Economic recession, democratic recession?

I am the co-director (with Dr Kristof Jacobs) of an ECPR workshop at the 2014 Joint Sessions in Salamanca (see here for details).  Academics from ECPR member institutions are welcome to apply. Deadline for proposals — December 1.

The puzzling relationship between economic crisis and democracy  

Recently, a lot of research efforts have been put into examining the impact of the economic crisis on such topics as welfare state reform; financial system reform; public disaffection, protest and mobilisation; economic voting; European integration and, lastly, the fate of populist parties. However, to date the broader impact of the crisis on our democratic institutions has largely been ignored. This is especially unfortunate as the crisis presents an unprecedented opportunity to examine the impact of economic downturns on the procedural quality of democracy. More specifically the current crisis should enable the study of processes of change to democratic structures and processes – so called political reforms – and how these tend to take place under extreme circumstances.
Ever since Lipset’s famous essay on the ‘social requisites of democracy’, scholars have pointed to a strong correlation between economic development and democracy (Lipset, 1959; Boix and Stokes, 2003; Geddes, 2007). By now the correlation itself is beyond doubt: higher levels of development are associated with higher levels of democracy and, conversely. As the relationship also seems to be symmetric (Diamond, 2008), one can expect the current economic crisis, which reduces economic development, to trigger lower levels of democracy. A scan of the global state of democracy based on Freedom House data (2008-2011) seems to confirm this expectation: no less than 37 countries became less democratic, thereby bucking the trend that started during the 1990s (Freedom House, 2012). This list includes countries such as crisis-struck Italy and Greece. But is the economic crisis to blame or is all of this merely a coincidence? And if there is a relationship between the two, is it necessarily a negative one? Indeed, according to Freedom House, 22 countries actually became more democratic since 2008.
Context and overarching research question
This workshop specifically wishes to zoom in on existing democracies. The economic crisis presents an intriguing opportunity to look at the impact of economic downturns on richer, already democratic countries. From 1946 until 2007 the world’s richest countries were spared the experience of economic crises similar to the Great Depression (1932-1936) (Reinhart and Rogoff, 2009). The current economic crisis is unprecedented in that it hit rich developed democracies hard and thus presents a unique opportunity to study these countries. However, indicators by Freedom House or the Polity project only offer a very crude insight to changes within existing democracies. Indeed, such indicators often have fine-grained middle categories, but hardly differentiate amongst democracies. For instance a country such as Ireland already has the maximum score. Hence, the country’s current moves towards ‘more democracy’ by definition cannot lead to a higher score. Other, more detailed databases exist – especially on electoral reform – but such efforts are still fairly isolated and focus only on limited aspects of the broader democratic reform agenda. This combination of a theoretical expectation that changes are likely to occur coupled with an unprecedented economic crisis and the limits of the comparative democracy datasets, makes the study of existing democracies all the more important. The aim of the workshop is therefore to examine this relationship between the economic crisis and democracy in such countries. Our main research question is: Does the economic crisis lead to less or more democracy in existing democracies?
General theoretical expectations
Some scholars, such as Diamond (2008:167), expect that developed democracies are still ‘continually vulnerable’. The motivations for pursuing reforms that reduce the procedural quality of democracy can be purely self-interested and serve the purpose of maximizing the chances of staying in office, avoiding ‘harmful’ citizen participation or just using the crisis as a pretext to increase the power of the government. Alternatively, politicians can be motivated by the necessity or desire to implement painful budget cuts. After all, it can be very difficult to implement drastic budget cuts. Hungary and Greece are often pointed to as examples of countries where such reforms are taking place.
On the other hand it may well be that under some circumstances, the economic crisis actually forces political elites to implement democratic reforms that increase the procedural quality of democracy. It may be that politicians consider legitimacy in itself a crucial political resource and believe that a loss in output legitimacy can be balanced by a gain in input legitimacy. A second, more cynical motivation for such actions can be to share the burden of unpopular reforms. Such increases in the procedural quality of democracy are for instance under way in Iceland, Ireland and Estonia.
Next to a positive or negative relationship it may well be that the economic crisis mainly triggers what are merely symbolic reforms to please public opinion; show that politicians share the pain or (more cynically) divert attention from budget cuts, such as reductions of the number of MPs, Ministers or salary cuts for politicians. Such discussions on the reduction of the number of MPs took place in Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.
Substantive focus of the workshop
This workshop wishes to examine (1) what changes of the procedural dimension of the quality of democracy have occurred since the start of the crisis (2) in which direction existing democracies are changing; and (3) which dynamics can explain these changes. Amongst others one can think of (cf. Diamond and Morlino, 2005):

  1. Vertical accountability: electoral reforms, changes to referendum legislation, changes or experiments with other types of citizen involvement such as citizen assemblies or constitutional conventions.
  2. Competition: Changes to party legislation to ban parties or to make it easier/more difficult to compete in elections.
  3. Participation: Changes to the electoral, direct democratic or participatory procedures to make it easier/more difficult for citizens to participate directly or indirectly in the decision-making process. 4. Horizontal accountability: a strengthening or weakening of checks and balances; changes in the formal relationship between parliaments and the executive.

Relation to Existing Research:
By now, political scientists have a fairly good grip on one of the most important elements of the procedural dimension of democracy, namely the design and reform of electoral systems (Benoit, 2004; Rahat, 2008; Renwick, 2010; Leyenaar and Hazan, 2011). All in all, we know a great deal about why political elites change or design electoral systems in a particular way. We also understand how and when citizens are likely to be involved in these processes.
Unfortunately, as a body of scientists we know far less on most of the other democratic reforms as we have not developed tools to research the realm of democratic reform at large. For instance while we have some scattered knowledge about the occurrence of changes to referendum legislation, we know very little about why politicians change such laws (Scarrow, 2001; Jacobs, 2011). Similarly we are only beginning to code and measure changes that shift the balance between executives and
parliaments (Bedock, Mair and Wilson, 2012). In the context of the economic crisis, several existing democracies, such as Iceland, Ireland, Hungary and Estonia, are currently discussing (or have even implemented) broad reform packages that include far more than just electoral reforms (Palonen, 2012; Bergmann, 2013; Farrell, 2013). Such processes highlight the fact that electoral reform is not just an isolated event and at the same time reveal the limits of our current analytical toolboxes. This workshop aims to extend our knowledge base and develop analytical tools that allow us to move beyond the study of electoral reform.

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One thought on “Economic recession, democratic recession?

  1. “Similarly we are only beginning to code and measure changes that shift the balance between executives and parliaments.”

    This is a dismal confession. The imbalance of power between executives (and those they appoint) and parliaments is the principal source of the economic problems almost all EU democracies are experiencing. The paper by Bedock, Mair & Wilson is useful, but it examines and compares packages of reforms in a number of countries without assessing the status quo ante in these countries which varied enormously. In contrast, “The Blunders of our Governments” by King and Crewe started by examining the blunders and found, not surprisingly, that a lack of accountability, a peripheral parliament, asymmetries of expertise and a deficit of deliberation were among the principal causes of these blunders.

    It would be useful to see a similar analysis of the Irish system of governance. God knows there are more than enough blunders from which to choose.

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