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  • Nancy Berrneo (bio)
To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic Transitions by Giuseppe Di Palma. University of California Press, 1990. 248 pp.

Several years after the breakdown of authoritarianism in Uruguay, in the midst of continued economic decline and political disenchantment, former president Wilson Ferreira was asked if he thought that his nation was now "unviable." He responded that "nations are viable if they want to be viable," for "viability is a matter of faith and not of economic statistics." This anecdote never appears in Giuseppe Di Palma's book but it might well have, for To Craft Democracies makes a similar point: successful democracies are much more the products of human volition than social science theorists have led us to believe. Reacting against the emphasis on material and cultural preconditions that has long dominated empirical democratic theory, Di Palma insists that "hard facts are . . . not necessity" and that the "roles of choice and discretion should not be discounted." Scholars like Samuel Huntington who use social science theory to posit limits to democratic development are unduly pessimistic. To Craft Democracies aims to "move beyond the existing strands of theory" and "to give democratization a second chance."

Di Palma's optimism about our ability to craft democracies springs from several sources. He cites what he sees as salutary changes in perceptions about both dictatorship and democracy. He tells us that "the demise of fascism has cast general discredit on dictatorships" and that the "discrediting has been strengthened by the recent collapse . . . of other repressive models in Latin America and in the Communist World." He also notes that political practitioners now have a "more realistic assessment . . . of what makes democracy's performance as a concrete [End Page 114] system of government attractive." The "view of democracy as a universal key to material progress" has been exchanged for "a new appreciation of its pristine and unique virtue as protection against the oppression of arbitrary and undivided rule."

Changed regimes play an even more powerful role in Di Palma's thinking than changed perceptions. He states explicitly that the "midwife" of his optimism and his emphasis on choice was Spain's transition to democracy in the mid-1970s. Not surprisingly, most of the evidence for the book's arguments comes from regime changes in Spain and nearby Portugal, as well as post-Fascist Italy. This is the part of the world Di Palma knows best. In a pivotal chapter titled "How Crafting Can Help" he presents these three cases in order to show "how to beat the odds against democracy" and "make the improbable possible."

The emphasis on "how to" gives this book a triple purpose. Di Palma offers a pat on the back for optimists, a slap on the wrist for social scientists, and a helping hand for would-be democratizers. This last purpose is clearly the most important, and Di Palma should be commended for his ambition. His study makes difficult reading, though, and one wonders how many political leaders will actually have (or take) the time to understand Di Palma's argument.

Di Palma's book conveys several tactical insights, the most intriguing of which concerns the question of timing. Challenging a fairly common argument for gradualism, Di Palma urges democratizers to move swiftly. He insists that "the acceptance of the democratic game" is most likely where free elections are held quickly, where "signals of material importance to political actors are communicated early," and where "decisions and actions are prompt and reasonably linked." Most readers will be heartened by an argument for quick transitions, and Di Palma makes a good one.

Another compelling tactical argument rests on what Di Palma calls garantismo. Just as democratizers should act swiftly, so should they strive to guarantee that the political marketplace is as free as possible. The rules for admission to the democratic game should be "intentionally easy" and democratizers must avoid rigging its future outcomes. Power should be spread among institutions by a system of checks and balances, as well as through regional governments. Parliamentarism and proportional representation should be embraced and presidentialism should be avoided.

The author's advice about social policy differs from his advice about timing and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 114-117
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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