The Agnosticism of Political Institutions

Political Institutions

Too often theorists describe political institutions as though they are inherently democratic or authoritarian. In truth institutions have a political ambivalence toward normative values. Institutions do not define political regimes, rather they adapt to them. This is the fifth section of my description of democracy and part of a larger comprehensive work called The Democracy Paradox

A Collection of Institutions

The line between a democratic and an authoritarian regime is never clear. No democracy nor autocracy has represented an ideal type. Authoritarian governments incorporate institutions from democracies for reasons of legitimacy and practicality. On the other hand, democratic governments struggle to shake all vestiges of authoritarianism. Then again it is always a challenge to govern through radical inclusivity. The challenge becomes paradoxical when the inclusion of some becomes contingent on the exclusion of others. But I get ahead of myself.

Democracy as a regime is too often described as a collection of institutions like elections and legislative bodies. Authoritarianism confuses this common distinction through their incorporation of “democratic” institutions into their regime structure. The problem is not new. The Roman Senate survived the collapse of the Roman Republic. The first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, worked to retain traditional Roman political institutions. Imperial Rome did not abolish the institutions of the Republic. It merely redefined them.

Recycled Institutions

In the same fashion successful examples of democratization have rarely reimagined their political institutions. Instead, they have more often repurposed existing institutions. Democracies inherit more than an administrative state. James Loxton has written about the role of authoritarian successor parties as a channel for the previous regime’s elites to embrace democratic governance. Many democracies rely on constitutions written under the auspices of authoritarian governance. Even legislative bodies like parliaments have descended from monarchical and aristocratic governments. Democracies have adapted these institutions to incorporate democratic ideals and values. 

Moreover, authoritarian regimes have found ways to incorporate “democratic” institutions to reinforce their own legitimacy. Elections have a special role in Western democracy. Despite efforts to reintroduce sortition into governance, elections remain a central institution within every democratic regime today. But the presence of elections does not guarantee democratic governance. Fareed Zakaria criticized the excessive reliance in the American foreign policy community on elections as a democratic benchmark in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.” While Zakaria leaned into the idea of elections as a symbol for democracy, his larger idea implied a more expansive sense of democratic governance that involved more than the mere presence of elections. 

Schumpeter’s Definition of Democracy

The purely institutional definition of democracy has never been sufficient. Theorists have always found the need to offer conditions or limitations for it to work. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, developed the classic institutional definition of democracy. Indeed, his idea of democracy relies exclusively on the presence of elections. Schumpeter defined democracy as the “institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” 

But even Schumpeter limited the scope of his definition to competitive elections. He rules out the Potemkin elections present at the time in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, he does not rule out limitations on suffrage such as the American South where the laws denied African Americans the vote. He actually goes to great lengths to justify limits on popular suffrage in the southern states. Decades later Samuel Huntington praised Schumpeter’s definition in his own classic of political thought The Third Wave, but viewed limitations on suffrage as a fundamental obstacle to democracy. For example, Huntington regarded the end of Apartheid in South Africa as its process of democratization. Schumpeter, on the other hand, does not discuss South Africa, but almost certainly would have considered it democratic even before Apartheid. 

Peaceful Transfers of Power

Over time institutional definitions of democracy have faced even greater challenges. The work of Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way turned Schumpeter’s idea of democracy upside down when they developed the concept of competitive authoritarianism. Schumpeter argued the sole condition for democracy was the presence of competitive elections. Levitsky and Way saw authoritarianism persisted even in an environment of competitive elections. Most observers assume a competitive election is free and fair. But elected officials have enormous power to shape laws and policies to manage elections. So while some leaders did not outright rig elections, they made it very difficult for the opposition to win. 

Samuel Huntington saw the peaceful transfer of power through elections as a demonstration of democracy. Levitsky and Way, meanwhile, argued many hybrid regimes existed where democratic outcomes remained possible despite an undemocratic process. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo held a Presidential election in 2018 where the party in power lost. And yet, the election was rigged. Joseph Kabila’s hand selected successor, Emmanuel Shadary, was so unpopular it was impossible to declare him the victor. Instead, he rigged the election counts so Félix Tshisekedi won the election. Independent observers called this outcome a sham. They believed a third candidate, Martin Fayulu, had won the election. The peaceful transfer of power had occurred, but from a blatantly illegitimate election. 

Undemocratic Elections

The Presidential election of 2018 in the DRC is unique because it does not even rise to the standard of competitive authoritarianism. Levitsky and Way describe competitive authoritarian regimes as using the law to nudge the outcome. Joseph Kabila took this a step beyond, because he changed the vote count. But unlike other rigged elections, Congo did see a transfer of power so it is difficult to say the election did not matter at all. Nonetheless, it is a challenge to define democracy through institutions even under highly specified conditions, because so many exceptions exist. Theorists must look beyond institutions to recognize the presence or absence of democracy.

But Levitsky and Way did not regard competitive authoritarianism as a natural phenomenon. They interpreted it as a natural consequence of democracy promotion efforts after the Cold War. During the Cold War authoritarian regimes maintained the support of the West so long as they remained an ally against communism. After the Cold War authoritarian regimes faced a more hostile environment where they risked pariah status unless they undertook efforts toward democratization. The collapse of the Soviet Union accelerated a process of democratization around the world that Huntington described as the third wave. But Levitsky and Way questioned the authenticity of many purportedly democratic regimes. Even when elections produced the peaceful transfer of power, many of these states remained hostile to opposition voices and political parties. 

Authoritarian Institutions

More recent scholarship, including from Levitsky and Way, have interpreted competitive authoritarianism as a naturally occurring regime type. Some states backslide into competitive authoritarianism like Bolivia or Hungary, while others only partially democratize out of a more restrictive hegemonic authoritarianism. It is important to recognize how the original work from Levitsky and Way focused on the way elections legitimized rulers in the eyes of the international community. The more recent scholarship emphasizes how elections legitimize rulers in the eyes of their people. Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Justin Willis emphasize the way elections establish a culture of participation in Africa in democratic and nondemocratic countries in a recent book called The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa. Their work recognizes the institutional effects of elections on political culture go beyond the ideals of democracy. It even goes beyond the legitimization of political authority. 

Earlier research from Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski have shown how authoritarian regimes rely on a variety of political institutions for legitimacy and stability. Their paper “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats” offers a fresh look at legislative assemblies in authoritarian contexts. Past scholars regarded these assemblies as nothing more than a rubber stamp on the policies of an autocrat. But Gandhi and Przeworski explain how these institutions offer authoritarian regimes important feedback from a loyal form of opposition. Elizabeth Nugent, in more recent work, has shown how authoritarian regimes rarely exercise widespread repression. Instead, they selectively repress opposition groups while incorporating less threatening groups into the regime as an institutionalized opposition. Cheeseman, Lynch, and Willis found elections served a similar role in authoritarian regimes as a measure of regime support and popular frustration. 

Fragments of Democracy

The institutions commonly described as democratic never guarantee the presence of actual democracy. And yet, they do represent elements of democracy even within authoritarian regimes. The inclusion of opposition voices in legislative assemblies in authoritarian contexts does influence public policy. Successful autocratic leaders do find ways to disperse some power, because it strengthens their authority and reduces popular dissatisfaction. Authoritarian regimes always rely on some degree of repression, but must also find opportunities for inclusion. The inflexibility of a ruler to consider the appeals of opposition voices often leads to the instability of the regime. Moreover, the complete centralization of political authority in a single person is a practical impossibility. So even the most repressive autocratic states incorporate elements of democracy. 

In the same vein, a pure democracy does not exist. Democracies exclude some groups from political participation implicitly and explicitly. Karl Lowenstein’s case for militant democracy is the clearest expression of explicit efforts to exclude voices in a democracy. Lowenstein argued for the necessity to exclude nondemocratic voices from participation in democratic governance. He looked to the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe as examples where democracy had allowed a cancer to develop that threatened to undermine itself from within. In contemporary American society, the opinions of white supremacists and blatant racism have been deemed outside the realm of appropriate political discourse. 

The Orbán Regime

Questions of representation offer a challenge for any theory of democracy, but the process of governance is an even greater challenge. In recent years, Hungary has posed a riddle for scholars to unravel. Viktor Orbán and Fidesz came to power in 2010 in a landslide election. His party won a little more than 50% of the vote, but won 2/3 of parliament due to the peculiarities of the Hungarian electoral system that combined single member districts with proportional representation along with a seat bonus to the largest party. The supermajority in parliament gave Orbán the support he needed to rewrite the entire constitution, reform election laws, and gerrymander legislative districts. 

The earlier constitution required supermajorities for some reforms as a tool to require consensus and cooperation between parties. Orbán’s supermajority meant he was able to ignore the opposition and still meet the required threshold. Moreover, he had the power to shape many laws for generations. Even when he lost his majority, his party would hold veto power over any constitutional reform so long as they held more than a third of the seats. The Economist emphasizes how Orbán has used this power to lock in control over higher education, “Even if the opposition were to win next year’s election… they would almost certainly lack enough seats to alter the constitution. In effect, Fidesz may just have granted itself control over Hungary’s universities in virtual perpetuity.”

The Agnosticism of Political Institutions

The democratic process gave Viktor Orbán and Fidesz the authority to govern, but it does not mean its governance is democratic. They have systematically pursued the centralization of authority and cemented their policies so their successors cannot change them unless they act through extraconstitutional means. Moreover, they have worked to expunge opposition voices from the political discourse. The Orbán regime has confounded theorists because for so long it has walked the line between democracy and authoritarianism. András Körösényi, Gábor Illés, and Attila Gyulai have described the Hungarian situation as plebiscitary leader democracy. Indeed, Hungary retains many elements of a democratic regime. It has not taken steps to abandon the elections nor has it outright rigged election results. Nonetheless, Orbán used the pandemic as an excuse to grant himself emergency powers. Freedom House now classifies Hungary as partly free effectively declaring it is no longer a democracy. 

Political scientist Lee Drutman has forcefully argued “institutions matter.” He has argued the polarization of American politics is a consequence of its political institutions. It has become fashionable to criticize the American system of checks and balances. Francis Fukuyama has described the United States as a vetocracy because it offers so many opportunities to oppose reform. But this pessimism overlooks the remarkable resilience of the American constitution. In truth Americans do misplace their faith in the constitution. The constitution has survived because of the commitment from the American people. In the same manner, democracy’s resilience is not found the arrangement of its institutions. It depends on the commitment of its citizens. It survives because citizens find the will to believe in democracy. 

A Few Sources

Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski (2007), “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats,” Comparative Political Studies

Samuel Huntington (1991), The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way (2010), Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War

Joseph Schumpeter (1942), Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

Fareed Zakaria (1997), “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Elizabeth Nugent on Polarization, Democratization and the Arab Spring

Nic Cheeseman and Gabrielle Lynch on the Moral Economy of Elections in Africa

More Episodes from the Podcast

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: