Making Democratic Waves

Issue Date April 2016
Volume 27
Issue 2
Page Numbers 170-177
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Making Waves: Democratic Contention in Europe and Latin America Since the Revolutions of 1848. By Kurt Weyland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 326 pp.

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).

About the Author

Sheri Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College. Her works include Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019) and The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (2006).

View all work by Sheri Berman

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 an impact much different from the French transition of 1848. Between 1917 and 1919, parties, unions, and other highly developed associations and their experienced leaders directed events and made the key political decisions about them. These leaders’ “institutional position gave them much better access to information, greater processing capacity and considerable experience in politics. [They] [End Page 171] were therefore less subject to cognitive heuristics (p. 8)” and reacted to the dramatic overthrow of dictatorial regimes in foreign countries “with much greater prudence” (p. 155).

In short, once organizations with experienced leaders dominated the political scene, rash decisions heavily influenced by outside dramatic events gave way to rational decision making. This, in Weyland’s view, explains not only the relatively slow unfolding of the 1917–19 wave, but also its relative success compared to its 1848 predecessor. By the third wave, of course, organizational development had progressed even further, helping to explain, in Weyland’s view, the third wave’s slow progress across the globe, its relatively peaceful nature, the prevalence of negotiated transitions within it, and its overall high degree of success. By the late twentieth century in South America, for example, a “good deal of organizational development [had occurred, and]. . . . fairly broad-based organizations, especially political parties” dominated the political scene. “Foreign precedents now had a limited impact because politicians, both from the opposition and the authoritarian government, had good reason to focus mostly on domestic politics, especially the cooperative or conflicting interactions among the organizations that had emerged” (pp. 183, 188). With experienced leaders in charge on both sides, “the nature of democratic contention changed. Spontaneous street protests that could quickly turn into mass uprisings gave way to bargaining and compromise” (p. 62).

When the third wave reached the Soviet bloc in 1989, communist dictatorships had spent decades stifling organizational development, so the anticommunist uprisings unfolded rapidly and featured massive street protests. Weyland interprets these uprisings as expressions of anticolonialism: The USSR had been acting, in effect, as a colonial power that sponsored client regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Once Moscow pulled its support from these regimes, their rapid fall became nearly certain. Interestingly, as Weyland acknowledges, the record of long-term success (especially across Central and Eastern Europe from Slovenia to the Baltic states) was quite good. It seems unlikely that this success can be credited to the presence of sophisticated organizations wielding sophisticated cognitive methods, so presumably something else must account for it. Geopolitics played a role, and so did the presence of ideological consensus: The democrats of 1989, it seems fair to say, enjoyed more agreement among themselves about what they were pursuing than did the less unified generation of 1848.

As even this brief summary should make clear, Making Waves has a lot to offer students of democratization. Most obviously, Weyland makes a convincing case that a focus on his main independent variable—organizational development—is necessary if we want to truly understand the dynamics of democratic waves. That students of democratization should pay attention to political organizations is not, of course, a particularly [End Page 172] original suggestion. What is original is Weyland’s analysis of how organizational development matters. Most analysts stress the roles that organizations play in facilitating, directing, and sustaining collective action. Weyland acknowledges these roles, but his main focus is elsewhere. He stresses the cognitive impact that organizational development has on decision making. This focus on why different types of decision making occur not only improves our grasp of how democratic waves happen, but also contributes to broader theoretical debates in political science.

Throughout Making Waves, Weyland stresses the importance of the macro context within which micro- or individual-level decisions are made. In particular, embedding political actors in well-developed organizations qualitatively changes their decision-making processes: They have access to more and better sources of information, are better able to process it, and are under less pressure to make snap decisions. Such actors, in short, are less influenced by bounded rationality and less prone to cognitive shortcuts. Rationality, Weyland thus argues, is not a “given” quality of individuals but rather a product of the macro contexts in which they find themselves embedded. Making Waves thus usefully joins the micro (individual-level) analysis prevalent in much of political science today with the macro (institutional or organizational) focus that historical sociologists and historical institutionalists have long favored. Thus Weyland gives us a fuller understanding of decision making and how different forms of it influence political outcomes.

Like any good book, however, Making Waves not only answers some questions, it also raises others. An obvious one is: “Why does organizational development increase over time?” This question arises in part because Weyland argues that his analysis should make us “rethink” the impact of modernization on political change; surely, however, some broad process of modernization or economic development is strongly correlated with the development of political parties, unions, civil society associations, and the like. Another question raised by Making Waves concerns the impact of radical or irrational organizations. As Weyland occasionally notes, sometimes organizations do not promote rational decision making, and indeed often engage in its opposite. During the 1917–19 wave, for example, the world saw a plethora of extremist and antidemocratic but highly developed organizations whose leaders emphatically did not engage in the careful alternative-weighing and information-processing that Weyland says organizations promote. Perhaps, in other words, organizations’ ideologies matter as much as their level of development in determining the type of cognitive processes that influence democratic waves?

Another question concerns the issue of success. In some ways, Making Waves returns us to the “transitology” approach that dominated research in political science early during the third wave. Crudely put, this approach posited that the type of transition a country underwent played a greater role in influencing its chances of success than did any historical or structural [End Page 173] variables. This approach fell out of favor with students of the third wave, but it also has problems explaining earlier waves. Take the 1848 case, for example. It is very difficult to understand the failure of the 1848 wave simply by examining the organizational and cognitive factors that Weyland stresses. The oppositional coalitions that overthrew dictatorial regimes in Europe in 1848 failed not (or at least not only) because they were unorganized, but rather because they shared little beyond a dislike of existing dictatorships. In 1848, Europeans were divided over whether a democratic or merely a more liberal political regime should replace dictatorships, and over whether political change should be accompanied by socioeconomic change and if so, how much. Moreover, the further east one traveled, the more urgent became the question of how various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups would share—or not share—power in any new political order. Once autocracies collapsed or went into retreat that year, these differences exploded into the open, splitting oppositional coalitions and leaving openings for old-regime comebacks. Without an examination of why opposition to existing dictatorships was both so widespread and so divided, it is hard to understand either why the 1848 wave occurred or why it failed so spectacularly. More specifically, it is doubtful that greater organization would have turned democratic failure in 1848 into success. Indeed, it is possible that greater organization might have led to harsher and lengthier fights among various groups, making failure just as likely but even more bloody.

In short, Making Waves does a fine job of demonstrating that organizational development and its cognitive consequences influence how waves occur; it is less convincing in showing that such factors can fully account for the success or failure of these waves in establishing durable democracies. For that, deep historical analysis and careful consideration of broader structural factors remain necessary.


Copyright © 2016 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press