Why do democratic countries keep collapsing

Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy. By Nancy Bermeo. Princeton University Press, 2003. 265 pp.

During the twentieth century, dozens of democratic regimes collapsed under the weight of political violence and economic crisis. For decades, scholars have tended to assume that citizens at large bear a hefty share of the responsibility for these democratic failures. If those who live in new democracies (Weimar Germany is the classic example) suffer severe material scarcities, the story goes, they will abandon the political center and turn toward extremist parties and against democracy itself. The story's basic logic seems convincing, but is it true? Not only the memory of the millions murdered in the last century by authoritarian regimes, but also the vital interests of the hundreds of millions more who live today in fragile democracies cry out for an answer to the question of what causes democracies to break down.

Nancy Bermeo's meticulously researched and superbly written new book is arguably the most important study of the topic to appear since Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan published their four-volume Breakdown of Democratic Regimes in 1978. She masterfully shows that, with few exceptions, it was not the "ordinary people" of her title but rather small elite coalitions (often led by coup-plotting military officers) that overthrew democracy. In interwar Europe, dictators such as Italy's Benito Mussolini came to power with "invitations" from monarchs. Later in the century Latin American civilian elites, too, invited military intervention. In making this case, Bermeo joins a venerable tradition of scholars who have examined the role [End Page 166] of military and civilian elites in conspiring against democratic regimes. She departs from existing scholarship, however, in claiming that ordinary people did not desert the political center and provoke the polarization that prepared the ground for such conspiracies.

Bermeo's systematic comparative research into political polarization spans thirteen cases of "first-wave" democracies that broke down in interwar Europe, four "second-wave" breakdowns from South America in the 1960s and 1970s, and three positive cases of democracies that triumphed against the odds (Finland and Czechoslovakia before 1939 and Venezuela in the early 1960s). She concludes that, except in Germany and possibly Austria and Romania, ordinary citizens almost always chose democracy over dictatorship, and cannot be blamed for democratic collapses. In Lithuania in 1926, Brazil in 1964, and elsewhere, the fear of rebellion was, tragically, far greater than the rebellion itself. Overreacting to what Bermeo calls "polarization in public places"—attention-grabbing demonstrations, strikes, and violence—elites misinterpreted popular preferences. The Left was often weaker, workers more moderate, and rank-and-file citizens more supportive of democracy than elites believed or could have known given infrequent elections and inadequate public opinion surveys.

In this work, Bermeo revises our models of polarization. She moves the field beyond Giovanni Sartori's pioneering study of the dynamics of political polarization by contending that political space is not one-dimensional:Polarization can take place within parties, as in Argentina, or not at all, at least not in a form that we can detect from party vote totals. Brazil's multipolar party system of the 1950s and early1960s, for example, comprised various personalistic, regional, and populist parties. Each had its own internal left, center, and right—a situation that might conceal the true strength of the centrist vote.

Scholars who specialize in the study of a given country or region often criticize broadly comparative works of political science. Such texts, the specialists complain, rely heavily on stylized facts (often from a few English-language sources) that are strung together in ways which badly distort national histories but which help political scientists meet their dubious goal of building theoretical models or paradigms. Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times is different. In a set of lean, chronologically arranged chapters ("political elites in different states paid careful attention to one another"), Bermeo lays bare the heart of democracy's tragic failure in country after country. Sheunearths every conceivable source, from military speeches to provincial public opinion surveys evaluating extremist candidates, [End Page 167] and, selecting only the most significant evidence, mounts an...