Authoritarian Regimes: Democracy’s Antithesis? – Literature Review

Literature Reviewed:

Collier, D., & Levitsky, S. 1997. “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research.” World Politics, 49(3), 430-451.

Zakaria, F. 1997. “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22-43.

Diamond, L. 2002. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes,” Journal of Democracy, 13(2), 21-35.

Democracy as a Regime Type

What makes a nation-state a democratic one and what theoretical devices are required to differentiate between regimes? Such questions have increasingly been posed by political scholars since the Third Wave of democratization during the 1970’s, as electoral democracies became the predominant form of regime type internationally (Diamond 2002, 21). Political studies scholars have in response taken to the challenge of conceptually dealing with new forms of post-authoritarian regimes, yet how to define democracies of the third wave continues to be a question of concern within political studies.

As David Collier and Steven Levitsky note, this conceptual challenge of regime categorization should be attended to with caution as scholars must create analytic differentiation between regimes while maintaining conceptual validity of the term democracy (1997, 430). To display this problem, Collier and Levitsky draw on Giovanni Sartori’s work on the “ladder of generality” (Collier and Levitsky 1997, 434). The ladder highlights an inverse relationship between the number of defining attributes used to evaluate whether a regime is democratic and the number of cases which will come under the definitions scope. Definitions higher on the ladder have fewer attributes and thus can apply to more cases, whereas definition lower on the ladder have a greater number of attributes and thus apply to fewer cases.

To avoid issues of conceptual stretching – where a concept is stretched to apply to a case it does not in fact apply to – scholars may move up the ladder (Collier & Levitsky 1997, 436). The traditional definitions of democracy, as exemplified by the work of Fareed Zakaria (1997), highlight definitions higher on the ladder. For Zakaria a nation is democratic if its representatives are elected into office through competitive, free and fair multiparty elections (1997, 24). Little other attributes are necessary leaving room open for a vast range of varying regimes globally to fall under the definitions scope, including those of the Third Wave. While high on the ladder, if the work of Zakaria is felt to continue displaying issues of conceptual stretching due to encompassing Third Wave democracies we may continue proceeding up the ladder. While this can help avoid the issue of conceptual stretching a trade-off is made in analytical differentiation when moving up the ladder. For example, further to the top of the ladder would simply be the attribute of being a regime with no differentiation between regimes.

By moving down the ladder, analytic differentiation is increased through producing subtypes of democracy such as “parliamentary democracy,” “multiparty democracy,” or “federal democracy” (Collier and Levitsky 1997, 435). Subtypes of democracy create differentiation between democracies while attempting to maintain conceptual validity by applying to only “full instances of the root definition of democracy” (Collier and Levitsky, 1997 435). Yet moving down the ladder exposes risks of conceptual stretching. To account for this, scholars have created “diminished subtypes” which denote those regimes that while having features of democracy present, also have features of democracy which are missing. Diminished subtypes are then not full instances of democracy, and thus help to create differentiation while avoiding conceptual stretching.

Zakaria creates differentiation between democracies by arguing that democracies may be either liberal, such as those of the Global North, or illiberal, such as those of the Third Wave. Constitutional liberalism is unrelated to selecting government but relates to a tradition which seeks the protection of individual liberties (liberalism) through the rule of law (constitutionalism) (Zakaria 1997, 25-6). Larry Diamond, creates further analytic differentiation of illiberal diminished subtypes, seeing three diminished subtypes existing on a sliding scale between democracy and authoritarianism; “electoral democracy, ambiguous regimes, competitive authoritarian” (Diamond 2002, 26). In doing so, Diamond excludes some regimes which Zakaria would label as being an ‘illiberal democracy’ from being labelled a democracy at all, but instead an ambiguous or competitive authoritarian regime. While such a critique may seem to be asking to replace a word while maintain the same meaning, Collier and Levitsky would support Diamond in this critique, arguing for the use of diminished subtype labels which cancel out or dismiss the democratic nature of the subtype (Collier and Levitsky 1997, 441-442).

Democracy as a Process

While political scholars have increasingly turned to diminished subtypes to categorize regimes in the contemporary era, to say that we wish to categorize regimes in the contemporary firstly raises the problem of time and temporalities itself. The debates over regime categorization have been imbued with normative notions of what the progressive unfolding of freedoms means. Within the literature reviewed there is the discursive construction a division in the operation of time, where democratic nation-states have progressed through the linear temporalities of freedom while non-democratic, or not-fully democratic, nation-states are stuck behind in the times of oppression. For this reason, democracy is not seen as a process but the end of freedoms purportedly linear progression.

While at some level this may be a valid description, to end here would miss an important point – the construction of a hegemonic notion of progress produced for the purposes of self-legitimation. This legitimation is particularly of the liberal democratic state. Political scientists have produced democracy as a condition of true human emancipation, a form of freedom which is both spatially and temporally permanent and absolute. The democratic state is particularly evoked as the ultimate expression of freedom through a juxtaposition against notions of authoritarianism as the opposite of democracy. Yet considering the long history of protest politics which contest oppressive oppression of the democratic state and the continuation of such politics in the present, whether freedom is a natural consequence of democracy or a defining feature of contemporary democracies can be questioned.

Such an endeavour would itself require an analysis of freedom itself. On the one hand, freedom may mean freedom from coercion, such as by a state. Yet on the other, freedom has also meant the freedom to oppress. This is what the liberal definition of freedom may be taken to mean, even if only unintentionally so. Individual liberty within a capitalist economic system has meant the freedom to monopolize wealth, displayed in liberal democracies through various oligarchic tendencies. These can range from the wealthy gaining higher standing with political leaders through providing large donations, to social issues such as “housing-crisis’s” for the working and middle classes in the form of increasing housing prices adjacent to increasing profits for property investors due also to increasing house prices.

As used within the three articles reviewed, democracy has not only functioned as a tool to categorize regimes but also as a discourse which masks the forms of structural domination which exist in modern liberal democracies. Being unlike direct authoritarian rule – operating through social configurations– such oppression and marginalization may easily go unnoticed. Yet what does taking this into considerations mean? If we oppose the definition of freedom as the freedom to oppress yet nonetheless continue to maintain a desire to relate freedom and democracy – where freedom is an effect of democracy – then we must reconceptualise both freedom and democracy. In doing so, we may instead strive for a conceptualization of the democratic which is not only able to apprehend regime structures but also the configurations and operations of power, how they are privatized and how they may be democratized against hegemonic tendencies.

This would reject liberal notions of democracy as a regime allowing the freedom for individuals to pursue their pleasures in favour of democracy as the struggle against the resulting privatization of power through liberal freedoms. Instead it would signify a process structured by a set of cares which seek to critique the present as a method of building a future. This critique does not necessarily have to occur in the form of dialogue but also other forms such as direct action. Such actions in the form of protest politics has long been used as a political method against state domination and has resulted in extending the public sphere to include many of the liberties and freedoms which may mistakenly be assumed as natural consequences of democracy; such as labour laws, women’s suffrage or more recently same-sex marriage.

The point of this reconceptualization is not to assert that these definitions are what democracy and freedom mean, yet to show that they do not mean anything other than the meaning that we ascribe to them. Collier and Levitsky never attempted to demonstrate a justification of how they have selected certain regimes in a specific political time and space, in relation to the long history democracy has had and presumably will continue to have, and found that contemporary regimes of the Global North are exemplars of some a prior definition of democracy – they can be announced valid cases of democracy without being charged with conceptual stretching. Instead it may appear that the opposite holds. Certain regimes are first selected and defined as democracies and what democracy means is then established through this process.

However, as shown above, democracy need not necessarily be defined through a state-centric focus. The pursuit of alternative framings of the democratic is useful in providing both analytical and practical contributions which can resolve the contradictory image of democracy as a political system which allows freedoms against its realities of continued structural domination. The meanings which scholars attach to democracy should be carefully considered as their differences are most crucially in the different avenues of thought and action in which they emphasize and enable. Scholars should be weary of the how they are theorizing, who benefits and at whose expense. Otherwise the label democratic may be used to justify and legitimate social conditions which may otherwise be considered as something other than democratic.



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