The Politics and Passions of Democracy

Jonathan Hartlyn has seen the problems and passions of democracy firsthand. It was 1994 and election day in the Dominican Republic. Hartlyn, professor of political science, was serving as an election observer with other delegates from the National Democratic Institute, and they began receiving phone calls. Voters known to support the main opposition party were being turned away.

Teams went out to investigate. Observers verified that there were discrepancies between the official voting rolls used at the precincts and the rolls distributed to parties before election day. With this and other evidence, the delegation made a public statement that voters had possibly been disenfranchised. Because the vote count favored the incumbent president, Joaquín Balaguer, by only a slight margin, Hartlyn says, it was conceivable that irregularities had affected the outcome of the election.

Other observer delegations made similar statements, the opposition party complained, and international pressure grew. Three months later the political parties came to a compromise: Balaguer would stay in office, but his term would be two years instead of four. He would not be allowed to run again.

Perhaps not an ideal solution. But elections and governments often do not operate perfectly, especially now, when there are so many fledgling democracies. In Latin America, Hartlyn says, some governments meet only a minimal definition of democracy: leaders compete for the vote of the people in regularly scheduled elections, and candidates have a right to challenge and replace incumbents.

A country may become a democracy in name only when international support for democracy overwhelms forces within the country, says Evelyne Huber, professor of political science. “The United States government, the Organization of African States, the European community, they all pressure governments to be at least formally democratic,” Huber says. “You get formal elections, but the elections may not mean very much because the elected leaders are not held accountable because popular forces—political parties and so on—are not strong enough to do that.”

Hartlyn’s work emphasizes the importance of constitutional and electoral rules and institutions such as political parties. When talking about democracy in Latin America, Hartlyn stresses that it’s crucial to recognize the great differences among governments. Those countries with the most successful periods of democracy—among them Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica—also have had strong political parties with clear goals. In countries where parties have been weak and changeable—Peru, Brazil, and Argentina—there have been frequent military coups and interruptions of democracy by authoritarian rule.

In countries with weak party systems, voter preferences fluctuate, and candidates with no political experience often come to power, Hartlyn says. Peru, for instance, has had several leaders elected with a strong vote, only to fall from popularity as another party emerges. In 1990 the presidential election was a race between two complete outsiders to politics. “It’d be like if in the United States our presidential candidates were Jesse Ventura—before he had any political experience—and…a novelist,” Hartlyn says.

The strength and the type of political institutions in a country can greatly influence the behavior of its leaders, Hartlyn says. But reforming these institutions is often difficult because the very politicians who have the authority to change the institutions often benefit from the corrupt system. For example, in the Dominican Republic, Joaquín Balaguer (the incumbent in the 1994 election scandal) was able to “personally control huge percentages of the state budget without formal accounting to Congress,” during his rule from 1966 to 1978 and from 1994 to 1996. Such practices were technically illegal, but Balaguer got away with it because the Congress did not have an effective general accounting office to monitor state funds, and the judiciary was not independent. “Balaguer always managed to have a slight majority in the senate, and it’s the senate that appointed all the judges in the country,” Hartlyn says. “So in effect he controlled the judiciary.”

Often citizens and even other nations pressure for reform, Hartlyn says. This was the case with a change in the Dominican Republic’s rules on appointing justices, brought about largely by international and societal pressure following the 1994 election scandal. Now “professional nonpartisan figures” are named as supreme court judges, Hartlyn says. “For the first time in the country’s history, there is an independent supreme court. This is only a first step toward a more effective system of justice, but it’s an important one.”

Hartlyn is now studying other formal rule changes in Latin America. For example, in some Latin American countries, an independent, nonpartisan agency now oversees elections. “Given the fiasco of the United States’ last election, there are in fact things we can learn from several of our continental neighbors,” he says.

The social and economic climate of a country also affects the quality of democracy. Huber and her colleague and husband, John Stephens, professor of political science and sociology, have explored these factors in depth. After graduate school at Yale, each wrote a book—she on Peru, he on Sweden. Then they decided to start writing together because it looked as though that was the only way they’d see each other.

Huber and Stephens are best known for their 1992 book Capitalist Development and Democracy (written with Dietrich Rueschemeyer), which closely examines the development of democracy from 1870 to the 1970s in western Europe, North, South, and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Antipodes. The book cleared up a contradiction between two traditions in democracy research. Quantitative researchers, who do mostly statistical studies, consistently had concluded that economic development went hand in hand with democracy. But most comparative-historical research (a qualitative approach based on case studies) had found that in developing countries economic development often led to social conflicts and a poor chance for democracy.

We said, ‘this quantitative finding can’t be wrong, but the explanations they’re giving are not really convincing,’” Huber says. So she and Stephens decided to use a comparative historical approach but to examine more cases over a longer period of time than had ever been compared before.

The researchers concluded that when economic development has led to democracy, it’s because the development strengthened the working and middle classes and weakened the landed upper class. Historically, Huber says, owners of big plantations depended on a large amount of cheap labor. So the upper class would resist employee organization and democracy. But if economic development resulted in a large workforce in industries such as mining or transportation, then the working class had a chance to organize. “Railroad and port workers, for example, are strategically located,” Huber says. “So if they go on strike they can paralyze commerce. They can have a major impact.”

Today in some Latin American countries, much of the working class has little power. Half of the labor force works in the “informal economy,” Huber says, which includes “people working without labor contracts in sweatshops or running a little backyard sewing business.” These conditions worsened after a debt crisis in the 1980s forced countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico to devalue their currency, privatize state-owned enterprises, increase exports, and decrease consumption. The result was a deep recession and rising unemployment. “When growth resumed, the top started earning more, and the bottom was left behind,” Huber says. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 200 million Latin Americans live in poverty.

Here is the paradox,” Huber says. “There is now a lot of political support for formal democracy at the same time that, in Latin America at least, the economic forces of globalization are working against fulfilling quality democracy. So the chances for really fulfilling the spirit of democracy are becoming less.”

Stephens adds, “The promise of democracy is moving further away.” But people still seek that promise, Hartlyn says. “Democracy is still held up as an ideal in Latin America, as something to aspire to. In the Dominican Republic, for example, no matter how early we arrive at the polling place, there are already people lined up. When you ask them, they say they’ve been there since three-thirty A.M., waiting to vote.”

Democracy in the Muslim World?

People aspire to democracy even when it faces great obstacles. Today in Iran, for example, the government is a confusing mix of conservative cleric authorities and reform leaders. The army and police are controlled by the conservative clergy, which is led by the appointed supreme leader. Voters do get to elect a parliament and a president, but an unelected body appointed by the supreme leader decides who is fit to run and disqualifies a large number of candidates. Still, the current reform president, Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, whose platform includes cultural tolerance and a free press, was recently reelected by a large margin.

Neither side has the power to oust the other, and in fact are loath to attempt it because any real break from the current system of gridlock might lead to civil war,” says Charlie Kurzman, assistant professor of sociology. But, “Contrary to what most Americans probably think, there is a thriving movement of Muslim thinkers who are very much committed to democracy.” Kurzman studies the debates among Muslims over reconciling democracy with the Qur’an. Kurzman classifies the arguments into three ways of interpreting Islamic law, known as Shari’a. Some arguments (the liberal Shari’a) contend that the Koran mandates democracy. Other interpretations (the silent Shari’a) say that the Koran is silent on the subject of government, which is one of the issues left up to humans to decide for their time and place. The third type of argument (the interpreted Shari’a) says that while the Koran is divine, it’s open to human interpretation, which is fallible and imperfect. If current interpretation calls for democracy, this is allowable.

Kurzman says, “They’re coming up with the same sorts of arguments around the Islamic world, from North America, Europe, all over Africa, all the way across Asia to southeast Asia, to Indonesia.” Kurzman has edited and published an anthology of some of these arguments, and the book includes authors’ writings that have never before appeared together in the same place. He hopes that Muslim thinkers can become more aware of each other and stop “reinventing the wheel.”

The fight for democracy among Muslims isn’t new, Kurzman says. “In the early twentieth century, liberal intellectuals in many Muslim countries briefly gained democratization in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and other countries,” including Russia, China, Mexico, and Portugal. Kurzman is working on a book about these democracy movements.

Democracy at home

Even in the United States people still struggle to fulfill the spirit of democracy. “Democracy is a matter of everyday, ordinary life much of the time,” says Don Nonini, associate professor of anthropology.

Nonini and Dorothy Holland, professor of anthropology, and Catherine Lutz, professor of anthropology, were coprincipal investigators of the North Carolina Public Spheres project, which explored local political participation in five North Carolina counties. Four Ph.D. students were a large part of the project—Lesley Bartlett (anthropology), Thaddeus Guldbrandsen (anthropology), Enrique Murillo (education), and Marla Frederick (cultural anthropology at Duke University). Each student lived in one of the counties for a year, first getting to know people, then interviewing them about key local issues. “These research associates are our stars—they have been critical to both the data collection and analysis and writing,” Nonini says.

After initial interviews, the group decided to focus on local controversies in land use and education. Citizens in Fayetteville, for instance, were divided over whether public dollars should fund a downtown revitalization plan run by a private organization. In Watauga county, natives had clashed with newer residents over widening a road.

In each county, the research associates interviewed 20 people who had participated in these controversies and 20 who hadn’t. They found that exclusion can happen for simple reasons. For example, it’s inconvenient for working people to attend a county commissioners meeting scheduled at 10 A.M. on a Monday. And citizens who aren’t considered to have standing in the community may be politely ignored at such meetings.

People who did participate in local politics cited a wide range of reasons. Church was one catalyst. For example, a Halifax county woman said that she learned from another church member about the pollution dangers of nearby hog farms. Then she posted a notice in the church bulletin to recruit others to help her take action. The researchers are writing a book about the project.

There can’t be equality in political participation in any country until there is equality in income and education, Huber and Stephens contend. Their most recent book, Development and Crisis of the Welfare State: Parties and Policies in Global Markets, published in June by the University of Chicago Press, explores the effect of political power distribution on social policies. They conducted both a quantitative analysis of 18 advanced industrial democracies and a comparative historical analysis of nine of these countries.

Huber and Stephens found that those countries with the most generous social policies such as child allowances, unemployment compensation, and publicly subsidized child care also had the lowest levels of poverty and inequality. Such conditions favor greater participation in voting and politics, Huber and Stephens say.

It turns out that the quality of democracy is systematically related to social policy,” Stephens says. “These policy outputs affect the opportunities citizens have to influence the political outcomes in their country.”

In other words,” Huber says, “do lower-income, lower-education people systematically participate less in politics than upper income, upper education people? That is true in the United States. But it is not true in many western European countries.”

One reason is that many people in Western Europe belong to labor unions, which often draw people into political participation, Huber says. “It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. Socioeconomically disadvantaged people get support, they get mobilized, they improve their skills, they participate, and they vote for parties that promote equality.”

Democracy promises equality, but that promise can be fulfilled only after some hard work. “Democracy may not make a difference for inequality, for social conditions, in the short run,” Huber says. “But it does give the people a chance to organize and pressure for change.”

Can you measure it? Sure.

Ken Bollen is a professor of sociology who studies democracy. But his specialty isn’t interviewing people or analyzing case histories. He crunches numbers.

Bollen works to develop a more exact way to measure the level of democracy in a country. There are ratings out there that do just that—systems used by the United States and other countries to help make foreign aid decisions. But, Bollen says, those ratings are determined by people. And people are likely to have biases.

Researchers have given anecdotal examples of bias in such ratings, but Bollen set out to look for evidence of systematic bias. Does a judge give consistently higher ratings to countries that are similar to his own or to countries led by conservative regimes? Using statistics, Bollen looked at the ratings of three judges—Leonard Sussman, Raymond Gastil, and Arthur Banks.

For each country, a judge assigns a numerical value to various aspects of democracy. Bollen controls statistically for the degree to which a judge’s ratings are measuring what they’re intended to—democratic rule or political liberties. Then Bollen again uses statistics to find common tendencies across all of a particular judge’s ratings.

I can pick out the biases in each judge’s ratings because I have multiple judges, and each judge is making more than one attempt to measure some aspect of democracy,” Bollen says. “So, I can compare whether the rater seems to systematically favor some countries over others and whether there are some characteristics of the countries that lead him to do that. No one’s ever attempted to break down the degree of bias in this fashion before.”

Bollen found that the factor that most often causes bias is whether a country is a Marxist-Leninist regime. Gastil’s ratings tended to down rate Marxist-Leninist regimes, while Banks’ ratings tended to give such countries higher scores. Also, Banks’ ratings tended to be lower if a country had had a coup d’état in recent history, even if the coup was no longer in effect. While researchers had often criticized the ratings of Sussman and Gastil as conservatively biased, Banks’ ratings had never gotten such criticism. “Because sociologists and political scientists tend to be more toward the left,” Bollen says, “we could see bias in Sussman and Gastil, who were not academics and were seen as more conservative. But we couldn’t see it in one of our own. We shared the bias that entered Banks’ ratings, so the bias was invisible to us.”

Banks was appreciative of Bollen’s results. “That was not completely true of the others,” he says. “But if you or I tried to rate countries, our ratings would contain biases too.” So Bollen is at work on an objective system that he believes could be as accurate as other systems.

First, you’ve got to come up with a clear description of what you’re trying to measure,” he says. “I use two dimensions to define liberal democracy—political freedom and democratic accountability.” Political freedom includes a free press and the right for citizens to organize and vocalize opposition to the government. Accountability includes free and fair elections that offer more than one candidate and lack of electoral fraud. “We can measure such things as the legality of opposition parties, the dissolution of parliament, or the existence of private newspapers.” Bollen says. “These are relatively objective measures that are tied to political freedom and democratic accountability.”

Talk to him a while, and you’ll suspect that Bollen believes he can measure anything. “What makes it interesting is the initial reaction to my work—’well, you can’t measure that.’ I’ve gotten that all of my career,” he says. “But I’m convinced that you can measure liberal democracy in nations.”

Students of the World

From Taiwan to Brazil, graduate researchers document the struggle for democracy.

democracy and democratization traineeship funded by the National Science Foundation for the last five years has helped Carolina attract some talented graduate students in sociology, anthropology, political science, and history. As the program is nearing its end, here’s a sampling of the resulting work.

Chin-shou Wang, a Ph.D student in sociology, spent two months in his native Taiwan in 1993 studying vote buying, which, though illegal, is a common practice. “Close to 70 percent of people get money from a candidate,” Wang says. Through a relative, Wang secured an “unimportant” job at the campaign headquarters of the Kuomington (KMT), the ruling party in Taiwan at the time. There he had access to vote-buying records and was able to conduct interviews. Wang found that, contrary to what researchers have assumed, vote buying is not always effective. When he compared the numbers for one town, he found that while 14,090 voters accepted money from the KMT, only 7,691 actually voted for the KMT candidate.

Bob Woodberry, a Ph.D student in sociology, is analyzing education and other data collected by missionaries in the early 1900s to try to explain the consistent positive statistical association that researchers find between British colonialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s and democracy in the twentieth century. He contends that colonial governments and religious groups both helped and hindered one another and that the relationship influenced the rise of democracy in the long term. For example, in the non-Western world, Protestant missionaries were crucial in the development of education and in setting up voluntary and humanitarian organizations, both of which helped people gain skills and contacts that they could use to pressure for democratization.

Mary Rose Kubal, a Ph.D student in political science, is studying why citizen groups that were important in opposing Chile’s military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s were unable to influence the policies of the new civilian regime established in 1990. In particular she’s studying what factors enhance and hinder citizen participation in health care and education.

Gabriel Ondetti, a Ph.D student in political science, is studying Brazil’s “landless” movement. Citizens have used land invasions, marches, and other nonviolent protests to pressure the government to redistribute fallow farmland to rural families who have little or no land of their own. Approximately 400,000 families have received land as a result. Ondetti is studying why the movement emerged and why it took off so quickly in the mid-1990s, becoming, he says, “probably the most influential social movement in Brazil, rural or urban.”

Freedom Writer

When Eritrea needed a new constitution, reformers called on one of their own.

Out of his briefcase Bereket Habte Selassie, professor of African and Afro-American studies, pulls a blue, pocket-sized booklet. Selassie carries it with him always. It is the constitution of Eritrea, Africa, and he wrote it.

To understand, you have to go back more than 40 years. In the late 50s and early 60s, Eritrea and Ethiopia were still joined in “a very lopsided federation in which Eritrea had some autonomy, but the Ethiopian government had sovereignty over Eritrea,” Selassie says. At that time Selassie was serving the federation as a judge of the Supreme Court and then as attorney general. Though he was a public official, Selassie had what he calls an “uneasy” relationship with the government, disagreeing over human rights and other issues. “When the emperor decided to abolish the federation arbitrarily, illegally—I resigned.” Selassie says.

For a couple years Selassie worked as an attorney with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Then he joined the Eritrean freedom fighters. He served as a diplomat and represented them at the United Nations.

You are talking about a person who had known public office as a judge, a lawyer, and then takes up arms against the government,” Selassie says. “A lawman turned outlaw, so to speak.”

The war for independence from Ethiopia lasted 30 years. Meanwhile, in 1975, a civil war broke out in Eritrea. Selassie mediated that conflict and helped bring about a cease-fire. He eventually decided to join one side because, he says, it had concrete aims of social justice and equality, rather than simply control of the government. “You can’t be neutral when a nation’s life is involved,” he says.

In 1991, Eritrea finally won its independence. The country needed a fresh start—and a new constitution. For that, leaders turned to Selassie, who by then was living in the United States. He agreed to serve as the principal draftsman of the constitution and to chair the 10-member drafting committee as well as the 50-member constitutional commission.

First, Selassie made sure to consult the Eritrean public. “From the beginning I made it quite clear to the members of my commission that we were servants of the people and had to consult with them as the stakeholders,” he says. The commission prepared educational documents on issues such as separation of power, the rights of women, and the contents of a constitution and had them translated into four of Eritrea’s most common languages (there are nine languages and four ethnic groups in the country). After documents were broadcast over the radio and distributed in print, citizens attended public debates.

Selassie and each commission member traveled to different parts of Eritrea to begin the debates, which were held in schools, town halls, and even outdoors. “There are some nomadic communities, so we’d move with them, share a meal, and talk,” Selassie says. Though many citizens are uneducated, he says, after receiving some information they would debate enthusiastically. “If you invite the villagers for three or four hours, they like it so much that they debate throughout the day and some even overnight.”


he citizens also shared their own form of knowledge. “I learned that there is such a thing as folk wisdom, the distilled wisdom of centuries,” Selassie says. “Village elders who have not taken classes in law can engage you for hours using beautiful language—rhyming couplets that they know from childhood.”

A crucial debate was whether the country would be governed by an elected president, as in the United States, or if there would be a parliamentary government similar to Great Britain’s. The commission decided to try something that no other country ever had—a combination of the two. The public elects a parliament, and then the members of parliament elect a president from among themselves. “Once elected, he becomes an executive president like that of the United States,” Selassie says.

This experimental form of government is an attempt to ease Eritrea’s transition to constitutional democracy, Selassie says. Since Eritrea is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, “the mechanisms of electing the president should be carefully devised,” he says. If citizens voting for the first time made choices based on those divisions only, “you may not get the best candidate,” Selassie says. The commission also hoped that if a parliament composed of members of multiple political parties elected one president, the election would involve much debate and compromise. “In our view that makes for good politics,” Selassie says.

That brings up another hard-fought issue. Though right now there is only one political party in Eritrea, Selassie insisted that the constitution provide for the people to have the right to organize multiple parties. “That took a fight,” he says. Some members of Eritrea’s government and political party advocated that a single party was needed to unify the country and encourage economic growth.

That is an illusion,” says Selassie, who studied Africa’s experience with single-party rule for his doctoral dissertation. “Sooner or later the leaders of the single party end up as dictators. They appoint in key places members of their families or friends and use power to accumulate wealth. That leads to crisis and conflict.” Selassie let it be known that if the ruling party didn’t accept the stipulation about multiple parties in the constitution, he would resign from the commission.

When he began to write the constitution, Selassie used proposals from the public debates as well as issue papers from experts and constitutions from other countries. “It went in my own hands through at least three or four drafts,” he says. Then the drafting committee debated each article of the constitution at least twice. Next it was approved by the constitutional commission and the Eritrean parliament before being ratified in 1997 by an elected constituent assembly. At the commission’s suggestion, the government printed pocket-sized copies of the final constitution and distributed them to citizens free of charge.

That document didn’t mark the end of Selassie’s work. Now some members of the ruling party’s inner circle are resisting the multiple-party idea. In Selassie’s office sits a black-and-white photo of several soldiers taken during Eritrea’s civil war. Selassie points out himself and Eritrea’s current president. They were once on the same side. But now Selassie suspects that the president is part of the movement resisting a multiple-party system. “These people had power for too long,” Selassie says. “Once you taste power, you don’t let go.

During the liberation struggle, we depended on the sense of loyalty to the nation and to principles,” he continues. “We expected there’d be a self-checking mechanism. It’s not true anymore.”

But Selassie is confident that the reform group will establish multiple parties. The Eritrean government is dependent upon support from the many educated and influential Eritreans who live in Europe and the United States. Especially in a crisis, this group of people can make a large difference, Selassie says. “If the diaspora community is in favor of multiple parties and says so, then sooner or later the government has to accept it. And the constitution is on our side.”

But there is still more work to be done. “We are not out of the woods yet. It will take three, four, even five years,” Selassie says. As usual, he is in the middle of the debate. “In my golden years I was looking forward to a nice life of gardening, reading, and reflection,” Selassie laughs. “Nevertheless, it is a blessing to be able to serve. Until the constitution is completely implemented and there are multiple parties functioning and healthy politics established, I will not think of my work as completed.”

Ken Bollen, professor of sociology, is the principal investigator for this traineeship.

Selassie is also serving as a consultant to teams writing or revising the constitutions of Nigeria and Rwanda and has been invited to do the same in Somalia. His book about the making of the Eritrean constitution will be published in 2002 by Red Sea Press (Lawrenceville, N.J.).