Democratization and Democratic Backsliding
The recent episode with Michael Coppedge touched on an interesting idea. The causes for democratization might be distinct from the causes for its decline. Coppedge notes the idea is not new. Dankwart Rustow made this argument in an influential paper called, “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model.” He published it in 1970 in the journal Comparative Politics. Rustow argues functional theories of democracy should have differences from genetic theories. In other words, the conditions for democratization must have differences from its ongoing maintenance. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to put this idea into a model or even a theory. It’s easier to consider conditions as either favorable or unfavorable for democracy.
Nonetheless, Rustow argued for what he called a dynamic model. He saw democratization as a regime transition. It is a period of change. This is not unusual. Most scholars recognize democratization as a period of regime transformation. However, he saw regime consolidation as a period of stasis. In other words, momentum slows and eventually stops. Democratic consolidation brings regime transition to a close into a democratic regime. Still, autocratic regimes can consolidate as well. Indeed, many scholars today even refer to the consolidation of competitive authoritarianism.
Of course, this approach has profound implications. Rustow argued democracy is not perpetually in flux. Rather different conditions disrupt democratic consolidation from what encourage democratization. Indeed, the same conditions in different environments might even have different effects. For example, a powerful authoritarian party might choose to democratize from a position of strength. Meanwhile, a political party in a democratic system that wins overwhelming majorities might produce democratic setbacks. Fidesz is a perfect example of a political party who used overwhelming majorities to erode democracy. It’s yet again another insight made years ago worth revisiting to better understand democracy today.