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Book Review
Ian Johnston

    Nancy Bermeo  
Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy  
Princeton University Press, 2003  
ISBN 0-691-08969-8


Why do so many democracies break down?  That they do collapse, that a great many new democracies cannot sustain themselves, these are melancholy facts all too familiar to those with even a cursory knowledge of current events and recent history.  At a time when the United States is justifying its invasion and occupation of Iraq and the huge expenditure of money and lives that project involves by appealing for the need to spread democracy around the world such questions are particularly relevant.  The justification may well be, as we all recognize, an excuse invented after the fact to make up for the obvious insufficiency of the earlier reasons (stopping weapons of mass destruction and fighting terrorism), but the rhetoric seems to have caught on in the media and among political leaders and voters. 

    Conventional opinion (fueled by media coverage of mass demonstrations, protests, strikes, and so on) would suggest that the collapse of a democracy has a good to do with the polarization of the electorate in a time of crisis.  Under this scenario, which has had a great deal of scholarly support, significant numbers of ordinary people, facing (usually) economic distress and political turmoil, move to the extremes and propel into power leaders with powerful anti-democratic agendas. According to this theoretical model, then, the collapse of democracy is primarily brought about by an unstable electorate whose conduct fatally weakens the democratic centre.

In Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times, Nancy Bermeo takes issue with this popular view.  Her wide-ranging and scholarly study of seventeen modern democracies which have failed tracks the behaviour of ordinary democratic citizens during the critical periods and makes the case that most of them remained loyal to the democratic process, even at the worse of times.  Hence, the common practice of blaming the people for the fragility of modern democracy needs re-evaluation, and those seeking the agents of collapse should direct their attention even more searchingly onto the real culprits, the political elites.

Bermeo begins by setting out an important distinction between what she calls public polarization (as manifested in rallies, protests, and other public demonstrations) and private polarization (measured by voting patterns and public opinion polls), in order to make the relevant point that the political views of ordinary people are best measured by the latter rather than the former.  She follows this with an very interesting and necessarily condensed review of what the scholarly literature has to say about ordinary people in civil society, taking in a range of opinions from “civil society as salvation” to “civil society as spoiler” and exploring briefly the role of political parties as curbs on dangerous excess, at the conclusion of which she announces her carefully modulated thesis: “When we make these distinctions, we find that popular defection from democracy is not as common as some of the more tragic cases of democratic collapse have led us to believe.  Our understanding of regime breakdown will improve with more careful analysis of who defects from democracy and how.”

The major part of the book is a review of seventeen examples of failure in modern democracies, starting with a rapid review of the breakdown of so many democratic states (thirteen) in interwar Europe.  Given the very condensed treatment of a complex topic, Bermeo is less concerned about making a detailed argument for each country she examines, than she is in correcting the emphasis in traditional studies of and conventional thinking about such political failures in democratic states.

The most obvious counter-example to Bermeo’s thesis is, as she acknowledges, the downfall of Weimar Germany, in which significant polarization of the electorate took place, as middle class voters (ordinary people) defected to the extremes, a movement accompanied by (in some quarters prompted by) increasing violence in the streets, so that in 1932 the Nazis and the Communists garnered between them 52 percent of the popular vote.  Even so, Bermeo claims, we cannot ascribe the death of the Weimar Republic to ordinary people alone, for “a closer look at the dynamics of the Nazi movement and the chronology of elite decision-making shows that defections from the center of the political spectrum accounted for only a part of the German tragedy.”  Bermeo then goes on to review some of the key decisions made at the top, particularly by President Paul von Hindenburg, “the personal embodiment of the three social groups who were most fearful of the Republic.”

The bulk of the argument, however, rests on more in-depth treatments of failed democracies in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina.  Bermeo handles these complex narratives with great skill and provides a wealth of detail.  She is alert to important differences in political conditions from one example to the next and yet extremely persuasive in her assertion that in all such cases “the culpability for democracy’s demise lay overwhelmingly with political elites.”

The highlight of the book, however, is Bermeo’s thoughtful and thought-provoking concluding chapter in which she urges us to reflect more carefully on the facts her study has revealed.  It is difficult in a short review to do justice to this extremely useful section, but let me highlight one in particular: “The strength that most of the major parties in all the failed democracies lacked was what we might call distancing capacity.  By this I mean the strength to distance a party and its members from acts of violence and lawlessness. . . .  If parties can muster this sort of strength, they show themselves to be solutions to the problem of disorder and contributing factors.  They thus deprive anti-democratic forces in the military and elsewhere of their most powerful argument for intervention.  Over time, they probably lower the level of violence itself, for they lower its pay-offs and raise its costs. . . .  Where major parties succeed in distancing themselves from violence, electoral democracy is much more likely to survive.”

There is, of course, something very heartening about Bermeo’s study.  Ordinary citizens, her evidence suggests, are a good deal more faithful to democracy than we have been led to believe.  Extremist parties do not bring about major defections, even during critical periods.  At the same time, however, as more than one reviewer has observed, there is a melancholy truth resonating throughout, namely that even if ordinary people do not abandon their faith in democracy, there doesn’t seem to be much they can do to prevent anti-democratic elites from engineering a collapse of a democratic government and the imposition of a very different regime.

As should be clear from the above remarks, this is a very impressive and important book which certainly belongs in every college and university library. General readers may well find the dense scholarship something of an impediment and the central theme somewhat repetitive in places, but they should not let that deter them from following Bermeo’s argument and reflecting at length on her conclusions.

Such reflections are all the more important as we ponder the situation in Iraq (about which Bermeo says nothing in her book, although she has spoken publicly about that country elsewhere).  If political elites are, indeed, the crux of the matter, then no matter how consoling we find pictures of ordinary citizens lining up at the polls to vote, we might well ask ourselves how well suited the emerging political elites in Iraq are going to be for creating and sustaining a new and inevitably fragile democratic government.

Prospects now hardly look good.  In order to withdraw without disgrace, the Americans will have to be able purchase and sell back home a process which has some minimally acceptable features of a democratic election.  But in order to do that, they have to enlist the elite leadership of the Shiites and, eventually, of the security forces they are so busy creating to maintain public order.  It is hard to imagine how such elites, once they have attained significant power, will not promote a quick overthrow of a vulnerable democratic order, no matter what the ordinary people do or want.  The key moment in the development of American democracy, George Washington’s resignation and return home at the hour of his greatest triumph, is hardly likely to be duplicated on the banks of the Tigris.


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