Scholars have long puzzled over the hurdles to democracy in the Middle East, particularly given the rapid expansion of freedom elsewhere in the world. Classical modernization theory holds that democracy will follow when a society reaches a certain level of economic development. But even in the wealthiest Arab countries, democracy has not yet materialized. Another common but false assumption is that doing away with a dictatorship necessarily leads to freedom. Yet as Huntington and others have pointed out, when authoritarian regimes fall, they sometimes give way to other authoritarian regimes rather than to liberal ones.
— Seth G. Jones, “The Mirage of the Arab Spring,” Foreign Affairs 92, 1 (2013), p. 60.
I’ve been a long time believer of what I suppose is the “classical” modernization theory (although I’ve never known it by that name). But, the above excerpt leads me to make two quick points that aren’t repeated often enough in opinion journals,
- Well functioning democracies require specific institutions, including a specific general culture of freedom;
- Wealth doesn’t necessarily correlate with pluralistic political institutions. In some cases, high wealth can mean the opposite if that wealth is concentrated amongst a few “elite.” This is usually the mark of extractive political institutions, such as those of most Middle Eastern countries and, indeed, most states well endowed with natural resources;
- Thus the emphasis placed on the importance of a growing middle class. A growing middle class is not only a sign of a more competitive distribution of wealth, but it also suggests creeping freedom in the area of enterprise. Large middle classes are the product of a growing division of labor and opening of markets to competition;
- “Graduating” to a state with a substantial middle class and evolving, pluralistic political institutions isn’t a permanent thing. Countries can devolve, which is why some democracies are unstable, despite large middle classes relative to comparable countries (e.g. Venezuela, Argentina, et cetera).
Another thing that deserves mention is that democracies can be autocratic. The word “democracy” encompasses a wide range of different political institutions. A government can be broadly defined as democratic, but be much more autocratic than democracies elsewhere (e.g. Venezuela versus the United States). Finally, democracies aren’t the “end all, be all.” If there are imperfections there is still room for evolution. This is one large weakness to democracy that many people overlook: there is a strong belief that democracy is the best we can achieve. I don’t think this is true.