David Stasavage – The Decline and Rise of Democracy

Democracy is “a natural occurring condition in humanity societies.” This single idea sets Stasavage apart from so many theorists who look to the past. His first chapter, “The Origins of Democratic Rule,” is as breathtaking as it is ambitious. He reshapes the narrative of the democratic origins through a broad examination of different peoples throughout antiquity such as the prehistoric Germans, the Huron of North America and small pockets he discovers throughout historical memory. Far from a Western innovation, Stasavage believes “democracy itself occurs naturally among humans, even if it is far from inevitable.”

Stasavage differentiates between early and modern democracy. Early democracy is based on consent. The assemblies of Athens may have facilitated an early form of direct democracy, but representative democracy was also fundamentally distinct. Representatives were bound to the instructions of their constituents. There was little room to negotiate or compromise. The English Monarchy found this an obstacle in its dealings with Parliament. They began to require deputies to be sent without mandates from their constituencies. Consequently, “modern democracy incorporates an element of autocracy” because “it was monarchical power that helped drive the shift away from early democracy.”

Modern democracy is built from a combination of different institutions that includes the general population in the process of governance. Autocracy is also assembled from a combination of institutions, but it is designed to exclude people from participation in governance. For too long elections were used as the determinant of democratic governance. Elections are just one institution developed to allow for popular participation in governance. Free speech is another tool liberal democracy has used to facilitate popular participation into governance.

A true autocracy centralizes all public decisions into a single authoritative figure. The reality is no government has been able to avoid some form of decentralization of authority. Stasavage recognizes these elements of democracy within authoritarian or autocratic governments. The People’s Republic of China has multiple channels of authority that require consensus among different power brokers. Yet this is not the same as democratic governance because the channels of inclusion are tightly restricted with the intention to avoid popular governance.

The development of a bureaucratic state, according to Stasavage, was an important element in the establishment of autocratic government. The Chinese are often the quintessential example of how bureaucratic governance leads to political centralization of an autocratic ruler. But Stasavage breaks with scholars like Fukuyama who date the emergence of the Qin at the conclusion of the Warring States Period as the origin of the Chinese centralized state. Instead, he notes how an effective bureaucracy was already established in the Zhou and likely earlier.

Consensual governance for Stasavage emerges in the absence of an effective bureaucracy. Without a bureaucratic state, leaders become reliant on the consent of others for revenue in the form of taxation. The Chinese were able to bypass the consent of other powerbrokers because bureaucrats were able to properly assess and enforce efforts to raise revenue. Stasavage effectively breaks with Fukuyama and Huntington who believe liberal democracy relies on the presence of a strong state capable of protecting individual rights and providing security for its citizens.

Fukuyama and Huntington both recognized how the modern bureaucratic state emerged in Germany. Stasavage is right when he recognizes how bureaucracy predates the innovations of the Prussian state by a few millennia, but he completely overlooks the importance of an independent, professional bureaucracy as a part of modernization. And while the Prussian bureaucracy did emerge in an autocratic state, it did not pose an obstacle to its eventual democratization. Stasavage largely interprets a bureaucracy as an appendage of the ruler. It gives the ruler an independence from representative assemblies but can also make them dependent on a professional institution like the military for political power. Leaders throughout history have found the institutions of the state had a mind of their own with the potential to revolt and install their own leaders. Roman Emperors found their rule depended on the support of the Praetorian Guard and its different military generals. Modern regimes have found their governance was subject to the support of the military who have taken power into their own hands on more than a few occasions.

Sheri Berman offers a more complete description of the rise of modern democracy in Europe. She explains how democracy faced many false starts and setbacks in its development. Berman wrote her historical account in part to show how the failure of many new democracies often lay the foundations for the permanence of democratic governance in the future. Indeed, it is ironic how some critics believe a failed effort at democratic governance reflects a premature attempt at democratization as though a longer and more sustained authoritarian legacy was a preparation for the emergence of a democracy. Stasavage takes such a broad historical view he sees democracy as inevitable in Europe. He believes the presence of representative assemblies paved the way for democratization even though the assemblies were not very representative and often abandoned during the early periods of political modernization.

Bureaucracies and assemblies are simply institutions people develop to organize society. They evolve based on the needs of different eras and the machinations of important powerbrokers. Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski wrote an important paper called “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats” where they explain how representative assemblies had become coopted into authoritarian political systems. They were not simply Potemkin organizations but became a key element that provided legitimacy for the regime. It is not enough to recognize institutions which typically symbolize consensual governance. It is important to understand how a political system works to include the participation of some and exclude others. A democracy leans towards political inclusion, while authoritarian governance works towards exclusion. The American South of the Jim Crowe era is an example where governance can straddle elements of democracy and authoritarianism at the same time. African Americans faced a hostile authoritarian state, while whites believed their government was representative. In hindsight, it is impossible to equate the segregationist policies of the American South during this era with democratic governance despite the presence of elections, representative assemblies and a constitution with a Bill of Rights.

The Decline and Rise of Democracy is researched well. Stasavage uses a wide range of historical sources to recognize elements of democracy in multiple cultures from antiquity as it evolves into the modern age. The first few chapters on early democratic cultures were stronger than his account of the development of modern democracy. However, his account of the development of democracy in England was remarkable. My mind gravitated toward Huntington’s account in Political Order in Changing Societies as I began the chapter. Stasavage caught me off guard as he not only recognized the analysis of Huntington but continued to refute it with ease.

A new subfield of democratic studies has begun to emerge where political scientists have begun to reflect upon history to better understand democracy today. Democratic theorists have long looked to Athens for inspiration. However, Stasavage and Berman have greatly expanded the sources of inspiration for democratic governance. Their research will offer greater clarity as others begin to reflect upon not just the process of democratization but the elements of democratic governance itself. Hopefully many more brilliant scholars will follow in their footsteps and offer additional analysis of the history of democracy and popular governance.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

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