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On Democracy in Latin America

  1. The point of departure of any serious thought about the chances for the consolidation of democracy in Latin America must surely be pessimism.1 The principal reason is simply that the historical record is so unpromising. In this respect, the recent disintegration of seemingly well-entrenched authoritarian regimes in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and the apparent vigor of the new democratic currents in these countries are not necessarily encouraging. It looks as though the pervasive characteristic of any political regime in the more developed Latin American countries is instability: it affects even authoritarian political forms.

  2. There is little point in looking for the root cause of this instability. Its strength and duration suggest that all kinds of convergent, interrelated factors are at work, from culture and social structure to economic vulnerability. It is correspondingly futile to lay down “preconditions” for consolidating democracy: they would merely serve to spell out a wholly utopian scheme for changing everything that has been characteristic of Latin American reality, and would therefore amount to wishing away that reality.

  3. One particularly pernicious way of thinking about the consolidation of democracy—a way that is likely to make a contribution to deconsolidation and has done so in the past—is to lay down strict conditions that need to be fulfilled if democracy is to have a chance, such as: dynamic economic growth must be resumed, income distribution must be improved, national autonomy must be asserted, political parties must show a cooperative spirit, the press and other media must be responsible, everyday relations between people must be restructured, etc. I submit that it is far more constructive to think about ways in which democracy may survive and become stronger in the face of, and in spite of, a series of continuing adverse situations or developments in many of these respects.

  4. The inference that must be drawn from all this goes against the grain of much social-scientific thinking: instead of looking for necessary and sufficient conditions of change we must train ourselves to be on the lookout for unusual historical developments, rare constellations of favorable events, narrow paths, partial advances that may conceivably be followed by others, and the like. We must think of the possible rather than of the probable.

  5. Here are three ways in which we can train ourselves to think about these matters:

(a) It may be useful to envisage the possibility of a disjunction between political and economic conditions that were thought of as being indissolubly linked.2 Ever since the destruction of the fragile Weimar and Spanish democracies in the Thirties, it has been axiomatic that an impairment of economic health will be fatal for a fledgling democracy. More recent experiences have shown, however, that at different historical times the connection is much less tight. The new democratic regimes of Spain and Portugal have so far weathered quite well the serious economic disturbances that followed the second oil shock of 1978 and the world recession between 1981 and 1983. This recession was particularly sharp in Brazil, leading to unprecedented levels of industrial unemployment in a country where there is no protection against this hazard; nevertheless, the political “opening” that was initiated by the military regime in 1974 proceeded undisturbed and was followed by the present phase of “democratization,” during which censorship has been lifted and political power has been gradually returned to elected bodies and officials. The final step in the long process will be the election of a president by popular vote, for the first time in more than twenty years—the date of this event is yet to be set.

(b) One must even envisage the possibility of going forward in a pattern I have called “sailing against the wind.”3 Given two highly desirable goals, such as a polity with consolidated democratic institutions and a more prosperous economy where wealth is more equally shared, it is conceivable that a given society can, at certain times, move in one of these desirable directions only at the cost of losing some ground in the other. Provided the movement is eventually reversed, progress can be achieved in both directions, but at any one time progress in one direction may be had only at the cost of retrogression in the other.

(c) I do not actually believe that the situation is so filled with dilemmas. While all good things do not necessarily go together, it seems unreasonable to assert that they never do. What is certain is that a country experiencing a birth or rebirth of democracy will find that among the many other conceivable changes that are desirable per se and would serve to strengthen democracy, some are more nearly within reach than others. The task is then to watch out for such differences (instead of holding onto preconceived notions about priorities) and to pursue with particular energy such opportunities as may open up. Thus, in the wake of the repressive regimes of the recent past, a reaction against authoritarian political forms and a desire for greater participation are now strong and widespread. Moreover, in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil many novel forms of mobilization and militancy have arisen, from groups advocating human rights in Argentina to the Catholic grassroots movements known as Comunidades Eclesiais de Base in Brazil. In this atmosphere, the climate may be favorable for introducing democratic values of tolerance and openness to discussion not only into the political process, but into everyday patterns of behavior among groups and individuals.4

  1. This may then be a propitious time to reflect on the nature of values whose diffusion in the society is important for the consolidation of democracy. I shall briefly call attention to two recent contributions in this field which I see as complementary. The University of Chicago political scientist Adam Przeworski has pointed out in an article, entitled in its Portuguese version “Love Uncertainty and You will be Democratic” (Novos Estudos CEBRAP, July 1984), that one basic difference between democracy and authoritarianism is that, in the former, uncertainty about the course of policy making is a conspicuous characteristic of the regime, since that course depends on the uncertain outcomes of popular elections.

In an authoritarian regime, certainty about future policy making is of course not complete either, but there is much greater assurance about the kinds of policies and directions that will never be adopted. So accepting uncertainty about whether one’s own program will be realized is an essential democratic virtue: I must value democracy more highly than the realization of specific programs and reforms, however fundamental I may judge them to be for further progress, democratic, economic, or otherwise.

  1. Under what circumstances is this democratic virtue, this “love of uncertainty,” likely to come into existence? A minimal condition is that the citizenry acquire a measure of patience. Suppose there are two parties that have staked out very different positions on all outstanding issues. If democracy is to be maintained after an election, the defeated party must be willing to wait for the next election instead of beginning to plot a coup, a guerrilla movement, or a revolution. With this proviso, society could have a democratic experience while remaining split into two or more antagonistic camps and without anyone ever changing his or her opinions.5 The principles to which the actors subscribe may enable them—or so they firmly believe—to hold fully articulated positions on all present and even future policy issues, outside and in advance of any common deliberation, election campaign, or policy-making process. One senses, nevertheless, that a society whose activist members are so sure of where they stand, and so immune to outside argument, may find it difficult to abide by the democratic process. For this reason, the chances of survival of democracy will be improved if more demanding conditions than a mere increase in patience are met.

  2. According to the French political theorist Bernard Manin, a genuine democratic political process implies that many of the people participating in it have only an approximate and somewhat uncertain initial opinion on various issues of public policy.6 Notwithstanding the air of certainty with which candidates for office announce their views, full-fledged positions of many voters and policy makers emerge only as an actual debate and protracted deliberations about the issues take place as part of the electoral and legislative processes. A principal function of these debates is to develop new information as well as new arguments. As a result, final positions may well be at some distance from the ones initially held—and not only as a result of political compromise with opposing forces.

To Przeworski’s acceptance of the uncertainty of outcomes Manin thus adds as a characteristic of democracy a degree of uncertainty on the part of citizens about the proper course to take, or at least about the validity of their initial opinions on various issues. This uncertainty would be resolved only in the course of the deliberations that are carried on in various democratic forums.

Manin sees this uncertainty, this lack of commitment to an inflexible a priori position, and the resulting deliberation about the proper course to pursue, as substitutes for the utopian, Rousseauian, requirement of unanimity of the popular will to establish the legitimacy of the democratic form of government. He therefore looks at uncertainty and at the deliberative process that follows more as an ideal to be approximated than as a rigid requirement for a democratic society.

This analysis is nevertheless illuminating for our purposes. It makes us realize that the total absence of this sort of uncertainty, the lack of openness to new information and to the opinions of others, is a real danger to the functioning of democratic society. Many cultures—including most Latin American ones I know—place considerable value on having strong opinions on virtually everything from the outset, and on winning an argument, rather than on listening and finding that something can occasionally be learned from others. To that extent, they are basically predisposed to an authoritarian rather than a democratic politics.

  1. The matter can be put the following way: If a democratic regime is to have any chance at all of surviving, its citizens must accept Przeworski’s uncertainty about outcomes, they must acquire a measure of patience. To become consolidated, the regime needs in addition some admixture of Manin’s uncertainty, the awareness on the part of citizens that they are, and ought to be, somewhat tentative about what are the correct solutions to current problems in advance of any democratic debate. The prevailing culture may be strongly set against both kinds of uncertainty, but particularly against Manin’s. The recent authoritarian regimes in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay can be understood in part as the final outcome of a politics where both of these uncertainties were wholly absent from the minds of the principal political actors. The current revulsion against those regimes could imply a questioning of these mental habits, however deeply entrenched they may have been.

10. To become aware of an important mis-fit between a prevailing culture and the kinds of attitudes that are required for democracy is a step toward overcoming it. Providentially and un-Marxianly, refining our interpretation of the world means, in this instance, to begin to change it.

  1. 1

    This article was originally written as a note for a meeting of social scientists from Latin America and the United States held in São Paulo in December 1985 to explore problems of democratic consolidation in Latin America. The meeting was organized by the Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell, with the support of the Helen Kellogg Institute of International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, of CEBRAP, a social science center at São Paulo, and of the Ford Foundation.

  2. 2

    The concept of disjunction is taken from Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976).

  3. 3

    See my “A Dissenter’s Confession: Revisiting The Strategy of Economic Development,” in G.M. Meier and D. Seers, eds., Pioneers in Development (Oxford University Press, 1984).

  4. 4

    See two recent papers on this topic by Guillermo O’Donnell, “Democracia en la Argentina: micro e macro,” and “Y a mí, que me importa? Sociabilidad y autoritarismo en Argentina y Brasil,” working papers Nos. 2 and 9 (December 1983 and January 1984), Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame.

  5. 5

    This kind of democracy has been aptly called adversary democracy by Jane J. Mansbridge in her book Beyond Adversary Democracy (Basic Books, 1980; University of Chicago Press, 1980).

  6. 6

    Volonté générale ou délibération? Esquisse d’une théorie de la délibération politique,” Le Débat, No. 22 (January 1985); forthcoming in English in Political Theory.

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