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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 6-12

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Debating the Transition Paradigm

In Partial Defense of an Evanescent "Paradigm"

Guillermo O'Donnell

Thomas Carothers has written a timely and important essay that deserves wide attention. His goal is the healthy one of sparking discussion among both scholars and those who are "practitioners" of democracy—government officials, civil society activists, or professionals who work in the field of democracy promotion. Since I am a scholar, I will focus on what Carothers has to say concerning academic writings about transitions and democratization.

To begin with, I am in an odd situation. I am flattered that Carothers mentions me as coauthor of the "seminal work" on transitions. 1 Since he follows this reference with a series of criticisms aimed at what he calls "the transition paradigm," readers might assume that I will dispute most of what he says. In fact, I agree with many of his arguments. The reason for this apparent paradox is that Carothers lumps together, under the heading of the "transition paradigm," a large and uneven body of work, and then proceeds to concentrate his criticisms on some of the weakest parts of it. So I will try to set the record straight, both for the sake of fairness and because I believe that our discussions, to be fruitful, should be based on an accurate notion of what the scholarly literature actually says.

Carothers discusses three major and distinct issues: 1) The transition from authoritarian rule; 2) the aftermath of this transition; and 3) what some institutions (most of them belonging to or funded by Western governments) have been doing under the heading of "democracy promotion." Carothers argues that thinking on these three topics has been led astray by a faulty "analytic model of democratic transition" that derives in good measure from the "seminal" four-volume work already cited, especially [End Page 6] the final volume, which I coauthored with Philippe Schmitter. Thus, given my putative co-parenthood of Carothers's "transition paradigm," I feel compelled to recapitulate what Schmitter and I, and myself in further writings, said about transitions and democratization, while claiming innocence regarding some of the (presumed) descendants of our creature. Furthermore, as will be seen below, I agree with Carothers that, if the "transition paradigm" has taken the form that he describes, it is indeed mistaken and should be abandoned.

So let us examine the five "core assumptions" that according to Carothers constitute the "paradigm." The first, which he calls "an umbrella" 2 covering all the others, is that "any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition toward democracy." I hasten to comment that our "seminal work" on transitions was not entitled Transitions to Democracy. Instead we called it Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, which is not the same thing at all. This was the result of a deliberate choice made by the three coeditors of the four volumes published under this title. It was also a corollary of the analysis that Schmitter and I offered in the fourth volume. Here we were explicit that these transitions do not necessarily lead to democracy; rather, they may as well lead to authoritarian regressions, to revolutions, or to hybrid regimes like those that occupy the "gray zone" which Carothers depicts. Indulging in a bit of wordplay, we said that two among the hybrid types that might appear were democraduras anddictablandas—essentially Carothers's "feckless-pluralist" and "dominant-power" systems, respectively. If our work really was seminal, then one should take seriously our assertion that there was nothing predestined about these transitions, and our insistence that their course and outcome were open-ended and uncertain. We even stressed this view in the subtitle of this volume, which was Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies.

So we can hardly be found guilty of assuming that, as Carothers puts it, "democratization tends to unfold in a set sequence of stages." 3 This is Carothers's "second assumption," according to which the "paradigm" asserts that there is, or should be, first an "opening," then a "breakthrough," and...


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