conservative approach to democratic ideas. Nonetheless, his underlying sense of democracy is the source of its own instability. The deconsolidation of contemporary democracy is largely due to an unconscious acceptance of many of Huntington’s principles. Yet they have begun to unravel as the political environment has become increasingly polarized. The third wave of democratization has been over for over a decade. Scholars await a fourth wave where democratization becomes a global trend once again. But its emergence may require a new zeitgeist. A new way to approach democracy which makes its success compatible with the new political environment.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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