Democracy in Hard Places
Yesterday I kicked off a series of episodes focused on democracy in hard places. The first episode featured Dan Slater in a discussion about democracy in Indonesia. The conversation loosely focused on a chapter Dan wrote in a forthcoming book called Democracy in Hard Places. It’s a fascinating examination of democracy in unconventional circumstances. The editors, Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud, describe democracies in hard places as societies that “overcome underdevelopment, ethnolinguistic diversity, state weakness, and patriarchal cultural norms.” Unlike so much recent scholarship on democracy, it does not focus on democratic failures, but rather the resiliency of democracy in difficult environments.
I find myself drawn to the idea of democracy in hard places for both academic and sentimental reasons. It’s an idea with profound implications. The examples in this book challenge conventional theories about democratization. They do not fit the typical blueprint so they require us to question our assumptions about democratization and democracy. For example, Americans frequently lament the failure of institutions. But democracies in hard places do not have those luxuries. Scott Mainwaring writes, “In almost all democracies in hard places, institutional weakness is an ongoing problem. Counting on institutions alone, or even in combination with a partisan balance, to protect democracy is a poor bet.”
At the end of the day, democracy depends on the commitment of its citizens. Speaking on democracy in Indonesia, Dan Slater emphasized on the podcast, “The voters have been the ones to defend democracy. They’ve been the ones to reject the most anti-pluralistic candidates.” Scott Mainwaring also notes, “Without institutional constraints, democracy’s survival would rest solely on actors’ willingness to accept costs to protect democracy.” Democracy in Hard Places reminds us that democracy never goes on autopilot. Citizens and elites must remain committed and engaged for democracy to succeed.