Can Stable Democracies Weaken? The Promise of Institutionalized Uncertainty

By Sundar Ramanujam, alumni of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University

In the classic essay that he wrote on the challenges of transition theory for Philippe Schmitter & Guillermo O’Donnell’s Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Przeworski presents a rational-choice driven framework to explain the mechanics of democracy [1]. Characterizing democracy as an institutional compromise agreed upon by competing interest groups, he goes on to postulate that “democratic compromise cannot be a substantive compromise; it can be only a contingent institutional compromise.” For Przeworski, the stability of democracy was contingent upon the institutions making the supreme guarantee that no political interests would get set in stone. As he writes the remainder of the essay within this paradigm, it becomes clear that Przeworski considers institutional choices as an indispensable factor in determining the outcome of democratic transitions. Even though he is thinking of this in the context of post-transitional democratic stability, I intend to expand his argument to explain the destabilizing effect on stable democracies when these uncertainties cease to exist.

Let me elucidate this further. If institutionalized uncertaintyis what brings all political actors to participate in the game of democracy, can the absence of uncertainty incentivize actors to commit to true democracy? I respond to that with a resounding “no”, with the following passage explaining as to why. By examining the country case of Argentina, I try to demonstrate how a democracy that functions seamlessly on the procedural level is in fact malfunctioning when the “uncertainty” starts to fade away.

Until Argentina returned to full democracy in 1983, the country’s political history remained turbulent, with the military overthrowing civilian government on several occasions, many of which would occur under Juan Peron’s rule. A quick look at Argentine political history will reveal that Peron and his party had the electoral advantage by default, given the populist appeal to his policies. This caused perpetual tensions between the popular class and the bourgeoisie elite leading to frequent military intervention. Until 1983, the military was always there to keep the left forces in check. However, scholars attribute the democratic stability in post-1983 Argentina to the progressive steps taken by successive presidents in defanging the Argentine military — largely due to their role in the horrifying “Dirty War” [2]. This meant that the biggest institutional check on left-wing politics ceased to exist.

Here is when I argue that Przeworski’s “institutionalized uncertainty” is absent from Argentine politics. With a politically irrelevant military, and the compromises guaranteed by the basic constitutional structure (particularly federal-state arrangements that affected the elections) unchanged, the Peronists had a natural head start in every election since 1983. In fact, the federal Senate chamber, that was apportioned equally to the provinces (like in the United States) and had incredible sway in the nation’s public policy, serves as a quintessential example for my claim. From 1983, the Peronists have usually been in control of the Senate Chamber, given the left-wing party’s strong clientelistic presence in the provinces [3]. Thus, the perpetual state of Peronist advantage in both the presidential and legislative elections slowly chipped away the guarantee of “institutionalized uncertainty”. The outcome — emergence of populist politicians from the Peronist Party who weakened institutions to suit their own agendas, the constant gridlock between the Congress and the Presidency (typically when a non-Peronist candidate is in the Casa Rosada), and the fact that a non-Peronist President is yet to complete a full term without abdicating his office. The quality of predictability and the rule of law, expected in a democracy, is unfulfilled. By any measure, the quality of democracy is affected adversely.

A similar line of thought can be drawn to the United States. Regarded as a marvelous exception in the list of presidential democracies, scholars have noted the role played by America’s institutions in supporting and strengthening its democracy over the past two centuries. However, heavy partisan gerrymandering in recent decades, population redistribution to certain urban centers since the 1960s, and disproportionate presence of military bases in certain states since the end of Cold War, have created relatively permanent red and blue districts and states. This has created a reduction in institutional uncertainty that allowed legislators to prefer consensus driven bipartisan policies, to other alternatives. Substantiating this claim is the report by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that over ninety-percent of House members (and eighty-percent of Senators) have had no problem being re-elected in their districts in recent years.

The result: a disconnect between Washington and the American electorate, as stronger partisan entrenchments in both the chambers of Congress allow centrifugal political forces play a greater role in policymaking. As this graphic shows, in the same fifty-year period, bipartisan cooperation has seen a sharp decline, inhibiting moderate political forces from creating policies with compromises. The public’s discontent with such politics provides a partial explanation for the anti-establishment platform for presidential candidates from both parties, in the recent elections. The undesirable outcomes of such situations include the election of populist leaders to the role of chief executives and the increase in a political rhetoric and policy approach that is majoritarian in nature. These, over time, could trigger a vicious cycle that could eventually politicize (and permanently damage) other institutions, like the judicial branch and the national security apparatus.

Thus, while Przeworski is correct in arguing that institutionalized uncertainty helps the actors in using predictable democratic institutions, it tells only half the story. I append his argument by adding that even in democracies where constitutional process seem to prevail on the surface, absence of such uncertainty eventually corrodes the institutions and affects the quality of democracy adversely. In both Argentina and the United States, we are seeing the ill effects of a democratic regime where the institutional arrangements are not providing a fair playing field for all actors.




[1] Przeworski, Adam. 1986. “Some Problems in the Study of the Transition to Democracy.” Chapter 2 in Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, pp. 6-47.

[2] Norden, Deborah L.. 1990. “Democratic Consolidation and Military Professionalism: Argentina in the 1980s.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 32(3): 151-176

[3]Auyero, Javier. 2000.“The Logic of Clientelism in Argentina: An Ethnographic Account”. Latin American Research Review 35(2): 55-82