William Anthony Hay is assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005). This E-note and a related article in the Winter 2006 Orbis are based on a presentation he made to FPRI’s Study Group on America and the West on September 12, 2005, in Philadelphia.
Can democracy be imposed on societies from the outside? Current debates tend to focus on immediate aims without clarifying the terms for discussing them. A historically grounded definition provides a starting point for these discussions. Experience indicates that democracy requires a particular combination of institutions and informed public opinion. Outside efforts to impose change typically bring unforeseen consequences that may result in neither stability nor democracy. Indeed, a comparative overview of the history of democracy points towards a reassessment of current U.S. policy, to bring ends and means in line.
Studies focusing on the historical development of democracy typically compare Great Britain and Germany. The German Sonderweg, or special path, toward authoritarianism thus offers a cautionary tale of how modernization can go wrong, but two world wars and the Nazi era make this an emotionally charged analogy. Its focus on the emergence of German liberalism in the mid nineteenth century, followed by its suppression under Otto von Bismarck and later revival during Konrad Adenauer’s post-1945 ascendancy, imposes a relatively narrow frame of reference. Looking instead to Britain and France, two countries identified as democratic, highlights the impact of public opinion and representative government on democracy while taking a much longer view of how the system emerged. The Anglo-French comparison also engages the way in which institutions stabilize or destabilize countries where the political order must expand to accommodate a larger portion of society. Samuel Huntington set out the problem with reference to the developing world in Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), and recent academic literature on the “institutional deficit” plaguing failed states reflects its ongoing importance. The fundamental question connecting these issues to the wider debate is whether and how democracy can provide a stable framework for governing.
Current debate over democratization as a foreign policy objective reflects two conflicting views of democracy with deep roots in American thinking on international relations. Advocates of spreading democracy connect their agenda with a global order favorable to American interests. September 11 shifted the Bush administration toward a more aggressive policy that invoked the memory of Woodrow Wilson. Containment and deterrence had failed to block terrorism, and Bush’s second inaugural speech cast spreading democracy as a moral obligation that would secure domestic peace against tyranny overseas. His rhetoric paralleled Wilson’s request to Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, which argued that only regime change could end the threat Germany’s government posed. Despite the different context for the speeches, both describe tyranny as an aggressive threat to the United States to be countered by spreading democracy.
Liberal, representative democracy, where political parties mobilize and focus public opinion and alternate in power to provide regular accountability, provides the only example of a stable democratic order. It combines institutions with a reinforcing political culture that guarantees the rule of law and ensures that policy follows the considered opinion of the people expressed over time. Other models either mimic some attributes of democracy or simply lapse into anarchy or authoritarianism. Truly democratic institutions and political cultures engage public opinion within a framework of checks and balances that limits both majority rule and government power. Representative bodies oversee executive government, with control over taxation and budgets as leverage. Transparency in public business and debate characterizes liberal regimes. Stable, periodic transfers of power ensure accountability while limiting the costs to those who lose the political contest at any given point. Representative democracy allows people to rule themselves in polities beyond the smallest communities by enabling leaders to mobilize opinion, facilitate consensus, and develop policies they can implement. Democracy works as both a political culture for regulating behavior and governing institution
Democracy grew organically within societies in response to challenges, and parliamentary liberalism as it emerged in nineteenth-century Britain embodies the liberal, representative order that brought stability during a painful transition. It created a system within which potentially incompatible interests-whether classes, nationalities or sects-accepted an overarching code of law that guaranteed each a wide variety of liberties. The combination of representative government and public opinion that formed parliamentary liberalism in Britain provides the archetype for true democracy, but other countries took different paths toward modernization. A comparative historical view sharpens definitions while engaging problems connected with imposing democracy from the outside.
France’s history from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries demonstrates how institutions fail when they prove unable to manage conflicts or adapt to pressures. Religious disputes from the Reformation, social and economic changes, and external military pressures challenged regimes across Europe. France under Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV responded by developing a centralized royal bureaucracy to mobilize resources and concentrate authority. War had already expanded the responsibilities of royal officials France at the expense of both local institutions and the old military classes, while failure of the Fronde revolt in the 1750s left no alternate authority. Absolutism met challenges that had undermined the older partnership between rulers and social estates, and it worked well enough to provide an appealing model of rational, efficient royal governance that other European rulers copied. Representative government seemed backward and an impediment to progress when measured against the modernizing efforts to absolutist regimes. The fragility of the absolutist state only became apparent as financial crises and forceful popular resistance to state policy emerged during the 1780s.
Financial crisis undermined absolutism in France, but the relationship between public opinion and the state played a crucial role in the government capacity to mobilize resources. French rulers declined to call an Estates General between 1614 and 1789 because such assemblies inevitably led to trouble. While some provincial estates and judicial parlements advised the crown and occasionally acted as a venue for expressing public opinion, these bodies’ narrow focus limited their impact. Public opinion thus emerged as a political category in France from the gap created when representative institutions failed to provide an outlet of criticism and discontent. It acted as an abstract category of authority invoked to give positions the legitimacy that an absolutist political order could not provide. Because only the king could legitimately decide questions on behalf of the community, absolutism precluded a public politics beyond the court. The notion of government as private royal business made unauthorized discussion illegal, but the French crown failed to stop debate, and political contestation forced the government to argue its own case. If French rulers minded public opinion for lack of an alternative, they failed to give it a stabilizing institutional role. Political culture in eighteenth-century France and other absolutist states therefore tended towards polarization. Disengaged from practical concerns and lacking a political role, public opinion under absolutism fostered a culture of critique that turned on society itself.
Britain offered a very different model from France and other ancien régime states in continental Europe. Representative government in England withstood the challenges that marginalized it elsewhere, and an effective partnership between elites and the Crown through parliament defined eighteenth-century British political culture. Britain became a fiscal military state after 1688 as a parliamentary regime able to secure resources through consensual taxation and long-term loans guaranteed by parliament. National politics focused on parliament and the capital, with a parallel local politics operating at the level of parliamentary constituencies that gave politicians at Westminster prestige to bolster their national standing. Constituency politics largely emphasized local concerns before 1812 as rival interests competed for popular support. Elaborate rituals connected with mediated relations between elites and population in a way that shows the limits of authority, and elections tested the standing of candidates or their patrons. The whole process tied local constituencies with the political contest at Westminster, but provincial and national politics remained separate outside those rare occasions when general elections focused on a single issue. Public opinion also played a very different role in Britain’s political culture than under French-style absolutism. Newspapers covered parliamentary debates closely from the mid-eighteenth century, and printing the proceedings tied parliament into a broader discourse that extended beyond the elite or educated classes. Public discussion of affairs in Britain had an accepted place that emphasized specific issues over abstract speculation.
Britain entered the general European crisis of the late eighteenth century with a stronger, more flexible system than most of its counterparts. Representation followed older patterns that did not account for industrialization and demographic change, and the provincial groups demanded a greater voice in policy from the 1780s. Political reforms that recast the constitutional order between 1828 and 1832 followed from confrontations that set the Tory government against a Whig opposition that revived itself through an alliance with provincial interest groups. Where Edmund Burke had constructed a justification for party activity in the 1770s, Henry Brougham applied the concept and extended it beyond Westminster to create an expanded political nation. Brougham, a Whig barrister and politician, mobilized opinion beyond the capital to give his party leverage in parliamentary debates, and his efforts transformed the Whigs into a viable governing party that dominated British politics through 1886. They also expanded the political nation to encompass a wider range of provincial interests and integrate constituency politics with the party contest. Parliamentary liberalism in Britain marked an institution that more effectively linked government with the governed.
The need to reconcile competing groups defined Victorian parliamentary liberalism. Where appropriate, the political nation could expand to accommodate new interests. Lord John Russell had equated “the people” with the middle classes in 1831, but by 1861 he expanded its scope to include the respectable working classes. Benjamin Disraeli realized that a wider suffrage would add ballast to the political order by enfranchising working men with conservative sentiments. The writer William Lecky described extended suffrage as reaching “below the regions where crotchets and experiments and crude utopias prevail” to an industrious working class of settled habits and “the deep conservative instincts of the nation.” Broadening the basis of consent could improve stability.
If extending the political nation built a sustainable democratic order, at least in nineteenth-century Britain, failure to accommodate groups threatened it. Parliamentary liberalism broke down when it could not reconcile difference within a framework of law. When the Irish Nationalist party led by Charles Stuart Parnell forced its agenda by obstructing parliamentary business, the political system lacked recourse beyond changing its rules to prevent them being used against it. Irish home rule split William Gladstone’s government in 1886 and ended the Liberal ascendancy, but it also showed that parliamentary government required acceptance of rules, written or otherwise. Stretching the system beyond its breaking point curtailed minority rights and stifled debate. George Dangerfield described the turbulent years in Britain from 1910 to 1914 when suffragettes, trade unions, and Ulster Protestants forced their demands with extra-constitutional as the “death” of liberal England. The period shows how democracy could falter, but in Britain it marked a departure from general patterns of stability.
Historical challenges to parliamentary liberalism highlight a contrast between liberal and illiberal democracy that is very relevant today. Liberal democracy allows for the expression of public opinion and reconciling competing interests with the rule of law; illiberal democracy preserves institutional forms while hollowing out the substance of representation and accountability. Parliamentary liberalism’s democratic order did not offer the only solution to political transformation. Louis Napoleon established the French Second Empire in 1852 through a plebiscite, a different path toward establishing a national politics with institutional legitimacy. He carefully appealed to the French peasantry over elites that might check his power. Representation meant embodying the nation rather than providing voice to its citizens. Decades later, Henry Cabot Lodge would remark that “[Woodrow] Wilson’s comprehension of government is that of the third Napoleon, an autocrat to be elected by the people through a plebiscite and no representative bodies of any consequence in between.” Lecky concluded from the French case that plebiscitary despotism was “just as natural a form of democracy as a republic”, and he warned that “some of the strongest democratic tendencies are distinctly adverse to liberty.”
Populism and the managerial state provide two sides to the authoritarianism that reacted to parliamentary liberalism’s perceived inadequacy. They have a symbiotic relationship. Populist challenges prompt elites to restrict public opinion’s impact, and the consequent lack of accountability may spark a backlash. Populism covers a range of movements that challenged the existing representative order as corrupt and oligarchic while demanding a more direct voice for the people. Far from empowering people, populism typically strengthens leaders claiming to embody the people in their struggle against elites. While challenging some elites, it also helps others manipulate politics in their favor.
Managerialism solves political deadlock by redefining major decisions as problems for experts rather than the political process. Business administration in large corporations provided a model, and, like populism, the managerial state grew from the perceived failure of representative government. Crises brought by World War I and the Great Depression raised its appeal. Karl Lowenstein argued that democracy must become “the application of disciplined authority by liberal minded men, for the ultimate end of liberal government: human dignity and freedom.” Planning defined the new liberalism after World War II and the view that benevolent elites with expertise and vision would give the people what the elites thought best for them shaped policy in the United States and Europe. Resistance grew, however, with the failure of grand projects that cost institutions and elites their legitimacy. A populist backlash where voters use radical parties as a vehicle for protest has marked European politics since 2001, and it reflects the political establishment’s failure to address key issues. A system intended to defuse conflict now promotes it, raising the specter of populism and the managerial state working in a fundamentally anti-democratic cycle.
Democracy cannot be transferred as a package because it developed organically and requires a supportive political culture to operate effectively. Institutions must run along the grain of societies rather than cutting across or against them. A long view suggests that few countries will create sustainable liberal democratic regimes. Copying superficial aspects of democracy typically brings either illiberal or simply unsustainable outcomes. Some countries, like Singapore, sustain a relative liberal order without complete democracy. Other authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan restrict their population’s opportunity for political activity while limiting the scope of state intervention in personal or economic life. Rather than an absolute polarity between democracy and despotism, politics operates at different levels with a variety of systems adapted to particular contexts.
No easy path exists to national cohesion and democratic institutions in developing nations. Forcing democratization’s pace risks unrest, particularly where deep fault lines exist within societies. Sectarian differences and opposing economic interests can both work against the basic level of consensus that democracy requires, and ethnic conflict introduces another volatile factor that often combines with religion and economic disparities. Rapid change and competition for power within a society exacerbate preexisting ethnic tensions, as seen in post-1989 conflicts from Yugoslavia to Rwanda. Populists from the late Slobodan Milosovic to Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez seize upon ethnic resentment as a populist tool for maintaining their power as leaders of populist movements operating behind a quasi-democratic façade. Whether conflict derives fundamentally from ethnic differences or economic conflict matters less than its impact on stability. Civic patriotism cannot establish a demos without social cohesion and a general agreement on rules for public behavior. Public opinion driven by demagogues or ideology exerts a destructive force. Forced democratization that unleashes such forces defeats its own aims, and fosters a backlash that can make the United States less secure.
Current efforts to promote democracy uncannily echo the global meliorism that brought profound disillusionment when it failed during the Vietnam era. Indeed, the Bush administration has backtracked as questions arose regarding the specific policies that would follow from the president’s rhetoric. While the United States prefers democracy over authoritarianism, it also values gradual change over stasis and, above all, friends over adversaries. The present debate offers a reprise of earlier tensions between realist and idealist perspectives. Such cycles typically end with frustrated idealism giving way to a cautious realist focus on stability and protecting American interests. Not only does attempting to export democracy usually fail, but the endeavor distracts resources and attention from other pressing challenges. A more reasonable guide to managing political change involves adapting existing structures in target societies and securing a rough balance among competing groups to provide the order necessary for promoting the growth of civil society. Such an approach fits the means and objectives of American foreign policy more realistically than the grand strategy of promoting democracy in countries where it has no roots.
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