Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Normativeness of Democracy

(Contains some work in progress, baroquely complex graphs to illustrate the obvious, rank speculation, and half-baked argument. It also continues this series on the quantitative history of political regimes).

Almost every country in the world publicly acknowledges the “normativeness” of democracy today. Democracy has become a sort of universally invoked standard, even though people vehemently disagree about its meaning. How do we know this? For one thing, almost every country in the world describes itself as a “democracy” in its constitutional documents. Using the data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project, we can see that as of 2006, only 20 of 184 countries with some kind of written constitutional document did not describe themselves as democratic:

Fig. 1 Countries that do NOT describe themselves as democratic in their constitutional documents

This understates the universality of the norm. As we can see above, many of the countries that do not explicitly mention the word “democracy” in their constitutional documents are countries whose public culture nevertheless asserts and assumes that they are long-standing democracies - a judgment typically confirmed by democracy indexes like the Unified Democracy Scores. (There is in fact a slight negative correlation between the current or the long-run degree of democracy, as measured by such indexes, and whether or not the country calls itself a democracy; almost every country in the map above is represented by a blue dot, which indicates that observers generally regard them as democratic).

At any rate many of the countries that do not describe themselves as democracies in their constitutional documents have constitutions dating back to a time where the word “democracy” didn't carry the positive associations it does today, like the USA and the Netherlands; and some nevertheless use words that are effectively equivalent to the word “democracy” today, even if in the past their usage differed, like the word “republic”. Thus the USA constitution guarantees a “republican” form of government to every state; Singapore and Yemen explicitly describe themselves as “republics” in their constitutional documents, and Yemen asserts its adherence to a principle of “political and partisan pluralism”; the Japanese constitutionstates that “sovereign power resides with the people” and that “government is a sacred trust of the people, the authority for which is derived from the people, the powers of which are exercised by the representatives of the people, and the benefits of which are enjoyed by the people;” Jordan stresses that its monarchy is “parliamentary;” the Netherlands, Belgium, Monaco, Denmark, and Norway all describe themselves as “constitutional” monarchies; and of course almost all of these constitutions guarantee some form of universal suffrage. Indeed, of the countries listed above, only the absolute monarchies - OmanSaudi Arabia, and Brunei - really refuse to pay any lip service to the norm.

Moreover, the assertion of “democracy” in constitutional documents is almost always accompanied by the assertion of the classical “liberal” norms: freedoms of speech, expression, religion, association, press, and the basic equality of all people. The constitutions of the most repressive countries all proclaim such freedoms. Let's take the basic freedoms of association, speech, religion, and assembly, as well as the norm of equality before the law. Almost every constitutional document in the world (over 90%!) asserts all five of these; and among those countries that don't, most proclaim their allegiance to at least four of these. Only two countries (New Zealand and Libya!) failed to mention any of them as of 2006:
Fig. 2 Constitutions missing one or more "liberal" freedoms as of 2006

In the case of New Zealand, this is basically an artifact of the choice of “constitutional document” coded by the Comparative Constitutions Project - the New Zealand Constitution Act, last revised in 1986, is a purely structural document, setting out the powers of parliament and the governor general and describing various other institutions, while other documents, including the Treaty of Waitangi, play a more important role in setting out the important normative commitments of the country. (Many people would anyway say that New Zealand does not have a written constitution; the Constitution Act is simply one part of the constitutional law of the country, and possibly not the most important part). In the case of Libya, the post-Qaddafi interim Libyan constitutional declaration, article 14, explicitly asserts all of the freedoms that the Qaddafi 1977 amendment to the 1969 “provisional” constitution failed to mention. (Interestingly, the 1969 Libyan provisional constitution did mention some of these rights, but they were apparently excised from the 1977 revision).

I find this striking. The old saw about how “even the constitution of the Soviet Union” proclaimed freedom of the press, expression, association, and the like was not only true of the Soviet Union; it is true today of practically every country, however repressive; indeed, many of the countries that fail to expressly list such rights and freedoms in a constitutional document nevertheless affirm them in their public culture. (Note that all countries not listed in the graph above explicitly assert all five liberal freedoms in their constitutional documents, whenever such documents can be identified, which is almost everywhere today; North Korea, for example, affirms all of them). Yet it is obvious that the mere affirmation of these principles does not imply that they are honored in any way shape or form, and in some places the assertion can only be taken as mockery. If we take the UDS score as a very rough measure of how likely it is that these rights are honored in practice, with higher (“more democratic”) scores indicating more likely respect for these liberal freedoms, then we are forced to conclude that there is basically no correlation between expressing normative support for such freedoms in constitutional documents and actually protecting them.

This might seem unsurprising; a cynic might say that I've only rediscovered the obvious impotence of constitutional restraints in the absence of supportive social and political realities. But it is nevertheless interesting, to my mind, that there is such a widespread need to assert these particular normative commitments, even as they are routinely violated, or interpreted in such radically restrictive ways as to render them politically meaningless. Among authoritarian elites, only the House of Saud and the Sultan of Brunei appear to have the courage of their convictions; everyone else hides behind a banner of rights and liberties.

Nevertheless, only some rights within the larger universe of potential normative claims are universally asserted; if we take a look at the full list of rights that the CCP codes - ranging from freedoms of expression, opinion, and association to the right to bear arms or be granted asylum to socioeconomic rights like the right to own a business, to strike, to healthcare, or to a specific standard of living (about 64 in total) we find a small core of liberal rights that basically everybody asserts (plus a right to own property, in uneasy balance with a right of the state to expropriate it, typically with compensation) and a larger penumbra of other rights, different sets of which are asserted by various sets of countries. In the graph below, each word represents a particular rights provision tracked by the CCP project, surrounded by colored dots representing the countries whose constitutions contain that provision. (A list of all of these provision is available in the codebook here). The number near the word represents the proportion of countries that assert the provision (for example, 90% of all countries assert a commitment to protect freedom of association, “assoc”, in their constitution); the color of each dot shows the UDS score of the country as of 2006, where blue indicates “more democratic” and white indicates the dividing line, more or less, between democracies and non-democracies.
Fig. 3: Rights and countries, fireworks mode

(You come here for the intellectual fireworks, right? There, some fireworks). A perhaps more rational (but less fun!) way of visualizing the same data is this:

Fig. 4: Proportion of constitutions affirming particular rights

(Click to enlarge. Red lines indicate where 50% and 80% of the constitutions of the world explicitly affirm a particular provision; the color of the dot represents the average UDS score of countries that endorse a particular right. It was interesting to note that the right to bear arms appears to be unequivocally endorsed by only about 1.5% of the world's constitutions - the USA, Mexico, and Guatemala).

We might thus say that the “liberal” rights and the associated idea of democracy appear to have a good claim to represent a sort of global “overlapping consensus” in Rawls' sense - rights that are publicly accepted for diverse reasons in very different societies- and may serve as a basis for normative judgment everywhere. (Incidentally, this the case not only for public constitutional documents, which may be thought to be elite-imposed and not always faithful reflections of the normative aspirations of the broader society; though this requires another post, public opinion in most countries also seems to overwhelmingly support democracy and many “liberal” ideals [ungated], at least in the abstract, even if it is not always clear what this actually means in practice. Talk, of course, is often cheap, and abstract support for democracy and liberal freedoms does not necessarily translate into genuine concern for them.) Other rights, however, are still objects of normative struggle at a global level; they are not universally accepted.

But though there is much less consensus about these other rights, it is nevertheless striking that public affirmation of any set of these rights is not obviously clustered in particular societies either. It isn't always clear why a society chooses to “constitutionalize” a particular right, and publicly affirm it in its highest legal document; but whatever the case, democracies and non-democracies are about equally likely to endorse a given right in their constitutional documents. As we see above, the average UDS score of countries endorsing any particular right is pretty much the average level of democracy in the sample, at least for provisions endorsed by, say, more than 10% of the world's constitutions.(We can also see this by noticing that of the fireworks above are especially red or especially blue, save for rights explicitly endorsed by very few countries, like the right to bear arms - USA, Mexico, Guatemala - or the provisions specifying that law contrary to religion is void). Furthermore, there is no correlation between the number of rights provisions endorsed by a constitutional document and either the contemporary or long-run level of democracy, as measured by the UDS score or the cumulative UDS score. In fact, constitutions in general seem to be fairly similar to one another; and to the extent that particular sets of constitutions cluster together (grouping together countries that affirm similar sets of rights) these clusters do not correspond to obvious cultural, political, or other groupings.

One way to see this is as follows. (Please indulge my taste for complicated graphs). We take the list of rights and duties coded by the CCP and calculate the matrix of “distances” between them - essentially, we calculate how similar each constitution is to each other along that set of dimensions, using the Gower similarity coefficient, where 1 means the two constitutions are exactly alike (they affirm the exact same rights) and 0 means they are completely dissimilar. We can then use this distance matrix to plot the world's constitutions as a network and visualize their clustering patterns; highly similar constitutions should cluster together (they are less “distant” from one another). And indeed, we can see some patterns (community discovery algorithms suggest the graph below has about 4 big components when we include all links), but these patterns do not correspond to any obvious groups, like democracies or dictatorships, or poor and rich countries. Indeed, the groups obtained in this way can seem downright perverse, placing, say, Germany and Egypt closer together than Germany and the USA:

Fig. 5: Network of similarities among constitutions (rights provisions only, 85% similarity and up)
Or, alternatively, take a random constitution from a democracy (as measured by an UDS score in the top 33% in 2006) and a random constitution from a dictatorship (as measured by an UDS score in the bottom 33% in 2006) and they will share, on average, about 60% of all rights provisions tracked by the CCP project (and about 80% of the basic liberal democratic freedoms of assembly, association, etc.); take two random dictatorships or two random democracies and they will share similarly about 60% of their rights provisions (and 80% of the basic liberal freedoms). The same is true if you look at the “duties” provisions of constitutions - e.g., whether the state has a duty to provide work, or citizens a duty to work or serve in the military. Or, indeed, any other set of provisions tracked by the CCP; it seems difficult to find any dimension - descriptions of executive power, electoral provisions, etc. - along which the constitutions of more or less democratic societies, or societies in different regions, or at different levels of development, appear to be systematically different (any two random constitutions are about 65% similar, taking all dimensions together). In other words, the normative self-presentation of societies whose power structures are widely different (at least as measured by standard indexes) is pretty much identical; if I'm right, you could not systematically say much about the kind of power structures in a society by looking at its constitution.

(At this point, this thought goes through my head: “Are my methods unsound? I see no method at all, Mr Marquez”)

What might explain this “normative convergence”? The point, it is worth emphasizing once again, is NOT about the effective enforcement of constitutional norms; I take it for granted that such norms -specifically, the norms granting individual rights to citizens, of whatever kinds- are only spottily effective in most places, even in many “democratic” countries, though I think it is reasonable to assume that countries conventionally held to be democracies (as measured by the UDS) will tend to enforce whatever rights appear in their constitutions slightly more effectively than the average non-democracy (if perhaps not much more effectively, and with many exceptions). I'm interested, instead, in the “normative mimicry” on display here, and the process through which some norms achieve near-“fixation” in the population, despite what we might call their fictional status in many cases.

Now, before you accuse me of being willfully obtuse, I am aware of the obvious explanation: modern societies, the story goes, required a new “basis for legitimacy” after the breakdown of traditional forms of legitimacy. Norms of popular sovereignty and individual rights come to replace earlier “legitimizing” norms; and so all regimes now “legitimize” their power by appealing to these norms. But I'm not sure that this doesn't simply restate the problem. Why these particular norms and not others? And why would appeal to “fictional” norms - norms that are known not to have any substance on the ground, so to speak - legitimize anything (in the sense of increasing the baseline level of support for a structure of domination)? It's not that there are no answers to these questions; it's just that the appeal to legitimacy is question-begging if what we are trying to explain is how the norms became dominant in the first place, even when they have minimal impact on what happens in day to day life.

There are more and less “optimistic” stories one could tell about this process. An “optimistic” story could say that there was a sense in which the norms of liberal democracy and its associated freedoms became increasingly appealing to people throughout the world over the last two centuries, while alternative norms became less so. (One might here appeal to increasing literacy, capitalist development, the breakdown of local solidarities, etc. to explain the formation of modern subjectivities; whole libraries have been written on these topics). Normative change outstripped social change; and every political regime now feels compelled to pay at least lip service to these “new” norms, if only because not mentioning them exerts some negative pressure on their survival prospects, perhaps by making those subject to it needlessly dissatisfied. By the same token, this story might continue, the mere existence of the norm puts pressure on governments to live up to their highest commitments, and enables dissatisfied people to coordinate their claims; thus Chinese activists, for example, have (on and off) appealed to the party to enforce China's own constitutional norms guaranteeing basic freedoms of speech, association, etc., and perhaps eventually they will get somewhere. Accordingly, even if normative change feels insignificant at first, it can be utterly momentous in the long run - like a force that exerts only a slight pressure, but does so continuously over the very long run and so ends up accelerating a great mass to huge velocities.

While this story is probably not entirely incorrect, it seems to me that the problem here is that for a norm to have any kind of ability to raise the baseline level of support for a political structure, it needs to be not only widely recognized as a normative standard, but credibly asserted by those in power; and many of these norms are not. (It seems absurd to me to think that the mere assertion of freedom of speech in the North Korean constitution can possibly fool anyone who doesn't already want to be fooled for other reasons, to take only an obvious example). Moreover, it seems clear that many of these norms are liable to lose their force as they become globally dominant simply as a result of adaptation on the part of groups adversely affected by them. There was a time, for example, when it was a matter of live controversy who should be admitted to the franchise, whereas nowadays most adults everywhere are enfranchised, even if their votes are utterly meaningless, since powerful groups have adapted to the mere existence of elections (if not necessarily to the possibility of actually fair elections). Similarly, it may be that as legal freedom of speech becomes increasingly unlikely to genuinely threaten powerful interests, the more easily it comes to be accepted as a global norm. Successful adaptation by groups that are disadvantaged under particular norms reduces their propensity to produce conflict; and the global dominance of a norm can thus mean either that it is ripe for struggles to give it substance (let's turn the fake democracy into a real democracy) or that it has been hollowed out, and live conflicts have relocated to other normative arenas (the right to healthcare, or to a standard of living, or to bear arms, or to enforce one's religion on others, etc., rather than suffrage, etc.).

There are also other complications. Suppose that particular norms become entangled with markers of status; to be a “proper” country, with a “proper” constitution involves asserting some of the norms that powerful countries profess to affirm. As long as the norm is merely one of the marks of status tied to a specific collective identity, it can be asserted by most people in an entirely fictive way. The norm then appears as a sort of ornament, one aspect of a collective identity expressing “far” values, while being ignored or rationalized away in concrete situations. (The modern USA is “the land of the free” to most of its citizens irrespective of particular facts about freedom in the USA; and the idea that Venezuelans have “the best constitution in the world” is entirely unaffected, for most Venezuelans, by the fact that it is routinely ignored). On this view, it is precisely higher-status countries that have the most freedom to mention or not to mention particular norms, which is more or less in accord with some of the data above, though I have not checked properly; and “new” norms should come from relatively peripheral countries with leaders intent on raising their status (e.g., Venezuela, whose constitution is chock-full of rights and institutional innovations, however unenforced). (Incidentally, we know that in fact many “democratic innovations” first emerged and were developed in peripheral countries, not major powers). The power of the norm comes here less from the content of the norm - as in the optimistic story - than from its association with other markers of status. I suspect similar things happened in the more distant past; as James C. Scott notes in The Art of Not Being Governed, the symbols of absolute monarchy were often adopted by peoples who had hardly “states” at all: every two-bit chieftain claimed to be a universal emperor.

The global dominance of “democratic” norms in this "fictional" sense complicates our efforts to make sense of events like the Arab revolutions. Were these revolts “for” democracy? People sometimes argue that the revolts were not “for” democracy insofar as many protesters didn't make “democracy” their principal demand; instead, people wanted jobs, respect, dignity, and many other things. But we need to take into account the fact that the Arab republics explicitly endorsed democracy - the Qaddafi constitution made a huge deal of its participatory democratic character, for example - yet the norm was without substance. The revolts have sometimes attempted to give substance to the norm, but sometimes they have chosen different, more contested normative terrains - over the role of religion in public life, for example - where a norm is not yet universally accepted. This does not mean that “democracy” was not valued; it may mean merely that it was not always understood as something that required normative defence, or as a terrain where fighting over meaning was likely to lead to any interesting places, since everyone already agreed on democracy as the standard, though they disagreed in how exactly to give substance to it. Anyway, more of this would become clearer if we had a better sense of how it came about that these “liberal” rights became so dominant as normative fictions - when and where they first became publicly affirmed throughout the world. But I've run out of steam, and this post is already long enough. More later on the more vexed question of “culture” and democracy, perhaps…

Code for replicating the graphs in this post (plus some additional stuff) is available in this Gist (five files, including one with auxiliary functions and some geocoded country codes). You will also need access to the public CCP data.