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  • Democracy’s FutureMore Liberal, Preliberal, or Postliberal?
  • Philippe C. Schmitter (bio)

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, democracy’s general prospects have never been more favorable; yet it has rarely been more difficult to discern what type or degree of democracy we should expect in the future. It is as if, having swept almost all of their “systemic” opponents from the field, the proponents of democracy have at long last been freed to squabble among themselves over the meaning and application of their preferred political order.

As long as the most recent “wave of democratization” was exerting its powerful effect, actors of all kinds had every incentive to climb on their varied and exotic surfboards for the exciting ride to freedom. Now that the wave has crested and the direction of future regime changes has become much less predictable, the thrill of reaching a common objective has given way to an increased awareness not merely that consolidating democracy is a much more demanding task than replacing autocracy, but also that all the avowedly democratic surfers might not have had the same beach in mind as a destination.

Part of the problem lies in our unfortunate habit of equating “democracy” with “modern, representative, liberal, political democracy as practiced within nation-states.” Admittedly, it is awkward to keep all those qualifiers in mind, much less write them out, every time one refers to democracy. But political scientists, if not practicing politicians, should be aware that:

  1. 1. the “classical” democracies that anteceded the present ones (and provided many of their symbols and normative justifications) had very different practices of citizenship and accountability; [End Page 15]

  2. 2. not only do various “direct” forms of democracy persist, but there are also very different types and degrees of “indirection” in contemporary representative democracies;

  3. 3. liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided in some countries with the rise of democracy, but has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice—least of all once democracy was extended to include mass publics, popularly elected executives, specialized interest associations, and boisterous social movements;

  4. 4. it has been a matter of considerable controversy whether the generically democratic principles of participation, access, accountability, responsiveness, and competition should be confined to “public” or “political” institutions, or extended to cover “private” and “nonpolitical” institutions that have an impact upon the whole of society;

  5. 5. finally, it is a historical accident, having little or nothing to do with democracy, that its practices have heretofore been largely confined to states—that is, to a subset of territorial units of very unequal size, level of development, national unity, cultural homogeneity, and so forth.

My hunch is that all these qualifiers—and perhaps others as well—will be questioned in coming decades. Far from being secure in its foundations and practices, democracy will have to face unprecedented challenges. Its future, as I have suggested previously in these pages, will be increasingly “tumultuous, uncertain, and very eventful.” 1

Exploring the Probable Challenges

Most of these challenges will come from within the established liberal democracies (ELDs), not from the fledgling neodemocracies (FNDs). Certainly the latter will have to face a great deal of disenchantment when performance inevitably fails to meet inflated expectations and the tedium of consolidation replaces the heady excitement of the transition. Yet the one thing that has been almost completely absent from the 50 or so cases of attempted democratization since 1974 is experimentation beyond the basic institutions of liberal democracy. The predominant motif everywhere has been the desire for “normal politics”—that is, for copying the most routine practices of ELDs. Eventually, if they do not fail altogether and regress into some form of autocracy, the politicians and citizens of FNDs may come to recognize the intrinsic dilemmas that are plaguing the ELDs and begin to experiment with new arrangements. In the meantime, however, the leaders of FNDs will remain thoroughly preoccupied with resolving the many serious extrinsic dilemmas that are involved in making even routine democratic institutions compatible with the sundry social, cultural, and economic circumstances of their respective countries.

If my hunch is correct, relatively few of...

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