Stasavage: Democracy requires continuous effort (PODCAST AND LONG READ)

Ferenc Laczo: Your most recent book, The Decline and Rise of Democracy, offers a truly global history of democracies since ancient times. We shall be focusing on some key questions in this major book during our conversation today. Let me start by asking, what motivated you to compose such an ambitious monograph on the history of democracy? 

David Stasavage: This book was long in preparation and reflected the evolution of my own thinking about the subject. For a good part of the last twenty years, I had been interested in and writing on the development of representative institutions, chiefly in Europe. Some years ago, I became interested in the rise of representative institutions in Europe and their absence in the Middle East and China. As I got interested in that, I started to look at a range of different societies also outside those three regions. I began to realize that there were hints of what we might call early democracy in a much broader set of human societies. To the extent that Europe had early forms of democratic rule, there was nothing unique or special about this, even if Europe did become unique in later centuries. That was the beginning for me, and it was that learning process that eventually led to this book.

Ferenc Laczo: Would you perhaps care to comment on how political scientists tend to approach democracy these days and how broader and more nuanced historical perspectives, such as yours, may add to the discussion? When I think about political science perspectives on democracy these days, I tend to see works that focus quite narrowly on recent decades, maybe even just recent years whereas you really take a very long-term view. 

David Stasavage: If you look at how political scientists considered democracy over the past, say, twenty-five to thirty years, then you are absolutely right. There was for a long time and continuing to some degree today a tendency to focus on recent decades. That is perhaps because we are most interested in what is happening today, or we think that what happened in recent decades can most inform where we are today. But I also think that has been the case for reasons of what sort of data existed. 

In the last ten to fifteen years, however, there has been a lot more interest in the long-run development of political institutions. We now have what some people would like to call the new field of historical political economy. 

This isexemplified by the Broadstreet Blog where you get political scientists interested in much deeper historical questions on the evolution of democracy in the sort of way that would have been normal for people in the 1950s and 1960s in political science – if you go back to someone like Barrington Moore, the author of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, he was certainly interested in the long story. What we are still weak on in political science is branching out into thinking about early forms of democracy and non-Western societies. As I said, that is something that was a fairly late academic realization on my part too. I think we ought to do more to study those other societies to see what lessons they can provide.

Ferenc Laczo: You indeed present quite a number of arguments in this book which contradict widely cherished beliefs about the history and spread of democracy. You start in ancient times with early democracy and claim that early democracy was rather widespread and emerged in various places independently of one another. If it was not invented by the ancient Greeks, as we – rather self-servingly – tend to narrate the story over here in Europe, then what gave rise to such early forms of consultative rule in your interpretation?

David Stasavage: I think there were three factors that were crucial. One of these was that early democracy tended to exist in small-scale societies. It was more of a face-to-face affair. As soon as early societies got larger, they tended to be more hierarchical in form. Second, if rulers were trying to raise revenue in any shape or fashion, they needed knowledge about what people were doing and producing. If they needed that knowledge, they needed the cooperation of the population and thus often needed to call councils or assemblies. The final factor is whether the ruler needed their people more or vice versa. When people had exit options and could just move elsewhere, there was this sort of constraint on the ability of rulers to govern in a hierarchical way. Entwined with all that, was the fact that early democracy was a way of addressing the need emerging out of the fact that rulers could not govern on their own. However, there was an alternative route: to construct a bureaucratic state and rule through your subordinates rather than jointly with members of society. Ultimately and most importantly, early democracy was a substitute for a bureaucratic state.

Ferenc Laczo: You indeed present these two alternatives in the book – representative institutions are basically potential alternatives to state bureaucracies – and I wanted us to speak a bit more about that. In your book, whether countries end up as democracies or autocracies depends to a large extent on what you call the sequencing of developments. I was wondering whether you would care to comment why you consider sequencing so crucial?

David Stasavage: Sequencing, which other people have written about before me, but which I tried to emphasize and really amplify in my book, is indeed critical. If a bureaucratic state comes first, it does not permanently lock in an autocratic form of rule, but it makes it much more likely. Areas of the world today where there is a long history of a centralized bureaucratic state that emerged first are less likely to be democratic. The opposite sequence means that if you had some form of collective rule on a large scale to begin with, it was possible to construct a bureaucratic state after that. It is possible to do that jointly by rulers and members of society. This is what happened in European states for the most part, with Prussia being a notable exception. In Western European states you see, at least initially, a tiny fraction of the people were involved in representative assemblies, ruling jointly with rulers and you get the development of bureaucratic states much later, whereas in places like the Middle East and China, bureaucratic states emerge much earlier. It is that opposite sequence that leads to an opposite set of outcomes with respect to democracy, I think.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us talk a bit about modern democracy. Your book basically argues that democracy at some point declined and then it rose again, as also indicated in your title. You confirm that Western Europe and later also the United States diverged from China and the Middle East when it came to modern democracy. Why was that and what gave rise to this new type of rule we could call modern democracy?

David Stasavage: Early democracy was predominantly a small-scale phenomenon. As societies grew and became more complex, democracy was less likely to survive, although in Europe, you do get a kind of survival. I would not want to call medieval kingdoms early democracies, but you do get the survival of consensual governance at least among a fraction of the population. But modern democracy is quite different in that it involves governing through representatives and a type of rule where there is a state bureaucracy that handles things on a day-to-day basis. Participation is very broad, but for most people it is not particularly deep – for most of them, political participation amounts to voting every few years. That is a fundamental difference between modern democracy and early democracy. It is something that makes it possible for modern democracy to survive and exist over a vast territory in the way that early democracy could not have done, but it also leads to some weaknesses of modern democracy which we can observe time and again.

Ferenc Laczo: I mentioned that your book has a truly global ambition which is quite rare even nowadays. For instance, in the part on modern democracy, you also discuss sub-Saharan African countries in recent decades. What do their experiences add to the understanding of modern democracy and its origins?

David Stasavage: The sub-Saharan African cases are truly fascinating. If you go back to 1989-90, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a sense of a new wave of democracy but somebody like Samuel Huntington, for example, was very pessimistic about the possibility of democracy surviving and expanding in sub-Saharan Africa. From the vantage point of that time, only Botswana and partially Senegal could be considered something resembling a democracy. Huntington made his predictions based on his belief that those countries were too poor and too ethnically divided to sustain democracy. If you look at things today, irrespective of what measure of democracy you use, something like a third of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa have transitioned to relatively stable democracy. Whether you see that as a remarkable change or not, I think, depends upon the baseline used, which was essentially zero. If you look at the Middle East, which was also at zero, you see that it is still essentially at zero. Going from zero to a third, I think, is quite a big change. 

As I try to suggest in chapter eleven of the book, it may be considered surprising that democracy in Africa has been more likely to flourish in places that had weaker states around 1990. However, this is just what the sequencing argument would suggest. Democracy has also, to some extent, flourished in places that had lower levels of income per capita, which is the exact opposite of what the modernization hypothesis would suggest.

Ferenc Laczo: Your book makes us reconsider several of our most cherished beliefs about why we have democracy, and it also makes us think about why to have democracy at all. You identify as a democrat in your book, but you also state that democracies are not necessarily more efficient or successful than other kinds of regimes. Its autocratic competitors may be able to succeed in the short term or maybe even in the longer term, at least in certain areas. I wanted to ask you a bit about how you see the effects of democratic rule. Would you mind focusing a bit on the question of social equality where you also have a complex and engaging story to tell?

David Stasavage: Absolutely. I believe that there are reasons to support democracy and to like it independently of its economic consequences. That is the first thing I would want to say. I would also say that if you are a supporter of democracy, you are also, just like everybody else, in favor of economic development and, like many people, you prefer to avoid massive economic inequality. But if you look at the historical record, one needs to be a bit realistic about the idea that democracy as a political regime will necessarily get us more development and lower levels of inequality. There are plenty of places where that has plausibly happened but, on average, the effect on growth is not like night and day and the effect on inequality is even harder to see if we design research that allows us to get at any implicit causal effect of democracy. Many countries have survived as democracies with very high levels of inequality. That is an unfortunate thing from my point of view, but it does lead us to the conclusion that democracy does not really do as much for equality as we often think. There is certainly nothing automatic about it.

Ferenc Laczo: It is indeed among the most fascinating bits in the book for me personally how you show that the expectations or, in a sense, the fears regarding democracy in the 19th century were exaggerated. There was a lot of a fear, especially among members of the of the upper classes, that democracy would lead to much higher levels of equality and would foster a kind of egalitarian turn, but that has not quite happened. That points to a fascinating difference between perception and discourses, on the one hand, and the actual history of modern democracies as we can study them empirically, on the other. 

I also read your book as a strong argument against Western exceptionalism and theories of Western universalism. Democracy does not only have European and Western origins, but there are also countries such as, perhaps most importantly, China, where there is a very efficient state, and it would be naive to expect that such a country would want to adopt the Western model. I think we need to be more realistic about our democracies without becoming relativistic. As my final question, let me ask what you see as the key challenges that Western democracies face today and how might they be able to tackle them? 

David Stasavage: In response to what you were saying first, I would say that just as we should recognize that democracy has been something that comes naturally to human societies over many thousands of years, we should also recognize that it is not inevitable and that there has been an autocratic alternative. We should not be surprised to see that there are many authoritarian regimes today. That is another political form that has been quite stable over time. If we recognize that, then I think we might be a little bit more realistic about where we are in 2021 – instead of following the assumptions from 1989-90 when some people were suggesting that democracy was inevitably the wave of the future for everyone.

If we think about what is critical for the preservation and stabilization of today’s modern democracies, a number of factors are involved.

The one I keep coming back to involves the difficulty large-scale polities, like a modern democracy, have with keeping citizens connected with the state and with each other, so that we do not fall into the problems of distrust of government and polarization. We see those trends very strongly in the United States today but, of course, not only here. As a general policy prescription, maintaining modern democracy requires continual investment and effort to keep citizens engaged in participating and to avoid having them become distrustful. During the Early Republic in the United States there were significant investments in education as well as in the provision of information that helped stabilize early American democracy. 

Ultimately, if you come back to the original Greek word, democracy simply means that the people have power or are governing. If the people are not particularly interested in what they are doing, then you have a problem, because this system depends on members of society actually participating in producing positive political outcomes.

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