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Beyond the Elites?

  • Graeme Gill

Abstract

The dominance of the élite focus in studies of democratic transition was a reaction to the failure of the earlier attempt to identify prerequisites for democracy discussed in Chapter 1. But the shift away from a search for prerequisites seemed to bring a downplaying of all notions of structural considerations as being of any relevance to the explanation of transition. Not all authors writing on transition have eschewed structural factors (for example, in the O’Donnell/ Schmitter/Whitehead collection the studies of Venezuela and Brazil give some attention to structural factors underpinning the respective transitions1), but the overwhelming emphasis of this school of analysis has been upon contingent choice and the role of élites. In the words of one critic of this approach:

the dynamics of the transition revolve around strategic interactions and tentative arrangements between actors with uncertain power resources aimed at defining who will legitimately be entitled to play in the political game, what criteria will determine the winners and losers, and what limits will be placed on the issues at stake.2

Keywords

Civil Society Authoritarian Regime Democratic Transition Authoritarian Rule Transition Literature 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Luciano Martins, ‘The “Liberalization” of Authoritarian Rule in Brazil’ and Terry Lynn Karl, ‘Petroleum and Political Pacts: The Transition to Democracy in Venezuela’, Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter and Laurence Whitehead, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Latin America (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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    Transitions... Tentative Conclusions, p. 5.Google Scholar
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    The most explicit in this is the work of Adam Przeworski.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Transitions... Tentative Conclusions.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For example, according to Huntington, ‘democratic regimes that last have seldom, if ever, been instituted by mass popular action.’ Samuel P. Huntington, ‘Will More Countries Become Democratic?’, Political Science Quarterly 99, 2, 1984, p. 212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    One attempt to theorize transition using game theory does build in a role for the mass of the population, but this is only in a subsidiary capacity, as giving support usually to the regime challengers. In this view, what is crucial is the positions of the regime defenders and challengers, and the willingness and capacity of the defenders to defy or even suppress the popular view. But this élite-focused approach concentrating on élite preferences eschews consideration of the relative unity and power of the respective élites, any connections between élites and mass, and the way that the mass make their preferences known. Gretchen Casper and Michelle M. Taylor, Negotiating Democracy. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996).Google Scholar
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    Although there have been cases when political élites not under any pressure from the populace embarked on a course of liberalization in an attempt to improve the performance of the regime. Gorbachev’s USSR is a good case in point.Google Scholar
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    This is a more useful way of approaching this question than Skocpol’s insistence upon notions of state autonomy. The latter may be reduced to an issue of differences in historical interpretation between Moore and Skocpol on particular periods, because an assumption about the possibility of state autonomy seems to underpin much of Moore’s analysis.Google Scholar
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    And an interim government to administer the transition is unlikely.Google Scholar
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    This sort of schema also enables us to place classic types of regimes in comparative positions along these axes, and thereby to generalize about their propensity to experience democratic transition. Classic totalitarianism: high regime unity and atomized society. Military regime: usually high unity (especially if it is a Linz/Stepan hierarchical military regime, less so for a non-hierarchical regime) and society with some civil society elements. One man leadership: usually high unity but with high potentiality to disintegrate, and society with some civil society elements. Bureaucratic authoritarianism: segmentary regime, emergent civil society. Traditional authoritarianism: segmentary regime, weak beginnings of civil society.Google Scholar

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© Graeme Gill 2000

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  • Graeme Gill

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