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  • The Drama of Democratization
  • Laurence Whitehead (bio)

Analysts of democratic transitions must try to make sense of the confusing multiplicity of events that take place in the interval between the fall of an authoritarian government and the emergence of a democratic successor. A virtually unlimited range of experiments may be attempted in this limited period of time by a variety of often hitherto unknown or marginal political actors. Constructing a picture of the whole transition by somehow adding together all these component parts would require absorbing an impossible amount of detail, most of which can be seen in hindsight to have been irrelevant. Even where the analyst successfully identifies the key actors and the most promising strategies in advance, the unpredictability that characterizes most democratic transitions means that the partial insights thus gained are incapable of accounting for the total process.

That is why metaphors, analogies, and models have been invoked to provide structure to processes that seem almost impossible to read while they are underway, even though in retrospect they may become quite intelligible. Some have likened democratic transitions to multiple chess games. Other metaphors include “elite pacts,” “crafting institutions,” and even the flow of ocean waves. [End Page 84]

In this essay, I would like to propose an alternative framework. In my view, the complex dynamics, shifting agendas, and multiple interactions that characterize democratic transitions can best be integrated and brought into focus by reference to a theatrical analogy. Every transition obeys the logic of a public dramatic performance. Dramas, like chess games and also like many democratic transitions, begin at a clearly defined point, condense a great deal of complex and often unexpected narrative into a limited chronological space, and then achieve a moment of resolution that crystallizes the significance of what went before: The drama ends; the game is won or lost; the democratic institutions are launched. 1

So at least we have some kind of an analogy. But do we have an interpretative framework worthy of the effort?

Most of the established metaphors and analogies in the area of democratization studies have been quite productive. Each, however, contains its own specific assumptions and built-in biases. For example, if democratization is viewed as essentially a question of elite pacting, then where do we find the elements of public persuasion and responsiveness required to create broader citizen understanding and support for the agreement reached? If democratization is primarily about “crafting institutions,” then why do we also expect statesmen to be masters of the art of rhetoric? If democratization is to be viewed as the unfolding of a complex multilevel chess game, then how do the “chess masters” monitor and orchestrate the movements of all the “pieces” on the board? 2 If democratization reflects a shift in the long-run balance of class power, how does this change in background conditions translate into the strategies and interactions of individual decision makers and their followers? Can the actions of these political players be reliably predicted from their class background, or do we also need to consider their more personal beliefs and motivations?

In my opinion, even the rational-choice perspective that is now so influential in political science can be classified as a metaphor or simplifying analogy. Although it may be more general and more powerful than those mentioned so far, it is also an interpretative framework that highlights certain kinds of connections and screens out others. The key inspiration for this framework is the model of economic man in classical and neoclassical economics. This metaphor can be refined and adjusted to bring in broader conceptions of rationality, or looser accounts of calculation and self-interest, in order to encompass a wider range of political and social phenomena, but it remains open to the same principles of criticism as the other metaphors just discussed.

When rational-choice analysis is applied to democratization, it is perfectly legitimate to ask which aspects are highlighted and which are likely to be concealed by the use of this particular interpretative framework, and how it compares with alternative perspectives or [End Page 85] analogies. More specifically, if democracy is both a system of rules of the game and a normative ideal, can the...

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pp. 84-98
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