An Introduction to Political Institutions


Very Brief History of Democracy Promotion

The world changed in 1989. Eastern Europe began a process of political liberalization and democratization. A few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Fifteen new states emerged from its ashes. The third wave of democratization accelerated as many new nations faced new pressures to liberalize their political and economic systems. The United States for its part adopted an aggressive policy to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. 

Of course, the United States had always claimed to support democracy, but its foreign policy frequently turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of its allies in the Cold War. American foreign policy had even undermined democracies and supported coups when they believed political freedom threatened their geopolitical interests. Nonetheless, the United States had gradually become a genuine advocate as a voice of freedom beginning in the seventies So, the shift away from the Cold War era did not represent a departure for American foreign policy, but the culmination of a shift they had made much earlier. 

During this period, the United States heavily focused on political liberalization and democratization. They maintained some alliances with authoritarian regimes, notably Saudi Arabia, but encouraged others throughout Latin America and Asia to reform. Nonetheless, the United States remained hesitant to compel regime change through military force. Even during the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush resisted the temptation to remove Sadam Hussein from power. Consequently, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq marked an important escalation in American designs to promote democracy and human rights. America entered both wars as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the aims of both conflicts evolved substantially over time. 

American Overreach

The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq had longterm implications for American foreign policy and the promotion of democracy around the world. The commitment of troops in far off regions of the globe, left Americans less willing to support an active and engaged foreign policy. International commitments did not stretch American resources so much as it wore out its political capital for further global engagement. America was less willing to promote democracy and human rights around the world. Congress gradually reduced the resources available to encourage democratization or even preserve less stable democratic regimes. So, it’s no surprise the third wave came to an end and democracy has gone into decline over the past fourteen years. 

Many have criticized the Bush administration for its misguided attempt to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan through force. It seems irrational to believe a foreign nation can impose democracy, but the United States had successfully brought democracy to Japan, Germany, and Italy after World War II. Indeed, the second wave of democratization was largely imposed upon defeated powers. Moreover, democracy successfully consolidated in most of these countries in the course of a few years. When the third wave began to spread democracy into new regions of the globe, many scholars began to believe democratization was possible in almost any place so long as they introduced the right political institutions. Different institutions made sense in different scenarios. These political scientists thought they simply needed to match political environments with the right institutions.

What are Institutions?

‘Institution’ is an ambiguous term and it is rarely defined well. It has become synonymous with formal organizations like universities and bureaucracies, but is also used for more informal aspects of society like marriage, family, and even friendship. Moreover, the line between an institution and a formal organization is often unclear. Harvard University is called an institution, but the online college the University of Phoenix is not. The term institution carries a sense of gravitas and respectability. But the colloquial term has a subjective quality. Observers know it when they see it. 

Political institutions also have a nebulous quality. The military is widely recognized as an independent institution, but other departments or government agencies fall under the wider umbrella of the state or simply the bureaucracy. The difference involves a formalization of norms and hierarchy that set them apart from other organizations. Most bureaucratic agencies or departments adopt the same rules and structure. Differences exist, but they follow a similar framework or logic. The military, on the other hand, has its own unique approach. And yet, the militaries in different states are similar to one another. Martial institutions transcend cultures despite their differences. The institution of the military is the same across countries and states even though the particular organizations have important differences. 

Institutions or Organizations

Plato identified a similar problem in philosophy. He saw how people recognized universal characteristics in individual examples. For example, people know a chair when they see one despite the differences between every specific chair. Philosophers throughout history continued to revisit the problem of the universal and the particular. I view the relationship between institutions and organizations as an extension of this larger realm of study. Institutions represent almost an ideal, while an organization is a particular case. For example, elections have become a widely recognized institution. And yet, election laws differ widely around the world. Some elections involve single member districts, while others use proportional representation. Authoritarian regimes even allow elections that are neither free nor fair. Nonetheless, every election is easily recognizable despite these significant differences in form and substance. 

Other political institutions have similarities across time and space despite their differences. Parliaments began as a European medieval institution, but take on new characteristics when introduced into new political environments. Political institutions allow for vast differences when put into practice. They adapt into different cultures and evolve as those environments change. Sometimes they establish rigid hierarchies, while others normalize notions of equality. Hierarchical institutions can even acquire egalitarian attributes or characteristics over time. 

The evolution of Institutions occurs because they do not depend on formal rules or structures. Instead, they offer a framework for relationships and rules of behavior. Human relationships form the core of institutions. Indeed, it’s impossible to discuss interpersonal relationships outside of institutions, because every relationship falls under the umbrella of some institution. Of course, some involve strong personal ties like family or lifelong friends, but others depend on more impersonal relations like a store clerk or a work colleague. Regardless, institutions define the nature of relationships and determine the proper behavior for interactions. 

Institutions as Context

Organization, on the other hand, is the physical manifestation of the institution. They establish their own distinct rules and structures. Organizations can even have names and identities like universities and corporations. Sometimes they have formal procedures and budgets. Meanwhile, an institution has no physical place or identity. Instead it is simply a context. It exists in the minds of its participants even though it relies on objective conditions. Through different contexts, people form relationships, shape different aspects of their own identity, and behave in different ways. It’s important to understand institutions change more than behavior. Institutions shape and influence who we are and what we become. 

Unfortunately, problems arise because institutions overlap one another. Modern societies, in particular, involve a complex web of overlapping institutions. Conflicts arise when different people assume different contexts. Institutions matter a lot for social stability and order, because they give rise to different claims of authority. Political authorities find they have different claims in different contexts. The most obvious is the distinction between executive and judicial authority. Politicians say judges legislate from the bench, while judges blame political interference. The line between the two is not always clear even in established liberal democracies. 

What is Culture?

Modern societies recognize how the multi-faceted nature of relationships lead to conflicts. A common saying is to never mix business with pleasure. Others advise to never hire family. Professionals compartmentalize their professionalize life to minimize conflicts of interest. For example, a judge cannot try a case that involves their family or a close personal friend nor can elected officials use their authority to enrich their friends or family. More traditional societies, on the other hand, may depend on the intersection of different institutions through patronage networks. Rather than establish clear lines between different institutions, they depend on the overlap of institutions to produce social cohesion.

Culture weaves together different institutions into a coherent sense of norms, behaviors, and traditions. Institutions continue to offer contexts for different identities, relationships, and behaviors, but culture influences how societies shape institutions and determines how they evolve over time. Moreover, institutions reinforce one another in stable cultures. Different institutions may offer different channels for authority and leadership, but they rarely challenge one another. Far more often institutions build upon one another to produce a stable society. 

Institutional Hegemony

Nonetheless, nearly every society establishes some form of institutional hegemony where a single institution takes precedence to resolve conflict. Liberal democracies, on the one hand, rely on the rule of law. Conflicts between institutions appeal to the law for a resolution. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, rely on the state. Institutions appeal to the arbitrary power of the state to reconcile disputes. Liberal democracy, of course, does not deny the authority of the state, but places it below the authority of the law. Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, make the law subservient to the state. This is an important distinction with enormous implications for governance and human rights. The difference between democracy and totalitarianism ultimately do not depend so much on distinct institutions, but rather how those institutions relate to one another. 

So democratization involves a lot more than the introduction of institutions like elections and parliaments. For starters, institutions never exist in a vacuum. They fit into a network like puzzle pieces. Culture will reshape institutions to fit into their society, so there is no guarantee they will bring democracy or liberalism where it previously did not exist.

Let me be clear though. The introduction of elections and legislative assemblies may mark a step in the right direction, but the process of democratization does not end there. Significant changes within those institutions and the broader culture may be necessary. Moreover, democratization almost always requires a shift in institutional hegemony. Almost every society has the institution of law, but few govern under the rule of law. Democratization also involves a chicken and egg problem where its emergence may require the introduction of political institutions like elections with universal suffrage and a constitution before the rule of law and democracy become possible. 

Final Thoughts

Discussions on democracy focus on institutions like elections, parliaments, and constitutions. These institutions matter for democratization. But at the same time they are not enough. In the wrong environments, elections become tools of authoritarian governance. But this does not mean elections are useless. Their introduction makes possible changes in the political culture. Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Justin Willis have shown elections in Africa have meaning even in hegemonic authoritarian regimes like Uganda. Their introduction makes possible a continued evolution toward democracy. But again, this is part of a far larger project over a long time horizon. 

My next nine posts will discuss the role of institutions in democracy. I will look deeper into conflicts between institutions and the ways some institutions naturally overlap. I will consider how the hegemony of different institutions changes political environments. Democracy involves the intersection of different institutions. I will discuss some broad institutions like the state and the law, but will also consider broader themes like norms and authority. Some of these posts will focus directly on democracy, but others will consider broader political themes. But my goal is to always come back to a framework to explain democracy. Lee Drutman has forcefully said, “Institutions matter.” They do. Just not always in the ways we expect…

A Few Sources

Larry Diamond (2008), The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World

Antonio Gramsci (1992), Prison Notebooks, Volume 1

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

Seymour Martin Lipset (1959), Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics

Plato, Phaedo

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