20 December 2017

‘Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose’

Colin Kidd discusses Daniel Ziblatt's theory of the influence of conservatism on the development of modern democracy:

'In Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy Daniel Ziblatt conducts a comparative analysis of the European transition to democratic politics between roughly the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. He notices an unwelcome truth, that the successful and – perhaps more important – stable transition to democracy depended less on the strength of pro-democratic forces than on the character and strategies of their conservative opponents. Ziblatt identifies two distinctive pathways from hierarchical to mass democratic societies. Some countries, such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and pre-1880 France, went on a rollercoaster, with significant democratic breakthroughs ‘followed by complete democratic breakdowns or coups d’état’. Democratisation took a more sedate course in Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where – despite some resistance and occasional hazards – there was steady incremental progress towards settled democracy. Old conservative elites, Ziblatt explains, confronted a fork in the road. Should they adapt to the rise of democracy by foul means or fair? Might they be best advised to develop techniques of electoral fraud, corruption, clientilism and intimidation, relying either on local power-brokers or perhaps a proactive ministry of the interior? Or should they take a huge risk and develop ‘mass competitive political parties’ able to ‘win “clean” elections’? In countries where conservative forces saw politics in pragmatic, transactional terms – ‘Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose’ – and invested heavily in constructing viable election-winning organisations run by professional party agents on behalf of their patrician masters, a ‘virtuous cycle’ ensued. Electoral success begat confidence in new constitutional arrangements. On the other hand, Ziblatt notes, if ‘old-regime elites do not buy in’ to competitive, unrigged elections, ‘a democratic political order is much harder to build and also much harder to sustain.’ When confidence in the ability of the right to succeed in fair electoral politics runs low, it’s all too easy to panic, to succumb to the temptations of the coup, the counter-revolution, the cancelled election'.

- Colin Kidd, 'Gove or Galtieri?', London Review of Books, 5 October 2017
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