Latin American Politics & Society 46.2 (2004) 59-67
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Making Sense of Suffrage Expansion and Electoral Institutions in Latin America:
A Comment on Colomer's "Tiger"
J. Samuel Valenzuela
In his article "Taming the Tiger: Voting Rights and Political Instability in Latin America," Josep Colomer proposes to go beyond the "single-country stories . . . typical . . . of the existing historiography" on Latin American elections and politics and to develop instead "an explicitly comparative, theory-driven analysis, which is more characteristic of the social sciences literature." I am all for such comparative analysis, although I would guard myself from belittling the achievements of historians who have examined national experiences in painstaking detail or the merit of a highly analytical comparative history such as that presented in Eduardo Posada-Carbó's recent work (2000). But theory-driven comparative analysis is difficult to do well. One has to know the historical experiences one is comparing very thoroughly, and one has to know how to develop the concepts that will build the theoretical argument in a dialogue with the evidence. The result should be to provide a better understanding of the evidence in ways that even those who know the histories well will find both useful and illuminating.
I am afraid that Colomer's paper falls a good deal short of this mark. It is not clear that he has the necessary in-depth grasp of the historical material, or that the model he presents has much of anything to do with the cases he analyzes, except in a most superficial, albeit highly questionable way. I must point out that I was one of the readers of this paper, and that I am pleased that Colomer has included in his bibliography a good number of the historical references that I suggested. While there is some improvement in the text that is now published over its previous versions, I am still left wondering whether he has actually read and absorbed the material that he is now including in his bibliography. As a result, the theoretical analysis in Colomer's paper, or what he refers to as his "model," has an abstract flatness to it, one that hardly begins to capture the complexities of the political-electoral experiences of the Latin American countries he discusses. I will begin with a discussion of the model, and then refer to the historical descriptions of Argentina and Chile—omitting any reference the other cases for the sake of brevity. [End Page 59]
The basic premise in Colomer's approach is drawn not from Latin American histories but from European experiences. It consists of the well-known contrast between countries, typically England, that expanded suffrage gradually and those—again typically, France—that did so abruptly. The first form is associated with political stability in the construction of mass democracies, while the second is related to regime instability and retrogression in voting rights. The reason for this difference supposedly has to do with the threat or perceived threat to dominant groups posed by suffrage expansion to the subordinate classes. If it occurs gradually, such groups fear it less. Not only are the numbers of new voters weak in the initial stages, but also the new political leaderships that emerge from the ongoing enfranchisement of successively lower strata or classes are socialized fully into the ways of democracy before the numbers of votes they command allow them to become a significant force in national politics. By contrast, a big bang sort of suffrage expansion threatens the political establishment, producing the emergence of inexperienced and radical leaders more at home on the barricades and with the language of revolution than with the ways of constitutional democracies. This thesis owes much to the work of Stein Rokkan (1970) and the sharp analytical distinctions of Robert Dahl (1971, esp. chap. 3). Other European countries are deemed to fit more or less into the British or the French pattern (for example, Sweden with Britain and Germany with France), but none in Europe seemingly...