Daniel Brinks on the Politics of Institutional Weakness

Daniel Brinks
Daniel Brinks

Daniel Brinks joins the podcast to discuss his new book The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America. He is the coeditor along with Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo. Dan is a professor of Government and of Law at the University of Texas at Austin and a Senior Researcher & Global Scholar of the Centre on Law and Social Transformation.

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We don’t think about institutions until they fail and we think of institutions as being really strong when maybe they’ve never been challenged. They’ve never really tried to do anything.

Daniel Brinks

Key Highlights

  • What is institutional weakness?
  • How does it differ from state capacity?
  • How does civil society affect political institutions?
  • What is the role of constitutions?
  • How do Presidential systems affect other political institutions?

Podcast Transcript

Political scientists think a lot about institutions, but they use them as a means to an end. They design institutions to produce political outcomes like a two-party system. But this approach assumes a degree of institutional strength and stability. It does not consider the possibility of weak or ineffective institutions. 

Today’s guest Daniel Brinks is a coeditor of a new volume called, The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America. It considers the causes and consequences of weak institutions. Dan is a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Our conversation touches on some big picture ideas, but also introduces a few examples from Latin America and the United States. This is the type of conversation I like to share, because you won’t learn about it on other podcasts. It’s surprising, because it has the potential to challenge a lot of assumptions we have about political reform and to think differently about how politics really works. So, I hope you get as much from this conversation with Dan as I did. 

Now I also want to mention before we get started that I started a new column on democracyparadox.com. This is the show’s website where you can already find a transcript and a review of the featured book. The new column highlights 5 new democracy books published that week. I include a brief description, but will also try to connect you with podcasts or videos to learn from the authors directly. Look for it every Wednesday on democracyparadox.com. But for now… this is my conversation with Daniel Brinks…. 


Dan Brinks, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Daniel Brinks

Thank you for having me here, Justin. It’s great to be here.


Well, Dan. I really did enjoy your book. I thought it was such a novel concept. At the same time, it seems so simple. It seems like something that is almost self-evident, but doesn’t get talked about almost at all. And living through the global pandemic for the past year or so, I felt like the pandemic really brought out a lot of these ideas of institutional weakness. It’s almost been like a stress test if you will for many of the institutions from around the world. I can think of the United States and some of the issues that we’ve had with our institutions. Some of our institutions have been extremely strong. Others have been weak.

But I also think of the area that is your expertise, Latin America. And we can look at countries like Brazil, where they’ve had really strong institutions in some ways, but there’s a lot of institutional weakness within the country. And I think that that’s emblematic of the fact that they’ve had some real struggles with the Coronavirus pandemic. Why don’t we start there with an example? And I think the pandemic’s a great one because it really drives home the point for a lot of people. Can you offer some examples from over the past year where you’ve seen institutional weakness due to the pandemic?

Daniel Brinks

So that’s interesting that you called it a stress test. Because often we don’t think about institutions until they fail. And we think of institutions as being really strong when maybe they’ve never been challenged. They’ve never really tried to do anything. And that was sort of the concept we were trying to get at. Institutional weakness, if it means anything, it should mean, you know, an institution that fails to accomplish what it sets out to accomplish and Brazil is a really interesting example. And the pandemic is certainly a stress test for Brazil. So, Brazil had this massive anti-corruption investigation, a series of corruption scandals, that embroiled everybody who was part of the political elite in Brazil. That even engulfed the former president Lula and sent him to jail and a whole bunch of others.

And so, it seemed like the entire upper echelon of Brazilian politics had become embroiled in this corruption scandal. And interestingly, that, on the one hand, could be seen as a sign of institutional strength. The 1988 constitution in Brazil created a new set of prosecutorial and judicial structures that were meant to separate prosecutors and judges from the political arena. And for one of the first times in history in Latin America, you had prosecutors going after people who were currently in charge, not just the people from the previous administration. So, to that extent you could see that whole thing as a sign of institutional strength on the other hand, as soon as that started happening.

And when that system got really stressed, then you started to see the old institutional weakness creep in. Judges who got too close to say Bolsonaro and his regime. Prosecutors who sidestepped or short-circuited due process protections for people they were investigating and that sort of thing. So, there was one set of kind of institutional arrangements that worked pretty well, which was this kind of idea of separating prosecutors and judges from politics. And then there was another set that didn’t work so well, which was the sort of due process protections for the accused and so on. And that really just got worse once the pandemic started, because that whole tension between some strong institutions that were putting a lot of stress on the political system brought Bolsonaro to some extent to power. And then Bolsonaro essentially sort of failed to respond to the pandemic.

And one of the things that people had always thought… Well, I mean, it’s more complicated than this, but you could have imagined that the public health system in Brazil was pretty strong. It responded pretty well to the HIV/AIDS epidemic initially. It has always done a really good job of vaccinating people in most parts of the country, though not all. And now, because of sort of weaknesses at the top, it really failed to address the pandemic. So, they’ve had 600,000 people die. They’ve had their public health systems entirely overwhelmed. And so, if the goal of that institution was to respond efficiently and effectively to stresses it utterly failed.


Now, you describe institutional weakness as a variable in your book and as comparative political scientists, you think a lot about operationalization, how to quantify these ideas. And you write a little bit about that. I don’t want to get into the specifics on that. What I find interesting is that when we think about it as a variable, we think of it as something that’s static that stays the same. It’s a number that we can say, ‘This is what institutional weaknesses is in Brazil. This is what it is in the United States.’ How much does it vary over time within these countries? Is it a dynamic variable or is it something that’s more static?

Daniel Brinks

So, one of the reasons we wanted to get into this project and to write this book was because people had always kind of assumed that institutional weakness was sort of uniform constant and, to use a political science term, exogenous to whatever was going on. It was just something that happened and what we wanted to do was to think about the ways in which that institutional weakness is created through our politics and often as a strategy. And so, if you think of it that way, then it should be fairly obvious that it’s not going to be everywhere the same all the time. That it’s going to be used more or less at different times and in different places and for different purposes.

One of the things I think we show pretty well in the book is that there are lots of pockets of institutional strength in Latin America and there’s sort of continuing and persistent institutional weakness. And the other thing that I think is interesting from the analysis in the book is that it’s not always the case that strong equals good for democracy or better and weak is always bad for democracy or worse. So, there’s a lot of variation. And what we’re trying to do is to really invite people to think about the sources and the consequences of that variation.


So, Dan just to get at the concept, and I’m happy if you provide examples to explain it, how do you distinguish then between a strong institution from a weak one? How do you essentially recognize this is institutional weakness?

Daniel Brinks

Yeah. So, that’s a harder question than it looks like. Initially people will think, ‘Well, it’s a weak institution. We kind of know it when we see it.’ But let me give you an example, not from the book, just an example that hopefully will really simplify. So, let’s say you have a neighborhood that’s along a busy highway and everybody’s houses are right on the highway and people drive way too fast down that highway. So, one institution we use to control the speed of cars on the highway is a speed limit. Let’s say the average speed on the highway is 65 and the kids are playing in the front yard and nobody likes that. Right?

So, you could pass an institution that gets a hundred percent compliance by setting the speed limit at 70. Nobody would be violating the rules, but the institution isn’t really changing anything. The average speed on the highway is still 65. The kids are still in danger. Nothing has changed. You could write an institution that looks really strong on paper. Right? Drop the speed limit to 25. But then if you don’t enforce it and there’s no compliance, people are still driving 65. That’s another measure of a weak institution. The difference is between sort of the 65 average speed before and after the institutional change. And if that difference is negligible or zero, then that’s what we mean by a weak institution.

Often people think, well, you know, a more ambitious institution is better. But sometimes the institution’s very ambition gets in the way of doing any good at all. So, if you set the speed limit at 25, which is way too slow for anybody to drive, and you, I don’t know, made it a capital offense to violate the 25 mile an hour speed limit. Then it’s likely that it wouldn’t get any enforcement. Right? No cops going to want to do that. No drivers going to want to do that.

And so, what we’re trying to do is kind of identify conceptually the exercises and thinking about, okay, what would happen in the absence of the institution and what is happening because the institution is there and that difference, the distance between an imaginary kind of counterfactual and what’s actually happening with the institution in place. That’s the measure of strength or weakness of the institution. Sometimes that’s easy to see. And sometimes it’s really hard. Institutions that have been around for 200 years, how do we know what would happen without it? But that’s kind of a mental exercise that we have to kind of go through.


So, what I imagine is that institutions oftentimes want to solve problems or want to do something that’s going to have an effect and anybody who’s ever run an organization, anybody who’s ever managed a group within a company, anyone who’s owned a business, can identify with this problem. You lay out a plan and you inevitably come up short. It doesn’t go perfect. And so, what you’re saying is institutional weakness is the distance between what you were hoping to accomplish and what you actually accomplish, is that right?

Daniel Brinks

Yes, that’s exactly right.


Okay. One of the problems I’m having with the explanation that I’m hoping you can help clarify is it sounds a lot like state capacity. And a couple of your writers in the edited volume, Mala Htun and Francesca R. Jensenius, they write, “Weak institutions are not just a matter of weak state capacity or ineffectively formulated legislation. Non-compliance with institutions involves resistance on the part of state and societal actors.” So, they’re saying explicitly weak state capacity is different from institutional weakness. Can you help explain the difference between the two?

Daniel Brinks

Sure. So, in their case right there, they’re writing about a really interesting institutional change in Mexico. Right? Mexico has long had a problem with domestic violence and passed a series of laws trying to reduce the incidence of violence in those domestic spaces. So, the measures of state capacity would be things like, ‘Do we create a specialized, you know, investigative and prosecutorial arm for enforcing these laws? Do we assign police officers? Do we create, I don’t know, a female police force that can deal with these more effectively?’ There are ways in which you can increase state capacity in a way that’s sort of targeted to that particular problem and the enforcement of those laws and the sort of strengthening of that institution.

But what’s evident in their chapter is that, because domestic violence happens in some very private spaces and is often very much protected by social norms, and not just social norms, but the realities of abusive situations and the realities of gender job markets that make women dependent on a breadwinner and all that sort of thing, is that often there’s a lot of societal resistance that can overcome whatever state strengthening you put into it. And so, that distance between the ideal that you’re trying to achieve and the status quo. It might shrink a little bit by putting more energy and effort into enforcement.

But if you have a lot of societal resistance, if victims go to their family members and their family members say it’s normal or, you know, that’s just what happens. That’s a private matter. Then it’s going to be really hard to shrink that distance. So, that’s what we mean, I think, by the difference between sort of state capacity which is a thing obviously that matters a lot for strengthening institutions, but an actual institutional weakness which is made up of sort of the balance between the effort you put into enforcement and the resistance you get from society.


So, what I’m hearing from you is that strong state capacity would be the resources of the state to accomplish these goals. But when you talk about institutional weakness, even when we’re talking about political institutions and their strength or their weakness, we’re talking about how it engages with society. So that institutional weakness doesn’t just involve the state, but it extends beyond the state. Is that right?

Daniel Brinks

Yes, that’s right. And one of the things that I learned sort of in the course of this project was just how much that enforcement effort depends on what we call societal co-production of enforcement. So, it’s not enough to have the police and the prosecutors and the judges on the job or the inspectors or whoever’s in charge of enforcement. But, you know, you depend on social actors for information, for support for the victim or just to cooperate in producing that enforcement in a thousand different ways, right, depending on what the institution is.


So, when we design institutions, when we design constitutional political systems and we establish what we describe oftentimes as political institutions, I don’t think anybody expects them to be weak. Everybody assumes that they’re going to be as strong as they need to be to get the job done. How do institutions become weak in the first place?

Daniel Brinks

Yeah, so the theory in the book is really a theory of coalitional support for institutions. And more, even than a theory of say state enforcement or state capacity. So, when you’re talking about a constitution, for example, constitutions are often bargains. Right? They are a political settlement between different groups in society and to the extent the different groups in society feel that they’ve accomplished a solution as a settlement that works for them. Then they’re going to be invested in enforcing it and not undermining it and not changing it the minute they get the chance. And so, you know, one of the things that you can infer from that is that institutions have to be sort of not overly one sided.

Every institution creates a benefit for someone and a cost for somebody else. Right? Institutions are distributive things and if they create too much of a cost for the losing side, then that losing side is going to spend a lot of energy and a lot of effort, a lot of political investment in undermining that institution either through unenforcement or through sort of changing the institution. So, I think institutions get weak over time when they lose support of important social groups of important say political factions. And they can be born weak. Right? If they’re born without that sort of widespread support.

And so, there was for a long time, you know, a pretty significant international investment in developing different institutions in different countries. You know, the idea was like, well, if we give them the right set of rules, then everything will be fine. They’ll develop well. They’ll have good democracies. Everything will be fine. But by building institutions that have sort of more support in the international arena than they do domestically, you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure.


Yeah, the thing that I always think about when I think of institutions is that they involve relationships between people. The most important thing about an institution is it establishes what the dynamics of the relationship are: how you relate to the people within the institution; people that are the same as you; people that are in charge, you know, that have authority. All this different stuff matters. So, I agree with you entirely that if it’s imposed from above, it doesn’t take into account all the other institutions that it’s going to have to be relating to. And interweaving with and that’s definitely the real problem that we’ve had whenever we try to impose democracy upon other societies. It’s just incredibly complex to make everything work.

Daniel Brinks

There’s a chapter in the book, which I think you’ve probably noticed is about Chile, right, and the strong sort of constitution that Chile has had since 1980. And that was a constitution that didn’t come from the international arena. It was written by Pinochet and his lawyers and it persisted and endured because it really created some underlying structures that made it incredibly difficult to change. Well, you know, an institution that keeps going straight in the same direction, while the society’s sort of moving in a different direction, as that distance between what the institution is accomplishing and what everybody else wants gets greater and greater and greater. Right?

The social cost of that institution grows for everyone. So, there are ways in which institutions can either be born weak because they are imposed from above. They could get weak over time as a society changes and institutions fail to adapt. But there are lots of ways in which, exactly what you, say, right, that the relationships that are created and imposed by that institution or constitution in some cases don’t match the relationships that we have in all the other spheres. And that’s what creates the cost.


Chile’s a fascinating example because I think it was Juan Linz who described Chile as having a birth defect within its constitution, because it was an inheritance of the authoritarian regime as he described. And they’re undergoing a constitutional process right now to completely rewrite the constitution. But we’ve also seen that a lot of attempts to rewrite constitutions don’t go the way that we want. We’ve seen instances like the Venezuelan constitutional process that just reinforce the power of Chavez and eventually led it towards the authoritarianism that it has today. We’ve seen other countries essentially move from democracy to something closer to competitive authoritarianism because of a constitutional process. Chile has had a lot more optimism behind its constitutional process, but I’d like to get your thoughts, especially in terms of whether or not you believe that this process will strengthen or destabilize the institutions that govern Chile.

Daniel Brinks

Well, I mean, you can see any moment of institutional change as a moment of institutional weakness. I mean, the existing institutional arrangement is weakening. Its foundations are being eroded. Right? And so, there’s going to be a change. And the question is, is that going to trigger a set of sort of serial replacements? Is Chile going to enter into a period a little bit like what we’ve seen in the US where it’s like repeal and replace? Like every time you get a new government in, we have to change the whole framework of what the last government did. And I actually don’t think that’s what’s going to happen in this case. And I’ll tell you why.

The last constitution, as we already discussed, was imposed by one particular faction in Chilean society, the people who supported Pinochet, the military, and a fairly narrow set of economic elites at that time. The new constitution is going to be written by a really broad coalition of actors. The rules require men and women to be represented equally. The rules have set up more inclusion for indigenous peoples than any kind of political body has had in Chile in its history. I think, you know, the election for the constituent assembly produced a wide array of people. And the concern might be that by sort of taking the process away from political elites and from political parties that you might create something that doesn’t have the support of the political elites.

And in that case, you would be creating, I think, an institution that’s unlikely to succeed at least over the short run. But I think, you know, the political elites are still in there and we have to see how the debates go inside the constituent assembly. And I think they’re going to play an important role in shaping the new constitution. So, in my view, I think it’s always perilous to predict, especially the future, right, people say. And so, you know, it’ll be interesting to see to what extent the new constitution actually incorporates some of the crucial concerns of existing political elites, the crucial concerns of the popular masses that sort of triggered all the demonstrations and that actually triggered the whole process and also groups that were always excluded like the indigenous and others in Chilean society.


Now, you mentioned that Chile’s current constitution dates back to 1980 during the Pinochet regime. And that means that they’ve had 40 years, really 30, where they’ve actually lived under that constitution to be able to consolidate democracy, be able to understand what it means to live in a democratic process before they began this process of rewriting the constitution. But at the same time, they’ve been living under a constitution written by a dictator for the past 30 years.

I’d like to get your thoughts on whether or not the 30 years Chile had to kind of get used to democracy helped them prepare for this moment to rewrite a constitution or whether or not they should have maybe acted even earlier. And I’m curious about it because I think of it as a roadmap for other countries, like, as they democratized. Do they need to immediately rewrite a constitution or can they find a way to make something work until they feel their bearings and are ready to kind of work together to rewrite that constitution? What are your thoughts?

Daniel Brinks

Yeah, you know, that’s a hard question to answer, because let’s stick with Chile for a moment. Chile had a long democratic history before 1973, right, before the coup. And that long democratic history, which began as a fairly sort of restricted regime where lots of people were excluded. The voting population at one point was like 3% of the total population. You know, it wasn’t particularly inclusive, but it was stable for a really long time and it became more inclusive over time. And that was under, I think, the 1925 constitution, which was also written at a not particularly democratic moment. So, you could say, okay, what Chile has shown is that this process of gradual inclusion, order first, then, you know, some practice before you let the unruly people in and create problems.

So, that would be, that could be one lesson. But I think today in those sort of post-third wave, if you will, of democracy, I think that is maybe less important if it ever was important. You know, I think two of the authors in the book, Albertus and Menaldo, they’ve done some analysis that show just how much constitutions inherited from authoritarian regimes constrain politics after the transition to democracy and they prevent things like more inclusion. They prevent more redistributive policies and that sort of thing.

And that’s what I think led to this social explosion in Chile. There was this really constrained politics that meant that ordinary Chileans became more and more disaffected from the political system. Less and less did they see any answers to their real problems coming out of that system. Right? And that led to this huge social explosion. So, you know, maybe they needed a few years until the Pinochetistas could pass from the scene. Right? Maybe they needed a few years to let the more intense polarization of the pre- and during dictatorship period pass. But then I think sooner might’ve been a little better,


So, in thinking in terms of your theories, in terms of institutional weakness, I find constitutions to be absolutely fascinating because one of the types of institutional weakness arises from non-compliance. And if you believe in democracy and you’re governing under an authoritarian constitution that you’ve inherited and you’re trying to make it work, I can understand how you are looking for workarounds to be able to make the constitution function in a democratic way. And I can understand how you’re essentially making the constitution weaker intentionally, because you’re trying to make it more democratic when it’s really not.

So, I can imagine how it’s important to rewrite that constitution so that you can have an effective one that you abide by, that you can create strong institutions, if you will. The constitution being an institution in my mind that you follow, that everybody’s compliant with. I mean, do you see examples of that happening where democratic leaders find that they have to effectively ignore the constitution to be able to govern under these authoritarian constitutions that they inherited?

Daniel Brinks

Let me give you an example that’s a little closer to home. It’s not necessarily an authoritarian constitution, but, you know, our own constitution. It was written a very long time ago for a country that doesn’t really exist anymore. And it has some constraints in it that people find burdensome today. And at the same time, it has all these checks on change, so you can’t change the constitution formally. It’s very hard to amend. You need a huge super-majority all over the place, all over the country to change the constitution. And so, what we’ve done, I think, is to introduce flexibility through say judicial interpretation or we’ve exploited the silences in the constitution to find ways for the federal government to do things that weren’t maybe imagined back in the day.

So, I think there are ways in which constitutions, if they’re too hard to change, create that really strong incentive to find workarounds and the workaround could be let’s get a Supreme Court that tells us it means something different or it could be we’re just going to ignore that part of the constitution and nobody can tell us we can’t. So, yeah, I think there are things like that in a lot of constitutions. And, you know, one of the things you want from a constitution is stability, endurance, but at the same time too much stability, not enough flexibility can be really problematic for our democracy.


I think about the filibuster too. The way that the filibuster has made it difficult to be able to pass legislation in the United States. And so, we’ve come up with these workarounds like reconciliation. They’re now talking about creating another exception of the filibuster to allow to pass the debt ceiling. It’s the same exact type of thing. Now there’s a strong argument to be made that the filibuster is an institution that needs to be just abolished. But at the same time, it’s when you’re trying to constantly work around this stuff, it’s creating weakness within the institution where it’s no longer really respected in the same way as it was before.

Daniel Brinks

Right. No, the institution is a great example, right? I mean, it’s not quite clear why we haven’t tossed it out. Right? Because it’s not protected by the constitution. So, the majority party could at any moment throw it out and yet they’ve been reluctant to. But then there are these spaces where people think, ‘Oh, here it’s creating way too much of a cost.’ Judicial appointments, initially lower courts then the Supreme Court. As much as we liked the institution, right, here it’s creating too much of a cost. And so, we’re going to kind of limit it here and then we’re going to limit it there through this reconciliation process.

And so, I think, yeah, you could say the filibuster rule used to mean you need the minority party to do anything. And now it means, well, you need the minority party to do most things, but not judicial appointment. Not this. Not that. And, you know, I think that’s part of the process of weakening an institution to the point where it might go away all together.


You know, another parallel to the United States within your book is the presidential system that the United States has. In fact, it’s hard to think of the United States and not think of our presidential system. It takes up a lot of the conversations about politics. One of your writers, Gretchen Helmke, writes, “Strong presidents, beget weak institutions.” Can you help explain how does a presidential system affect the development of other institutions?

Daniel Brinks

Yeah. So, she means something very particular there. But I think it generalizes to lots of other institutions. I don’t think her claim is that in presidential systems you’re bound to have weak institutions and then the stronger the president, the weaker the institutions, necessarily, generally. Right? I think what she’s talking about there is this idea that if you have a really strong president, that is a president that can do a lot of things unilaterally without support from the legislature, that the president can do things that create huge costs for the parties in the legislature. And so, those parties are going to start doing things like trying to impeach the president, trying to limit the president, trying to undermine the president’s policies, trying to tie the president’s hands. That sort of thing.

And so, in a way, it’s the very ability of the president to act unchecked that creates this strong incentive for the legislature to undermine the president. And that’s what she’s talking about there. I mean, if you want to generalize that to institutions, it’s a little bit similar to what you were saying in respect to constitutions. Constitutions are meant to be the really strong institutions in our society and if they’re doing something really important like… take what they were doing in Chile until recently.

In Chile, they were preventing reform of the education system, preventing reform of the taxing system, preventing reform of the electoral system. The constitution was sort of protecting all these arrangements that society found incredibly burdensome and costly. And so, because it was doing so much that created this really strong incentive to change it. If the constitution had been more modest in its intentions, it could have lasted another hundred years maybe.


Yeah, it was an interesting portion of your book where she is writing specifically in that quote about the need to be able to impeach presidents that have too many powers. Because a president that has so much control over the government, if they’re not doing an absolutely fantastic job, the whole government comes to a halt and their only remedy is we need to get rid of the president, put in somebody new. And that was kind of what she meant. So, yes, I’m with you a hundred percent in terms of that passage. But it also brings to mind about the whole idea about impeachment itself and what exactly that means because we’ve seen cases of impeachment that we look at and we question whether or not that’s truly democratic.

While on the other hand, sometimes you think of impeachment as the only remedy for a democracy to be able to move forward. There was an example, for instance, in Paraguay years ago where president Lugo was impeached mainly because he was from a political party that wasn’t one of the two main political parties and so, they found it convenient just to impeach him and move on to a new president. That feels incredibly undemocratic. On the other hand, we saw Dilma Rousseff. That felt undemocratic the way that they were impeaching her because they were trying to move forward with the corruption investigations. And many of the people voting for impeachment were implicated in the corruption scandal itself. How do you think about impeachment? Is that institutional strength? Is that a weakness? How do we interpret impeachment as an Institution?

Daniel Brinks

So, I would say the misuse of an institution is a weakness. Right? Remember what we said. Right? You have this ideal in mind that the institution is trying to achieve. Instead, what you’re doing is something that’s orthogonal to that that is, in the opposite direction. So, impeachment, people often sort of tar impeachment as undemocratic because it seeks to reverse the result of an election, assuming there was a free and fair election and this person was properly elected. Then an impeachment by definition is trying to undo the results of that election. But the thing is that impeachment is meant as a safety device. We have these moments of accountability that are built into the electoral cycle. There’s accountability every four years for the president.

But maybe as a society, we can’t wait that long. If there’s something really wrong going on, if the president is violating the terms under which we put that person in office. So, I think understanding impeachment properly as a mechanism for maintaining accountability of a president to the oath of office, to the purposes of the office, to the public purposes for which we put that person there. Then a strong impeachment institution will remove presidents who are violating the terms under which we put them in office and will leave the rest of them alone. It won’t be hijacked for policy purposes or partisan purposes. I think that’s the hard thing. At what point is this person doing something that I just don’t like from a policy perspective and at what point is this person actually violating the public trust that we’ve deposited.


We’ve seen a number of impeachments throughout Latin America over the years. Do you think impeachment is used too much and is the impeachment process usually indicative of institutional weakness within most countries in Latin America?

Daniel Brinks

Without actually having done like a big survey, I think I would say, I think it’s being overused. In a way it’s like the parliamentarization of presidential systems. You’re treating presidents almost like prime ministers where when they lose the confidence of the legislature, they can be removed and so on. But the institutional arrangement is not really set up to do that.

And so, we’ve had cases in which, I mean, there was the case in Ecuador, which you might remember where the legislature couldn’t get the votes to actually impeach the president. But there was a lower threshold for removing a president that has lost his mental faculties. So, they basically declared the president insane and took him out of office, because they couldn’t reach the threshold for impeachment. That sort of thing. The Lugo thing with virtually no discussion, with no debate from one day to the next, the president is out. That Dilma thing where you had people sort of protecting their own interests and kicking her out because of partisan politics. So, many instances in Latin America of the misuse of impeachment.


So, you have three different types of institutional weakness. I know we’ve been talking about this for a while. Why don’t we lay those out? And then I’ve got a more specific question regarding probably, in my opinion, the most important one, which was non-compliance.

Daniel Brinks

Sure. The first one is maybe the least intuitive. We call it insignificance. But it’s the example I gave you earlier. If everybody’s driving 65 and you set the speed limit at 75, it might look like the institution is doing a lot because nobody violates it. But it’s actually not changing anybody’s behavior. It’s basically irrelevant to what you’re trying to do. Nobody cares, because you’re not asking anybody to do anything that they wouldn’t be doing anyway. So, that’s the first kind is insignificance. The second kind is non-compliance, which is mostly what we’ve been talking about so far, which is the institution says people should do X, everybody’s doing something else.

And the last one is instability. So, one of the things that we think institutions are supposed to do is to sort of provide predictable behavior over time and not change anytime somebody has a different interest. So, you know, if I could automatically adjust the speed limit to go higher when I’m late and lower when I’m not, then it’s not really doing any work either. So, the idea is that institutions should constrain behavior and therefore not be insignificant. That they should be complied with and that they should remain in place for a significant amount of time.


Are new institutions naturally weak and get stronger over time or do institutions that are designed well just begin as strong and we know it when we see it?

Daniel Brinks

Yeah. I mean, I think that new institutions have some hurdles that they have to overcome. One of the things that makes institutions strong, we’ve talked about this a little bit, is societal co-production. And at some point, institutions become so ingrained that we comply out of habit and not out of a sort of strict calculation of whether this is in my best interest or not. And so, there’s a way in which keeping an institution in place over time helps people develop sort of patterns of compliance in a way. It also sort of creates people who are good at playing the game under those rules and so they’re going to protect the rules. There are a lot of ways in which an institution that stays in place over time can build its own sources of strength.

At the same time, we’ve seen lots of institutions that come in and just burst out of the gate running and that usually depends on sort of particular moments. I would say widespread political activity and widespread consensus around the need for a change. And then followed up with a significant investment of state resources into enforcement.


Yeah, I think a lot about the American constitution in that way where its real strength comes from the fact that it’s just been around for so long. And so, it’s just kind of become part of the zeitgeist part of the culture, because a lot of political scientists can pick it apart and explain all the different problems with it. But the problems don’t matter as much as they would in other contexts, because it just has a different level of commitment because of how long it’s been around.

Daniel Brinks

Yeah, I mean, think about the electoral college. That’s a clear example of, so you have politicians in power who’ve learned to play the game under the rules of the electoral college, and they win under those rules. Right? So, to change it, we would be asking people who win under the existing rules to create a different game. Which might not be quite so favorable to them. Part of the support for the constitution is just because it’s been around for 200 years, so we invested in this kind of aura of legitimacy and stability and everything else. And part of it is just that we’ve really learned to play the game under the rules that the constitution lays out. You know, the Senate is very, very shaped by the constitution and it has an interest in protecting that. It would be really hard to change.


So, one of the types of institutional weakness and the one that we’ve mainly focused on is non-compliance. And I see a lot of parallels in this between your co-editor Steven, Levitsky’s past work, How Democracies Die, where we think about democratic norms and the way that people essentially just choose not to comply with some of those norms can bring about a decline in democracy. I think of the same thing in terms of if people don’t comply with the norms of those institutions, we see a decline in the effectiveness of those institutions. But at the same time, when we think about non-compliance, it’s hard to separate between the weakness of the institution compared to the noncompliance of just an individual.

So, when we look at somebody like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who’s breaking a lot of norms in governance, do we think of that as Jair Bolsonaro being noncompliant with something or do we think of the institution of the presidency Having an institutional weakness or a different institution that he’s interacting with being weak? When we see Donald Trump who’s breaking certain norms and being noncompliant, is that Donald trump being an exception or is that the institutions breaking down or the institutions weakening? So, I’d like to get your sense on how we differentiate between the non-compliance of individuals, especially when they’re incredibly powerful, versus the actual weakening of an institution over time.

Daniel Brinks

Yeah, that’s a really big question again. I mean, because, on the one hand, we don’t say, ‘You know, people still get murdered. The law against murder is not working. It’s a weakened institution. We need to throw it out, because some people fail to comply.’ We expect that that’s part of the reason we have the institution. That’s why we have a whole enforcement structure around. Now the tricky thing about sort of regime level institutions is that they’re more diffused. They’re more complicated. They have lots of different actors interacting at different levels. And one of the things that’s interesting about such a complex system as a regime is the extent to which it is under-institutionalized.

I mean, especially in a place like the US which has such an old constitution. You have just a few big rules and then all the space in between is occupied by these norms. I mean, to take a really clear example and one that’s been under threat recently, I guess, is the norm that we have nine justices on the Supreme Court and that you can’t pack the court to get a different result in the cases. I mean, that’s not written anywhere. It’s not in the constitution. Is there a way in which the sort of pretty widespread violation of norms in the prior administration… Which was sort of a point of pride for the administration. Right? They were there to do things differently. They didn’t really care about the norms. They were there to shake things up and that sort of thing.

If you take out that connective tissue of norms between the big institutional guidelines, are you weakening the whole institution? I think you are for a couple reasons. One is because those norms are what produced what we were referring to earlier as the societal co-production of enforcement and compliance. But also, because, especially when you have a sort of bare bones, open-ended institutional framework for the regime, you can really change the nature of the regime by changing the nature of those inter-institutional norms. So, you could push the regime in a less inclusive direction, in a less rights, protective direction. You could do lots of different things just by changing those interstitial norms without having to change the constitution and that I think would move us away sort of from where at least we imagine the constitution is trying to take us.


So, Dan, we’ve been talking a lot about institutional weakness. We’ve been talking about the ways that we can identify it. How can we strengthen political institutions, particularly democratic institutions that we want to be strong? How do we reverse the trend? How do we create strong democratic institutions?

Daniel Brinks

I think you have to pay attention to the institutions themselves. So, there’s often what we see as institutional weakness or what manifests as institutional weakness is societal resistance to an institution that doesn’t seem to be providing the benefits, we expected it to provide. So, why did Brazil so fall apart in the lead up to Bolsonaro’s election? Because, you know, people thought we created this new democratic system. It was going to give us a better way to live, a better way to be. It was going to provide some foundation for prosperity and it’s failing. It’s not doing it.

So, I think a lot of the task is in making sure that you are sort of developing solid institutions that can generate the sort of social support that you need to keep them strong, to keep them in force and then to sort of invest in supporting those institutions, if you think they’re important. So, Mexico is struggling to improve its rates of domestic violence and so on. And they’re going to keep working on it and supporting both from the state side supporting the institutions that help with enforcement, but then also on the civil society side, NGOs that are working to change those social norms that produce resistance.

So, I think there’s that sort of dual investment and making sure that the institutions are actually providing the benefits that you thought they would provide, so they don’t lose legitimacy because they’re routinely ignored and violated. But also sort of developing that social base of support through really kind of old-fashioned grassroots work, education, all that sort of thing.


Well, thanks so much for joining. This has been fun. I want to plug the book one more time. It’s an edited volume, which means it’s going to have chapters from different authors. But these are some of the leading political scientists, particularly within the region of Latin America, I mean, studying the region of Latin America. It’s The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America. And along with Dan Brinks, it’s got two other co-editors Steven Levitsky and Maria Victoria Murillo, which again are two very powerful scholars in their own right as well. So, thank you so much for putting the book together and thank you so much for helping explain institutional weakness. This has been definitely an insightful conversation.

Daniel Brinks

It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you for calling.

Key Links

The Politics of Institutional Weakness in Latin America edited by Daniel M. Brinks, Steven Levitsky, and María Victoria Murillo

Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin where Daniel Brinks teaches

Centre of Law and Social Transformation at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway where Daniel Brinks is a Senior Researcher & Global Scholar

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