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Democracy's Competitive Edge

Why Authoritarian Economies Could Have More to Fear From the Crisis

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By Marc F. Plattner
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; Page A15

The past few years have been tough for democracy around the world, and most observers have jumped to the conclusion that the U.S. financial crisis will only make things worse. Those who believe free markets are essential to democracy fear that the discrediting of market capitalism will undermine free and open governance. Even those less enamored of capitalism are afraid that the global identification of democracy with markets is so strong that the crisis will weaken the standing of liberal politics.

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There are other reasons for concern. For one thing, the Great Depression was devastating to democratic progress. The period between the first and second world wars included what Samuel P. Huntington characterized as the first "reverse wave of democratization," as many of the European democracies that emerged after World War I succumbed to economic hardship and the rise of fascism. Under harsh economic conditions, it is more difficult for a democratic government to deliver the prosperity that its politicians promise and its citizens seek. Long-established democracies with deeply rooted institutions and strongly liberal political cultures may be able to withstand even sharp drops in income and steep increases in unemployment, but newer and less consolidated democracies will find it much harder to avoid political breakdowns.

Yet these concerns present only one side of the picture. In fact, on balance, the economic crisis could bring global gains for democracy, largely because of its impact on democracy's competitors. In just the past few years there has been not only a stagnation of democratic progress but also, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the emergence of nondemocratic political systems that can claim to offer attractive models. Some observers lump together these nondemocratic alternatives under the label "authoritarian capitalism" (though this is little more than a catchall category of countries that seem to be achieving economic success without providing political freedom). It cannot be denied that, until late last year, several such countries -- China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran -- were riding high.

But the economic crisis has rapidly gone global and reached them as well. With oil prices a fraction of their highs from just a few months ago, the oil exporters have taken a severe hit. Even China's remarkable economic growth is likely to be imperiled as the downturn prompts its export markets to contract. In this sense, what the crisis reveals is that the gains of nondemocratic countries have ultimately depended on the economic engine provided by the world's advanced democracies.

Democrats can hardly gloat about the fallout from the crisis, given the breadth of the suffering and the inevitability that some democracies will be at risk. Yet democrats' rivals are likely to suffer even more. For the most part, the "authoritarian capitalist" regimes are not based on a coherent ideology that has wide support among their populations. Instead, regimes such as those in Russia and China are propped up by what political scientists call "performance legitimacy": As long as they deliver the economic goods, most of their citizens may be willing to accept the accompanying limits on their political freedom. Russian citizens who endured poverty after the fall of communism appreciated the improvement in their quality of life that Vladimir Putin's regime offered. But when such regimes stop delivering, what other sources of legitimacy can they fall back on to justify their rule? Over the long term, democracies, too, may succumb if they fail to deliver, but in the short term they have other resources -- not just popular attachment to political liberty but also the ability to change their governments via elections without changing their regimes. Today's authoritarian regimes are likely to be more vulnerable than their democratic counterparts.

In the 1970s, the French political scientist Pierre Hassner used the phrase "competitive decadence" to describe the Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. This notion suggested that the superpowers were each beset with serious internal problems and that whichever side decayed more slowly was likely to emerge the winner. The global economic crisis may well stimulate a similar kind of dynamic between democracy and its rivals. But democracy's advantages in such a struggle are not limited to its ability to take a punch and outlast its glass-jawed competitors. Democracy has often displayed a remarkable ability to reform and renew itself. This gives it a resilience that may prove decisive in the competition with its more brittle authoritarian challengers.

Marc F. Plattner is co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and vice president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.


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