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  • The Churchill Hypothesis
  • Krzysztof Jasiewicz (bio)
Democracy and Its Alternatives: Understanding Post-Communist Societies. By Richard Rose, William Mishler, and Christian Haerpfer. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 270 pp.

Everyone knows that Winston Churchill said something to the effect that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, but few people check the exact citation. It goes as follows: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Richard Rose, William Mishler, and Christian Haerpfer did check. Moreover, they saw this statement as not just a clever bon mot, but also an empirically testable hypothesis. If people who have personally experienced the shortcomings of both democratic and undemocratic regimes opt in favor of the former, then the “Churchill hypothesis” stands. If, however, those people prefer the undemocratic alternatives to the imperfections of democracy, then the Churchill hypothesis is false: Democracy falls short of even the “lesser evil” threshold.

Recent history has provided the authors with an excellent testing ground for their hypothesis. The communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe fell, one after another, within a span of two years, and new democracies began to emerge, albeit not without difficulties. Rose, Mishler, and Haerpfer recognize these difficulties. They recognize also that communism was once perceived by many as a viable (if not outright superior) alternative to democracy. It failed because it did not fulfill its promise of an efficient, prosperous economy and a more just society. This supply-and-demand analytical framework can also be used, the authors claim, to assess democratic regimes. “[J]ust as macro-economic theories have no relevance to everyday life if they cannot be related to micro-economic activities of individuals, so constitutional forms are lifeless or irrelevant if they do not have the support of the people. That is why even though the elites propose, the masses dispose” (p. 8). Policies that alienate significant segments of the population may not only bring down a particular government, they may even undermine popular support for democracy itself. Earlier this century, democracies across the region gave way to authoritarian governments precisely because they failed to meet popular expectations. Will history repeat itself?

To answer this question, the authors performed elaborate analyses of public-opinion data for nine postcommunist states in East-Central Europe: [End Page 169] Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slo-vakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. The data have been gathered as part of the New Democracies Barometer (NDB) project, initiated in 1991 by the Paul Lazarsfeld Society of Vienna, in parallel with the well-established Euro-barometer. Since its inception, the NDB has conducted public-opinion surveys in individual Central and Eastern European states (similar projects also cover Russia and the Baltic states). For their investigation, the authors chose the survey conducted in the fall of 1993 and winter of 1994.

The authors selected two core dependent variables, assessment of the current regime (adding, when appropriate, evaluation of the communist past and hopes for the future) and opinions on the alternatives to democ-racy (a composite of five variables), which they examined in relation to a host of independent variables. This procedure allowed the authors to measure the impact that factors such as social structure, the political lega-cies of the past, the performance of the new regimes, the microeconomic and macroeconomic dimensions of economic transformation, and finally, historical context and country-specific idiosyncrasies have had on opin-ions about democracy and its alternatives.

In their presentation of cross-national survey data, the authors go far beyond the usual comparisons of apples to oranges. All too often, researchers limit their discussion of data collected in comparative studies of postcommunist countries to the cross-national comparison of frequen-cies and means, without any regard to historical, cultural, social, economic, or political context. By using multiple regression analysis (a relatively simple statistical procedure), the authors were able to demonstrate not only the intensity of particular opinions...

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pp. 169-173
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