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What is Democratic Consolidation?

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 9, Number 2, April 1998
pp. 91-107 | 10.1353/jod.1998.0030

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Journal of Democracy 9.2 (1998) 91-107

During the past quarter-century, the "third wave" of global demo-cratization has brought more than 60 countries around the world from authoritarian rule toward some kind of democratic regime. This is no small achievement, of course, but it has also become apparent that sustaining democracy is often a task as difficult as establishing it. In the immediate aftermath of all these democratic transitions, pressing concerns have quickly arisen about how to strengthen and stabilize these new regimes. With the extension of democracy to additional countries now having slowed, political scientists -- and political actors in new democracies -- have been increasingly focusing on what has come to be called "democratic consolidation."

Originally, the term "democratic consolidation" was meant to describe the challenge of making new democracies secure, of extending their life expectancy beyond the short term, of making them immune against the threat of authoritarian regression, of building dams against eventual "reverse waves." To this original mission of rendering democracy "the only game in town," countless other tasks have been added. As a result, the list of "problems of democratic consolidation" (as well as the corresponding list of "conditions of democratic consolidation") has expanded beyond all recognition. It has come to include such divergent items as popular legitimation, the diffusion of democratic values, the neutralization of antisystem actors, civilian supremacy over the military, the elimination of authoritarian enclaves, party building, the organization of functional interests, the stabilization of electoral rules, the routinization of politics, the decentralization of state power, the introduction of mechanisms of direct democracy, judicial reform, the alleviation of poverty, and economic stabilization.

At this point, with people using the concept any way they like, nobody can be sure what it means to others, but all maintain the illusion of speaking to one another in some comprehensible way. While "democratic consolidation" may have been a nebulous concept since its very inception, the conceptual fog that veils the term has only become thicker and thicker the more it has spread through the academic as well as the political world. If it is true that "[n]o scientific field can advance far if the participants do not share a common understanding of key terms in the field," then the study of democratic consolidation, at its current state of conceptual confusion, is condemned to stagnation. The aspiring subdiscipline of "consolidology" is anchored in an unclear, inconsistent, and unbounded concept, and thus is not anchored at all, but drifting in murky waters. The use of one and the same term for vastly different things only simulates a shared common language; in fact, the reigning conceptual disorder is acting as a powerful barrier to scholarly communication, theory building, and the accumulation of knowledge.

I believe that we can order and comprehend the multiple usages and meanings of "democratic consolidation" by looking at the concrete realities as well as the practical tasks the term is meant to address. The meaning that we ascribe to the notion of democratic consolidation depends on where we stand (our empirical viewpoints) and where we aim to reach (our normative horizons). It varies according to the contexts and the goals we have in mind.

Viewpoints and Horizons

When students of democratization seek to classify regimes, the key distinction, of course, runs between those that are democratic and those that are not (the latter often generically labeled as "authoritarian"). The most widely accepted criteria for identi-fying a country as democratic have been put forward by Robert Dahl -- civil and political rights plus fair, competitive, and inclusive elections. Dahl calls countries that meet these criteria "polyarchies," but they are more commonly referred to as "liberal democracies."

Two other subtypes of democracy have gained wide recognition in the scholarly literature on new democracies. On the one hand, there are all those borderline cases that possess some but not all of liberal democracy's essential features, and therefore fall somewhere in between democracy and authoritarianism. I call such semidemocratic regimes "electoral democracies." This term is now generally used to describe a specific type of semidemocracy -- one that manages to hold (more or less) inclusive, clean, and competitive elections but fails to uphold the political and...


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