- Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America Since the Revolutions of 1848 by Kurt Weyland
As readers of the Journal of Democracy know well, democratization often advances in clusters or waves. Citizens in one country overthrow a dictatorial regime, influencing or inspiring actors in other, often neighboring, countries to do the same. The most recent example of this, of course, was the ill-fated Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread to other parts of the Arab world. The more successful “third wave of democracy,” meanwhile, began in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s and by the early 1990s had spread to Latin America, the Soviet empire, and parts of Asia and Africa. Democratic waves are not, of course, merely a late twentieth or early twenty-first century phenomenon: They engulfed much of Europe in 1848 and then again from 1917 to 1919. Kurt Weyland, a well-respected analyst of democratization, has written a new book with a catchy title that aims to help us better understand democratic waves while at the same time contributing to our understanding of political decision making more generally.
Weyland begins Making Waves by stressing two significant empirical trends. The first concerns the slowing speed of democratic waves. In 1848, the overthrow of France’s July Monarchy led to the toppling of numerous autocrats across Europe in just weeks. By the twentieth century, however, waves were taking years or even decades to crest. The second trend concerns waves’ success. Whereas the 1848 wave did not [End Page 170] leave any longstanding democracies in its wake, the third wave created a world with more democracies than had ever previously existed. Based on a comparison of the 1848 and 1917–19 waves in Europe and the third wave in South America, Weyland concludes that these two trends are not just correlated but causally connected: “There is an inverse relation between diffusion’s speed and its success—defined here as significant, non-fleeting steps towards political liberalism and democracy” (p. 2).
Why do speed and success not go together? The key, according to Weyland, lies in the type of decision making that dominates particular waves. When political contention is unorganized, he argues, waves develop quickly and are less likely to succeed. Unorganized political contention, in turn, occurs in situations where well-developed political organizations do not exist. And when well-developed political organizations do not exist, citizens have limited access to information, less capacity to process it systematically, and a diminished ability to put events and options in perspective. They are therefore easily influenced by dramatic events—such as a transition in a neighboring country—but lack the capacity and experience to judge whether such events are relevant to or likely to succeed in their own countries. Decision making in such situations is dominated by “bounded rationality” and “cognitive shortcuts”—terms used by social scientists to characterize quick judgments made without full information—rather than careful cost-benefit analyses. Rapid but unsuccessful waves, in other words, are likely to flow from hasty decision-making processes.
This is the story of 1848 in Weyland’s view. In the mid-nineteenth century, most European countries had not yet developed strong political parties or extensive civil society associations. Opposition to existing dictatorships therefore unfolded in an uncoordinated and inchoate manner. Rioting and spontaneous uprisings were the dominant forms of political contention, and bounded rationality and cognitive shortcuts dominated the decision making of key political actors. Unable to carefully analyze the relevance of foreign examples or their own domestic political situations, actors made rash, overly optimistic decisions to rise up against dictatorships, only to run headlong into harsh realities—such as wily and determined autocrats with effective armed forces—that doomed the uprisings to failure.
By the early twentieth century, political parties and civil society had developed in Europe as well as many other parts of the world, reshaping the way in which political contention occurred. World War I and the Russian Revolution therefore had...