Show Summary Details
Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes

Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes (1st edn)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Natasha Lindstaedt, and Erica Frantz
Page of

Printed from Oxford Politics Trove. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 13 August 2022

p. 1679. Cultural, Social, and Historical Drivers of Democracylocked

p. 1679. Cultural, Social, and Historical Drivers of Democracylocked

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Andrea Kendall-TaylorDirector of the Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security
  • Natasha LindstaedtNatasha LindstaedtProfessor of Government, University of Essex
  •  and Erica FrantzErica FrantzAssistant Professor, Michigan State University


This chapter assesses culture as a driver of democracy. Despite the popularity of cultural theories of democracy, there is little empirical evidence to support them. The chapter highlights that although research does not support the notion that cultural factors cause democratization, there is some evidence indicating that culture—as expressed through values, attitudes, and beliefs—affects the persistence of stable democracy. Once democracy has emerged, democracy is most likely to deepen and endure where elites gradually adopt a values-based commitment to the rules of the democratic game. Beyond culture, the chapter also examines several historical drivers of democracy. In particular, it focuses on the most widely discussed social and historical drivers in the academic literature, including state identity and boundaries, ethnic cleavages, and historical experience with democracy and dictatorship. For each of the drivers, the chapter considers how they influence both democratization and democratic consolidation.

Some observers of Russian politics assert that democracy is unlikely to take root in Russia. They point to the country’s lack of positive historical experience with democracy and the population’s long-held preference for order and strong, decisive leadership. Likewise, some political analysts have argued that democratic decline in Turkey—which accelerated after a failed coup attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2016—is unsurprising. These observers posit that Turkey’s lack of experience with democracy, the prevalence of Islam, and Turkish appreciation for a strong military create ‘cultural’ preferences that are inhospitable for democracy. But perhaps the most frequently trotted out socio-cultural argument about (the lack of) democracy occurs in reference to Islamic culture in the Middle East. Many commentators have suggested that Islamic traditions and ‘Arab exceptionalism’ (or historical and economic forces specific to Arab societies, where Muslims constitute a majority) reinforces authoritarianism and precludes democracy (Huntington, 1996; Teorell, 2010).

These types of socio-cultural and historical theories of democracy have held considerable sway in academic and policy circles. In the 1990s, for example, the notion of ‘Asian exceptionalism’ gained considerable traction as a justification for the persistence of authoritarianism in East Asia. The central premise of Asian exceptionalism was that Asian cultural values were incompatible with democracy. One of the greatest champions of this argument was Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1959–90), whose authoritarian style of governance was widely credited with enabling Singapore’s exceptional economic transformation. Lee regularly argued that Asian societies lack a concept of the individual in anything like the Western sense (Zakaria, 1994). He and others asserted that Asian values were less supportive of freedom and more concerned with order and discipline than Western values. The uniqueness of Asian cultural values, according to this argument, required these societies to be faithful to their own system of political priorities, which did not include the same adherence to liberal values and human rights found in Western civilizations.

p. 168Are these arguments valid? To what extent do culture and history shape a country’s prospects for democracy? Do countries have to have certain ‘preconditions’ present for democracy to emerge?

We examine these questions in this chapter. We begin with a discussion of culture as a driver of democracy. Despite the popularity of cultural theories of democracy, there is little empirical evidence to support them. Next, we highlight that although research does not support the notion that cultural factors cause democratization, there is some evidence indicating that culture—as expressed through values, attitudes, and beliefs—affects the persistence of stable democracy. Once democracy has emerged (for other more structural reasons) democracy is most likely to deepen and endure where elites gradually adopt a values-based commitment to the rules of the democratic game.

Beyond culture, we also examine in this chapter several historical drivers of democracy. In particular, we focus on the most widely discussed social and historical drivers in the academic literature, including state identity and boundaries, ethnic cleavages, and historical experience with democracy and dictatorship. For each of the drivers, we examine how they influence both democratization and democratic consolidation.

Cultural drivers of democracy

A large body of research has examined whether and how a country’s culture and values shape its potential for democratization and democratic consolidation. Political culture can be broadly defined as ‘a people’s predominant beliefs, attitudes, values, sentiments, and evaluations about the political system of its country, and the role of the self in that system’ (Diamond, 1994). Theories of political culture seek to explain political outcomes by way of these attitudes, beliefs, norms, and rituals, which are widely shared and have deep emotional resonance (Lust and Waldner, 2015). Culture can produce political outcomes directly by forming political preferences, or indirectly by shaping behaviour like trust and cooperation (or alternatively zero-sum competition) that then affect subsequent outcomes. Because culture cannot be measured directly, scholars generally define political culture as the aggregation of individual attitudes and behaviours within a society or region. They measure these attitudes and behaviours in different ways, including ethnographic observation and surveys of citizens, which they then use as a proxy for culture. In many studies, scholars use survey data to ‘operationalize’ culture.

Scholars have advanced a number of different arguments about the relationship between culture and democracy. These views range from those that posit that culture exerts no causal power with regard to democracy, to those contending that some cultures and religions are simply incompatible with it (Przeworski, 1998). Scholars in the latter group contend that political culture predetermines political structures and behaviour, and is unlikely to change substantively over time (Almond and Verba, 1963; Inglehart, 1988, 1990). In between these two poles is a ‘weakly culturist view’ that holds that a democratic culture is required for democracy to emerge and endure, but that any society has the potential to develop these preferences and attitudes ‘since traditions are malleable, subject to being invented and reinvented’ (Dahl et al., 2003, p. 181).

p. 169In this section, we review arguments about the relationship between culture and democracy. As this body of literature has progressed, political scientists have gained greater confidence in the assertion that culture is an inadequate explanation for the emergence of democracy. There is relatively more support, however, for the argument that political culture affects the persistence of stable democracy. Still, even this view is contested. Supportive public attitudes may facilitate the deepening of democracy, but such attitudes are not a sufficient safeguard. As political developments in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, and Poland suggest, elites can undermine democracy from the top down even when the public retains a favourable attitude toward it.

Culture and the quality of democracy

The central premise of early studies in this field was that a democratic political culture is a requisite for democracy (Lipset, 1959). These scholars argued that the absence of a particular set of public values and beliefs, such as support for the principles of civil liberties and the rule of law, obstruct the emergence of democracy and, if democracy emerged, would prevent democracy from rooting deeply (Diamond et al., 1990). This body of research examined a wide range of factors thought to shape political culture and a country’s disposition towards democratic rule. Some early studies, for example, suggested that those cultures that stressed high levels of attachment to the nuclear family were more likely to be authoritarian, whereas cultures that were less obedient were more likely to be democratic (McClelland, 1961; Banfield, 1958). Other research examined the role of religion and argued that Western, mostly Protestant democracies with a focus on individuality functioned better than the Catholic democracies in Latin America, which focused on the intermediating authority of the Church (Lipset, 1959, 1990). A final strand of research focused on cultural traits such as trust, which was considered to be an essential building block of a vibrant civil society (Pye and Verba, 1965). This argument posited that a lack of social trust hindered the creation of public organizations that are necessary for democratic development.

In testing these ideas and arguments, many studies unearthed a positive correlation between a ‘civic culture’ and democraticness (Almond and Verba, 2015; Inglehart, 1988; Putnam, 1994). One of the foundational works in this field was The Civic Culture, published by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba in 1959 (2015). This was the first study to use cross-national survey data to understand how public attitudes and values affect levels of democracy across countries. Using survey data from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Mexico, Almond and Verba found that countries with a ‘civic’ culture—defined as high levels of interest in politics, individual and collective engagement in the political process, and respect for the rule of law—are more likely to adopt and sustain democracy over time than are countries without such a civic culture. Subsequent research built on the idea that a civic culture is critical for democracy, but emphasized the importance of citizen preferences for self-expression, which they defined as the belief in one’s ability to influence political decisions (Inglehart, 1988; Inglehart and Welzel, 2005). According to Ronald Inglehart, democracy is not attained or reinforced solely by p. 170making changes to institutions or through elite pacts; its ‘survival depends also on the values and beliefs of ordinary citizens’ (2000, p. 96).

Despite the allure of such arguments, many political scientists are sceptical that culture is a driver of democracy. Political scientists have identified three general concerns with these arguments and research. First, political culture changes very gradually over time. As a result, many political scientists find cultural explanations too slow-moving to satisfactorily explain the political changes that give rise to, or undercut, democracy (Conroy-Krutz and Frantz, 2017). In other words, because culture tends to be static it is difficult to see how it explains the emergence of democracy in a given country at a given time.

This is not to say that culture does not change. As the ‘weakly culturist’ camp argues, cultural attitudes toward democracy can gradually shift over time. The reorientation of the Catholic Church’s position on democracy underscores this point. Catholicism was long regarded as culturally antithetical to democracy. Catholicism emphasized vertical bonds of authority, which fuelled clientelism, and was seen as centralized, hierarchical, and hostile to dissent. Scholars highlighted differences between the development of democracy in North America (highly Protestant) and the prevalence of authoritarianism in Latin America (predominately Catholic) as evidence of their claims (Lipset and Lakin, 2004). The Third Wave, however, discredited this conventional wisdom given the numerous democratic transitions that occurred in Catholic countries, including in Southern Europe and Latin America. Many scholars, including Huntington, credited the Catholic Church’s evolving stance on social justice and human rights as facilitating the spread of civic ‘values’ and, hence, democracy. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican council joined intellectuals and activists among the ordinary clergy and laity in endorsing democratic structures and the principle of religious freedom for all. Since that time, Catholic Popes have promoted democracy as a protector of human rights (Philpott, 2004). The role of religious organizations in democratization is discussed further in Box 9.1.

In sum, cultural elites can change the direction of cultural values, but even so such changes are typically so slow that it is hard to show that they were the specific cause of political change in a given country at a particular time.

Box 9.1: Religious organizations and democratization

In a number of dictatorships, religious organizations played an important role in bringing about democratization. The Catholic Church applied pressure on Poland’s authoritarian government to democratize in the 1980s. Religious groups also played a role in democratization in several countries in Africa. Catholic bishops wrote a letter to long-time autocrat Hastings Banda of Malawi critical of his rule, just prior to his stepping down from power. Though Zimbabwe remains authoritarian, the Council of Churches initiated a National Constitutional Assembly which led to the Zimbabwean government’s defeat in the first post-independence referendum in 1997 (Dorman, 2002).

At the same time, there are also instances of religious organizations that choose to support the authoritarian status quo. While the Catholic Church in Chile was a defender of human rights, the p. 171Catholic Church in Argentina legitimized the military dictatorship and was complicit in its human rights violations. In Brazil, the Church made a deal with the military and remained silent amid abuses, only speaking out against them in the latter stages of military rule. In Uruguay, as well, the Church spoke out initially, but soon afterwards was silenced (Goldfrank and Rowell, 2012). Likewise, in South Africa, the Catholic Church included among its higher ranks supporters and perpetrators of apartheid. It also failed to support Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his bid to win international sanctions against the regime (De Gruchy, 2005).

Given the opposing roles that religious organizations have played in supporting democracy, can we make any generalizations about the role of the church and democratization? Research suggests that a key factor influencing whether religious organizations will help or hinder democratization is the autonomy of the church from the state (Philpott, 2007). Where religious groups are autonomous from the government—meaning the church maintains its authority over the choice of its officials, to set its policies, and carry out its activities—they are more likely to criticize repressive governments and work towards undermining them. Where, instead, they are dependent on the regime for resources and/or need it to maintain privileged positions, they may be more likely to turn a blind eye to abusive governments.

Another common criticism of cultural explanations is that it is difficult to establish the direction of causality (Coppedge, 2012; Hadenius and Teorell, 2005). Is it that certain cultures or historical experiences produce attitudes and values that are conducive to democracy? Or is it the experience of living in democracy that gradually engenders those attitudes and values? Several studies note the correlation between democratic values and democraticness but argue that these values are an outcome of democracy, not the cause of it (Hadenius and Teorell, 2005; Jackman and Miller, 1996; Dahlum and Knutsen, 2017). One study argues that the presence of most civic attitudes does not have a significant impact on subsequent changes in levels of democracy (Muller and Seligson, 1994). They find that measures of civic culture like interpersonal trust are, instead, a product of a country’s experience with democracy. The reality is likely a combination of both views: attitudes can influence democratic political behaviour, and democratic structures, in turn, can influence attitudes (Almond, 1990).

Finally, the more deterministic cultural arguments are often criticized on methodological grounds. For example, scholars often highlight that studies documenting correlations between specific historical or cultural traits and levels of democracy exclude some unobserved factor that actually drives the result, such as high levels of development or elite bargaining (Coppedge, 2012). The idea is that once you take these factors into account, the strong correlation between cultural/historical factors and democracy would disappear. Similarly, the mechanisms or pathways through which historical and cultural explanations affect democratic outcomes are often underdeveloped in the research (Conroy-Krutz and Frantz, 2017). Further complicating matters, some scholars question whether survey-based measurement of individual psychological attitudes—the most common ways these studies are operationalized—is a valid measure of culture to begin with (Lust and Waldner, 2015).

p. 172In sum, the most widely accepted accounts of the emergence of democracy are not cultural. Instead, political scientists are much more supportive of the structural accounts we discuss throughout Part III, including changes in economic, institutional, and international structures. In fact, many political science scholars explicitly reject the idea that there must be a prior consensus on democratic values among the elite and people for a democratic transition to occur. Although mass demands for democracy and opposition strength shape the choices that elites face, the emergence of democracy often stems from the strategic choices of a relatively small number of political actors (Diamond, 1994).

Culture and the persistence of democracy

Although research does not support the notion that cultural factors influence whether democracy will emerge, there is some evidence indicating that culture affects the persistence of stable democracy. The central argument in this literature is that once democracy has emerged (for other more structural reasons) it is most likely to deepen and endure where both elites and the people gradually adopt greater commitment to the rules of the democratic game. Research by Michael Burton, Richard Gunter, and John Higley (1992), for example, argues that authoritarianism will be more likely to give way to stable democracy where there is gradual acceptance by ‘major dissidents and hostile elites’ of the legitimacy of a democratic political system (in Diamond 1994, p. 5). Larry Diamond similarly notes, ‘we observe during democratic consolidation the emergence of an elite political culture featuring moderation, accommodation, restrained partisanship, system loyalty, and trust’ (p. 5).

In addition to normative change at the elite level, research on democratic consolidation also focuses on the attitudes of the people. These studies emphasize that the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour of citizens shape prospects for stable democracy. This research underscores, in particular, the importance of legitimacy. When citizens view a democratic political system as legitimate, democracy is more likely to endure. Legitimacy can be generated in part through a democracy’s performance over time. Those governments that deliver on citizen expectations of economic performance and stability, especially in the immediate aftermath of a transition from authoritarianism, are likely to be perceived as legitimate. In addition to this ‘performance legitimacy’, governments also derive legitimacy from their ability to acquire and exercise political power in a way that accords with citizen values regarding the content of particular laws, rules and customs (Gilley, 2006). Bruce Gilley (2006) argues that this type of ‘cultural’ legitimacy aids the durability of democracy in several ways. Governments that are perceived as legitimate are able to inspire citizens’ compliance, which allows them to spend less on coercion. In contrast, elite doubts about legitimacy undermine self-esteem, which creates splits that accelerate the breakdown of regimes.

The historical record shows, however, that many democracies endure even amid low levels of such legitimacy or positive public support for the regime. Some studies have highlighted, therefore, that while the legitimacy of the system matters, so too does the presence of viable alternatives to the incumbent government. Even if citizens do not p. 173view their government as legitimate, the government may nonetheless persist if there is not another option for citizens to back. Richard Rose and William Mishler (1998), for example, examine the effect of citizen attitudes on democratic development using survey data across a number of post-Communist societies. They found that democracy was most durable when citizens not only viewed democracy as the best form of government, but when citizens determined that their own democracy was preferable to the alternatives, even considering the failures and shortcomings of the current system. In other words, democracies will only last if citizens view their system as a better form of governance than the autocratic alternatives.

In addition to legitimacy, research has also highlighted the importance of a civic culture for sustaining a vibrant and durable democracy. Civic culture generates social capital—that is, the ability for individuals to cooperate and function effectively within groups—which facilitates the collective action needed for a healthy democracy. The notion that participatory cultures are more prone to sustain democracy stems from the ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed in the early nineteenth century that U.S. citizens had a proclivity to join civic associations. So-called ‘neo-Tocquevillians’ subsequently argued that societies that are association-orientated tend to have higher levels of social capital, which in turn facilitates trust in fellow citizens, which in turn creates conditions conducive to democracy. In particular, if citizens have the capacity to organize in groups, they will be better positioned to challenge powerful actors and pressure for democracy.

Much research has built on the early ideas of Tocqueville and underscored the importance of participation and social capital for sustaining democracy. In his classic study, ‘The Social Requisites of Democracy’, Seymour Lipset noted that ‘the chances for stable democracy are enhanced to the extent that groups and individuals have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations’ (1960, pp. 88–9). Decades later, influential research by Robert Putnam (1993, 2000) showed that higher levels of associational activity in Northern as compared to Southern Italy helped explain why democracy in the north not merely endured but outperformed democracy in the south. According to Putnam, group membership—whether in political associations or bowling clubs—creates social capital that builds norms of social trust. Social trust, in turn, facilitates coordination and cooperation that is needed for a ‘democratic’ approach to the satisfaction of popular demands. The implication is that citizen membership in groups such as sports clubs, cooperatives, mutual aid societies, cultural associations, and voluntary unions can improve the performance and survival of democratic regimes.

Despite the attractiveness of these ideas, however, recent research has shown that social capital and citizen participation do not automatically translate into sustainable democracies. On the contrary, there are many forms of ‘uncivil society’ in which governments channel high levels of citizen participation toward undemocratic or illiberal ends and in ways that sustain authoritarian rule (Jamal, 2009; Rossteutscher, 2010; Jamal and Nooruddin, 2010). For example one study notes that the Weimar Germany was marked by high levels of involvement in civil society (Berman, 1997a). Rather than promote democracy, as neo-Tocquevillian theory would predict, however, Berman demonstrates how the Nazis leveraged pre-existing, apolitical organizations to control and p. 174undermine democracy. Other researchers have echoed this point, noting that some civil society groups organize violence and promote hate speech (Varshney, 2001). In these cases, social capital allows groups to reach new audiences and more effectively pursue their objectives, but those objectives may be inimical to open and tolerant democratic norms and practices.

One final caveat to our discussion on the importance of citizen support for democratic government and civic participation is that these factors, on their own, are not sufficient guardrails for democracy. As we will discuss at length in Chapter 14, the way that democracies are failing is changing. Today, leaders are coming to power in free and fair elections and then taking gradual steps to dismantle democratic constraints on executive power. In many cases, democratic backsliding is occurring in countries with relatively robust civil society sectors, such as in Poland, and in countries where elected leaders have strong public support, such as in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Although citizens in these countries may view electoral politics and democracy as the best form of government, elite actors have still been able to weaken democratic institutions and norms from the top down.

In the next section, we turn our attention to discuss a number of social and historical factors that influence a country’s prospects for democracy.

Box 9.2: Women and democracy

The level of women’s political empowerment and access to leadership across the globe has steadily and significantly improved. According to the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) dataset, women have seen improvements in a number of areas, including the number of female journalists, property rights for women, and how power is distributed by gender. The number of female parliamentarians has seen an especially significant increase. Currently, 23.8 per cent of parliaments around the world are filled by women. In 1998, by comparison, the global average was 12.7 per cent. The voting gap between men and women has also shrunk considerably such that it is now almost insignificant (Coffé and Bolzendahl, 2010). Likewise, women are also just as likely as men to sign a petition or donate to a political campaign. However, gender gaps persist in other types of political participation. Men are more likely to engage in collective forms of political participation such as going on strike, demonstrating, and contacting political officials and party members (Inglehart and Norris, 2003; Marien et al., 2010). And men still dominate political parties and ballot lists. In fact, only 15 per cent of the world’s population lives in societies where political power is evenly distributed between genders. It is also important to note that the data suggest that the progress that women have made has begun to plateau. The V-Dem data show that 2017 was the first year in seventy years that the global level of women’s political inclusion and empowerment did not improve.1

Impact of female political participation

Studies demonstrate that a larger presence of women in parliament translates into a host of positive outcomes. More female parliamentarians in Africa, for example, led to high levels of female political participation and engagement (Barnes and Burchard, 2013). Likewise, research in p. 175Scandinavia found that greater representation of women in parliaments improved gender equality and the quality of democracy (Sainsbury, 2001). Beyond enhancing women’s rights, greater levels of female participation in government also leads to increases in spending for health care, education, and other family and social policies (Bolzendahl and Brooks, 2007; Childs and Withey, 2004; Karam and Lovenduski, 2005) and lower levels of corruption (Dollar et al., 2001). In Rwanda, which has the highest percentage of women in parliament, issues such as education and healthcare are now raised more easily and more frequently than before (Devlin and Elgie, 2008). Likewise, there is evidence that a greater number of female council leaders in villages in West Bengal, India led to higher education levels for girls and better outcomes for girls (Beaman et al., 2012).

Women’s participation also can play an important role in conflict prevention and resolution, as experiences in Liberia and Sierra Leone illustrate (Adebajo, 2002). Consistent with this, the UN notes that conflict-afflicted countries have very low levels of women in parliament and ministerial positions compared to the world average (Kumalo, 2015). For these reasons, there is increasingly greater support for involving women in peacebuilding (Chinkin and Charlesworth, 2006).

Women’s rights and democracy

Many studies have examined the important relationship between women’s rights and democratization (Wang et al., 2017). A dataset that examined the state of democracy in 177 countries from 1900 to 2012 revealed that democratization was more likely to occur when governments afforded greater rights to both men and women (For more on the best and worst countries for women in parliament, see Tables 9.2 and 9.3). Women’s civil liberties are particularly important because they enable women to organize during the transition process, which has been historically important in sparking protests in initial phases of democratization. Greater women’s rights, including freedom to move, discuss politics, and to hold material and immaterial assets—is also critical to the establishment of electoral democracy (Wang et al., 2017).

On the flip side, countries that democratize also have higher levels of female representation over time (Fallon et al., 2012). Greater levels of freedom of speech and assembly have led to higher levels of political participation in Ghana, for example. A shift from one-party to multi-party elections also leads to greater levels of participation by women (Tripp, 2001). Not surprisingly, the most democratic countries in the world are the most gender inclusive. As Table 9.1 demonstrates, Scandinavian countries stand out for their inclusiveness and the quality of their democracies, whereas countries in the Middle East are far less gender inclusive and also far more authoritarian.

Table 9.1 Women in national parliaments

Women in national parliaments




Global average




Nordic countries









(including Nordic countries)





(excluding Nordic countries)












Arab States




p. 176

Table 9.2 25 best countries for women in national parliaments2


Lower House %

Upper House %



















Costa Rica






South Africa















New Zealand


















North Macedonia


















Table 9.3 25 worst countries for women in national parliaments3


Lower House %

Upper House %

Papua New Guinea


















Sri Lanka















Central African Republic





















Democratic Republic of Congo



Cote d’Ivoire















Sierra Leone



p. 177Social and historical drivers of democracy

In addition to culture, several social and historical factors that are related to culture—namely state identity and boundaries, ethnic cleavages, and past experience with democracy and dictatorship—also influence a country’s prospects for democratization and the consolidation of democracy. We discuss the relationship between each of these factors and democracy in what follows.

State boundaries, citizen identity, and democracy

In his seminal study published forty years ago, Dankwart Rustow (1970) argued that democracy is unlikely to develop and thrive if the public and elite cannot agree on the boundaries of the state. Robert Dahl (1989) reached the same conclusion emphasizing that democratic consolidation is not possible without an agreement on the proper boundaries of a political unit. In addition to consensus over geographic boundaries, agreement over whom—or what groups—constitute the state is also critical for establishing conditions conducive to democracy. In their influential work on democratic consolidation, Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan (1996) reinforce the importance of these dynamics for democracy, arguing;

in a modern polity, free and authoritative elections cannot be held, winners cannot exercise the monopoly of legitimate force, and citizens cannot effectively have their rights protected by a rule of law unless a state exists. In some parts of the world, conflicts about the authority and domain of the polis and the identities and loyalties of the demos are so intense that no state exists. No state, no democracy. (p. 14)

Put simply, disagreements over borders, secession, or which groups should be considered part of the nation make stable democracy unlikely to emerge and difficult to sustain.

p. 178Consensus about political boundaries and the formation of groups that share a common identity facilitate democracy because such agreement makes it easier for people to mobilize in large numbers to demand more rights from the state. In other words, such consensus facilitates the collective action needed to agitate for democratic rules and norms. A state’s inability to exert its authority throughout its territory or disputes over which groups count as citizens obstruct the state from effectively providing public goods for everyone, leading people to grow dissatisfied with the ‘output’ of democracy. In extreme cases, the exclusion of groups creates incentives for the political losers or the military to violate or terminate the rules of the game, directly threatening democratic survival and political order. Thus, democracy is unlikely to consolidate if there is contestation over the borders of the state and membership in the nation.

We briefly discuss two factors—ethnic heterogeneity and colonial legacies—that research has discussed as potentially complicating boundary drawing and the determination of political membership. These two factors pose challenges for democratic consolidation.

Ethnic cleavages

A number of political observers have noted that establishing and maintaining democracy in ethnically fragmented countries is more difficult than in homogenous ones (Linz and Stepan, 1996; Diamond, 2015). Political theorist Robert Dahl, for example, worried that high levels of ethnic diversity would make democracy less likely, particularly in countries where one ethnic group can plausibly aspire to dominate a state. Writing in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, political scientist Donald Horowitz argued that the democratic trajectory of countries in the region were shaped by the diversity of each country. Democracy progressed furthest where there were few serious ethnic cleavages, such as in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, and more slowly or not at all in more deeply divided societies, such as Bulgaria, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia. Freedom House President Adrian Karatnycky captured the sentiment of this perspective when he concluded in 2002 that, ‘democracy has been significantly more successful in mono-ethnic societies than in ethnically divided and multi-ethnic societies’ (Karatnycky, 2002, p. 107). But why might these cleavages have such an adverse effect on democracy?

First, some scholars contend that ethnic divisions create political incentives that favour an autocratic status quo, thereby thwarting the emergence of democracy (Lijphart, 1977; Dahl, 1971; Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972; Horowitz, 1993). The idea is that ethnic differences divide society, often privileging one ethnic group over others, making compromise and consensus difficult. As Donald Horowitz (1993) explains:

democracy is about inclusion and exclusion, about access to power, about the privileges that go with inclusion and the penalties that accompany exclusion. In severely divided societies, ethnic identity provides clear lines to determine who will be included and who will be excluded. Since the lines appear unalterable, being in and being out may quickly come to look permanent. (p. 18)

In ethnically exclusive autocracies, incumbent powers will be resistant to changes that have the potential to bring their ethnic opponents to power. Even ethnic-minority p. 179opponents of the incumbent regime may oppose democratization out of fear that changes to the status quo could leave them worse off.

The incentive to resist democratization may be particularly strong in those autocracies that are governed by a minority ethnic group. For the ruling minority group, the costs of democratization are extremely high. Democratization threatens the existing order and puts at risk the minority group’s status within society, the division of wealth, opportunities for education, cultural expression, chances for upward mobility, the representation of interests within the state, and even how citizenship is defined (Beissinger, 2008). Syria serves as a sobering example of this dynamic. Since Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria has been dominated by the Alawites, a group that comprises just 11 per cent of the Syrian population. The Alawites historically had been repressed under Ottoman rule. Under French rule, however, the Alawites rose to prominence in the army when the colonial administration used divide-and-rule tactics to control Syria. The French encouraged the Alawites to join the Syrian armed forces to serve as a counterweight to the Sunni majority, which was much more hostile to French rule. This minority–majority dynamic and the al-Assad family’s desire to protect the future fate of the Alawite minority is one factor contributing to Bashar al-Assad’s violent and ruthless resolve to cling to power and crush any ‘democratic’ opposition to his regime.

Box 9.3: Civic versus exclusionary nationalism

In a speech to French lawmakers in July 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron identified rising nationalism as a top challenge for France and the European Union. Just months earlier he addressed the U.S. Congress warning of the dangers of pursuing a nationalist agenda. Macron’s comments echo the concerns of many observers who view the rise of nationalism—evident in examples such as U.S. President Trump’s ‘make America great again’ slogan, Turkish President Erdoğan’s strident Islamic nationalism, and India’s influential radical Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups—as dangerous to democracy. While it is true that leaders have harnessed nationalism to undermine democracy—often violently—research also shows that nationalism can be beneficial to democracy. This research emphasizes that not all nationalism is alike. It comes in different forms, namely civic nationalism and exclusionary nationalism, each with very different consequences for democracy. We discuss these two types of nationalism here.

When we think about nationalism, we are most likely to think of exclusionary nationalism—a form of nationalism that excludes minority groups that do not share common bonds, often on the basis of race, religion, or culture. Exclusionary nationalism has posed challenges for democratic rule in a number of places. In the past, governments in Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia, for example, capitalized on perceived threats from national minorities to promote exclusionary policies and legitimize regime closure (Snyder and Vachudova, 1997). More recently, Fidesz in Hungary has used nationalism to justify efforts to monopolize control over politics. Exclusionary nationalism can also help sustain dictatorship, as exemplified by authoritarians such as Russian President Putin and the Chinese Communist Party.

While exclusionary nationalism can be detrimental to democracy, civic nationalism can aid democratic development (Ipperciel, 2007; Wimmer, 2018). Civic nationalism is based on citizenship and appeals to principles and universal values, such as freedom and equality. Research by Andreas Wimmer suggests that this brand of nationalism is most likely to emerge when p. 181governments are able to reach across regional and ethnic divides to ‘integrate ethnic majorities and minorities into an inclusive power arrangement’ (Wimmer, 2018, p. 1). Three factors can facilitate the creation of such inclusive political alliances: a government’s ability to provide public goods equally across the country, which builds support for the national government rather than leaders of ethnic communities; the presence of an established civil society early in the nation building process, which allows the government to leverage the sector’s diverse networks to broaden its political support; and a shared medium of communication, so that people can easily talk or write to one another (Wimmer, 2018). Civic nationalism can serve as a ‘glue’ that binds citizens together, as they work in concert in the pursuit of a common good.

Unfortunately, the surge of nationalism we see today is predominately exclusionary. In Europe, for example, nationalism is deeply intertwined with populism as ethnic nationalists ‘mine race and history to create a politics that sacrifices individual liberty to the will of the majority’ (The Economist).4 These nationalist currents are creating strong headwinds for democracy today. Moreover, the effects of today’s nationalism are being felt beyond domestic politics, shaping external relations between states. This new nationalism paints international affairs in pessimistic and zero-sum terms, portraying global interests as being in competition with national ones. If this type of nationalism continues to gain traction, it could not only threaten democracy, but also raise the risk of inter-state conflict.

Second, ethnic divisions not only obstruct the onset of democracy, but once democracy emerges these fissures make democracy difficult to sustain. At a fundamental level, ethnic heterogeneity creates tension between state building and democratization (Brubaker, 1996). State building entails efforts through which leaders seek to create a state that is ‘of and for’ the nation. In homogenous societies there is less conflict between state building and democratization because most of a state’s population identifies with one subjective idea of the nation (Linz and Stepan, 1996). In more ethnically diverse societies, in contrast, ethnic divisions complicate politics by making it more difficult for a multitude of groups to reach a consensus about the fundamentals of a democratic system.

Rigid ethnic cleavages also make democracy difficult to sustain because they create natural fault lines that opportunistic politicians can activate to advance their own political ambitions. In divided societies, political parties and other organizations coalesce more readily around ethnic than other identities. Political entrepreneurs therefore have an incentive to play on such divisions to facilitate their consolidation of power. These leaders can instigate an ‘us versus them’ narrative as a means to gain popular legitimacy. Political competition in fragmented democratic countries, in other words, has the potential to devolve into a process of ‘ethnic outbidding’ as leaders seek to maximize support and legitimacy from voters in their respective ethnic in-group (Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972).

This form of exclusionary ethnic nationalism raises the risk of instability and civil war—factors that bode poorly for democracy. Research published by Central Intelligence p. 180Agency’s Political Instability Task Force supports the notion that, unlike ‘inclusive’ cultures, sharply polarized societies are at greater risk of such instability. The Task Force shows that weak democracies (closest to what we have called electoral democracies) with political factionalism—defined as a pattern of sharply polarized and uncompromising competition between blocs pursuing parochial interests at the national level—are the most unstable of any other regime type (Goldstone et al., 2010). The authors find that these weak democracies have relative odds of instability over thirty times greater than for full autocracies, other things being equal, and elevated risk for the onset of civil wars and adverse regime changes. Although not explicitly about a country’s ethnic makeup, the zero-sum political competition that such polarization captures is often centred on ethnic and religious divisions. In sum, ethnic and religious polarization raises the risk of instability and violence, and this can quickly undermine the open politics associated with democracy (see also Montalvo and Reynal-Querol, 2005).

Despite the long-held belief that ethnic cleavages are bad for democracy, some scholars have argued that it is not ethnic diversity itself that is inherently bad for democracy (Fish and Brooks, 2004; Beissinger, 2008). Rather, it is the deliberate politicization of exclusionary cultural cleavages and deliberate efforts to delegitimize cultural differences that hurts democratic prospects. Ethnic diversity may also affect democratization’s chances indirectly, by interacting with and influencing other factors that dim democracy’s prospects such as lowering economic growth and governmental performance, weakening civil society, or altering institutional design. Research has shown, for example, that ethnic fractionalization leads governments to spend less on public goods (Alesina et al., 1999) and is a key factor accounting for slow growth in Africa (Easterly and Levine, 1997). When governments spend less on public goods and produce suboptimal growth outcomes, democratic governance can fall short of citizen expectations, leading to less public support for democracy.

Understanding if ethnic cleavages have a direct or indirect effect on democracy is not just an academic question. If it is not ethnic fragmentation itself that undermines democracy, then there may be institutional solutions and other types of interventions that can mitigate ethnic heterogeneity’s negative effects on things such as growth and government performance, raising the prospect for democracy. Moreover, if ethnic heterogeneity itself is not responsible for poor political outcomes, it also discredits an argument made by many a dictator seeking to justify repressive rule. Indeed, few excuses for authoritarianism are trotted out more frequently than the claim that factionalized societies need a strong hand to preserve the peace.

In sum, ethnic and religious polarization complicate democracy, but more research is needed to determine the mechanisms through which these divisions influence democratization and democratic consolidation.

Legacies of colonialism

Colonial legacies are the second factors that can complicate boundary drawing and the determination of political membership. Indeed, some empirical research suggests that countries once occupied by a colonial power face long-lasting diminished prospects for democracy (Bernhard et al., 2004). This is in part because colonialism often amplified p. 182ethnic polarization making it especially difficult for governments to reach national consensus on the identity of the citizenry as well as national boundaries. These effects were especially pronounced in countries colonized by European powers, especially in Africa. Until the twentieth century, borders in Africa were highly fluid and political systems were diverse. The Berlin Conference of 1884–85 further accelerated the ‘scramble for Africa’ as the major European powers including France, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Spain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal raced to expand their influence on the continent. National borders were drawn to suit the needs of the colonial powers, negating the realities of African identities and autonomous African perceptions of the world (Prah, 2004, p. 6). According to Larry Diamond, ‘some large ethnic groups were split between colonial states, while others with little in common, save in some instances a history of warfare and enmity, were drawn together into the new state boundaries’.

In many countries, colonial powers also pursued policies that deliberately amplified ethnic divisions. To maintain control over indigenous populations, colonial powers often used divide and rule policies, which heightened ethnic identities. Colonial powers also established a form of exclusionary politics in which a very narrow coalition of ethnic elites controlled access to state structures and resources. These ‘divide and rule’ tactics set in motion many of the ethnic dynamics we referenced in our previous discussion of ethnic heterogeneity, including sowing the seeds of the internal conflicts that make democracy more difficult to establish and sustain. Through these interactions, colonial powers often built or reinforced an extensive system of ethnically based patron-client networks that continue to serve as an important aspect of politics in many post-colonial countries (Berman, 1998).

In addition to complicating the settlement of boundaries and a consensus over who constitutes the state, the legacy of colonialism affects a country’s prospects for democracy through three additional pathways: economic development, the relationship between the state and civil society, and the quality of institutions. We discuss these three drivers of democracy in other parts of the book, but we wish to briefly note here that colonialism has an indirect and lasting effect on a country’s prospects for democracy. Empirical research shows, for example, that colonialism is associated with underdevelopment (Frank, 2018). Low levels of devolvement, in turn, can hamper a country’s prospects of developing and sustaining democracy.

In the final section of this chapter, we discuss how a country’s prior experience with democracy and dictatorship matters for its future prospects for democratization and consolidation. As you will see, time under democracy can make it more likely to re-emerge in the future. However, certain aspects of authoritarian rule often endure well beyond a democratic transition and can complicate consolidation.

Previous experience with democracy and dictatorship

Time under democracy

In assessing the probability of democratization and democratic consolidation, some scholars posit that a country’s previous experience with democracy matters (Donno and Russett, 2004). As Samuel Huntington (1991) argued, ‘longer and more recent p. 183experience with democracy is more conducive than is a shorter and more distant one’ (pp. 270–1). Of the countries that transitioned to democracy during the Third Wave, for example, those with prior democratic experience have generally been more stable than those that had to construct democratic institutions for the first time. The empirical evidence supports these arguments. Prior experience with democracy facilitates democracy down the road (Escriba-Folch and Wright, 2015).

Why might having prior experience with democracy raise a country’s future prospects for returning to and sustaining it? Importantly, earlier experience with democracy reduces uncertainty about the new regime, thus mitigating anxiety among elites that are wary about what democracy may bring. Democratic interludes also frequently leave in place institutional foundations that re-democratizing states can leverage. For example, judicial precedents may exist for interpreting the constitution and restraining executive power. Those in the security sector may have experience upholding the rule of law and protecting civil liberties. And local governments and autonomous agencies may be better prepared to help new democracies make the transition because they have done it before. Even in those cases where incumbent government officials did not have direct experience serving in the previous democracy, time under democracy can instill norms like accommodation and compromise that sustain democracy once it re-emerges. In sum, previous experience with democracy raises a country’s prospects for re-democratization and facilitates democratic consolidation because these countries do not have to start the process from scratch.

Uruguay’s experience highlights how previous experience with democracy can facilitate the re-emergence and consolidation of democracy (Higley and Gunther, 1992). Uruguay had long been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. The country’s two main political parties, the Blancos and Colorados, competed and alternated in power for decades. In 1973, however, Uruguay’s military defied expectations about the stability of consolidated democracy and seized control in a military coup that ushered in twelve years of military rule. Uruguay’s long experience with democracy, however, created inhospitable soil for authoritarianism. Many citizens viewed the military regime as illegitimate, for example, hindering the regime’s ability to institutionalize its rule (Diamond, 1994). The Blancos and Colorados continued to operate in opposition and, along with other institutions that persisted from the democratic period like trade unions and social movements, they continued to press the military regime to reinstate democracy. In 1984, Uruguay transitioned back to democracy and the country’s democratic foundations paved the way for a relatively smooth transition. Tellingly, Uruguay has remained democratic since it re-established democracy.

Authoritarian legacies

In addition to prior experience with democracy, a country’s experience with authoritarianism or autocracy can also shape its prospects for democracy. There are several pathways through which a country’s authoritarian legacy can persist and influence the quality of democracy in a newly transitioned regime. For example, citizens in weak or dysfunctional democracies occasionally grow nostalgic for their time under authoritarian rule. Such nostalgia is most likely to emerge when the new democracy is unable p. 184to meet citizens’ economic expectations, especially if people remember the autocratic period as being relatively more prosperous. Studies of Eastern Europe, for example, have shown that many people remain nostalgic about the authoritarian past (Neundorff et al., 2017). They associate the authoritarian period with stability, predictability, security, and employment. Such sympathy for authoritarianism makes citizens less willing to stand up to elite transgressions or other threats to the new democracy, which can degrade democratic quality over time.

Another pathway through which a country’s authoritarian legacy can influence the sustainability of the democracy that follows it is through the persistence of authoritarian enclaves. Authoritarian enclaves are durable pockets of authoritarian practice at odds with the democratic regime’s political norms (Gilley, 2010; Magaloni and Sanchez, 2006). Authoritarian enclaves may emerge within institutions such as the military, legislature, or courts or through social actors not fully willing to adhere to democratic rules (Garretón Merino, 1995; Magaloni, 2006). While authoritarian enclaves can be found at the national level, they are also prevalent at sub-national levels of government, particularly in rural areas (Montero, 2010). For example, local leaders may choose not to enforce the rule of law in their jurisdiction, compromise the secret ballot, or take advantage of fiscal resources to build clientelist networks.

The persistence of authoritarian enclaves tends to be most problematic in those countries emerging from military dictatorship. Empirical research by Milan Svolik (2008) underscores this dynamic by showing that new democracies with a military past are the most likely to backslide. More specifically, he shows that a military past has a large, negative, and independent effect on the persistence of authoritarian enclaves and, thus, a democracy’s susceptibility to reversals. Other scholars have similarly noted that a military legacy is particularly bad for democracy (Cheibub, 2007). Initially, this finding might appear to contradict empirical research we discussed in Chapter 3 that showed that military regimes are the most likely type of dictatorship to transition to democracy. However, these two findings are not inconsistent. Instead, the research suggests that military regimes are both the most likely to transition to democracy and to face significant challenges in consolidating and deepening democracy once it emerges.

Military rule poses a particular challenge for democratic consolidation because the military often maintains substantial bargaining power in particular ‘enclaves’ within the new democracy. The military uses its influence to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect its financial interests, autonomy from civilian leaders, and immunity from prosecution. Where it can, the military may also seek to dictate who can run for office and hold important cabinet positions that shape the types of policies that are implemented.

The case of Chile illustrates how a legacy of military rule, enduring in particular enclaves, can complicate democratic development. Chile transitioned to democracy in 1990 when long-time dictator Augusto Pinochet lost a referendum on his leadership and stepped down. The first post-Pinochet government, led by President Patricio Aylwin, encountered several authoritarian strongholds. It inherited a cohesive bloc of Pinochet-appointed senators, a largely autonomous armed forces free from civilian control, and a legacy of unresolved cases of human rights violations left behind by the military regime (Garretón Merino, 1995). According to Manuel Garreton, these p. 185authoritarian enclaves create challenges for new democracies because they ‘make it difficult for social and political actors to emerge and express their alternative proposals’ (p. 155). In these ways, the legacy of authoritarian rule can influence the quality of the democracy that emerges afterwards.

Finally, the political parties that exist under authoritarianism frequently survive the transition to democracy and also serve as a carrier of the authoritarian legacy. Empirical research shows that not only do these former autocratic ruling parties frequently survive, but they often prosper within democracy (Grzymala-Busse, 2002; Loxton, 2015). Former ruling parties enter democracy with significant advantages in organization, membership, and brand recognition, particularly if they are still in power at the moment of the democratic transition (Langston, 2017). In many cases, these authoritarian parties are the most professionalized and experienced parties in the political system. Moreover they often carry over reserves of autocratic power, including clientelist networks, state and military allies, control of the media, monetary resources, and mass support (Birch, 2003; Langston, 2017). As Joy Langston (2017, p. 200) argues, ‘almost all authoritarian parties are better positioned than their upstart opposition party rivals when the transition to democracy begins and ends’.

Although there have been cases in which formerly authoritarian parties did not hinder democracy, including in Mexico, Taiwan, and South Korea, the empirical record suggests these cases do not represent the norm. Instead, authoritarian parties negatively impact democratic survival and quality. In Nicaragua, for example, the Sandinista National Liberation Front and ex-revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega regained power in the 2006 election after a sixteen-year absence. Ortega’s tenure has featured state dominance of the media and widespread abuse of the courts to abolish term limits and disqualify opposition candidates. These parties may erode democracy because they have experience ruling undemocratically and may be eager to manipulate the rules to re-establish dominance. As Terry Lynn Karl (1990) argues, autocratic influence over democratic design can produce a ‘frozen’, elite-dominated democracy. Legacy authoritarian parties may also erode democracy if, after electing a clear representative of the autocratic past, voters feel that the system and their fellow citizens are turning away from democracy and are unwilling to oppose violations of democratic norms and practices (Seligson and Tucker, 2005).

More research is needed to trace how authoritarian legacies affect the quality of democracy. What seems clear, however, is that a country’s authoritarian past can cast a shadow on a new democracy. As Rachel Riedl (2014, xv) argues, ‘democratization is not a tabula rasa: legacies from the past, specifically authoritarian strategies for maintaining power, play a major role in determining how democracy operates’.


Understanding the extent to which cultural, social, and historical factors shape a country’s prospect for democracy has important policy implications. Those that view culture as pliable, for example, believe that democratic institutions can function in all p. 186cultural environments. Efforts to create conditions conducive to democracy are therefore a worthwhile endeavour. Those that see some cultures as inherently undemocratic, in contrast, argue that we must accept that some cultures are compatible with only various forms of authoritarianism. Political scientists have so far not been able to produce an authoritative answer to this debate. This is in large part because the evidence required to adjudicate between these different cultural arguments is hard to come by (Przeworski,1998). Nonetheless, as this body of literature has progressed, political scientists have gained greater confidence in the assertion that culture alone is an inadequate explanation for the emergence or sustainability of democracy.

Although empirical research does not support the notion that cultural factors cause democratization, there is some evidence indicating that culture—as expressed through values, attitudes, and beliefs—affects the persistence or stability of democracy. Once democracy has emerged (for other more structural reasons) democracy seems most likely to deepen and endure where elites gradually adopt a values-based commitment to the rules of the democratic game. However, recent developments including the erosion of democracy in places such as Hungary and Poland—which observers viewed as having safely crossed the threshold into consolidated democracy—underscore that elite attitudes can change. Although countries may feature relatively robust civil societies and citizens may view democracy as the best form of government, these attributes and attitudes do not always prevent elite efforts from weakening democracy from the top down.

In addition to culture, we covered the most widely discussed social and historical drivers in the academic literature, including state identity and boundaries, ethnic cleavages, and historical experience with democracy and dictatorship. For example, the empirical research on the relationship between ethnic diversity and democracy suggests that ethnic diversity hinders democracy, but serious questions about the robustness of this claim remain. However, there is relatively more robust evidence that a long history of democratic rule is conducive to engendering and preserving democracy in the long term.

In the next section we shift our focus from domestic drivers of democracy to a number of external factors that shape a country’s prospects for democracy. In particular, we discuss how changes in the international environment in the last decade in particular are creating conditions more conducive to autocracy.

Key Questions


Why are most political science scholars sceptical that culture is a driver of democracy?


What is the relationship between social capital and the quality of democracy?


What is the relationship between ethnic diversity and democracy?


How does past experience with democracy and autocracy affect a country’s future prospects for democracy?p. 187


What do you think are the prospects of democracy taking root in an Islamic and ethnically divided Middle East? Do you think the region is incompatible with democracy or, given the right conditions, can democracy emerge? What do you see as the key catalysts and the primary barriers to democratization in the Middle East?

Further Reading

  • Almond, G.A. and Verba, S., 2015. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton University Press.
  • The Civil Culture is a seminal work in understanding the role of political culture in fostering democracy and democratic consolidation. The book undertook a comparative cross-national survey of five countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Mexico) and quantified the ideals and attitudes that are the most supportive of democracy.

  • Inglehart, R. and Welzel, C., 2005. Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge University Press.
  • Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy demonstrates how modernization is impacting people’s values and their behaviour, and bringing coherent cultural changes that are actually conducive to democratization.

  • Teorell, J., 2010. Determinants of Democratization: Explaining Regime Change in the World, 1972–2006. Cambridge University Press.
  • Determinants of Democratization provides an overview of the key factors that foster democratization. The book argues that economic prosperity and peaceful protests are important, but that elite dynamics is also a critical factor in the short term for explaining regime breakdown and democratization.