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  • The Role of Elites
  • Scott Mainwaring (bio)
Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe edited by John Higley and Richard Gunther. Cambridge University Press, 1992. 354 pp.

This volume makes a valuable contribution to the burgeoning literature on democratization by insightfully exploring the role that political elites play in the process of democratic consolidation. According to its editors, elite consensus regarding the legitimacy of existing political institutions and the rules of the democratic political game is a sine qua non of consolidated democracy. Drawing upon the works of nine other distinguished scholars, each of whom discusses the relationship between elites and democratic consolidation within the context of a specific nation or group of nations, this book offers a coherent and thorough analysis of the issue of elite unity without stifling the individual views of its contributors.

Higley and Gunther (in collaboration with Michael Burton, who contributes to the introduction and conclusion) discern two paths to elite consensus. The first route, that of "elite settlement," is taken when previously disunified elites "suddenly and deliberately reorganize their relations by negotiating compromises on their most basic disagreements." The second route, which Higley and Gunther term "elite convergence," takes longer. A series of decisions by rival elites "have the cumulative effect, over perhaps a generation, of creating elite consensual unity, thereby laying the basis for consolidated democracy" (p. xi).

In their assessment of what drives such moves toward consensus, the authors and editors join the current consensus which holds that structural, institutional, and cultural factors are influential, but that political elites retain considerable autonomy. In other words, these "macro" factors are not determinative: political elites can fail to attain consensual unity under propitious conditions, and conversely, can achieve consensus even despite adverse conditions. This argument, now [End Page 144] widely shared in recent literature on democratization, represents a marked departure from the prevailing wisdom of previous decades, which focused more on the role of mass publics and "macro" conditions in establishing stable democratic regimes. The editors and most of the authors emphasize the importance of the normative commitment of political elites to democracy. In doing so, they implicitly and properly challenge the claim of some scholars that democracy is often a "second-best" option, agreed to only because key actors cannot get what they really want.

This volume's greatest strength lies in its excellent team of authors. Unfortunately, the individual chapters merit more attention than I can offer here. All of the case studies are solid—indeed, most are quite good, while a few are truly outstanding. Different readers will no doubt discover their own favorites; mine included the excellent chapters written by Richard Gunther on Spain since 1975 and Alan Knight on Mexico in the late 1920s. Gunther expresses the editors' theoretical orientation in his essay, claiming that "successful democratic consolidation in Spain was primarily the product of a profound transformation of Spain's political elites from disunity into consensual unity" (p. 40). Knight, conversely, argues that the elite-unity perspective inappropriately (for the case of Mexico) leaves out the role of the masses, and that the typology of elites is insufficiently elastic. Elite settlement, he claims, has impeded rather than fostered democratization. Completing the book are chapters by John A. Peeler on Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela; Maurizio Cotta on Italy; Charles Guy Gillespie on Uruguay; Marcelo Cavarozzi on Argentina and Chile; Henry Dietz on Peru; Thomas Bruneau on Brazil; Lawrence S. Graham on Portugal; and Peter M. Sanchez on the Dominican Republic.

This book possesses a coherence and evenness of quality that few edited volumes boast. All of the authors examine similar questions regarding elite unity: What are the sources of unity and disunity? To what extent have elites been unified? How have previously polarized elites achieved consensus? What is the relationship between elite unity and democratic consolidation? Most of the contributors focus on the last couple of decades but include historical background when appropriate.

This overall coherence, however, does not imply that all of the authors agree with the theoretical framework laid out by the editors. To their credit, Higley and Gunther allow the contributors to voice their disagreements. Rather than being a weakness, this serves...


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pp. 144-146
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