David Stasavage on Early Democracy and its Decline

Early Democracy
David Stasavage

David Stasavage joins the podcast to describe early democracy and its decline before its reemergence in the modern age. He is a professor of politics at New York University. His latest book is called The Decline and Rise of Democracy.

Listen on SpotifyListen on AppleListen on Google Listen on Stitcher

This was not a phenomenon to one specific region. This was nothing that got invented in one place and at one time. It seems to have emerged independently in a wide, wide variety of human societies at different points in time. And to me, that sounds like something that occurs naturally.

David Stasavage

Key Highlights Include

  • A description of early democracy with an example of the Huron people
  • Why autocracy arose through the example of Ancient China
  • How bureaucracy and the state changed governance
  • How English history shaped modern democracy
  • What modern democracy can learn from early forms of democracy

Podcast Transcript

I think I was 16 when I read Rousseau’s Social Contract for the first time. The opening line captivated my imagination then just as it does now. He wrote, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau romanticized about the earliest political communities. His ideas depended almost as much on imagination as actual documented sources. Nonetheless, contemporary research has shown how early political communities did see political freedom very differently than we do today. 

David Stasavage finds nascent forms of democracy in these ancient societies. This simple idea turns the typical conversation about democratization upside down. It rephrases the question from, “How do we democratize?” into “How do we rediscover our democratic traditions?” 

David Stasavage is the Dean of Social Sciences and a Professor of Politics at New York University. His latest book is called The Decline and Rise of Democracy. Our conversation explores early forms of democracy, but also discusses the rise of autocracy. David also explains how English history shapes modern democracy today. So, we cover history, political theory, and bring these ideas to life through a few examples.

But as always this is a big topic so we don’t discuss every idea or example. There is a lot unsaid so I encourage you to join the conversation. You can leave a comment at democracyparadox.com where you will find a full transcript or mention me on Twitter @DemParadox. You can also email me at democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com. But for now… This is my conversation with David Stasavage…

jmk

David Stasavage. Welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

David

Thank you very much for having me, Justin.

jmk

Well, David, your book, The Decline and Rise of Democracy, in my opinion, it was one of the best books of 2020. I thought it got at some ideas that haven’t really been touched on in a long time, if ever. Some of the ideas I think were truly novel. One of the themes is how democracy exists in many places in the ancient world and among the most unlikely is the Huron in the Northeastern Woodlands. They never read Aristotle. They had no link to the classical world. It developed absolutely independently of the West. So, David, can you paint a picture for us of the democracy of the Huron?

David

Well, first of all, it would have been very, very, very different from a democracy such as ours today. It wouldn’t have elections, wouldn’t have political parties. So, most people, if they’re going to accept the idea that the Huron had a democracy, then you’re going to need to agree that we need a broader definition of democracy. The Huron seem to conform to this idea that you would have governance by council, whether it be at the level of a village, whether it be at the level of what you could call a tribe, whether it would be at the level of the overall Confederation that had multiple tribes in it. And so, everything was discussed.  There were chiefs who came from specific lineage, but they were chosen. It wasn’t like a strict primogeniture rule.

And also, much different from contemporary democracy, there was a sort of norm of independence that if you didn’t like a decision, you generally didn’t have to participate, if one village or one tribe or one individual. So, it’s very different from our democracy today and so that’s how I’d start off by describing the democracy of the Huron. Then we should also mention, of course, that the Huron themselves called themselves the Wyandots as they continue to do so today

jmk

You mentioned having a broader sense of the meaning of democracy and in reading your book, I get the impression that you see the key concept for democracy as being the consent of the people, consent of the governed. That when we see that some level of consent that we see some sense of democracy. Am I reading that correctly in your work?

David

No, that’s absolutely correct. That’s how I thought about it in these terms. In terms of the people having, not a consent in the sense of some initial imaginary constitutional moment in the way that political theorists sometimes use, but consent as something that is very much active. And an early democracy is often an everyday affair in terms of people having to at least nod their heads to agree that decisions are being made, or in other cases to participate much more actively as would have been the case among the Huron.

jmk

Yeah, you really emphasize the active role of people within these early democracies. Now, of course you see democracy in all kinds of cultures, all kinds of different regions. And I brought up the Huron because it was completely independent of the classical world of Europe and Asia, but you bring up examples all across the world within Africa, within Europe, within Mesopotamia. Is there a natural inclination that humanity has towards establishing democracy?

David

So, I think it’s something that comes naturally, but not naturally in the sense that it is inevitable because there’s obviously also an alternative route of political formation involving autocracy. But the reason why I tried to use so many different examples from so many different areas was to show that this was not a phenomenon specific to one specific region. This was nothing that got invented in one place and at one time. It seems to have emerged independently in a wide, wide variety of human societies at different points in time. And to me, that sounds like something that occurs naturally.

jmk

Now you do offer two paths. You offer one path for democracy and then one path, paradigmatically within China, where we see autocracy rise. But it presupposes the sense of a civilization. Is democracy like the natural state? Is that point zero? Do we begin with democracy and then it eventually shifts towards something that’s more democratic or more autocratic as cultures develop or is this something that begins much earlier?

David

So, I think there have been autocrats and tyrants at times in very small-scale societies. Curiously enough, if you look at the political arrangements of indigenous groups of Northwestern America like the Kwakiutl, for example, you find stronger forms of chiefdom and less evidence of council governance. But, you’re right that I think where you start to see the autocracies emerge and autocracy becomes much more of a substantial trend is really in larger scale societies, that a minimum band together, several communities, perhaps several different regions. I don’t know if we have to say that you need a civilization to have autocracy, but it seems to go that for one reason or another until the modern era, until the advent of modern means of communication and transit, it was the case that larger polities tended to be more autocratic in their nature and less democratic.

jmk

So, David, can you help us explain why autocracy arises? Because I would assume that people would prefer to remain democratic where their consent matters. And to be fair, there is some level of consent within even autocracies. You mentioned in the book, “All rulers, both democratic and autocratic need at least tacit consent from their people by not revolting, but consent in early democracy was not tacit. It was active.” And we see a significant difference between early democracy and early autocracy even though, like I said, they both have some level of consent. Why would people give up that political freedom? Why would people accept autocracy to begin with?

David

Well, I think there are two main possibilities. One, the most likely, is that they didn’t really have much of an option. That someone succeeded in building power via a state bureaucracy and doing things in a different way. Early democracy involved, not just active consent, it also very often involved the cooperation of people to do governance, to govern, to take actions, whether it be organizing things, engaging in public works, engaging in common defense. With autocracy, you get a different phenomenon whereby rulers are now trying to say we can rule independently via creating a bureaucracy involving subordinates who we have hired or somehow remunerate in some very general sense. And we’re going to use them to govern. And so we’re no longer going to rely upon the active role, participation of the people. And maybe we’ll rely on that tacit consent that you described.

But it’s going to be a very, very different form of government than early democracy was. And so, I think that’s the first possibility is simply that people didn’t have a choice because someone succeeded in accumulating power. The older alternative could be, in some cases, that you might say, if there was an advantage, perhaps in providing defense or something like that, the people might agree to autocracy in that way. But that itself is something that is speculative. I don’t think it’s necessarily proven. And a lot of people would contest that idea that autocracies are somehow better at defending themselves. A lot of people say the contrary.

jmk

So, I mentioned already that China comes across as your paradigmatic case of an autocratic state. China’s known for having a very strong bureaucracy for having a very strong conception of the state itself. Was it the development of the state, the development of a bureaucracy that brought about the decline of democracy?

David

I believe so. And one of the things with China, which is really fascinating, is that in a lot of cases across the world where we have large-scale autocracies with bureaucracies getting created, we have some semblance of what the prior stage looked like. And we can see that maybe early democracy existed and proceeded at low levels and it was superseded by autocracy. With China the unfortunate fact is that the historical materials in terms of actual writing go fairly far back, quite far back, but as far back as we go, we don’t see traditions or histories of council governance or early democracy. So, it’s actually a very hard question to answer because we’d need to speculate on what governance looked like at low levels in the Loess Plateau of Northeastern China as the original dynasties were emerging to see how that happened. And we kind of don’t have the evidence.

jmk

isn’t there a sense of decentralization though within the Zhou period?  Like especially the second half where it starts to crumble, but even in the first half. It definitely feels that China is more of a collection of states, more of a collection of rulers than it necessarily is a true empire.

David

Yeah, that’s right. And so, some Western historians have used the term feudalism to describe that initial order during the Zhou, but it’s been often criticized by other Western historians and often criticized by Chinese historians. So, I’ll avoid that, but there was a greater decentralization. It’s true, albeit maintaining some semblance of a unified kingdom. But where we really see interesting things is later on in the Zhou Period where we have these entities that sort of resemble city states and we have what are clearly traditions referenced to assemblies occurring and to people discussing things and people seeking consent. And so that would sort of be the one example that I found and there’s some other scattered ones that I discussed in the book where you can think about some sort of tradition of collective governance. We know very little about it, but it’s probably the closest thing we’ve got to some form of early democracy. But it didn’t last very long and it didn’t go that far.

jmk

And to be fair, the Zhou Period was in some ways a collection of autocracies too.

David

Right.

jmk

So, I don’t want to press the issue too far, but I always imagine that in the case of such broad decentralization that there might be assemblies like you just mentioned.

David

Yeah. And during the Eastern Zhou Period, I think, later on where, like you see in Europe after the fall of Rome, where central authority crumbles and then we get more consensual governance. And so that one can suggest that that’s what was going on with these assemblies of the guo ren as they were called, people of the city, and it’d be fascinating to learn more about

jmk

Now you hinted at the idea of assemblies and collection of elders and tribal councils within early forms of governance. And I just want to emphasize how broad that really was throughout history. There’s a moment in Gilgamesh where it references how Gilgamesh went to the council of elders to make a decision to be able to go find the source for eternal life. And it struck me that, wow! They’re really is something deeper here throughout history that we just overlook so often.

David

Yeah. And I think that’s a really important example. And the thing about the Gilgamesh council example is we don’t know if Gilgamesh himself actually ever even existed. It may all be a myth. But then someone took the time, if they were inventing a myth to invent a myth of people governing through a council. And so that in itself is a very interesting fact. And then we have more recent work by people translating cuneiform inscriptions from early Mesopotamia referring to councils and collective governance in individual cities in Mesopotamia. So, there’s now actually hard evidence for some of the things that people have long speculated about based on the Gilgamesh legend and other related legends.

jmk

So, what’s interesting about your book, David, is it’s easy to imagine that as states get larger, as cultures get bigger, and governance has greater demands, that early states found it necessary to centralize authority. And that’s the Chinese example. Where they create bureaucracies and they begin to centralize authority into a form of autocracy. But you bring up many examples that started to get bigger, not too big, but bigger and still retained their democratic roots. Can you explain why some cultures, why some states, remain democratic within the early period?

David

So, that’s a really good question. So, if you can come in back to the example of the Huron or the Iroquois, those are societies that were not just like one village or a few villages together. They actually covered a substantial territory, particularly in the case of the Iroquois. And they succeeded in scaling up their governance and to have levels, as I described at the beginning, about councils at the village level, councils at the tribal level, councils at the confederation level. Unfortunately, what we really don’t know we can refer through legend from these two groups and to oral tradition, but we don’t have a firm knowledge from at the time that that was formed about exactly what were the features that allowed them to do that apart from the fact that they just seem to be incredibly politically skilled and creative.

I think that the example that we have where we have a better written record that goes back that far is the European case where we move during the early Middle Ages from having sort of separate councils within cities and sometimes councils involving rulers and Lords to having something resembling parliaments where you have towns being represented by an individual in those parliaments and where you have the concept of political representation that took time to develop. And so, one of the things that I emphasize there is there’s clearly a lot of creativity that needs to happen and it needs to take time.

And so, it’s probably hard for a society to do that. It’s probably hard, especially if the society has to try to do that in a hurry to invent an entire new system of governance that retains this aspect of early democracy of active consent, but which scales it up to a higher level.

jmk

Now, modern democracy has scaled up the concept of democracy. That’s the type of democracy that we live in today. Can you explain a little bit more about how modern democracy differs from these earlier incarnations?

David

Well, the first way would be relying on representatives and not direct participation by all members of society. Europeans aren’t the only ones to have representation. If you go back to the Huron and the Iroquois examples, they would have had a select number of people who went to a Confederation council, for example. And so, they would be a representative, but Europeans develop this sort of theory of representation. And that was the first element that that was critical, but there were other elements that were critical as well. And one of the elements that I think came out of the UK was the abolition of mandates or directives.

It used to be the case in most medieval European parliaments that when a town sent a representative, say to a parliament, they could bind them with a direct mandate. They could say, you can agree to this. You cannot agree to that. And that’s it. And that was the way of maintaining some assurance that the outcome that they wanted to achieve would actually be achieved. As you can imagine, rulers thought this was a rather cumbersome process, because if you couldn’t get them to agree, then the person who received the mandate would have to go back to their town to try to get a new mandate.

And what happened in England from at some point in the 1330s, probably onwards, is that this idea of representatives being able to refer back to their constituencies goes out the window.  And you also see the emergence at a similar moment of the principle of majority rule which was also unknown in early democracy, in the sense of in early democracy, there may have been a sense of the room and so on. But if you weren’t happy with the decision, you really didn’t need to participate. Whereas in England now at this time in the 14th century, you’re moving towards a system that would form the basis centuries later of modern democracy where there are no mandates for representatives and what gets decided by a majority is what gets decided. And you have to live with that. And so that’s a fundamentally different feature.

jmk

You know, you bring up that people didn’t have to live with the decisions of governance. I remember learning about the Iroquois culture that if the tribe decided that they were going to go to war each individual person got to decide if they wanted to go to war. And sometimes different tribes within the Iroquois would go to war on different sides. Like in the American revolution, I believe that some sides fought for the British, some sides fought for the Americans, the same with the French and Indian wars. So, that’s something that we’ve seen in examples of modern history within some of these cultures

David

That’s right. Absolutely. And the other common examples tend to come in areas where there was a lot of land relative to population. So, it was said that in a lot of areas of pre-colonial Africa that was the case. And so, a chief was always under the threat that people could just move away and set up elsewhere. And so, if you had an exit option, that was a powerful lever pushing in the direction of democracy. And so, that’s fundamentally different than modern democracy. And of course, today it’s easy. We can move from place to place, in a sense, easier than a lot of people could back then, because we have modern means of communication and transport, but it’s harder often to move in the same way that they did. And to try to sort of escape.

jmk

I want to ask you about why modern democracy arose in Europe and in particular within England. And I’m not sure that schools always do a great job of explaining English history these days, because it’s fascinating with the roller coaster that it kind of goes through especially with in its early years. For instance, the English Civil War is a critical moment and for, just the development of England, for the development of its political institutions, and it comes at a time that Charles the First was actually trying to centralize authority within England. He was trying to install absolutism before the French did, and yet England took a completely different turn compared to the rest of the continent. Why did democracy develop within Europe and England in particular with all of these ups and downs within its history?

David

Well, I think democracy in the form of say medieval forms of assemblies and consent, not in the form of broad participation by the citizenry, except in some early autonomous towns, is something that you have to chalk up to the fact that central rulers lacked anything, even faintly resembling a bureaucratic state. So, they needed to go through people. They needed to get cooperation from people. And that was the key reason, ultimately, in the wake of the fall of Rome where you get this very different pattern of governance developing contrary to what you see in China. And I think this was aided by the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages which saw the strength of the cities grow.

But it wasn’t just the commercial revolution because China had a commercial revolution at a slightly earlier period too, but there was a strong central state to just say, okay, we have central tax authorities. We’re going to tax commerce in the cities as they did under the Song Dynasty. And so that’s, I think, the European pattern or the English pattern. Very curious and very interesting in that it doesn’t really nicely resemble either autocracy or early democracy at any one point in time. From the Anglo-Saxon era onwards, you have this feature of strong traditions of rule by council, but you also have a Monarch who has a pretty Strong position. And, you know, the Anglo-Saxons actually succeeded in taxing land circa 1000 AD in a way that other European rulers did not at the time.

And so, there’s this odd balance between consent and some degree of central strength. And I’ve already referred to some of these features that kicked in later in the medieval era where mandates no longer exist and where there’s a tradition of majority rule. And then I think what the odd thing that happens as a result of the civil war is the crown really kind of gets pushed to the sidelines. And now you have parliament being Supreme. And so, in the 18th century, William Blackstone said that parliament has absolute despotic power. Which is not the way we learn it in school. Right? We hear about the opposite. Which is true that there’s no legal sort of limits on what parliament can do. And even today that parliament can in theory do a lot, particularly now that they’re no longer constrained by European law.

And so, you get this interesting and curious feature of a strong tradition of consent at the same time that you have a stronger tradition of central authority than you have elsewhere.  The other big example is the Dutch Republic which had consensual rule at least for elites for a long time, but it was a very decentralized form. It was this thing where you couldn’t force any one city to do what it didn’t want to do. And that’s ultimately one of the reasons why the Republic probably failed. And so again, in contrast to that, England is just quite a different beast and a rather interesting and particular one. That explains a lot about why we have a modern democracy looking like it does today.

jmk

Jørgen Møller had an interesting article called, “The Medieval Roots of Democracy,” a few years back. He wrote, “The rule of law and mechanisms of accountability in the form of executive constraining institutions paved the way for state building, not vice versa.” In light of your book, I think that it refers only to the European case, particularly within England, but I think it helps make sense of how England pursued state building in contrast to how other countries like China or other parts of the world pursued the construction of the state.

David

That’s right. What matters here is the sequencing. In the Chinese case or in some other cases, the state comes first and consent doesn’t really follow in the British case. Consent is there, and after a time, when they start building a bureaucracy, notably a tax bureaucracy, and other elements in the 18th century and subsequently. It’s parliament as the representatives of the people who are very much at the forefront of that operation. It is not a lone monarch trying to construct a bureaucracy through which they would rule on their own to bypass any sort of assemblies. And that’s a very interesting feature, because throughout the European continent there’s a sort of play off between different groups with monarchs sometimes trying to create a bureaucracy to go around any sort of parliamentary institutions that exist.

But in England, the parliamentary tradition was sufficiently strong that that was completely unsuccessful.

jmk

Now, you have a fascinating quote within your book. I want to read it back to you, “The irony of England is that it was monarchical power that helped drive the shift away from early democracy. And so modern democracy incorporates an element of autocracy.” Can you describe what those elements of autocracy are that exist within modern democracy today?

David

I think it has to do with a central decision that binds everybody. It’s not a decision made by one person. It’s a decision made by a collectivity, but it is a decision that is binding. It’s not a decision of the sort we were talking about with other groups in early democracy where if people weren’t unhappy there was a notion like you didn’t have to participate or you had an opt-out or you could take your marbles and go home. So, that I think is what is fundamentally different and, in the end, it deprives people of some of their liberty.

But also, of course, you would think at times when you need to make a decision and have something done, could be a much more effective means of decision-making than was the case with societies where you had to persuade everybody or else some people would just sit out.

jmk

I think it’s also important because you mentioned before that the rise of autocracy comes alongside the rise of the bureaucracy. And I think that that’s really what modern democracy is about is finding a way to be able to have strong state capacity with democratic ideals at the same time, to be able to bridge these two ideas, to bring these two different concepts together. Now, because we’re trying to bring these two very different ideas together. Like you said, it does bring in some aspects of autocracy into democracy.

So, throughout your book, I feel like there’s a bit of ambiguity between the idea of democracy and autocracy. they’re not idealized concepts. They incorporate aspects of each other through, even in their most extreme forms, they have some aspects of each other. Do you find a clear line? Like a clear division between where we say, hey, this is democracy and this is autocracy, or is it a little gray within the middle?

David

I think there’s a lot of gray within the middle. And the reason I set it up this way is a lot of the existing definitions of democracy that we have out there are dependent on specific institutional features elections, suffrage, maybe rule of law or whatnot and people will choose those. But it seems like if you look at these societies, particularly the early ones, there’s a lot where their institutions were totally different. And so, we can’t classify them using the same rubric. But clearly maybe you didn’t get as broad participation as Athens. But that nonetheless, these societies didn’t resemble autocracies. You wouldn’t want to sort of lump them in with China and say like, oh, they’re not a full democracy. Therefore, we’re just going to put them in the other basket completely.

There’s very clearly a continuum between a pure early democracy where absolutely everybody participates and there’s very little central authority or power and a pure autocracy where it’s literally a ruler ruling through a bureaucracy with only weak, only tacit consent on the part of the people.

jmk

Yeah. And I find it interesting, this idea of bureaucracy being aligned with autocracy, because there’s a lot of literature today that emphasizes the need for strong state capacity to be able to strengthen democracies. But there’s also a secondary group of critics who argue that the size of government threatens democracy itself. We’ve got people like Hayek and Friedman, neoliberals that make that case. Does bureaucracy continue to threaten democracies today?

David

There’s always a risk in the sense of if you allow an executive to rule increasingly independently via the bureaucracy, then there is a risk that ultimately legislative institutions will sort of weaken, we’ll have less influence and you could go down that road. So, I do think that’s actually very important to not take any of these things for granted, just because you got the sequencing right and you had collective governance before you built bureaucracy doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable that you’re going to sail along and not have any sort of breakdown in democracy.

So, at the same time, I’m not arguing for some sort of view like, ‘Oh, we need to get rid of the IRS, or we need to get rid of the state because it’s so dangerous,’ because we need the state to do a lot of the things that we expect it to do. But we need to be constantly vigilant to remember that, you know, the representatives of the people and the people actively electing them are actually the ones who are in control of this state.

jmk

So as a follow-up question then. Is strong state capacity necessary for our current modern conception of democracy?

David

For our current version, I think it is. I don’t know if I’d say strong, but at least a modicum of state capacity is probably very helpful and that what you can get otherwise is you may get situations where there are elections that are in some cases free and fair, but where the state can’t do anything because it’s too weak so there’s no real way to implement the collective decisions made by someone who’s elected by the citizenry.

jmk

So, David, I’d like to understand, as we look at the difference between Europe and China, you really emphasize within the book that the reason why Europe had an opportunity for democratic ideas to emerge was ironically because of the weakness of its state. Because it was weaker than the state within China. Chinese dynasties have always been far stronger. Do you see any opportunity for China? Or was there any opportunity throughout history where China could have taken an alternate path and pursued democratization or has that tradition of autocracy always been so embedded and so locked in that there just hasn’t been an opportunity for democracy to emerge?

David

I mean, I think any culture has to have some sort of tradition or some sort of vague memory of an idea of consultative rule. But it probably would have required more of a sustained fragmentation of China where you could get lower level, say the autonomous towns, that we were talking about in the Eastern Zhou period lasting for a longer amount of time and forming a new pattern of governance that because governance happened at a level that was closer to the people, the people could exert themselves somehow.

And in fact, what you get is the opposite. You get a terrifically successful alternative form of autocratic rule which in the end involves a form of representation, but it’s a very different sort from the European way by the form of representation, involves the examination system, and people who are experts getting chosen based on their skill to work to implement policies and to run the institutions as opposed to people who are chosen directly by the citizens themselves.

jmk

So Africa is an example that continued to have early forms of democracy for much of its history up until fairly recent times within some parts of Africa. Why has Africa struggled so much to bring about democracy, especially when surveys and discussions about democracy demonstrate that Africa has broad support for democratic ideas. What’s held Africa back from democratizing in the modern age?

David

So, one of the things has to be that if there were early democratic forms of governance, those were mostly swept away by colonialism. And you look at the sort of the Belgian Congo, there were traditions of electing chiefs that suddenly the Belgians go in and they say, okay, let’s not have this elections thing. We’re going to choose the person on that issue. So, these societies were not given a chance to move from early democracy to modern democracy on their own. But the other thing, I guess I’d say with regards to the overall assessment. Yeah, you’re right. There’s a tremendous amount of support for democracy in Africa. And, whether you think it’s succeeded or failed, I think depends upon what your expectation was.

As I try to say in the book, if you look at what Samuel Huntington was writing in 1989 around the time of the fall of the Berlin wall, the expectation was, ‘No. Africa would not democratize. These societies were too poor, too divided, too whatever and that turned out to be wrong. And then if you look at the African continent today, irrespective of what democracy measure you try to use, it seems to be the case that roughly a third of the countries seem to be democracies of some sort or another.

And so, if you’re going from roughly zero almost in 1989 to a third, it’s a matter of judgment to say, ‘Is that a success or is that a failure?’ It’s a failure from the point of view of people who just would have expected that this would have naturally taken over everywhere on the African continent, but to me it’s a success. It’s certainly a success compared to say the Middle East where there’s been no movement towards democracy, in essence. And so, I don’t know. The trajectory between those two different reasons makes me somewhat more hopeful for Africa, I think.  And the other thing I’d add on that, it also does come back to the question you were asking previously about a state being required or not required. And when does a presence of a state help or hinder democracy.

jmk

So, those early theories of modernization could never make sense of democracy in a country like India, where it was just much further behind in terms of economic development. And not only that, but had vast amounts of inequality, not just in terms of wealth, but also in terms of caste. So, you had a social hierarchy in terms of it. You have an interesting quote. You write, “Democracy may be more stable than we think in the face of high inequality, but if you were worried about inequality, then democracy alone does not provide the solution.” Has both a sense of optimism and pessimism behind it.

David

Absolutely. Right. And the work on democracy and inequality, that sort of spins out of my long-term work with my coauthor Ken Sheve where we’ve done what we can to get at this question. And the data really don’t seem to speak very heavily in terms of a general tendency for democracy to reduce inequality. And oddly enough, that means that if you take the European case in the 19th century, then. If elites were initially terrified of democracy over time, they were much less so because they realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t as big of a threat as we thought it was going to be.’

And so again, it is exactly, as you say, it’s a very nuanced conclusion because it means when people say, ‘Oh my God, rising inequality means the end of democracy.’ Well, it doesn’t seem to necessarily, but it just means that you’re in a democracy that you’re not going to like very much, if you’re someone who doesn’t like inequality, as is the case with most of us.

jmk

So, we were just talking about Africa and some of these other developing nations and despite the early proliferation of democracy around the globe. It’s not just that democracy doesn’t exist in these places, because it does. The third wave of democratization brought democracy into just about every corner of the globe, at least somewhere, even in the Middle East, Tunisia has democratized recently. But it’s westernized forms of democracy that these countries have adopted. It’s a Western democracy that dominates the conversation today. Richard Young recently wrote an article called, “Exploring Non-Western Democracy,” and he writes, “While the sentiment in favor of local ownership and authenticity in political forms is sound. A distinctive non-Western variety of democracy has not yet to be defined with any precision.”

It’s surprising because there are so many different traditions of democracy. I’d like to get your thoughts. Why don’t we find greater varieties in the forms of democracy that exists today?

David

Well, I think, one reason for that is there’s a sort of a demonstration feature in that modern democracy where it emerged seems to have been successful in the sense of where it emerged roughly at the same time that these countries became vastly richer than was the case before, vastly richer than other societies. And so, for much time, perhaps less so in the recent decade modern democracy has seemed like if you could adopt it. Then why not? Cause it seems to work. And then the other feature, of course, being that, you know, countries like the United States, and not only the United States, have been very active exporters of a particular model of democracy. So that all says why we might find that our particular model of democracy is diffusing.

But I think that the comment from Richard Young is very interesting and very appropriate because what we really need to do is go back and recognize that even for the U.S. and Western Europe, our institutions are very recent when you want to compare that to the thousands of years that early democracy had existed before. And so, if our institutions are very recent, we might want to recognize then that this perhaps is not the only way of doing things. That perhaps there are variations that will emerge in some other cases. Perhaps our own democracies will need to evolve in some way, shape, or fashion.

So, we need to recognize that our own institutions have really not been around for that long. If they had been around for thousands of years and working for thousands of years, then we’d probably say, ‘Well, this seems to be the way to do things.’ They haven’t been around for that long. And it’s an experiment and we’re continually taking stock of whether this experiment is succeeding or not.

So, it raises a question for me about how did some of the early democracies differ from one another. You mention nascent forms of democracy among Muslims. You mention nascent forms of democracy within North America or the Americas in general and in Africa. How did these very different places develop their own ideas of democracy? What are some of the key differences that you saw between some of these cultures?

David

Well, you would see differences, especially in terms of how broad participation was and who participated. You’d see differences particularly in the sexes, in terms of: Did women have any role in politics? Did they not have any role in politics? You would see differences in terms of yes, you may have had a council, but a council was really restricted to a very small number of members of society as opposed to councils having much broader participation. And so, there was quite a lot of variation. And so, while I use the term early democracy to broadly group together this set of societies, I think this is coming back to your earlier question about ‘is there a continuum?’

There’s not just a continuum. There are also multiple dimensions upon which these early democracies did differ. And so, that’s another important point to make and that I’m creating a sort of idealized view of what early democracy was, but in practice, it looked very different, in very different places.

jmk

So, David, what can modern democracies continue to learn from these early democracies?

David

Well, I think we have to go back to I think about what we’ve gained compared to early democracy and that we have much broader participation now than existed in a lot of early democracies, but participation is also often very thin. And most people are active politically by voting every few years and that’s it. And so, we need to think about whether people will be satisfied with that. We need to think about the fact that we have much larger scale polities, where people are more distant from government. That wouldn’t have been the case in most early democracies.

And so, we need to not sort of just sit on our laurels and say, ‘Well, we have these great institutions of modern democracy.’ We need to recognize the institutions of modern democracy brought us some good things, but they also took some things away in terms of people not having a chance to participate more actively all the time and feeling connected with what was going on. And so, what are the ways in which we might be able to address those things that we’ve lost in moving from early to modern democracy?

jmk

Your final line of the book was absolutely breathtaking. You write, ‘Instead of only asking whether democracy will survive, we need to also ask whether we will be satisfied with the democracy that does survive.’ So poignant. Just gets back to exactly like he just said. Thank you. Well, thanks for joining me today.

David

Thank you for having me.

jmk

Yeah, it was a great conversation. And again, the book was The Decline and Rise of Democracy. it’s really brilliantly written. Thank you so much.

David

Thank you.

Key Links

The Decline and Rise of Democracy by David Stasavage

Learn more about David Stasavage

Follow David on Twitter @stasavage

Related Content

Daniel Carpenter Revisits the Petition in 19th Century America

Michael Hughes on the History of Democracy in Germany

More from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Email the show at democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

100 Books on Democracy

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: