Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How Fragile is Democracy? A Footnote on Jay Ulfelder’s Dilemmas of Democratic Consolidation

Stories about what makes democracy stable tend to take one of two forms. The first stresses socialization, learning, and the gradual development of norms of tolerance for political opposition and alternation in power. On this view, stability usually comes with time, and the breakdown of democracy is to be explained primarily by reference to cultural and normative deficits: corrupt socialization, the emergence or widespread acceptance of anti-democratic ideologies, the weakness of democratic norms of tolerance, and the like. In its simplest form, this view suggests that democracy fails due to a lack of a proper “democratic culture” and/or “inexperience” with democratic institutions. The second kind of story, by contrast, stresses the strategic relationships among major collective actors, like political parties, the military, the government, and foreign powers. On this view, stability emerges only when democracy is a self-enforcing equilibrium (ungated), that is, when all actors find that supporting democratic institutions is their “best response” to the actions of everyone else in light of their own interests, and its breakdown is to be explained primarily by reference to the changing interests and expectations of these actors.

These two types of stories are not wholly incompatible, to be sure: norms can be strategically undermined and manipulated, and an organization’s view of its interests is typically shaped, even constituted, by whatever shared values its members have been socialized into. Strategic equilibria may only be achievable after a period of learning, and the resulting strategic configurations may crystallize into norms. Yet scholars of democratization typically fall on one or the other side of this divide, and the differing stresses they place on normative vs. strategic considerations when explaining the stability or fragility of democracy have important practical implications. Jay Ulfelder’s Dilemmas of Democratic Consolidation: A Game-Theory Approach falls squarely on the “strategic” side of the divide. (Full disclosure: I don’t know Jay personally, but he’s a virtual acquaintance. I enjoy reading his blog and interacting with him online; I have linked to his work before, and he has returned the favour. And while I was writing this post, he cheerfully answered my ignorant questions about his data and models).

Jay identifies three actors as especially relevant to the stability of democracy: the incumbent government (and its key constituencies), opposition forces, and the military. (One might have included foreign powers as well, as some people with similar models of democratic stability do, but simplicity is a virtue in game-theoretic approaches, and anyway the basic framework can easily be extended in that way). The importance of the first two actors is clear: democracy (in a minimal sense, at least; more on this in another post) survives when the government is willing to yield control of the state apparatus to the opposition when it loses an election (it prefers to yield power rather than stage an autogolpe or engage in fraudulent electoral practices), and when the opposition is not tempted to overthrow the government by extra-legal means if it is unable to win an election. The military has independent importance in this framework because, if the government faces substantial opposition mobilization, the military is likely to be the only actor with sufficient organizational capacity to repress it. But this capability, of course, introduces a familiar problem: if the military can repress the opposition, why wouldn’t it overthrow the government as well? A cultural or normative explanation of military self-restraint would stress the development of a particular military culture (professionalism, a strict norm of civilian supremacy); and while such an explanation is certainly part of a sociologically complete answer (even though I do not in general find it convincing), a strategic understanding of motivation suggests that given sufficient incentives, all norms break. One must explain the self-restraint of not only the military but of all relevant actors – their willingness to respect whatever norms of political competition structure the political system – at least partly in terms of how respecting these norms is strategically appropriate for them given their interests (regardless of how these interests come to be constituted in the first place, a question which we leave aside for the moment). If the “best response” (in terms of the protection of their interests) of at least some of these actors to the actions of others is to defect from the norms of political competition, then democracy will not survive. Democratization is not like growing up: democracy can fail even after long experience, if the key actors involved find that in order to protect their important interests their best response to the actions of others is to undermine it.

Given this basic framework, two important questions emerge. First, we would want to know how different regimes affect the interests of particular actors, and how these actors in turn come to understand the ways in which different regimes affect these interests. An answer to this question tells us how the “preferences” of different groups for different kinds of democratic and non-democratic regimes come to be structured, and indicates what factors can change their evaluation of the available possibilities. Jay glosses over this question perhaps too quickly, speaking simply of the “material” interests of the various actors under different regimes, even though his own case narratives later in the book suggest that other kinds of interests – status interests, for example – are also quite important. (Militaries seem to understand their interests in terms of status, in particular). At any rate, the model he develops assumes that the preferences for particular regimes of the key collective actors will vary depending on whether there is open political competition for power, and on whether or not they or their allies are in control of the state. Whatever the regime type, the benefits that come from controlling the state (or having one’s allies control the state) will be partly offset by the expected costs of losing power, though these prospects will differ between regime types; at least in theory, the average costs of losing power in a democracy will tend to be smaller than the costs of losing power in an autocracy, but the probability of losing power might seem to be larger in a democracy (and conversely, for opposition forces, the probability of attaining power might seem to be smaller in an autocratic regime). Changes in the expected benefits of holding power (or having one’s allies hold power) and/or the expected costs of losing it (or having one’s allies lose it) will thus affect the evaluation of different regime types, and hence the preferences of actors for different regime types. Big oil booms or busts in petrostates, changes in the ethnic composition of a population or in the prevalence of identity voting, the availability of rents to allies of the opposition and the government, expected cuts to military budgets or threats to territorial integrity, are all among the sorts of things that should have an impact on whether relevant collective actors prefer democracy to autocracy (and on whether they prefer the opposition or the military to be in control in their disfavoured options). Incidentally, here we have a potential explanation for the fact (documented in the book) that democracy tends to last longer in richer countries: to the extent that poorer countries have more rent-driven economies (economies where wealth depends primarily on control of political power), the costs of losing power will be proportionately larger for the government, and the probability of attaining power proportionately smaller for the opposition, leading to greater incentives to “defect” on all sides - to undermine democracy if you are the government, or to attempt extra-legal seizures of power if you are not.

Second, we want to know what parameters determine whether an actor thinks their best response to the actions of others in light of their interests should be to support democracy or to attempt to undermine it (“stage a coup,” for simplicity), given a set of preferences over regime types. Using a “reduced form” game theoretical model, Jay suggests that the relevant parameters are the degree of uncertainty about the preferences of other actors for different regime types, and their capacities to pull off a coup. (Jay actually distinguishes between the coordination costs of different actors and their capacity for pulling off a coup; but these seem to be entangled with one another, since a collective actor’s capabilities to pull off a coup are greatly influenced by its coordination costs, and it might have simplified his model to have a single parameter summarizing the combined effect of both technical capabilities and costs of coordination.) Generally speaking, the government and the military should have greater capacities to undermine democracy than opposition forces, since the latter are (by definition) shut out from power; and indeed of the 195 episodes of democracy in the 1955-2007 period that Jay identifies, fully 27% ended via  “executive coup” (a shorthand for all the ways in which sitting incumbents can undermine political competition, from the quick autogolpe of a Fujimori to the more drawn-out dismantling of the independence of all institutions of a Chavez or Putin), 21% via classic military coup, and only 2.6% via opposition-led rebellion (44% survived beyond 2007, and about 5% ended in other ways, such as via foreign intervention or the splitting of the country). Nevertheless, militaries and governments are not always capable of pulling off coups due to organizational disarray or other divisions (as in Ukraine in the early 2000s, a case discussed in the book, when the bits of the Soviet army that became the Ukrainian army were in no position to stage a coup despite consistent government attempts to cut its budget and privileges), and opposition forces sometimes have access to considerable resources (e.g., during the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002 the main television stations were in the hands of opposition forces); and capacities can change, sometimes abruptly. (In general, while technical capacities are relatively stable, costs of coordination are not constant or wholly under the control of the relevant forces; relatively insignificant events can suddenly lower or raise them, as when a man setting himself on fire in Tunisia catalyzed protests and collective action that continues to this day. To speak of a “costs of coordination” parameter is merely to summarize a wide array of factors that affect the capacities of groups to engage successfully in risky collective action, a point that I don’t think is sufficiently stressed in the book).

The question of uncertainty is more complicated. Jay argues that even if every relevant collective force prefers democracy, given enough uncertainty about the intentions and capacities of other actors, particular groups may still wish to “strike first” to avoid being dominated by others, regardless of their capacities. If the opposition thinks the government is trying to set up a dictatorship (even if this is not the intention) it may feel that its interests would be better protected by staging a preemptive coup, even if its first preference would be for a democratic regime (this was arguably the case in the 2002 coup against Chavez, as the book notes, though I should note that some of the leaders of the coup might in fact have preferred an autocratic regime). This naturally raises the question of how different actors can credibly signal commitment to a democratic regime, something that is a bit underexplored in the book. For one thing, signals of commitment to democracy are partly tied to changes in capabilities to undermine it: saying that one supports democracy is less credible when one is busy building up ethnic armies, as Jay discusses in the case of the breakdown of democracy in Cyprus in the 1960s. (Oddly, this case does not appear in the dataset in the appendix). Indeed, uncertainty can be induced by well-meaning “democracy aid” that appears to change the relative capacities of actors. For example, aid to democracy-promoting NGOs may make the government feel more threatened by opposition forces, and hence more likely to undermine electoral institutions and harass such organizations in order to prevent a later loss of power (as appears to have been the case, in part, in Russia after the “color revolutions” of the 2000s).

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is its critique of democracy promotion as a way of "consolidating" democracy. Drawing on work by Carothers, Jay argues that much democracy promotion is insufficiently sensitive to the strategic implications of particular interventions, and too wedded to functionalist assumptions about the proper “components” of democracy. (Some of the arguments here echo Bill Easterly’s critique of development assistance, especially the points about the difficulties of evaluating a lot of “democracy promotion” activities, our lack of knowledge about important aspects of the democratization process, the bureaucratic incentives to measure the effectiveness of democracy promotion by inputs rather than outputs, and the tendency to disregard the wider strategic effects of these interventions on the domestic politics of the target country). It is too easy to give money for “civil society” (in fact, the availability of such money will usually stimulate the creation of organizations with high-sounding names but dubious democratic credentials); it is much more difficult to manage a delicate strategic situation so that all actors end up signalling credible commitments to democratic norms. The book’s framework suggests that investments in institutions that guarantee credibility (like election observation missions, the judiciary, and electoral commissions) are thus better than direct aid to opposition forces or “civil society” promotion in fragile democracies.

Now for some (small) critique. Aside from some quantitative evidence, Jay uses various case studies of democratic breakdown – in Ukraine, Fiji, Cyprus, Venezuela, and Thailand – and survival – in Spain – to illustrate the explanatory power of the basic model. Basically, what he does is to show how if we look at the parameters that the model indicates are “interesting” – the apparent costs and benefits of different regimes for the relevant actors, their signals of commitment to democracy, and their (changing) capacities for staging coups – we can construct narratives that shed light on the process of breakdown (or survival). Despite the fact that I am basically inclined to believe the strategic model of democratization, I confess I was not always entirely convinced by the interpretation of events in these narratives. For example, in the case of Venezuela it appears that the undermining of electoral competition occurred during a boom in oil prices, which increased the government’s capacity for subverting democracy, whereas Jay stresses the previous period of stagnation (which did, to be sure, loosen the commitment of various actors to democracy, and led to a number of unsuccessful coup attempts). And while the narrative Jay constructs can certainly be adjusted to account for this, it may be too easily adjustable, and one may need a clearer picture of how interests are affected by different kinds of regimes to make it fully convincing.  (Including status considerations: the demand for respect was an important ingredient in the rise of Chavez, for example).

Moreover, the evidence presented does not always sufficiently establish how important strategic considerations are relative to alternative explanations stressing norms, learning, and the like. Consider, for example, figure 3.4 from the book:

The figure represents the estimated proportion of democracies that survive after n years since their founding elections (the "Kaplan-Meier" estimate); the dotted red lines indicate that about half of all democracies last 15 years or less. (The dotted black lines represent the 95% confidence interval). Clearly, most democracies don’t last long; but the curve does not seem to indicate that longer-lasting democracies have a relatively constant risk of breakdown (which is what one would expect from a purely strategic model). If learning and other “cultural” considerations were really important, should one expect a slower decay process, or not? (I’m not actually sure). What one would like to know, among other things, is how likely it is that a democracy breaks down given that it has lasted n years, a quantity I would not know how to estimate (and perhaps cannot be cleanly estimated). Similarly, Jay shows that democracies seem to last longer in Eurasia and Latin America than in Africa – by quite substantial margins – but it is unclear that the parameters identified by the model can account for this difference, and the basic survival curves seem at least consistent with various “cultural” stories. Or consider the following figure, which I’ve produced using the data in the appendix (it's not actually in the book):

If I haven’t made any obvious mistakes, the figure suggests that most democracies last longer on their later attempts than on their first attempt. (So Egypt and Tunisia are not likely to end democratic 10 years from now, even if they manage a relatively successful transition now, but might have better luck in a later attempt). But given the book’s model, this is puzzling: why is there a “learning” effect at all? Why should the strategic situation “improve” on the second attempt at democracy?

It is also interesting to look at countries that have had lots of democratic spells (and hence lots of breakdowns). From the data in the book, 9 countries have had 4 or more “spells” of democracy: Greece, Argentina, Syria, Peru, Turkey, Ghana, Peru, Sierra Leone, and Ecuador (Argentina is the world champion, with 7 spells and 6 breakdowns). Why have democratic regimes in these countries been so unstable? From the model in the book, one would expect that some features of the state would either impose major costs on some actors if they accepted democracy; make their capacities to undermine it (or demand it) fluctuate widely; and/or make it difficult for credible commitments to democracy to be sustained (leading to a great degree of uncertainty about the intentions of major actors). Are these features especially pronounced in these countries, relative to others? Or is the degree of political conflict over regimes in these countries to be explained in other ways? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in democratization. Also, if you have made it this far you should definitely read Jay’s blog.

[Update 1/26/2012: a few minor stylistic adjustments]


  1. Thanks very much, Xavier. Your critique is entirely fair. Without doubt, the book is long on concepts and short on specifics about the relationship between real-world conditions and the elements of the model. When I was writing, it was all I could do to make the time to get as far as I did. At the time, I'd hoped--and am still hoping--that I would have time to go deeper into those specifics in future work, or that other people would find the model intriguing enough to do that, too.

    At one point, I did some work on operationalizing the model and plotting indifference curves and the like. I ended up leaving that work out of the book, though, because it always felt artificially precise to me. I just wasn't comfortable making statements about specific values of individual parameters when those values depended on a towering stack of assumptions, some of which struck me as unduly heroic. Having recently read Daniel Kahneman's book, I'm glad I didn't, because one of those assumptions would have been the familiar ones of rational utility theory, that x is always x, and -x is always the opposite of x. Those are demonstrably false, so "findings" based on them would probably have been erroneous or misleading. (In a recent blog post, I started thinking about how Kahneman and Tversky's prospect theory might be connected to my model of democracy, and I think there's real potential for interesting work on that front.)

    The one question you raise in the review that I think I can answer directly is the one about the hazard rate over time and the possibility of a learning effect. Looking at Figure 3.4, you wonder if the flattening of the curve as time passes suggests that learning is happening. The trick here is to remember that that's the hazard rate for the population of democracies, not for an individual case, and at the population level, that kind of flattening is what you'd expect to get from a selection effect.

    Imagine that there are two kinds of democracies, high-risk and low-risk. The latter are immortal, while the former are mortal but with a life span that's partially random. Now imagine that a bunch of both are all born at the same time in roughly equal numbers. As time passes, the high-risk cases die off--in bunches at first, then only occasionally, as there are fewer and fewer of them left. Early in this process, the high-risk cases are still a large proportion of the existing democracies, so the frequent deaths imply a high hazard rate for the population as a whole. As they die out, however, the high-risk cases become a smaller and smaller fraction of the remaining cases, and the population comes to be dominated by the low-risk cases. Deaths become rarer and rarer, and the hazard rate for the population as a whole appears gradually to flatten. What looks like a learning curve for an individual is actually being driven by a selection process for a population.

    1. Thanks Jay - a selection effect certainly makes sense. I was going to mention your recent post about prospect theory and democratization as well - I think there's a lot of potential there as well - but I was going on too long already.