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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 33-38

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Debating the Transition Paradigm

A Reply to my Critics

Thomas Carothers

The April 2002 issue of the Journal of Democracy contained four articles on "hybrid regimes," each of which explicitly or implicitly affirmed the main thesis of my article on "The End of the Transition Paradigm." In their estimable democratic fashion, the editors of the Journal have here assembled four contrary essays that take me to task in various ways. I wish to thank all four of these dissenters for engaging seriously with my ideas and the editors for giving me this space to reply.

Guillermo O'Donnell charges me with shortchanging the scholarly literature on democratization, and he highlights different ways in which literature does not conform to the transition paradigm that I criticize. In fact, however, there is little real difference between us. My article does not target the scholarly literature on democratization; it is about a set of ideas that many democracy-aid practitioners arrived at and began to apply in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That set of ideas was not derived, as O'Donnell writes, "in good measure" from his 1986 book (coauthored with Philippe Schmitter), Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. 1 Rather, as I said in my article, democracy promoters derived the paradigm "principally from their own interpretation of the patterns of democratic change taking place."

As I have written in more detail elsewhere, the scholarly and practitioner halves of the democracy world are noticeably, and probably unfortunately, separate. 2 Democracy promoters occasionally dip into academic writings on democratization but not in any systematic or concerted way. They borrowed a bit from the first wave of transitology [End Page 33] literature in the second half of the 1980s, but it was largely a superficial transfer of ideas that got frozen into place around a few general concepts. For the most part, democracy promoters formed their paradigm around their own ideas about democracy and their observation of democratization as it was spreading in the world. On the other side of the fence, very few of the main theorists of democratization have delved in any depth into the world of democracy aid or integrated field-based insights from that domain into their work.

Thus O'Donnell may well be right about the important nuances and advances in the transitology literature from the mid-1980s to the present. But this does not say much about the practitioners' paradigm that I am analyzing. For example, he mentions the important work by Adam Przeworski on the relationship between economics and democracy. Przeworski published his first major book on the subject in 1991. 3 Yet it was not until the end of the 1990s that democracy promoters began exploring these connections in any serious way. The point is that the two worlds have not moved in tandem. In short, though O'Donnell's defense of the transitology literature is well-argued, it is peripheral to the central thesis of my article.

Just as Ghia Nodia initially found himself agreeing with most of the points in my article, I had the same experience when I first read his thoughtful reply. But upon a second reading I identified what I believe is the core difference between us. In rejecting my argument that feckless pluralism and dominant-power politics should be understood as alternative (albeit undesirable) outcomes rather than as way stations to democracy, he insists that "the conditions in which these countries [what I call the 'gray-zone countries'] find themselves still can only be understood in terms of how near or far they are from democracy" (emphasis added). I am certainly not against holding countries up to established democratic standards and highlighting how they fall short. Such evaluations, however, are of limited utility for understanding many aspects of their political life, such as how they got into such a state and how they might get out.

Consider, for example, Kuwait, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Paraguay. Using the most widely accepted tool for assessing a country's proximity to democracy, the Freedom House survey, all four of these countries...


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