The political economy of liberal democracy, Vox EU: There are more democracies in the world today than non-democracies, according to data from Polity IV.1 Yet, few of those are what we would call liberal democracies – regimes that go beyond electoral competition and protect the rights of minorities, the rule of law, and free speech and practice non-discrimination in the provision of public goods.
Hungary, Ecuador, Mexico, Turkey, and Pakistan, for example, are all classified as electoral democracies by the Freedom House.2 But in these and many other countries, harassment of political opponents, censorship or self-censorship in the media, and discrimination against minority ethnic/religious groups run rampant. Fareed Zakaria coined the term ‘illiberal democracy’ for political regimes such as these that hold regular elections but routinely violate rights (Zakaria 1997). More recently, political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way (2010) have used the term ‘competitive authoritarianism’ to describe what they view as hybrid regimes between democracy and autocracy.
Democracy developed in Western Europe out of a liberal tradition that emphasized individual rights and placed limits on state coercion (Ryan 2012, Fawcett 2014, Fukuyama 2014). In Britain, France, Germany, and even the US, mass enfranchisement arrived only after liberal thought had become entrenched. Most of the world’s new democracies, by contrast, emerged in the absence of a liberal tradition and did little to foster one. As the shortcomings of these democracies have become more evident, it has become commonplace to talk about a ‘democratic recession’ (Diamond 2015). ...
Circumstances supporting civil rights But liberal democracies do exist, and the question is how they can ever be sustained in equilibrium. We discuss several circumstances that can mitigate the bias against civil rights in democracies.
- First, there may not be a clear, identifiable cleavage – ethnic, religious, or otherwise – that divides the majority from the minority.
In highly homogenous societies, the ‘majority’ derives few benefits from excluding the ‘minority’ from public goods and suffers few costs from providing equal access. This may account for the emergence of liberal democracy in Sweden during the early part of the 20th century or in Japan and South Korea more recently.
- Second, the two cleavages that distinguish the majority from the minority and the elite from the non-elite may be in close alignment.
In such a case, the elite will seek both property and civil rights as part of the political settlement with the majority. Think, for example, of the position of the white minority government in South Africa prior to the transition to democracy in 1994.
- Third, the majority may be slender and need the support of the minority to mount a serious challenge to the elite.
Or there may be no clear-cut majority, with society characterized by a preponderance of cross-cutting cleavages. In these cases, repeated game incentives may ensure that each group recognizes the rights of others in return for its rights being protected by them. Lebanon’s ‘consociational’ democracy may have been an example of this, before differential population growth and outside intervention upset the pre-existing balance of power among different religious denominations.
The role of societal cleavages As these examples make clear, two societal cleavages play a crucial role in our story.
- First, there is the divide between the propertied elite and the poor masses.
This is largely an economic divide and is determined by the division of land, capital and other assets in society, as well as access to the opportunities for accumulating those assets. Standard class-based accounts of the dynamics of political regimes emphasize primarily this cleavage.
- Second, there is a cleavage between what we call a majority and a minority.
This particular divide may be identity based, deriving from ethnic, religious, linguistic, or regional affiliations. Or it may be ideological – as with secular modernizers versus religious conservatives in Turkey, and Western-oriented liberals versus traditionalists in Russia. (We will call this second cleavage an ‘identity’ cleavage for short, but it should be kept in mind that the relevant majority-minority cleavage will run often on ideological lines.) These two cleavages may align, as they did in South Africa, but more often than not, they will not. Their divergence is what allows us to make an analytical and substantive distinction between electoral and liberal democracy.
In our formal model, the majority-minority split exerts a variety of influences on the prospects for liberal democracy. First, and most crucially, it makes the majority favor electoral over liberal democracy. By discriminating against the minority, the majority can enjoy more public goods for itself. But there are effects that go in the opposite direction too. Under some circumstances, the split can make the elite favor liberal democracy. We identify two such consequences. First, the rate of taxation is generally lower under liberal democracy as the majority reap fewer benefits from redistributive taxation when they have to share public goods with the minority. So the elite may support liberal democracy when the income/class cleavage is very deep. Second, when the elite’s identity aligns with that of the minority, the elite have a direct stake in civil rights too. These channels can produce a rich mix of results.
Concluding remarks We suggest that the differential fortunes of liberal democracy in Western Europe and the developing world are related to the nature of dominant cleavages at the time of the social mobilization that ushered in democracy. In the West, the transition to democracy occurred as a consequence of industrialization at a time when the major division in society was the one between capitalists and workers. In most developing nations, on the other hand, mass politics was the product of decolonization and wars of national liberation, with identity cleavages as the main fault line. Our framework suggests that the second kind of transition is particularly inimical to liberal democracy. ...