Adam Przeworski – Crises of Democracy

The pandemic was not real for me until the schools closed. It was a distant concern until we had to redefine our childcare situation. My wife was already home. She had recently left a position she had held for nearly a decade. But she was about to begin a new role in a new field in just a few weeks. We had anticipated a transition, but not a transformation. Everything was about to change.

A crisis implies an inflection. A long-term problem like poverty is not a crisis. The Great Depression, on the other hand, was a crisis. The presence of a military dictatorship is not a political crisis, but a military coup that brings about a military dictatorship is. A crisis requires dramatic change. There is an implication of transformation brought about by a shock that changes our sense of what is possible. Crisis affects our sense of identity and purpose. The death of a loved one is tragic, but it becomes a crisis when it reshapes our sense of who we are and our purpose moving forward.

Crisis is the moment of uncertainty between the identity of our past and our future. “The final outcome” is not foretold nor is it “anticipated by the people.” Crisis is a moment of transformation. Change is often planned and managed. Economists anticipate change in the economy when they forecast growth. Young people expect their lives to change through promotions, marriage, and even children. But change is not always positive. Failures and setbacks bring about moments of change as well.

And yet, setbacks and failures do not necessitate a crisis. My father was an architect. He worked for many small firms which faced frequent layoffs as projects came and went. One day he came home and told my mother he had lost his job but had already found another. Crisis is not simply unexpected. It is unexplainable. It requires a shift in our worldview to make sense of the new environment. This is psychological for the individual, but philosophical for society.

It is not hyperbole to describe the American Presidential election of 2016 as a crisis of democracy. A crisis is not the same as tragedy. Crisis can come about from the presence of positive outcomes when they lack any explanation and transforms our sense of self and purpose. Donald Trump was not supposed to become President of the United States. His blatant racism and disregard for the rule of law was an automatic disqualification for many voters. Indeed, political scientists assumed it was too much for a liberal democracy to accept. We were wrong.

Adam Przeworski wrote Crises of Democracy in response to the 2016 election. He is one among many scholars who were inspired to rethink their ideas about democracy after 2016. Yascha Mounk, William Galston, David Runciman, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq have all written about the threats to liberal democracy. Larry Diamond has called the current era a democratic recession. Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg have proclaimed “a third wave of autocratization is here.” Przeworski stands out in this crowded conversation because he is a giant in the field of political science who has shaped how scholars think about democracy.

In 1997 Przeworki and Fernando Lumongi published a groundbreaking article in World Politics. They updated the famous article from Seymour Martin Lipset from 1959. Lipset showed democratization and per capita income were correlated through rudimentary statistical analysis. I am not certain whether Lipset’s article gave rise to Modernization Theory or if his findings simply gave it credibility, but around the same time political science came to the consensus that development was a precondition for democratization. This shift was present in public policy as well as political theory.

Przeworksi and Lumongi expanded Lipset’s initial finding. They established income thresholds for democracy. But they did not determine so much an income level that brought about democratization, but one which laid the foundation for democratic stability. Their study remains a bedrock for how scholars continue to think about democratic consolidation today. Recently, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, among others, have begun to question the idea of democratic consolidation. The phrase democratic deconsolidation has become fashionable to make sense of the backsliding in many countries previously considered consolidated democracies.

The thoughts of Przeworski during this moment of reexamination are important because his research has shaped how scholars have thought about the foundations for democracy. His writings have influenced the modern paradigm of democratic theory. And he is not prepared to abandon his past findings. He continues to believe “an outright collapse of democracy in a country with the per capita income of the United States is out of the realm of the imaginable.” So, while some have predicted The End of Democracy, Przeworski is not prepared to take such a radical position.

It is refreshing to read Przeworski’s prose outside the confines of an academic journal. He is a gifted writer who ends nearly every chapter with a quotable line. His methods and models have established his reputation, but it is his wit that is brings his ideas to life. He does offer many charts and graphs throughout the book, but there is a recognition of the limits of political methods. For example, he makes a humous dig at the methodology of Mounk and Foa when he writes, “One should not draw inferences about the survival of democracy from answers to survey questions.” But this line also demonstrates an awareness that political theory must go beyond data to offer explanations. There is a role for political philosophy in political science.

Przeworski understands many assumptions are necessary for democracy to thrive. He realizes “the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting. People who have guns obey those without them. Incumbents risk their control of governmental offices by holding elections.” But he resists the urge to believe this miracle has lost its magic. Przeworski continues to believe “the ‘anti-system parties’ of today are not anti-democratic.” But this perspective relies on a Schumpeterian view of democracy. It is true that Hungary has not abandoned its commitment to elections and the AKP in Turkey has faced setbacks in recent municipal elections. But democracy is about more than elections. Democracy has endured an authoritarian turn over the past fifteen years. The mere presence of elections is not enough.

Democracy scholars have become a pessimistic lot. Przeworski offers hope. He gives four examples of democratic crises. So while Weimar Germany and Chile faced democratic breakdowns, France and the United States overcame their crises. Przeworski finds more in common today with the examples where democracy survived. It is as though he wants to remind us “It’s not dark yet.” But this leaves something unsaid.

Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Bob Dylan, “Not Dark Yet,” Time Out of Mind

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