Michael Miller joins the podcast to offer a novel theory of democratization. We discuss his new book Shock to the System: Coups, Elections, and War on the Road to Democratization. This is the 52 episode of the podcast.
So many cases of democratization start with these episodes and this period of elite political violence where the initial stages of it have nothing to do with democratization. People are not aiming for that. People are barely even thinking about it. It’s all about this elite political struggle and out of that chaos a bit later you get democracy.
Key Highlights Include
- How violent shocks like coups and civil wars create openings for democratization
- Why autocratic ruling parties continue to win elections in democracies
- The role for democratic activists in the democratization process
- Discussions on possibilities for democracy in China, Belarus, and Myanmar.
- Mike offers a blueprint for an unconventional approach for democracy promotion
Last year Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the victor in a fraudulent election in Belarus. The election was neither free nor fair. But it was no surprise in a country Condoleezza Rice once called, “The Last European Dictatorship.” But the people decided they had had enough. Hundreds of thousands participated in protests. Unfortunately, despite widespread outrage it looks as though nothing has changed. In fact, Lukashenko may have become even more repressive.
Movements for democracy fail more often than they succeed. And yet, democratization will happen in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. Michael Miller writes, “The best chances for democratization are rare, sudden, and entirely unplanned.” They can catch the advocates for democratic reform off-guard as much as the academics and political analysts.
Michael Miller approaches the puzzle of democratization differently than other scholars. His theory focuses on “power, context, and disruption.” He is a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University and the author of the forthcoming book Shock to the System: Coups, Elections, and War on the Road to Democratization.
Michael argues political disruption creates openings for democratic movements. Conflict between elites makes democratization not just possible, but sometimes appealing. Our conversation explores a very different perspective of democratization that helps make sense of many world events.
Like always this is a complicated topic that will produce a lot of debate. So, please join the conversation at democracyparadox.com where you’ll find a full transcript and an area to leave your own comments. You can also mention me on Twitter @DemParadox or email me at email@example.com. I enjoy hearing from you and try to respond back to every email. But for now… This is my conversation with Michael Miller…
Michael Miller, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having me.
Well Mike, you describe Portugal as the paradigmatic case for your work, but I was really intrigued by your description of Ancient Athens, because it serves as an ideal for a lot of theorists. In fact, you write, “The true story of Athenian democracy’s birth starts with a revenge killing and ends in war.” It’s such a different account of Athens, but really highlights some of the ideas that are in your work. So why don’t you give an account, your account, of early Athenian democracy?
I think if you actually read about Ancient Greece, it’s way wackier and more exciting than it’s often treated in textbooks. It’s almost like an action movie. So, just prior to democracy’s founding there are these two brothers who ruled Athens with a pretty heavy hand. There was this, basically a love triangle, where one of the brothers desired another man and was spurned, and then murdered that man and his lover and was then assassinated as part of this huge love triangle. His brother then went insane, started ruling even more cruelly. This led a bunch of exiles to flee to Sparta and elsewhere. And they basically organized this invasion by the Spartan king, by bribing the Delphic Oracle and convincing Sparta that he needed to invade Athens.
So, there was an invasion. There was then this power struggle between several of these exiled families. One of which allied Sparta. The other which kind of got this popular revolution going. The latter ended up winning this struggle and he decided that his position, out of this chaos, is really unclear. It’s not clear. Is he actually going to be able to rule as a new tyrant? And so, what is he going to do instead? He’s going to found all of these institutions of democracy, so he can claim to be sharing power with the people who brought him to power. And that’s where Athenian democracy came about. Very different than the old story books.
So many cases of democratization start with these episodes and this period of elite political violence where the initial stages of it have nothing to do with democratization. People are not aiming for that. People are barely even thinking about it. It’s all about this elite political struggle and out of that chaos a bit later, through a process I explain, you get democracy.
You’ve got an interesting quote in your book that really emphasizes the point you just brought up. You write, “These coercive ousters are almost never in pursuit of democracy,” and you’re saying it in context, oftentimes, of coups or revolutions or violence that oftentimes leads to democracy. I find it so interesting the idea that the uncertainty that leads to democracy isn’t necessarily propelled by a desire for democracy. It’s kind of an unexpected outcome, if you will.
That’s right. Yeah. So, this is the major route to democracy over the last 200 years. I’m looking at 139 cases, every case since 1800. And I find that roughly 100 of those 139 closely follow a major violent event, something like a successful coup, a civil war, assassination. And for the vast majority of those cases, the initial sort of inciting event, the thing that sort of started this period along, it was not about democratization. It was just elites fighting for power as they normally do. So, it is a military faction launching a coup, it was a radical group launching a civil war. So, democracy may not even have been on their minds, let alone their primary goal.
So, they fight and in a lot of cases they win and there’s a turnover of power and it might be even a cycle of several leaders coming to power. But what happens is you create this period of chaos and insecurity among many of these new leaders. And if they decide they are fairly insecure in power, particularly if they also face some kind of democratic mobilization by the masses, who are taking advantage of this period of chaos and opening and weakness. When you combine those two things, you often get democratization, but all the intentionality of people actually fighting specifically for democracy or where dictators are calculating about it that often happens a couple of years after those inciting events.
So, it has this kind of weird mix of where things are intended. The very important events. The things that break the durable autocracy are happening a couple of years prior and are absolutely not about democratization. People are not thinking about that, but it creates an opening for actors to start pushing specifically for democracy.
Now, do these disruptions have a cumulative effect where they build upon one another over time?
Yes, for sure. So, when you have cycles of coups or something like a civil war and then a coup, those are the ones going to be most tempted to start thinking about democracy or that can be pressured from below to start pushing for it. However, as I point out you can go too far in that direction. If you have such a cycle where it’s so weak, they essentially have state collapse, that’s certainly not good for democracy. At the very least to have a central state that can function, is in control of its own territory, in other words, the leader needs to be able to put in place democratization. So, generally speaking a couple coups is kind of the sweet spot, but you’re absolutely right it is cumulative. Those tend to be the weaker regimes for sure.
Now obviously, early periods of democratization are very likely to collapse still. It’s not necessarily consolidated yet. I look at a case like Argentina that had successive waves of coup then democratization then coup then democratization. That’s an extreme case, but do these disruptions reflect somewhat a lack of state capacity to begin with? Is the fact that the leader feels that their position is insecure, is it because of a lack of capacity within the state itself or is it just the situation, and democracy really does provide a solution for that leader to escape?
So, these events that are happening, which I call shocks, in some cases they do reflect existing state weakness. Having a successful coup, having a civil war, that’s a major event that has to impact the country’s politics. It’s not something, just kind of a side detail, that happens along the way. So, these are producing more weakness and producing different calculations among the possibly new leaders. And so, the cases that do democratize after shocks those are weaker. They’re more likely to breakdown, particularly in that early period, and they’re also lower quality. They have kind of weaker democratic institutions and so on and a big part of that is absolutely that they are facing weaker states in general.
But there’s another big factor though which is that they are facing the same political intrigues or political divisions as the autocracy did. So, for instance, if they’re democratizing after some kind of elite military factional struggle where you get a bunch of coups back and forth and then someone decides, ‘I can’t keep power,’ and worried about the next coup, ‘Let me give in to democracy.’ That new democracy is still going to face that divide within the military. Those people are still there. They still hate each other. There are still those political pressures or economic pressures. Whatever’s driving that division, that’s still present. Now they might even be more threatened than before, so you see things extend further into democracy than we’d like.
Democratizing is not a blank slate. You get the same sort of disruptions that kind of reverberate into democracy and the other major route to democracy, even more of a continuation, where you have the same political players actually remaining there and possibly winning power.
Sure, I mean I had James Loxton on not too long ago. And we talked about those legacies of authoritarianism. The period of democratization isn’t just a clean break. You oftentimes hold on to different aspects of that authoritarian past as you go through that period of democratization. But we’ve been talking about the shocks. I mean, in some ways I thought the idea of Shock to the System is a little bit misleading, because I don’t know that your work really centers on the shock by itself. That’s just one of two paths. In a lot of ways, it’s really about power.
You have a quote in your book where you say, “Democracy itself is a political paradox. Democracy means equal electoral power for individuals with manifestly unequal economic and social resources. It means groups that could take power by force and rulers that could use their positions to dramatically advantage themselves in future elections choose not to. This sharply conflicts with our image of political actors ruthlessly maximizing their power.” And, you come back to that theme again and again about power. And it feels very much like a cost benefit analysis for the leader to decide, ‘Is the risk to stay in power greater than the risk of losing it through democratization, on the one hand, or is there so little risk in democratization that the people will continue to reelect me under a democracy that I might as well democratize?’
So, that brings in this important second path. And you’re right the title focuses on this one path because it’s the majority of cases, but there’s this sort of intriguing other path. So, we have that one path, we’ve talked about, where you have these violent events in weak, insecure regimes that don’t think they can hold on to power in autocracy and therefore democracy is not such a big sacrifice. It might even be a way of best securing their interests to get to bargain out certain protections. There’s another path, which is where you have an autocratic ruling party that has been in place for some number of years and has been running elections and they choose to allow democratization without them being overthrown or anything. And further, they regain power in democracy.
And I use this as a marker of something that happens after democratization as a sort of proxy to tell us that they must’ve been really confident when they democratized. Like if those are the cases where they actually are winning power, they’re winning majority legislature, are winning the presidency, it’s pretty certain that when they democratized, they were reasonably confident that they were going to survive and keep competing for power. And so, we have a very different dynamic now. This is where when you’re democratizing, you’re doing it not because you feel necessarily really insecure in autocracy, but because you’re highly confident about your power in democracy.
Either circumstance, either context, you’re either really weak at autocracy or you’re very confident about democracy, the key logic there is that by democratizing, you’re not sacrificing that much power. And because of that, you’re not going to fight as hard against it. And so, when you combine that little to lose dynamic, I call it, particularly with any kind of pro-democratic mobilization from below, any kind of pressure, it could even be from abroad, when you combine those two things, you’re getting tons of pressure from somewhere to go for it. Plus, you don’t actually regard it as that much of a threat or that much of a loss, that’s when you get democratization. And so that’s why we have these two major paths.
The electoral path I call electoral continuity path. It is rare. It’s. 37 cases compared to a 100 and there’s 10 that overlap, but it’s very significant, particularly in the modern period you start to get pretty close to parity where each are about as likely. The shock path and the electoral continuity path, over the last 20 years or so, are about equally likely. And I find the electoral continuity path is much better for the smoothness of the transition and the health and durability of the democracy. The thing you’re giving up though is that you’re allowing these autocratic ruling parties to not only control the transition. It’s not just that you’re allowing them to survive in democracy, in the vast majority of cases where that happens, the ruling party allows democratization, democratized elections, the vast majority of cases, they actually regained power in democracy.
So the leaders can create an electoral continuity path where they maintain power. South Korea is a perfect example where they democratized, but the ruling party stayed in power. Taiwan’s another good example. A lot of east Asian countries are great examples.
Taiwan actually the ruling party has been in power for the majority of years since democratization. But now again to some people it’s going to strike them as almost tautologically impossible. What does democracy even mean then if the whole autocratic ruling party’s in power? And to some extent they can be right. There are a lot of cases where coming back to power kind of is the down swing back to autocracy. In the case of South Korea, Taiwan, it’s not the case. They’ve been ruling reasonably democratically overall. So, it’s not necessarily paradoxical.
But there’s a tension there and I think for a lot of people who do want democratization to be this new flowering of new politics and new freedoms and totally new actors that doesn’t happen in the electoral continuity path. But the positive side is at least you get to avoid violence. That’s a big bonus and I think it’s on balance worth it.
So, if the ruling party stays in power, how is that different than an electoral authoritarian regime?
It’s a very fine line. You’re absolutely right. The difference is we say that they are now ruling democratically. That’s the difference. They’re allowing free and fair competition. So, in South Korea, for instance, almost everyone codes 1988 as the point of democratization even though the hand-picked military ruler candidate won that election. Yeah, he won. He won in ’88, rules. But he ruled reasonably democratically and ‘88 was a fair election and it led to more fair elections. So, we can still regard that, based on the institutions, as reasonably democratic.
However again, there are cases where those old autocrats or old dictators come back to power and they rule like they did before and we can say either it’s a series of erosion of democracy or it is full democratic breakdown. A lot of this is paradoxical. The old sort of textbook story book view of democracy is just a bunch of people get the courage. They come together. They storm the castle and they put in place democracy and everyone’s happy. It just doesn’t happen.
So, why do voters re-elect former dictators?
Dictators have genuine support. Every dictatorship has genuine support, even the worst of them. Some of them have a lot of support. A lot of people in China really do actually like the Communist Party. It’s not the case that they are ruling totally against the will of every single Chinese person. Russia – Putin has genuine hardcore supporters by the millions. It is very important to note that they have genuine ideological supporters. And so, those people, of course, survive in a democracy. In some cases, they’re a majority or plurality and they’ll reelect them. There’s also the case that those rulers, particularly when we have ruling parties around for a while, are by far the most experienced political actors in the country. They’ve been ruling. They’ve been excluding other parties and other leaders. And so, they have all the experience. They have the experts. They have the resources.
And so when you get into democracy, the ones that actually know how to run a country, that know how to write a bill in the legislature, that have any kind of money for campaigning, that’s the old autocratic ruling party. They come in with a major, major advantage and people know who they are. They have a clear brand, et cetera. And so, when you really look at the details, it’s not that paradoxical unless they really screwed up or they ruled really oppressively. They’re not necessarily coming into any major disadvantage.
So, you mentioned Vladimir Putin and Russia. You also mentioned China as having a lot of popular support. I remember a paper that was written about Putin’s support shortly after, the Crimean incident where public opinion polls were showing that he had 80% public support and the paper went through and showed that he really did have 80% public support. If a dictator has, or an authoritarian leader has that much public support, based on your model, why wouldn’t they immediately democratize? Because they clearly will continue to get reelected, and even more so to the point why is it that we see leaders who have widespread public support in places like Venezuela with Chavez who begin a process of reversing democracy rather than just maintaining the democratic institutions when his political party at the time had so much widespread public support?
Yeah. So, at first it seems to be counter to it. And you’re absolutely right, if Russia had had genuine democratic elections, my guess is Putin probably would win the presidential election. His party might lose the legislature, but he’d probably win. Then in China, if they just ran a national election and allowed it to just be free, the Communist Party would almost certainly win that. I think it would be extremely unlikely that they would even be seriously challenged at first. So, why not just democratize then? Well, the thing is there are some costs here that are missing when you just analyze the first election.
In reality, when you’re democratizing, you can’t just be thinking about that election right now. You mentioned the case of Crimea and Putin. Yeah. He was riding high because of this security crisis, people rallying around the flag. But what about four years later? What about eight years later? You have to think about what is my long-term survivability here. And things turn pretty quickly in democracy. There can be an economic crisis that maybe people will blame Putin and he could lose power. Had he been an autocrat that entire time, he can still control the election process and make sure he’s not really challenged then. And so, at the absolute minimum, you’re worrying about a few years down the line, particularly a party like China.
There’s also the problem that you’re giving up power, because it’s not just about winning elections. It’s about how you’re able to rule while you’re in power. If you fully democratize and try to get credit for that, you’re giving up some tools that could be used to pass the policies you want. You’re giving up something in the legislature, for instance, that might make ruling a little bit harder. So, I actually find in this path, it’s not just enough to have confidence that you’re going to compete and win in democracy.
There also needs to be some kind of push within autocracy. You need to feel that you are weakening your hold or there’s some kind of something like a shock, but usually not quite as severe as a shock that is questioning your long-term hold on power in autocracy where now you’re worried about, ‘Okay. I can keep being an autocrat for a little bit, but I can really see that my hold is declining over time. And so, I’d rather shift over to democracy where I’m not going to win every election. But at least I don’t have to worry about a coup as much and I’m going to get credit from voters for allowing this.
So, there needs to be some kind of a push from people who are demanding democracy. Why don’t you fill in that gap? What is the role for democratic supporters in democratization, and even more so to the point, is it central to the process of democratization or is it just peripheral?
It’s a great question. Yeah. So, sometimes I get this reaction, ‘Does this mean protest and these from below movements sort of central stars, central actors in a lot of accounts of democratization, are they just sort of meaningless here?’ And the answer is no. Protest is still a major part of this theory. The degree to which you have pro-democratic mobilization is absolutely important here. When dictators are facing this particular context, we call the little to lose, where they feel, ‘Okay, democratization wouldn’t be that bad, given my current power and what I expect in democracy.’ But that again, that’s usually not enough. That’s not going to really kick you into gear to actually make this move. It just sort of leaves you a bit indifferent about struggling to remain in power here or moving to democracy.
So, where you really get over the hill is where you have this pro-democratic mobilization, which in most cases is domestic, but some cases is foreign actors pushing for this. That combination is where you really get the magic and you end up getting to democratization. So, they come in at that point where you’re facing dictators with this calculation. What that also means though is that when dictators aren’t in that context, they feel that democracy is a mortal threat to them and they feel it’d be sacrificing way too much power, protests are usually going to fail.
So, it’s not an argument that protests don’t matter. It’s an argument for when protest matters. And I think people vastly overestimate how much protest can do by themselves. What this is arguing is that no. They need to face the right context. The right context to organize in the first place in some cases, but particularly the right context to succeed where they are not facing this just totally unified dictatorship that’s going to be willing to use violence and there’s no fissures in that elite’s magical kind of everything’s put together and everything’s solid. When you’re facing that it is virtually impossible to win. And this is the point that’s been made by many scholars of these protests before.
So, you have to be facing the right context. When you combine the context with those protests that’s when you get a real high likelihood of democratization. And I actually find that protests are more predictive of democratization when they’re facing the aftermath of these violent shocks or they’re facing these autocratic, electoral ruling parties. When they’re not facing either one of those, which is the majority of autocracy, actually their likelihood of getting to democracy is virtually zero.
I find that there’s a surprising connection to a lot of the civil resistance literature through your work, because you’re emphasizing these shocks that involve coups and violence. But you emphasize that the violence, the civil wars, the coups, those are being fought by people who are undemocratic. They’re not looking for a process democratization. Erica Chenoweth, one of her students, Jonathan Pinckney, in particular, have emphasized that civil resistance is more likely to lead to democratization than a civil war from democracy advocates. That if you’re fighting for democratization, your strongest path is through civil resistance.
I think there’s actually a connection between your work, because you’re pointing out that in order for democratization to work it’s got to be the non-threatening path, that even if the leader is facing these challenges, they need to look at democratization and say, ‘I think I can work with these people because they’re not posing an armed rebellion that’s fighting me. They’re using nonviolent tactics. Whereas the other route is going to be something that is much less stable and much less secure for me.’
So, when these from below movements are having a positive impact on democratization, it’s through nonviolence. They’re taking advantage of the opening from existing violence or facing this autocratic ruling party, those two possible contexts, and they are pushing non-violence for democracy. The route where you have a civil war or a revolution by supposedly democratic actors that take power of the state and then put in place democratization that’s mostly fiction. That’s not a thing that happens. In the history of the world, you can maybe fit like two cases there like Liberia, maybe, Nicaragua, I guess, but neither of those conflicts were started in order to push for democracy. They maybe evolve that kind of halfway through at best.
So, it’s just not a thing that happens. So, when you’re pushing for democratization, you need to be doing it nonviolently. And you’re absolutely right. Part of that is that role is not only creating incentives for democratization, but outlaying the concerns of those at the top that they’re not going to face radicals. They’re not going to face renewed violence. That democracy is a tolerable choice.
Now, one of the points that you make in your book and you’ve made it already in this podcast was that the opportunity for people through civil resistance is in these windows where the state has become weak, where the authoritarian ruler feels threatened and that really is the window for protests to be able to lead to some form of regime change. But I’d like to know does the organizational capacity of those democracy movements make a difference? Is it important for people to fight for democracy over long periods of time not because they’re making a change, but because they’re developing their organizational capacity in preparation for that opening, for that window, for that opportunity?
That’s a really interesting question. I would still say that the size and reach of the democratic movement is certainly going to matter. It’s a difficult thing to test. But when they’re providing large protests and sophisticated protests with those openings, that’s when I would expect the highest likelihood of democratization. I would still argue that even very large protests, you see this all the time, even extraordinarily large protests, sophisticated protests in the wrong contexts are extremely likely to fail. You see really tragic cases of this. You saw it in the Arab Spring, you saw it in Burma in both the late eighties and recently those are really sophisticated protest movements that were facing the wrong contexts and failed.
Now how do you get to these large sophisticated – does it mean you have to toil in the wrong context for a while to get there? Is it worth it to fail a bunch of times in the wrong context if that leads to success in the right one? You gain experience. You gain followers. And so that’s a cost benefit calculation that I think they need to make. I think that the important thing that comes from the book is just understanding the nature of that calculation. Understanding that they’re likely to fail in these particular periods and you should recognize the right context for what they are.
And it’s not necessarily totally obvious that right after coups is the right context. That’s when you strike. That’s when you really push for organizing and it is that’s when you’re most likely to be successful. So, I just want people to understand what openings look like, what the opportunities are, how they maneuver within that space. And whether it’s worth this lead time and how much hauling you need to fight? That’s I think something they need to decide, but that’s going to depend a lot on the very particular country context. But I just want to give them the information to know when the opportunities come. So, they recognize it when they see it.
I’m a little curious about your thoughts on China, because everybody dreams, hopes… wishes for an opening for democratization in China. But at the same time, it feels very unrealistic for it to happen. You mentioned in your book that, “China has not faced a qualifying shock since 1968.” Now this helps explain why China has faced absolutely no pressure to democratize, but do you think China could become a candidate for democratization through electoral continuity in the future?
Yeah, potentially. Now the first thing to note is it’s not even a candidate for it, because they don’t run national elections. So, part of that path is you need a party that’s running elections and then democratizes through elections. They don’t have even the national election side of it. So, they’re not even in the conversation. So, to speak of that theory, let alone are they facing that extra trigger that’s pushing them. The thing with China is it’s just so solid. It’s just so strong. It’s so in control and they just manage it so well and have been for decades. So, in theory, yeah, I could imagine this multi-decade path where they allow elections, they recognize at some point, ‘Yeah, we’re a really strong party. We could democratize and probably retain power for a while.’
But you still need a sufficient push to convince them that actually they can’t keep retaining power in an autocracy really reliably. And that’s the real missing piece there. What is going to cause that for them to think there’s a problem really with them remaining autocratic? it’s really hard to see that. There’s just not enough of a push from within yet. , you have extremely weak foreign incentives. By nature, they’re one of the two strongest countries on earth, so you’re not going to have sufficient incentives from abroad to give up their way of governing. So, it’s really hard to see how that would happen.
Maybe the most likely is some kind of interregime split, some kind of succession crisis. That’s something that has upended a lot of previously quite strong autocracies. And yet, they’re really skilled at managing those kinds of factual disputes. But if I had to guess the most likely paths for China to be a democracy like 25 years from now would be some kind of like major ideological factional split that caused some kind of rupture. And like you’ve got a breakaway party of some kind and then they democratize elections, but I don’t even know if that’s likely.
now, obviously a lot of paths to democracy, a lot of paths towards liberalization, the fall of the Soviet Union is the paradigmatic example where nobody expected something to happen until it actually happens. I don’t know. You mentioned succession crisis. Xi Jinping doesn’t have a successor. It looks like he wants to rule indefinitely. That could pose a real crisis after he dies or after he’s deposed in some way. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a possibility there.
I think an analogy to the Soviet Union is a little hopeful because we know much more about China than we knew about Soviet Union. There’s no way that China is as weak as the Soviet Union was in the mid-eighties right now. But you’re right there’s the natural conflict over Xi’s ambitions. I would be surprised if that led to democracy in any kind of near future, but it might create some fissures that accumulate overtime.
Yeah. I don’t expect China to democratize. I’m not that hopeful, but at the same time the Soviet Union was probably too weak, which is why all the post-Soviet states didn’t democratize. It just opened a window for the Warsaw pact countries in East Central Europe to be able to democratize. I think you can make a strong case that the Soviet Union had allowed state capacity to weaken too much for the democratization process. Who knows?
Belarus. There’s been a lot of talk about Belarus because it’s had widespread protest movements. A lot of people had hopes that it would be a prospect for democratization. How do you read the situation there based on your theory?
So, Belarus is a really interesting case because like China it feels like it should fit the electoral continuity path, but it doesn’t because they don’t actually have a ruling party. So, it’s sort of like Iran. They do have national elections, extremely flawed ones, truly corrupt ones, but no party which is quite unusual. And so that creates, some serious questions, but it’s really unlikely if Belarus democratize that the current rulers would actually be able to compete. Again, they’re not organized. Lukashenko does not appear to be particularly popular for a very good reason.
And so that creates a very tense kind of situation where the current leaders know that if they give in, democracy is a real problem for them. They’re not going to able to compete. They’ll probably be prosecuted for a litany of crimes. And that means that they have every incentive to resist. The exact same dynamic I’ve argued has been going on in Myanmar, which even further along, looked like a democratic opening. People were very optimistic. I always actually remained pessimistic about that case because the military never really looked like he was giving up power. And as it turned out, there was a reason that they didn’t because there was no reason for them to think they would actually be able to compete in democracy. They kept on getting beaten over and over again.
And so, Belarus is not going to really fit that electoral continuity path that they can democratize with any kind of confidence. Can it fit the shock path? Possibly, but it means there has to be some other elite actor that’s going to come along and launch a coup or create an opening for civil war and that’s possible. I don’t think we know all that much about Belarus, the centers of power, so that is possible. But I think that the major player here is actually Russia. If Russia really leans on maintaining Belarus as this autocratic ally, that’s providing a lot of resources, shielding them from any external pressure. It’s doing a lot of things I would argue to prevent that shock from happening.
So, for the moment should Russia remain an ally, I actually think it’s not particularly likely to democratize. I wouldn’t be shocked. I think it’s way more likely than China, but it probably requires some kind of violent rupture. And as we’ve seen with the protests, there’s definitely a lot of pro-democratic sentiment there. The people, I think, are ready to move should they face an opening, but as I’ve been saying, despite that, they haven’t faced the right context. And so, the protests seems to be failing, because there’s no incentive for the military establishment to give any way or shift towards democracy. They know it’s a real threat to their interest.
You mentioned Myanmar. That’s just a fascinating case right now. I think there’s two problems in Myanmar that kept it from democratizing. One is the Tatmadaw did not govern well, so they just were not going to have support. And the second problem is I think that under their current constitution, they didn’t create space for there to be an authoritarian successor party. They maintained too much power. So, nobody had a reason to vote for a party that represented the authoritarian regime. Everybody could look at it and go, ‘Well, they’re represented. I’m voting for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
So, I think that they did two things wrong. I mean, one, is not governing well, is just the way that things are right now. They’d have to go through a period where people had faith in them. But the second problem is just the constitution itself was set up in a way not to encourage conservatives or people who benefited from the regime to organize politically.
Exactly. So, the missing ingredient is really this electoral continuity part. They set up the constitution so they retained the real power just by fiat or they just had the right institutions. They had this segment of legislature that they were keeping. Had they created a different kind of constitution, had the incentive to create a real autocratic ruling party, it might’ve looked a bit more like the South Korea case. That was a military government. They created the right party who was able to extend its power into democracy.
They didn’t do that. And so, they reached a certain point where they knew that if they went further along towards authentic democracy there was no way for them to keep surviving. It was truly a mortal threat to them. They had to give up everything and that’s not a tolerable choice for most autocrats. And so, they were forced to coup.
So, for governments like the United States that say that a key part of their foreign policy is the promotion of democracy, does your research imply that the United States should adopt an even more aggressive foreign policy, so that it creates openings for democratic movements through the creation of coups, through the support of civil wars?
No. That is not the implication. That is not something we should be doing. Now look, if your only value, the only goal you had is to maximize next year’s likelihood to democratize regimes, then it might make sense. That’s a terrible goal. What we should be doing is thinking about promoting democracy in the long-term and as we’ve talked about electoral continuity leads to much more durable democracies. But the other thing is you’re raising the likelihood of democratization in the following year by 3%, 4%, maybe over a five-year period by 10, 15%. That’s usually not going to be worth the political instability that arises when you sponsor coups and certainly civil wars.
Most of the time, those events are going to fail to lead to democratization. That is going to lead to a new autocrat or a period of chaos and where people are losing their lives. And it creates a lot of disruption in the country. That is not a good gamble to make and really isn’t the United States’ place to make that gamble for these countries. And so, that is not the thing we should be doing at all. And it’s just not smart. It’s just not a good way to be increasing the number of democracies out there. What are the implications? Well, one, even though we shouldn’t be sponsoring coups, and this, by the way, is not a theoretical question. We’ve done this before. We have launched wars supposedly in order to promote democracy. We have supported coups supposedly to get to democracy.
And most of the time that has failed. So what should we be doing? Well, number one is we should be recognizing the opportunities for what they are when they come. So when a coup happens, we should then be thinking, this is a good time to be pushing this country to democracy. I think, the previous thinking is that may be the worst time to do that. Like why would the aftermath of a coup be a good time. Military government’s usually in charge. There’s chaos. But actually, I’m showing that’s the most fruitful time to be pressuring a country to democratize. So, understand the opportunities when they arise.
And the second big implication is the electoral continuity path is what we should be doing to promote democracy. It is a path that can happen with minimal violence. It leads to the strongest democracies and doesn’t necessarily require any kind of major interference or any kind of problematic interaction. It involves the same kind of democracy promotion or pressure to just have governments follow through on the promises about how good these elections are or allowing protest movements. Things that they are legally allowed in the constitution or they’re saying they’re doing. Make them own up to it. Make them actually follow through on that. It doesn’t require necessarily choosing leaders or launching wars. It’s about pushing for more and more competition or pressuring them to put in place elections to begin with.
So, this is a route where you can really be consistently pressuring governments to be moving along this electoral continuity path. And when you actually get to the end points, those are your strongest democracies. So, I think this is maybe the central lesson here is we should be putting our resources to. Kicking these countries as far down the road of the electoral continuity path as we can.
Do you see any cases that you would recommend for the United States to zero in, or really the European Union or maybe democracy promotion organizations, NGOs, to zero in towards trying to encourage democratization? What are the countries? What are the examples that you think are the best case scenarios today, right now?
Really interesting question. Our first priorities should probably be protecting democracy where it already exists. Countries that have a history, particularly recent history of democracy are much more likely to democratize again and to have healthy democracies. Armenia is a really high likelihood of success. They’ve had this protest and ouster, essentially would be electoral continuity path, most likely. But they can always use support to get to kind of the last few yards into authentic democracy. I think, securing Tunisia that’s a real promising case. They could always use more support or greater ties to the wider world of democracies. It would be an amazing just representative of what the Arab world can produce, would be the lone real success of the Arab spring.
Venezuela is always a particularly likely case because that old Chavismo Party or some version of that can absolutely survive into democracy and compete. There’s obviously an enormous amount of democratic sentiments to use and so that might be the most likely case to democratize except for Armenia over the next few years. It’s going to be a bit messy, but they have a long history of democracy. The people are rearing to go to democracy. It’s really just about kind of resolving the current political crisis and kind of dislodging the last remnants of the autocratic leadership. But again, the key there, some people regard as a paradox is you need some kind of Chavismo representative to remain in place. Not in power, but to remain competitive.
If you tried to move towards a Venezuelan democracy, where the Chavismo Party are outlawed or something like that, that’s just a recipe for discontent and breakdown down the road. This is the path that, you know, Argentina tried with just pretending Peronism wasn’t a thing or outlying it. Just led to constant chaos and disruption. So, you don’t want to go that route. You want to push them into democratic competition.
Well, thanks so much for the conversation, Mike. Congratulations on the book coming out.
Really appreciate it. It was a thrill to be able to discuss it and I hope people are interested in the ideas.
Shock to the System: Coups, Elections, and War on the Road to Democratization by Michael K. Miller
Follow Michael on Twitter @mkmdem
Learn more about Michael’s work
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