Scott Mainwaring on Argentina and a Final Reflection on Democracy in Hard Places

Scott Mainwaring

Scott Mainwaring is the Eugene P. and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, where he previously served as director for 13 years and is a current Advisory Board member. He is the coeditor (with Tarek Masoud) of Democracy in Hard Places.

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I think they’re really important. But I don’t think that they are a complete safeguard. Certainly, when you create democracies in hard places, you want to think very carefully about what institutions you want in place and how you strengthen them. But if you get illiberal governing parties in democracies in hard places, they can run over institutions.

Scott Mainwaring

Key Highlights

  • Introduction 0:47
  • Why is Argentina a hard place for democracy? 2:35
  • Are democracies in hard places the exception or the norm? 9:19
  • Is Peronism a threat to democracy? 12:01
  • How can democracies strengthen institutions? 19:32
  • What role do citizens play? 33:27

Podcast Transcript

Over the past few weeks the podcast has examined democracies in hard places. This week will conclude the short series as we move onto other topics. So, today’s episode is with Scott Mainwaring. He is the coeditor along with Tarek Masoud of the book Democracy in Hard Places. While we talk quite a bit about Argentina as an example, this conversation also recaps some of the bigger picture ideas and concepts of the last few weeks. 

Scott Mainwaring is somebody I’ve wanted to talk to for a long time. He is among the most influential political scientists alive today. Currently, he is a professor of political science at Notre Dame University. 

Our conversation touches on a lot of detail that you might want to revisit. So, I have a complete transcript at I’ve also included chapters with time stamps in the show notes to make it easier to replay sections. Those who want to hear more should support the podcast at Patreon where you can hear additional bonus content from the interview. But for now… This is my conversation with Scott Mainwaring…


Scott Mainwaring, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Scott Mainwaring

Thank you. Thank you for having me.


So, Scott, I found it interesting how you brought up Argentina as a case of democracy in a hard place, because Argentina is in South America, which I think of as a region with decades of democratic experience. A lot of the other examples come from regions like Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eurasia where democracy feels much less secure. How do you think of Argentina as being a hard place for democracy to thrive?

Scott Mainwaring

Well, I guess three reasons. The first is that Argentina was one of the world champions of democratic breakdowns in the 20th century. A fact that is less observed in the great book by Adam Przeworski, et al, Democracy and Development, if you look at the regression, the main regression table in that book, the independent variable with the greatest explanatory value for democratic breakdowns is past democratic breakdowns. So, Argentina’s very deep authoritarian past was likely to be very problematic for democracy after 1983. This is a country that had many, many profoundly authoritarian political actors. The second thing that made it a very difficult place was that in 1983, at the dawn of its democracy, the new regime inherited a ruinous economic situation.

Moreover, democracy in Argentina has presided over three brutal economic crises. In all three of these crises per capita GDP has plummeted by more than 20%. So, we’re talking about very long and cumulatively very steep declines in living standards. The first crisis culminated in an inflation rate of 4923% by a United Nations estimate in 1989. The second great economic crisis culminated in the late nineties, 2001-2002, but it began around 1994. In that crisis poverty almost tripled in Argentina from about 16% to about 45%. Again, we’re talking about a country that had a very large middle class. You see the impoverishment of a huge swath of the population.

It would be very easy for democracy to have collapsed. Indeed, in a period of about a month in December 2001 through early January 2002, Argentina went through five presidents. That was a period of enormous turmoil. The last economic crisis, I think is maybe the least daunting. But still since 2012 per capita GDP has dropped again by more than 20%. Inflation today is at about 60%. So, it’s one of the higher inflation rates in the world. I can’t think of a democracy that has survived three economic crises of this kind of severity.

The third factor that made Argentina a very hard place was an unreconstructed military in 1983. This was a military that had presided over the most brutal dictatorship in Argentina at least in the 20th century. It was incredibly challenging to figure out how do you, on the one hand, confront this military and bring the worst human rights abusers to trial and at the same time, prevent this military from rebelling from a coup. Argentina did face four very important, very consequential military rebellions in the eighties up till 1990. But at the same time, the first democratic government engaged in the most aggressive policy of prosecuting human rights abuses since the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46.

So, all of these were huge challenges. They did make democracy in Argentina a very difficult challenge. If you look back at both what political scientists and political sociologists were saying in Argentina at that time and at public opinion surveys, both were very pessimistic that democracy would survive, if economic conditions remained as terrible as they did.


Still, Argentina has sustained democracy throughout all of this for nearly four decades. Today is it still a hard place for democracy?

Scott Mainwaring

I think it’s a much less hard place than it was until 1990. New challenges have emerged. I think it would be facile to say that it’s easy today. What are the new challenges? First, I think mostly because of poor governance performance over much of this period, the percentage of the Argentine citizenry that expresses a clear commitment to democracy has declined. This is a phenomenon that we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, including in the US. It’s worrisome. It opens new space for anti-Democrats. Second, people are weary. They’re understandably weary of bad governance and what we see time and time again is if you exhaust the governing formulas, if you discredit most of the mainstream governing parties, this opens space.

It doesn’t immediately open space for different, alternative, less democratic or more authoritarian options, but it certainly creates that possibility. That’s a crucial explanation for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018. Both the left and the right, for quite different reasons, were discredited. What do you do when you don’t believe in either of the mainstream options? An alternative becomes more attractive.


So, it sounds like Argentina on paper should be an easier place for democracy to survive today than it was in the past. But on the ground, it sounds like it really is still in many ways a hard place for democracy. But we’re also seeing that in other places like the United States and Europe. Is democracy in a hard place, is that becoming more the norm rather than the exception?

Scott Mainwaring

I think the answer to that is yes. For several reasons. One is that worldwide there are some new kinds of challenges to democracy. I have two particular challenges in mind. One is COVID which in some places created the excuse for infringing on freedoms and liberties. The other one is a new media environment, social media, which makes it easier to propagate lies. I mean, some politicians have always lied. But lies are particularly powerful. They’re particularly useful for authoritarians. We know that, for example, I mean, Stalin doctored photos. He deleted Trotsky and put himself close to Lenin in all of these famous doctored photos. Now we have the great lie which a lot of the Republican Party in the US believes. Lies really serve the ends of authoritarians.

So, right now we see the crumbling of an old media environment and its displacement by one in which alternative facts come into being. On top of that we have a world of less economic growth, of greater inequalities, and finally, very importantly, a worse international environment for democracy. I have a Brazilian colleague, a very distinguished professor of law at the university of São Paulo, who shortly after Jair Bolsonaro’s election said to me, ‘Without Trump, there would be no Bolsonaro.’ I’m not certain that that’s true, but it’s interesting that a very distinguished scholar would say that that’s true. So, you know, we know that there are these rightwing populist authoritarian networks that cut across different parts of the globe. They’re not restricted to any particular country. All of this, I think makes democracy harder in most places in the world.


So, you just mentioned populism and you’ve referred to two populists. One was Donald Trump. Another is Bolsonaro. Almost the birthplace of populism is Argentina in many people’s minds with Juan Perón. We have seen a number of Peronists elected in Argentina. We have a president right now who is a Peronist. So, whether you want to use the term populism, personalism, or charismatic leadership to describe the kind of idea of Peronism, it’s oftentimes described in negative connotations when it comes to the survival or the proliferation of democracy. Do you feel like Peronism is a threat to democratic governance in Argentina?

Scott Mainwaring

Well, it certainly was in the first two incarnations from 1946-55 and 1973-76. For the period since 1983 I think we have to give a much more nuanced answer. Some of the Peronist presidents since 1983 have had tinges of illiberalism, but they aren’t the full throated illiberals that Juan Perón was from 1946 to 55. They aren’t nearly as deeply illiberal as Bolsonaro. This is partially because some of them suffered personally under the last military dictatorship. Peronism rejected authoritarian paths after the last military dictatorship.

Now, I mean, there’s another way of thinking about your question, which is more the governance side than the illiberalism side. Unfortunately, I think that no party in Argentina, neither Peronist nor it’s center or center-right alternatives has governed effectively since 1983. You had a period during the great commodity boom when if you looked at rates of economic growth and poverty reduction, Argentina appeared to be doing pretty well. But I think probably all of that was driven by the commodity boom. In retrospect it looks like there was an exaggerated expansion of the state during that period. Argentina now has the highest tax revenue and public expenditure in Latin America. It’s very, very high for a country of its level of GDP. Argentina, just for whatever reason, hasn’t been able to get things right really since the 1920s.


I remember reading a book about the previous president in Argentina, Macri, and how people thought he was really going to be that change, because he was not a Peronist. He was somebody who was different. He was from a new political party. He was from a center-right political party. So, they thought that with what looked like a disaster from the Kirchners in terms of the economy that maybe they needed to have a shift to somebody who was more conservative economically. But he lasted just one term and by the end of the term, it looked like things were just as bad as they could have been under the Kirchners. So, I think you’re right entirely. It seems like whether it was people on the left or people on the right the outcomes seem to have been the same in Argentina in terms of its economy.

Scott Mainwaring

Yes, the outcomes have been consistently poor, if you take away the period of the great commodity boom. But a question that I can’t answer, you know, Macri inherited very difficult conditions from Cristina Kirchner at least in part because of the end of the commodity boom, but also in part because of unwise economic policies that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner implemented. So, you’re absolutely right. I mean, if you look at results under Macri, they were very, very poor and they’ve been very, very poor under Alberto Fernandez since 2019.


So, in the book you have an interesting line where you write, “Democracy can endure despite the lack of a powerful conservative party,” and that’s a theme among people who write about Argentina. I mean, I’ve had James Lockton on the podcast. When he talks about conservative parties, he brings up Argentina as an example. You can go back to older scholars who talked about Argentina as well. How does a powerful conservative party contribute to democratic consolidation?

Scott Mainwaring

Well, I should maybe first say that I am not a proponent of that argument. To me it depends greatly on what that conservative party is. If it’s an illiberal, anti-democratic conservative party that’s going to be very bad for democracy. What is the advantage of a strong, but liberal in the sense of liberal democratic conservative party for democracy? That you protect the interests of some core actors. These could be, for example, the military. They could be business interests and it could be moral and/or religious conservatives. You want those actors to be in the democratic game. So, the advantage of a strong, but democratic conservative party is precisely that these powerful actors, again, typically the military, many business interests, and usually some religious institutions that they have a foot in the game. They have an electoral agent that can help protect their interests.

If those actors feel radically threatened, they have the power to derail democracy. For me the more important part of that statement though is if they feel radically threatened. In Argentina from 1983 to 2015, there was no major conservative party. Quite to the contrary, the conservative parties were ephemeral and very, very weak. What you also had in Argentina during those 32 years was there were no radical actors who were threatening conservative business interests. There were actors who were threatening the old authoritarian groups of the military, but those groups were so discredited by the last dictatorship that there was a space to prosecute them. Those actors did not deeply threaten religious interests either. They challenged religious interests here and there for sure. But the Catholic Church, which is the most important religious actor in Argentina, also came to accept some losses under democracy. ‘We’re not going to go back to 1976 when we supported a coup and were disgraced in the process of doing so.’


So, a common theme throughout this series of podcasts has actually been the idea of weak institutions. I feel like as we’ve been talking about Argentina one of the issues that we’ve come across sometimes is their weak institutions. For example, with their political parties, I don’t feel like there’s really strong institutionalized opposition to the Peronists. I mean, there are the Radicals. But they don’t win very often. It feels like it’s a very weak opposition. I would also sense that that’s the case in some of the other institutions within Argentina in different ways. But even more so when we go outside of Argentina and we look at cases like South Africa, definitely when we looked at Benin. Weak institutions continue to come back into the conversation.

If we’re going to move a democracy from being in a hard place to something that’s more secure, it feels like we need to find ways to strengthen those institutions. How can democracies strengthen their political institutions?

Scott Mainwaring

Yes, it’s a great question and I do agree with the premise that solidifying institutions is fundamental. Let me begin with an institution that is not a democratic institution, but is key to the functioning of democracy. That is the police. The relationship between the police and democracies is very under theorized. Why do I mention it? Because one of the great threats to democracy can arise when public security is terrible. We see this in public opinion data. We see it in voting data. Who are the people who are most likely to vote for authoritarians who want to abuse human rights? They’re the people who are most concerned about crime as an issue.

So, this is an issue that I think has been badly under theorized. Yanilda Gonzalez at Harvard has a great new book on the topic. But figuring out how you make police both more effective and democratic, I think is central. So, that’s one of the institutions that paradoxically deserves much more attention than we’ve given it. The second institution that I think is critical is courts and other related institutions. They do a few things. One is they generate checks and balances on the president, but in addition, they protect citizen interests and citizen rights.

Of course, one of the grave limitations to democracies in countries where you have semi-democratic regimes or what some have called illiberal democracies is precisely that rights are violated with great frequency. So, thinking about how you build courts, a judicial system that protects rights that can check presidents, but that does not overreach.


So, a few months ago I actually had on Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley to talk about the criminalization of politics in Mexico. A point that they brought up was that Mexico made a mistake during its democratization process. They did not democratize the police and other forms of its security and that’s one of the reasons for the rise of illiberal democracy within Mexico. But one of the things that we didn’t really get to or explain was how do you democratize the police force. How do you democratize law enforcement? I mean, I feel like that’s a problem that we’re dealing with even in the United States in many ways right now with the Black Lives Matter Movement. So, why don’t we open up that door? What steps do you take to turn an institution that is oftentimes synonymous with authoritarianism into a more democratic one?

Scott Mainwaring

It’s a great question and I have very little expertise on this topic. Almost none. But I’m going to give you some intuitions, but they are not certainties. One, I mean, you first really need an effective police. It can’t merely be about how you democratize. So, I don’t really know the sociology of criminality, but you need, of course, a police force that’s big enough. That’s well enough trained. That’s well enough paid. One of the big problems is if you don’t pay your police, you’re opening them to bribes by criminal organizations. These criminal organizations in Latin America, and I’m sure this is true in Africa and parts of Eurasia, move vast, vast, sums of money.

So, you certainly cannot pay them enough on public payrolls to take down to zero the possibility of bribing them. But if you pay them adequately, you can probably reduce the probability of corrupting the police. A second, I mean, this is an obvious thing to say, but police training, police training about human rights. You have to have a system that will engage in some prosecutions of egregious police wrongdoing in Brazil. The numbers are horrific, right? In the last years, the police have killed something like 6,200 people a year. This is not counting police who work in private militias on the side and kill more people in private militias. So, you know, over a decade you’re talking about 60,000 people. I mean, these are just terrible numbers.

You’ve got to have a system in place that can prosecute some of those wrong doings so at least you have a better chance if you impose institutional rules, more accountability. So, the police homicides in Brazil, I think it’s the case. I might be wrong about this, but I believe that they go through military proceedings and I mean, they’re just whitewashed. The family’s victims are almost always poor families and they never get justice. The police who commit these homicides never get successfully prosecuted.

Now, a third thing that we see increasingly the US police pointing toward is gun safety. I mean, if you have 300 some million guns in the United States, you make policing a much more dangerous enterprise. The same is true in Brazil and in Mexico and central America.The police are going up against criminal organizations that might have more fire power than they do. So, figuring out ways to control the international movement of arms is also part of what we have to be thinking about.


One of the other themes in this book, Democracy in Hard Places, is leadership. And I feel like there’s a yin yang between leadership and institutions. Like they are two sides of the same coin when we’re talking about democracy in hard places, because it’s not so much that you just need to have democratic leaders. You need to have democratic leaders who help build those institutions. That means building effective institutions, but building effective institutions that are democratic institutions. In the book you write, “If political actors value the rights and procedures that are defining features of democracy, democracy is more likely to survive.” And I think that’s kind of self-evident, but it’s something we always need to be able to remember. Do you feel like that political leadership is necessary to reinforce the institution building process within democracies in hard places?

Scott Mainwaring

Let me answer your question circuitously. First, I think you’re right. That this point that I made is to me and to you is self-evident. But it’s not widely accepted. I mean, there are political scientists including some great ones who argue that all politicians are the same and that they’ll do anything to remain in power forever. If you accept that premise, then all politicians, all parties, are authoritarian and there’s no difference in how much they value democracy. They value democracy zero. So, while I think that this is a point that to many people is evident, I think it’s been widely underappreciated in political science. Among journalists, no. I think most journalists who write on democracy issues in the US would be shocked to find out that this is at all controversial. It seems almost stupid to say it.

So, the way I think about this is that just as parties have very different positions on economic policy, on abortion, on a zillion different issues they also have very different perspectives. On the elements that comprise liberal democracy, some parties accept electoral losses. Some don’t. Some parties want to expand rights and some want to contract rights. So, you can add all of these things up and say, yeah, some parties really embrace and want to deepen democracy and others want to do exactly the opposite.

But back to your question. I completely agree with your premise that leadership is important. Typically, leadership is especially important in less institutionalized democracies, so democracies in hard places. For example, the case of Benin – I mean, my own reading of this case is very superficial, but what I see is that a profoundly illiberal leader gets elected and then overturns democracy. I was just astonished when I compiled the data about the correlation between governing party illiberalism and democratic outcomes. If you have an illiberal party, illiberal governing party, in place, you are in trouble. If the governing party scores low on the illiberalism index that is if it embraces liberal democratic values, democracy will survive. There are no exceptions to that.

Now, part of where leadership comes in is democratically committed leaders can help build those institutions. That’s the case to go back to an earlier part of our conversation of Nehru, Gandhi, and others with the Congress Party in India. Did that mean that the Congress party was forever committed to those liberal values? Well, there was a blip with Indira Gandhi when it certainly wasn’t, but then it returned to basically embracing those liberal democratic values. So, in Argentina I think Alfonsín, the first president from 1983 to 89, is an interesting example. He had been one of the founding members of one of Argentina’s earliest human rights groups. So, this is someone who throughout his career before becoming president had been very committed to human rights and to liberal democratic values in the failed Argentine democracy of 1973-76. This made him a very unusual outlier.

I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which Alfonsín helped to build democracy. But he was an inspirational first example and he did help build some critical institutions including the way he profoundly challenged military prerogatives. I think it was his fifth day in office or something. He called for the creation of that great Human Rights Commission that wrote the Nunca Más report. I think there were 50,000 testimonies. So, Alfonsín started to set in place the idea of human rights as a fundamental institution in Argentina. There was a short reversal in the 90s, but it was a short reversal, which then the Peronist President Néstor Kirchner really reversed.

I mean, you can criticize Kirchner on some grounds, but in terms of championing human rights, he was great. He picked up what Alfonsín started. He also built a certain court capacity to prosecute human rights abusers. So, at least for some generations of democracy in Argentina, you began to institutionalize a memory. Human rights violations are terrible. Democracy is a value to cherish.


So, we’ve been talking about leadership, but democracy is supposed to be governance of the people, by the people. What role do citizens themselves play in these democracies that exist in hard places?

Scott Mainwaring

This is something that we don’t talk about enough in the book, but I think there are at least two critical observations. The first is that where you have a democratic citizenry, democracy is on much firmer ground. So, the case that I know really well in this book is Argentina. There are Argentine scholars who know it better than I, for sure. But in Argentina, there’s a lot of piecemeal evidence that Argentine citizens really did not value democracy in the 60s and 70s. But then if you look at early opinion surveys after 1983, there was a profound change. Argentina steadily has had one of the most democratic public opinions since 1983 in Latin America. It’s gone downhill in the last decade which I find worrisome, but it’s still one of the most democratic public opinions in the region.

If you have a democratic public opinion, it greatly reduces and maybe even forecloses the possibility of executive takeovers. Usually, the presidents who engage in executive takeovers give off signs even before they come to office, ‘Hey, I’m an authoritarian’ and citizens who are committed to democracy are not generally going to vote for this kind of candidate. What is the second way in which citizens are really important for building democracy? Social movements. We don’t talk enough about social movements in this book and I don’t fault with any of them. You can just say so much in one book, but let’s just take the US as an example.

I think there were four great moments of democratization in the US. There’s a first moment, let’s say mostly in the 1820s and 30s, characterized by a massive enfranchisement of white males and by the gradual acceptance of the legitimacy of democratic opposition. There’s a second moment, which is let’s say 1865-68, which is the mass enfranchisement of black men. There’s a third moment which I would say is 1918-24 which is the mass enfranchisement of women and Native Americans. Then there’s a fourth moment, which is the Civil Rights Movement, which leads to the mass refranchising of blacks in the South. Social movements weren’t the only key actors in the third and fourth moments, but they were absolutely crucial.

I think this is true when you look at democratization in many places around the world. If you look at the South African story, it was a black social movement that primarily drove democratization. In India it was the Indian independence movement that primarily drove democratization. In Argentina a human rights movement was a fundamental pillar in driving democratization. So, we don’t talk enough about citizens in this book, but I think they’re really, really important. A third way in which they can be important is much more destructive and that is when citizens embrace authoritarians.


So, Scott, as we look to wrap up, your work has been really influential on many political scientists. You’ve written a lot and people look to you as somebody to learn from already. But I feel like this book was something that was almost new even for yourself. It seems like it opened up just a different perspective to be able to think about democracy. So, I’d just like to ask you, what has the study of democracy in hard places taught you that you didn’t already know about democracy?

Scott Mainwaring

Well, I mean, I think there were things that I thought were very credible theories about what makes democracy work that really, I think in this book, it’s not that I completely dismissed them, but I found them unconvincing. So, at a minimum they reinforced my skepticism. One is that democracy is just about a balance of power. One party will accept electoral losses because they know they can win the next time.

Well, one obvious problem with that logic is that if I have the reins of power, if I’m an illiberal actor, I’m going to make sure that there is no next time with free and fair elections. I’m going to do everything I can now to diminish the chance that I’ll lose the next time. And that can be pretty successful, right? I mean, Viktor Orbán in 2010 immediately began changing the rules so that his chance of losing was diminished in 2014. But my other observation about that is when we look at these democracies in hard places, there is no balance of power South Africa. You might explain the initial transition to democracy in 1994 through a balance of power.

But since then, every time the ANC wins in overwhelming landslides. There’s no balance of power in South Africa. I can’t give you a great explanation for why South African democracy has maintained itself. But I think at least part of the explanation is probably that Nelson Mandela and his group within the ANC deeply embraced liberal democratic values. They’re challenged within the ANC. They’re not entirely hegemonic. I wouldn’t dare to say that I think that’s going to go on forever. But I think it’s probably part of the story. The other perspective that certainly doesn’t hold up when you look at democracy in hard places is about institutions. That institutions protect democracy. That’s not the story in this book. These are countries with relatively weak institutions.

I buy the Levitsky and Ziblatt argument that institutions aren’t enough to protect democracy. Because when you have partisan control of all of the institutions, those institutional safeguards just don’t work. So, my great friend and venerable colleague Kurt Weyland has argued repeatedly that institutions are enough and he points to the US in 2020. But if it weren’t for a few people in some key states, those institutional safeguards might not have worked. A lot of Republicans are trying to get rid of the people who made the decisions that made those institutions work. So, I think institutions help. I think they’re really important. But I don’t think that they are a complete safeguard.

Certainly, when you create democracies in hard places, you want to think very carefully about what institutions you want in place and how you strengthen them. But if you get illiberal governing parties in democracies in hard places, they can run over institutions.


Well, Scott, thank you so much for joining me today. This book, Democracy in Hard Places, just opens up so many different conversations. It opens up so many different ideas that I think we can sometimes take for granted when we think about only the United States or only examples where we expect democracy to succeed. When we turn things upside down and we look at examples where on paper, we wouldn’t expect democracy to succeed, but it does, it makes us ask very different questions and think about democracy from a very different point of view. So, thank you and thanks so much for the contributors that participate on the podcast to help us see that. Thank you so much.

Scott Mainwaring

Thank you very much. Great questions. I love the conversation.

Key Links

Learn more about Scott Mainwaring

The Fates Of Third-Wave Democracies” by Scott Mainwaring and Fernando Bizarro in the Journal of Democracy

Democracy in Hard Places edited by Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Lucan Way on Ukraine. Democracy in Hard Places.

Rachel Beatty Riedl on Benin. Democracy in Hard Places.

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