How Western Europe Embraced Democracy

Western Europe
Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945—1968 by Martin Conway

Western Europe’s Democratic Age

Over the last few years it has almost become cliché to refer to the democratic recession. Many of the most fragile democracies have reversed or even collapsed. Among the most recent involves the collapse of the government in Afghanistan due to the withdrawal of American troops. The experience serves as a lesson for the United States on the challenges from nation building. But the critique overlooks the success of an earlier nation building project in Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II.

Obviously, the experiences in Afghanistan and Germany have clear differences. But too often we oversimplify them into what is widely known as culture. For my part, I am not surprised democracy was a challenge in Afghanistan. Instead, I find myself shocked Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy made an almost seamless pivot into liberal democracy. In just a few short years, Western Europe transformed into a bedrock of liberal democracy and a secure partner to the United States. 

Of course, Western Europe did more than simply adopt democracy. They refined it into a model other countries found they could easily adopt. Martin Conway describes democracy during this era as “a process of continuous negotiation.” Over time, liberal democracy found its expression “through practice within real political contexts” as it became more than a series of “grand proclamations.” 

Historian Martin Conway tells the story of Western Europe’s transition to democracy through its consolidation in his most recent book, Western Europe’s Democratic Age 1945—1968. He explains how democracy “became part of Europe’s identity,” despite its reluctant adoption after the Second World War. Moreover, he considers how It continued to evolve leading up to the tumultuous year of 1968.

Transition to Democracy

In many ways, Conway does not offer an account of Europe’s democratization so much as its consolidation. For instance, he does not focus on the historical events that produced democratic governance throughout Europe. Rather he focuses on the attitudes and perceptions of Europeans during the period. In this manner, democracy is viewed almost as a moving target where its interpretation depends more on popular attitudes than any formal definition. Perhaps it is possible to identify a series of democratizing events, but it becomes more difficult to track down the moments that demonstrate democracy’s consolidation. Indeed, the consolidation of democracy is a far more gradual process. But at the same time it is more meaningful than the formal transition to democracy. 

Unlike the third wave of democracy, Conway argues Western Europe adopted democracy with quite sober expectations. The failure of totalitarianism and fears of communism led Western Europe to accept democracy as the best available option. At the same time, they recognized many of its challenges from its past iterations. So as a result, “Democracy in post-war Europe was a grand improvisation, which rejected more than it borrowed from previous models of democratic government.” 

Democracy in Europe was representative, but it designed its institutions to limit participation. For example, most of Europe adopted proportional representation that offered broad inclusion, but allowed professional politicians to maintain control over political parties. Moreover, parliamentary governments selected their head of government through negotiations between political elites rather than from direct elections. In many ways, their style of parliamentary government behaved more democratically than other incarnations of democracy. But in other ways, its design arose from a desire to limit democracy’s influence.

Democracy in Western Europe

During the early years of democratization, Western Europeans made democracy fit their culture and people. But along the way, democracy began to shape Western Europe and its people. Departing from most descriptions of democracy as a purely political process, Conway recognizes a phenomenon other writers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam have also observed: The practice of democracy instills new values into a population. Martin Conway puts it like this, “Democracy was not therefore about taking people as they were, but about encouraging their development in new directions.” It is important to understand democracy in Western Europe meant liberal democracy. So, liberal values became associated with democracy and reinforced its consolidation. 

By 1968, Western Europe found democracy had changed the expectations of its people. The protests from students and labor did not challenge democracy so much as demand a reinterpretation of it. The self-imposed limits on democracy no longer made sense for a people raised under the values of democratic governance. So, the social implications of democracy came full circle to influence the political project. At this point “democracy formed part of what Europe was.” Nobody challenged the idea of democracy itself. But they did make new demands that tested the robustness of democratic governance. In the final analysis, Conway acknowledges, “Democracy owes its durability not to its principles but to its flexibility.” 

Final Thoughts

Martin Conway documents a period of democracy’s evolution in Western Europe. This is the era where Europe turned away from political rivalries and towards cooperation and collaboration. Germany and France took the first steps towards what eventually became the European Union. Through different treaties and alliances, Europe coordinated its political, economic, and military objectives. At the center of its cooperation was a democratic identity. The European Community made democratic governance a prerequisite for inclusion leaving many countries such as Spain and Portugal on the outside until their later democratization. 

Today democracy faces new challenges from globalization, populism, and increasing economic inequality. As a consequence, democracy has fallen into decline. Many fragile democracies have descended into different forms of authoritarianism. Western Europe avoided this fate through tying its political identity to liberalism and democracy. During a period of widespread democratic failures, the story of Western Europe’s democratic age offers lessons for other nascent or fragile democracies. Of course, some might believe Europe is unique. Perhaps democracy was the inevitable destination for European politics. As Martin Conway puts it, “Democracy formed part of what Europe was, and in some rather undefined sense what it had always been.” And yet, it still took Western Europe centuries to fully embrace democracy and turn away from authoritarianism.

Listen to Martin Conway discuss his ideas on the Democracy Paradox. It’s available Tuesday, October 5th, 2021. Subscribe today on your favorite podcast app.

Further Reading

Kevin Duong (2020) The Virtues of Violence: Democracy Against Disintegration in Modern France

Francis Fukuyama (2014) Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan (1996) Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe

Arend Lijphardt (1999) Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries

Karl Lowenstein (1937) “Militant Democracy and Fundamental Rights, I,” American Political Science Review

Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter (1986) Transitions from Authoritarian Rule Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies

John Pinder (2001) The European Union: A Very Short Introduction

Benn Steil (2018) The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Martin Conway Believes “Democracy Owes its Durability Not to its Principles but to its Flexibility.” Democracy in Western Europe from 1945 to 1968

Kurt Weyland Distinguishes Between Fascism and Authoritarianism

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