Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall

Politics and Economy
Review by: 
Fabiana Velasques de Paula Machado (IADB)
Scott Mainwaring
Aníbal Pérez-Liñán
Cambridge University Press
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In a recent visit to Brazil, talking to disgruntled members of the middle class about the wave of corruption scandals, some came as far as expressing the wish to have the military take power “to get the house back in order”. Discounting the likely exaggeration born out of deep frustration, the conversation made me think about an issue that for some time I thought belonged mostly to the region’s past. For those of us who, in the words of Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán, hold a normative preference for democracy, the struggle of some countries in the region to sustain democratic principles remains a puzzle. But, as the authors point out, so is the fact that most countries were able to sustain their democracies during the past decades despite economic crises, persistent inequality and other factors usually associated with their breakdowns.

To the authors, the two most important factors behind the survival and breakdown of regimes are the main political actors’ preferences over processes and policies. In their formulation, actors can have preferences anywhere in a continuum ranging from strong democratic to strong authoritarian. Their preferences over policy outcomes, in turn, can also vary in a continuum from very strong (which they term radical preferences) to weak, relative to the strength of their preferences over processes. When an actor places heavy weight on policy outcomes, the process used to achieved them becomes less important than the urgency in achieving them. Thus their first hypothesis is that “radical actors increase the risk of breakdown of a competitive regime” because competitive processes tend to delay or prevent the adoption of more polarizing policies.

Although Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñan do not consider in their analysis the domestic political institutional arrangement, their argument seems to parallel discussions on the trade-offs between majoritarian and proportional democratic systems, so skillfully explored by Bing Powell in “Elections as Instruments of Democracy”. Powell argues that a system needs to be evaluated based on its goal. While majoritarian systems are expected to be more efficient by aggregating preferences before elections, proportional ones are primarily concerned about being representative at the cost of possible delays resulting from post-election negotiations. One might wonder if this trade-off really begins to be relevant at the border between autocracies and democracies, or tend to spread equally both within and across regimes.

The authors’ hypotheses regarding normative preferences are straightforward. Democracies are more likely to emerge and survive in the presence of democratic normative preferences and democratic transitions are hindered in the presence of authoritarian normative preferences. The argument is interesting and compelling, notwithstanding the difficulties in operationalizing and measuring the main concepts (which the authors go to great lengths to try to accomplish).

Bringing actors and their preferences to the center of the debate is a refreshing change and one that appears to have considerable bite. The true challenge lies in identifying which actors are most relevant. The authors select for each country and each historical period what they consider to be the main political actors (at least 2 and at most 10) among presidents, parties, the army, and organizations (e.g. guerrillas, unions, business or civil organizations). When it comes to individuals, they argue that class cleavages, commonly considered in some studies, are too crude a measure. This is reasonable, especially in Latin America, where political cleavages do not seem as well aligned with socio-economic characteristics as they often are in developed countries. It does, however, seem somewhat paradoxical that the survival of an all-inclusive regime depends on the normative preferences of only a handful of individuals and groups.