Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 390-402
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Idealism, Impatience, and Pessimism:
Recent Studies of Democratization in Latin America
Leslie E. Anderson
As the books considered here reveal, one of the most widely studied topics in Latin America today is the development of democracy in the region. While such a topic would have been unlikely only two decades ago, today the democratization process is going forward in nearly every Latin American nation, making its study of supreme importance for those who wish to understand the contemporary circumstances. Despite the movement from dictatorship and human rights violations towards genuine processes of democratization (albeit imperfect and problematic), many of these books take a primarily negative, critical, and discouraged view of Latin American democracy. Such perspectives [End Page 390] derive from a combination of limited empirical research, ideological idealism, impatience, and unfamiliarity with the processes and imperfections of democratization in other regions and other times.
One of the most important aspects of the scholarly study of democracy in Latin America is the opportunity it provides for cross-regional and historical comparisons that extend far beyond the Latin American continent and the last two decades. Studies of democratization in Latin America have ample previous research upon which to draw for theory, empirical measures, and possible methodological approaches, and can greatly extend our capacity for understanding if we draw on this previous work. The study of democracy abounds with respect to other regions of the world. The study of elections, campaigns, and citizen decision-making processes, institutions and institutional development, leadership, corruption and the multiple requisites for democratization1 have all been the objects of systematic research and empirical data collection for many decades in the United States and Western Europe, where democracy is still flawed but considerably more advanced than it is in Latin America. These previous studies provide guidelines, examples, theoretical frameworks, and models of how data can systematically be collected and analyzed, and can assist in establishing realistic comparative guidelines on how democracy develops and how rapidly it improves. All such guidance is useful for students of democratization in Latin America today, provided they are prepared to engage in systematic empirical research.
One essential contribution to Latin American democratic studies is cross-national, empirical research that places the region's democracies in historical and global perspective. Nancy Bermeo's Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times does precisely this. Bermeo draws upon an impressive array of sources on democratic breakdown in Eastern and Western Europe and Latin America, particularly the Southern Cone. The fundamental argument of the book is that average citizens do not and have not supported democratic breakdown. In times of crisis, particularly economic crisis, most citizens in most countries have gravitated toward the political center, have been supportive of democratic institutions, and have demonstrated reluctance to condone the dismantling of democracy undertaken by the military, anti-democratic charismatic leaders, international actors, or powerful businessmen. When democracy has broken down in either Europe or Latin America, it has been because political elites deliberately dismantled it or polarized among themselves such that...