By Justin Kempf
Over the past year I have tried my best to keep up with the latest trends on democracy and political science. It’s not easy, because amazing writers and scholars publish so many outstanding books every year. So, it’s only natural that I have missed out on a number of titles. In fact, I want to encourage readers to suggest additional titles in the comments below. Still, I hope you’ll find this list helpful. Anyway, here are my 5 must read books about democracy from 2022.
Democracy in Hard Places
Listeners of the podcast will remember the six episodes devoted to democracy in hard places. The countries examined included Indonesia, South Africa, India, Benin, Ukraine, and Argentina. The book touches on those countries along with a few more. It includes chapters from well-known political scientists including Dan Slater, Rachel Beatty Riedl, Ashutosh Varshney, Lucan Way, and Nancy Bermeo. Moreover, Scott Mainwaring and Tarek Masoud also provided contributions and edited the volume as well.
Still, the theme of the book deserves mention in its own right as well. So, much literature about democracy focuses on breakdown and decline. Democracy in Hard Places, however, emphasized fragile democracies that find ways to persevere. It’s a novel way to think about democracy that challenges many of our natural assumptions. It’s an absolute must read for those who haven’t already.
Laura Gamboa’s first book is an absolute gem. It’s likely to win many book awards in the next year and even more importantly to shape democratic theory over the next few years. She argues the election of an aspiring autocratic ruler does not make democratic breakdown inevitable. Instead, she outlines strategies an opposition can deploy to outlast threats to democracy.
Resisting Backsliding is of particular interest for specialists of Latin American politics, because she focuses on Venezuela and Colombia as her primary case studies. But the book has implications that extend far beyond those countries. Moreover, it offers a spirited challenge to much of the pessimism in the literature prevalent on democracy today.
From Development to Democracy
Back in 2013 Dan Slater and Joseph Wong publish the article “The Strength to Concede Ruling Parties and Democratization in Developmental Asia” in Perspectives in Politics. It challenged many of our expectations about democratization. They argued many stable governments in Asia democratized during a period of autocratic strength rather than weakness. Moreover, those governments have had an easier road towards democratic consolidation.
Their recent book From Development to Democracy extends those ideas through multiple case studies. It fleshes their ideas out through multiple historical examples and responds to common objections. It also clarifies their position that they do not view democratization through strength as the only viable path to establish democracy. Rather they just don’t want it dismissed as a possible path for countries to democratize. It’s a must read not just for the ground-breaking ideas, but also because it is an enjoyable read.
The Revolutionary City
Despite sixteen years of democratic decline in the world, protest and revolution remains widespread. Moreover, Mark Beissinger shows revolutions are also more effective than ever before. Part of the reason is the same characteristics of urban civic revolutions that make them so effective at toppling dictators makes them less effective at establishing durable democracies. Mark Beissinger examines this paradox in his recent book The Revolutionary City. It’s a fascinating examination of civil resistance and their ability to produce democratic transitions.
Beissinger’s work contributes to a growing literature on revolutions and civil resistance. It contributes to a debate about the best strategies to pursue democratization. At the same time, he does not argue people should not pursue democracy when the opportunity arises, but does warn urban civic revolutions can move too fast to produce the institutions necessary for a durable democracy unless movements lay the foundations before the revolution begins.
Revolution and Dictatorship
Some might argue the latest book from Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way isn’t really about democracy. It’s really a book about autocracies. However, their book draws interest from nearly all serious scholars of democracy. In fact, I asked Steven Levitsky in a bonus episode whether he saw himself as a scholar of democracy. He replied that his research interest was on regime types rather than democracy or autocracy. It’s a refreshing way to think about the subject.
The book makes a sophisticated argument that revolutionary regimes form a durable type of authoritarian regime. In contrast, personalistic dictatorships are quite fragile. Even military dictatorships struggle to survive for long. However, revolutionary regimes tend to survive through successive generations. It’s a frightening thought for those who hope for change in China, Cuba, or Iran.
Levitsky and Way are two of the most insightful scholars of politics alive today. Some will read this book simply because they wrote it. However, this book actually lives up to the hype. It’s an absolute must read for anyone who wants to understand why some autocracies survive for so long. The thesis is brilliant, but the writing is also engaging. It offers extensive historical accounts that will appeal to the nonspecialist as much as an experienced academic. For these reasons it’s among the most important books written in 2022.
About the Author
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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