New Wine or Old Bottlenecks? The Study of Latin American Democracy

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Session 5

Karen Remmer, “New Wine or Old Bottlenecks? The Study of Latin American Democracy,” Comparative Politics, July 1991, pp. 479-95

This article is a review of three volumes on democracy in Latin America and more generally the attempts at the theorization of the fall of authoritarianism and the rise of democratization in Latin America (LA). After giving a brief history of the modern theoretical impulses, she discusses her four main criticisms of current (1990) theory on democratization in LA: denial, voluntarism, barefoot empiricism, and intellectual recycling. Her goal is to criticize current theory in order to contribute to the development of an alternate theoretical agenda to guide research in the region.
Beginning with modernization and development literature of 1960s, every major theoretical approach to the study of Latin American politics has attempted to explain the failure of competitive political institutions to take root in the region (this was their main focus).
Explanation according to major theories:

Modernization theory

Development theory (Samuel Huntington)

  • Attributed democratic instability to growing political participation and inadequate institutional development

Political culture theory

  • Took off where modernization theory ended

  • Emphasized importance of values and incompatibility b/t the cultural legacy of Iberian colonialism and democracy

Dependency theory

  • Placed economic structure at the center of political analysis

  • Blamed relationships b/t LA and rest of world as inimical to democratic development

Bureaucratic authoritarianism

  • Preoccupation with democracy

  • Explained democratic breakdowns in terms of the political tensions generated by the process of industrial growth

By mid 1970s, virtually every aspect of LA society from family to global economic linkages had come to be seen as an obstacle to liberal democracies.1 Thus, theory to explain authoritarianism in the region became overdeterministic.

The 1980s political transformation of the region posed a major theoretical challenge because of the long-standing emphasis on democratic instability, the events outpacing and invalidating theory. This democratization was the longest and deepest in the region’s history. Established theories couldn’t accommodate, much less predict, the depth and duration of the shift away from authoritarianism. After spending the previous two decades explaining the failure of democracy, now theorists had to account for the demise of authoritarianism.
Now (now meaning in 1990 when the article was written), 10 years after the beginning of the wave of democratization, LA scholars have yet to articulate alternative theoretical models or approaches. Remmer has four major problems with the current theory on LA dems (she calls them four characteristic modes of intellectual retreat): 1) Denial, 2) Voluntarism, 3) Barefoot empiricism, 4) Intellectual recycling
The purpose of this article is to explain the limitations of the recent literature (the three edited volumes she’s reviewing) and open the door to more productive lines of political analysis.

1. Denial aka “Burying one’s head in the sand”

Scholars have adhered to traditional ways of examining LA and failed to address the new and unanticipated with continuities emphasized at the expense of examining new phenomenon/discontinuities.

Tendency to dismiss the widespread breakdown of authoritarianism as no more than a temporary wave in a recurrent cycle of political instability problematic on the following counts:

  • Current wave of democratization (both depth and duration) unprecedented in LA history.

    • Military rule also thoroughly discredited

  • Post-1979 democracies that have emerged are markedly different than precursors

    • In the past, modal form of political democracy in the region was exclusionary in the sense that competitive institutions were based on the electoral participation of less than one-third of the population.

    • Enfranchisement of illiterates, rise of new social movements pushed LA democracies to be more inclusionary.

  • Vulnerabilities of current regimes differ from those of their democratic predecessors.

Scholars have misrepresented and possibly exaggerated the weaknesses of political democracy in LA

  • Adverse econ conditions often have been associated with the breakdown of democratic institutions in the regions, but relationships too complex to imply a one-way causality.

Doubts about capacity of democracies to mount effective policy responses to the economic challenges of the 1980s fly in the face of a steadily growing body of empirical evidence.

  • Dem regimes in comparison with authoritarian ones

    • No less likely to introduce austerity programs.

    • No more likely to break down in response to their political costs

    • No less successful in program implementation

  • Despite unusually high debt burdens, the supposedly fragile new LA democracies managed the debt crisis (1982-88) just as effectively as their authoritarian counterparts

Puzzle of the 1980s NOT the fragility of liberal democracy in LA but its surprising vitality in the face of overwhelming economic constraints.

2. Voluntarism aka “Rediscovering the Prince”

Although this intellectual response recognizes the conflict between old theory and new facts, but in focusing so primarily on the short-term processes of regime transition and the specific circumstances of each case, it comes close to rejection of all theory.

  • Past and future of competitive institutions in LA are not linked to shifts in international econ, class structure, social institutions, or political attitudes and consciousness.

  • Sees democratic political outcomes as dependent upon the choices of particular political elites (virtù) and specific historical conjunctures (fortuna).

  • Some serious problems in analysis: saying that accident and human choice led to democratization but institutional and structural forces cause authoritarianism – two very different theoretical frameworks to account for a single variable (regime)

Such a voluntaristic understanding of political democracy fails to take us any farther than approaches that dismiss or downplay the significance of recent changes.

3. Barefoot empiricism aka “Rooting out the facts”

Remmer sees the case-study approach to explaining democratization unhelpful in trying to create theory for the region for the following reasons:

  • Even when written around a common set of definitions, guidelines, and theoretical concerns, the main result has been an inchoate shopping list of variables and complex propositions.

  • Rigorous procedures for data collection and analysis give way to subjective and impressionistic, synthesis replaces analysis, and case study approach is biased against structural and institutional factors and favors contingent and individual – this limits the possibilities of generalization and opportunities for integrating data from more than one level of analysis.

  • The explanations that have been developed by the case study approach are too complex and unwieldy to be susceptible to falsification, much less to establish the basis for any type of prediction.

4. Intellectual Recycling aka “Rummaging in the attic”

Because of the resulting theoretical despair has sent scholars looking for old frameworks to accommodate new facts. Hence, modernization back in vogue.

In trying to modify old theory with the use of qualifiers, often the theory often become tautological. For example,

  • ‘when countries have remained democratic for a generation, they appear more likely to remain democratic’ or

  • ‘a nation will be more likely to develop and sustain democratic government… if the democratic system has a high degree of legitimacy among both the political elite and the general population’

Many of these theorists focus on legitimacy as their starting point, but this doesn’t explain causes or consequences of regime transitions – legitimacy was a problem for authoritarian regimes, but that didn’t necessarily cause their collapse, while democracies with high levels of support were not immune to military takeover.


Remmer’s suggestion: an alternate theoretical agenda to guide the development of research

  • Step one: Recognize the need for theoretical revision; process of democratization needs to be explained, not explained away.

  • Step two: Recognize that voluntaristic approaches stressing variables such as virtù and fortuna represent a retreat from theory rather than a solution to the problems posed by the failure of established approaches and theories. Therefore, we should eliminate particularistic and contingent considerations from the theoretical agenda, broadening the focus of research from short-term processes of change to a search for the general and the predictable.

  • Step three: Theory should attempt to integrate data drawn from more than one level of analysis and issues surrounding study of LA dems should be addressed in a comparative framework.

  • Step four: Don’t recycle theoretical ideas based on older, simpler understandings of LA. Revival of frameworks that were rejected in the past for sound reasons will merely postpone the process of theoretical reconstruction while a new round of exorcism takes place. If scholars need theoretical inspiration, Remmer suggests looking at modern Europe.

1 Remmer defines liberal democracy as a form of regime characterized by competitive elections and oppositional rights.

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