The Extreme Bounds of Democracy: What This Means for the Arab World

By Martin Gassebner, post-doctoral researcher at KOF Swiss Economic Institute, ETH Zurich, Michael J Lamla, researcher at ETH-Zürich and James Raymond Vreeland, Associate Professor, Georgetown University. Cross posted from VoxEU

Will democracy establish itself in the Middle East? This column looks at what is needed to start democracies are what is needed to keep them going. It argues that that it is the level of economic development – not short-run economic growth – that is needed for democracy to survive.

Democracy is on the move in the Arab world. Whether democratic regimes will emerge and survive remains an open question, and the intense media coverage of the Arab Spring has revived public interest in the determinants of democracy. The quest to understand why democracy emerges and survives, however, has long been on the agenda of economists and political scientists.

Scientific findings suggest that life is better with more democracies in the world. People living under democracy have higher incomes and tend to enjoy more human rights than people living under authoritarian regimes (Hathaway 2003).1 Democracies also don’t go to war against each other, and make better trade partners (Russett and Oneal 2001).

So the promotion of democracy is laudable, but do we really know how to ‘cause’ democracy? Scholars have proposed and empirically tested many theories. Yet, no conclusive picture has emerged. Moreover, it is not clear whether the same set of variables that drives the democratisation process also guarantee its sustainability.

Economic explanations of democracy date back to Lipset (1959) who is often cited as father of ‘modernisation theory’. The theory contends that as countries develop economically, social structures become too complex for authoritarian regimes to manage. At some point, dictatorship collapses and democracy emerges as the alternative. Przeworski et al. (2000) contend, however, that the emergence of democracy is random with respect to economic development. The correlation between development and democracy is driven instead by the survival of democracy. Przeworski (2005, 253) argues that “democracy prevails in developed societies because too much is at stake in turning against it.” Conversely, in poor democracies, “the value of becoming a dictator is greater and the accumulated cost of destroying capital stock is lower” (Przeworski and Limongi 1997, 166). So democracy emerges idiosyncratically, but it survives in countries with high levels of economic development.

If democracy emerges at random, however, why has it so far failed to appear throughout most of the Middle East? Confronting this observation, some people retreat to culturalist explanations, claiming that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Others argue that the presence of oil is the problem. Ross (2012) argues that there is a political “resource curse” whereby the rents enable dictatorial regimes to use low taxes and high spending to maintain power.

Another approach that has implications for the Middle East considers the effects of ‘diffusion.’ Consider the work of Gleditsch (2002), summarised by the title of his book: All (International) Politics are Local. The political regime of one country may have a connection with regimes of neighbouring countries, through various political, cultural, and economic forces that spill over national borders. Thus we have solidly democratic regions, such as Europe, dictatorial regions, such as the Middle East, and regions where countries transition together in waves, such as Latin America. Pevehouse (2005) suggests that the key facilitating these spill overs is participation in regional international organisations.

So, we have many stories of democracy. This highly stylised and brief sketch of the literature indicates a vigorous debate. In research forthcoming in Journal of Conflict Resolution, we cite many more studies of democracy and identify 59 factors that have been proposed to cause democracy (Gassebner et al. 2012). We then pit these factors up against each other in a series of logistical regressions. Our approach is extreme: We evaluate over 1.7 million regressions of the emergence of democracy, and over 1.4 million regressions for the survival of democracy. Our method, Extreme Bound Analysis (EBA), involves the analysis of various combinations of control variables. The basic idea is to consider many regressions, continuously permutating through combinations of explanatory variables, focusing on one particular independent variable at a time, testing how its statistical significance conditional on other variables ‘behaves’.

The most striking finding of our analysis is that most of the variables suggested in the literature do not survive EBA. While many of these factors are shown elsewhere to have statistically significant effects in plausible and well-specified models, when put to the rigors of being tested alongside many other variables, they fail our EBA test. We do not suggest that this implies these factors are unimportant. Many of the findings that fail our EBA test are valid within the confines of the original statistical model proposed in the literature, and our approach focuses on reduced forms of a specific model. Moreover, to the extent that some variables fail our test, this could be because they are poor proxies for otherwise strong theories of democracy. The standard of surviving our particular EBA is just a high one, and only the strongest of statistical relationships survive it.

Some variables do indeed survive. Regarding transitions to democracy, we find that economic growth has a robust negative effect. This finding, standing in stark contrast to modernization theory, suggests that autocracies with strong economic performance are unlikely to see democracy emerge. Instead, economic contraction causes dictatorships to break down. Also in contrast to modernization theory, but consistent with the argument of Przeworski et al. (2000), the level of GDP per capita does not have a robust relationship with the emergence of democracy. Next, we find evidence that membership in the OECD has a positive effect, but this connection could be endogenous or due to reverse causality. Finally, previous regime transitions also increase the likelihood of the emergence of democracy. The only other variables for which we find any evidence of a robustly significant effect are fuel exports and the share of the population that is Muslim. Both lose some statistical significance when included exclusively with the other highly robust variables, however, and we suspect that this may be a Middle East fixed effect. Tests certainly show that the effect of Islam is driven by fuel exports; Islam has no effect among non-fuel exporting Muslim countries.

Regarding the survival of democracy, the most robust determinants are level of economic development (a positive effect) and the number of past transitions (a negative effect). There is also some evidence that having a former military leader as the chief executive has a negative effect while having other democracies as neighbours has a positive effect. But these last two findings lose significance in the presence of the number of past transitions.

We conclude that there are many plausible theories of democracy but few robust predictors. For scholars, we suggest that these specific variables should be included in their models of regime transitions. As for policymakers, they should note that there is little that one can do to promote democracy. One thing is clear: promoting investment in dictatorships – encouraging vigorous economic growth – is not likely to cause a dictatorial regime to fall. When it comes to promoting the survival of nascent democracies, raising the level of development helps.

Applied to the newly developing democracies in the Maghreb region, our results suggest that the international community should help to ensure the economic success in these states. Note, however, that level of economic development – not short-run economic growth – causes democracy to survive. This finding suggests the importance of a long-run commitment to engaging these nascent democracies economically.

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  1. Aquifer

    Hmmm – sorta seems like common sense? Funny how often “theory” and common sense clash – sometimes one, sometimes the other prevails. Sometimes one and sometimes the other is “true” – an interesting study might be to see how often one prevails over the other when it is “true” ….

    1. Aquifer

      “We do not suggest that this implies these factors are unimportant. Many of the findings that fail our EBA test are valid within the confines of the original statistical model proposed in the literature, and our approach focuses on reduced forms of a specific model.”

      Sigh – another “derivative” model to contend with, but at least they give a hat tip to the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness as they gallop by ….

      (not to mention having to wonder how to bribe the program to actually print a comment …. :))

    2. Topi

      on top of that it’s complete nonsense. There won’t be any democracy in middle ast.

      1. Saudi is absolute monarchy, and financing all and every anti democratic institutions, regime change, education center, etc. (yemen, GCC, Pakistan, north africa) all are funded using Saudi oil money and spreading extreme religious view. (yes, the enemy is our client state)

      2. Israel. this anglo zionist experiment has to end. (as you notice there is always war every 2 years. lebanon occupation, Palestine. Then Iraq, Iran. Now Syria. Soon it will be Jordan and Lebanon again (as it was in the 60’s) And this little trouble maker keeps making ever larger military conflict. With PKK/Turkey. And the Kurds.

      On top of this, the usual fanning conflict between Sunni-Shia. Classic british move from imperialism era. devide and conquer. Now adopted happily by DC neocon.

      All this will explode gloriously soon. There won’t be democracy, peace and what not. It will be perpetual regime change, zionism problem, installing military regime, etc.

  2. Richard Kline

    (Political) power follows wealth. The base equation is essentially that simple.

    Stability of power correlates with the extent of wealth as a corollary (though without that stability necessarily correlating with the distribution of wealth).

    Apply those two principles to the author’s conclusions in the post above, and you’ll see that they hold. Do a thought experiment, and an historical sample, in either order, and you’ll largely reach the same conclusion.

    The relationship holds for negative wealth growth also, regrettably, something the post does not discuss. That is, declining wealth tends to lead to declining distribution of power and hence declining democracy. The alternatives may occur where the large concentrations of wealth are in fact disproportionally destroyed, but I wouldn’t bet too heavily on a democratic outcome there either.

    If one wants a _current_ autarky or oligarchy to fail, by all means root for economic decline. But emergent democracy is unlikely to be an outcome without fairly prompt economic growth because that is the medium it takes to culture up distributed political power. Poor, starving people join gangs, not voting blocs.

    1. stevefraser

      In Fascist States, wealth follows political power…at least this was true of National Socialism and Mussolini’s Italian Fascist State. In both, crony capitalism was the economic model of the State and was the result of the Fascist seizure of power.

  3. jake chase

    I think this piece must be an April Fool joke. Democracy? The last one was in Athens in 500 BC. As for the rise of the bourgeois kleptocracy often confused with popular government, it correlates with rent extraction, industrialization, salesmanship, easy credit at usurious rates. I doubt any of these will be taking root in the ME any time soon, but I could be wrong.

    1. mafer

      Absolutely true.

      In the Middle Ages, soveriegn debt was annulled when the Monarch died. “National” debt was a just a loan to the king in his personal capacity.

      However, under Kleptocracies masquerading as Democracies, taxpayers are on the hook for this debt. The irony is that as the economic stucture becomes neo-feudalist, we don’t even get the one benefit of the old feudal social organization: soveriegn debt forgiveness!

  4. middle seaman

    The main political force in the “Middle East” (not a well defined term) is Islam. Currently political Islam isn’t democratic. The article fails to mention this fact. The myriad regressions ran may yield a scientific paper but make little sense politically.

    Why is this post in NC?

  5. Joe

    There are obviously very many different types of democracies, with different traditions and different ways of measuring their success.

    We can compare, for example, the democracy in Mexico with the democracy in South Korea, but it’s difficult to come to any conclusions about why democracy in one nation is more successful than in another. The problem is, that democracy, by itself, really isn’t enough to make a nation successful. Furthermore, democracy can be a hindrance to societal development, as in a bad democracy can lead to outcomes, which are worse for most people than a regime being governed by a so-called benevolent dictator. There is no simple (inverse) relationship between, for example, level of democracy and level of corruption in a populace.

  6. Maju

    This is a piece of junk. Sorry, Yves, but that’s what it is. The author does not even consider what a democracy is nor makes serious consistent statements. For example the claim that democracies don’t wage wars against each other is debunked by history and you only have to look at the invasions of Haiti (the last one by the USA-France and the first one by France alone), the invasion of Lebanon, the military demolition of democracy in Palestine, several Latin American wars of the 19th century (all among democracies) or WWI (Germany was a democracy for our standards but was attacked by France and Britain regardless – and to defend the totalitarian semi-colonial regime of Russia).

    Iran is a democracy, incidentally: like in the USA, you have elections and can choose between equally irrelevant options. But other self-proclaimed democracies are trying to go to war with it. Pakistan and India have been at war being both democracies. And of course democratic large nations go continuously to war to repress the democracy of smaller nations who want to break apart like Basques, Kurds or Chechens.

    But worse: the theory of development makes little sense: how could Senegal be such an stable democracy (and a Muslim democracy) being much less developed than Syria or Iraq or Tunisia? Some of the most developed Arab states actually had authoritarian one-party regimes, while some of the least developed ones like Morocco had formal democracies.

    What democracy needs is a stable society, where people tend to respect each other. This is easier if economic inequalities are small and most people enjoy a decent lifestyle. But then local cultural, historical and accidental factors come at play.

    Historically militarist societies tend to be less prone to democracy because they are raised with the idea that decisions are imposed rather than negotiated or voted. This can apply to very different societies and can change with time but it is a key factor to consider: how strong is the army or the militarist tendencies in general?

    1. stevefraser

      Let’s start by having the target culture integrate our Bill of Rights first….then go for Democracy.

  7. Alex SL

    I understand the criticisms levelled in the comments, but let’s be honest, we all understand what he is writing about: a system in which you have elections and aren’t likely to be locked up for disagreeing with the ruling party. And that is still better than a system where you don’t and you are, respectively, even if all major parties follow the TINA ideology.

    (I mean, if the populace were really so unhappy with that, they could elect a Trotskyist party or whatever… I think too many of us have this worldview where a viruous and at worst naive citizenship that really wants participation and social security for all is constantly being betrayed by corrupt politicians. Let’s face it, a surprising number of people are lazy, dumb, ignorant and bigoted. But I digress.)

    More to the point, I find it interesting to examine empirically what is likely to make and keep a country democratic in this sense. This discussion is probably as old as the concept of different forms of government itself. Do you just have to convince people how swell it would be, or will it only work with the right level of ecomic development behind it? The latter seems like a no-brainer – just try to envision a USA- or even only France-sized democracy with a medieval subsidence agriculture economy. No way.

    But then look at the unhinged reactions to Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel. There are many out there who are deeply wedded to the idea that everybody who isn’t as wealthy and safe as the developed countries only has themselves to blame because they just aren’t bright enough to accept the awesomeness of free markets and representative democracy. You know, just plop that system down in Afghanistan or Iraq and surely in ten years the country will just prosper…

    1. Maju

      Spain: “democracy”: people jailed for opinion “crimes” (Basques mostly)

      Turkey: “democracy”: people jailed for opinion “crimes” (Kurds mostly)

      Israel: apartheid “democracy” (most natives do not have any rights, not even to to a nationality or to return to their hometowns): people jailed for almost nothing (Palestinians essentially)

      Germany: “democracy”: now a tad less rigid but in the past communist and fascist ideologies illegal. I don’t subscribe to fascism of course, and I even support persecution of fascism, but the case is that you can be jailed if you disagree with the “democratic” regime and express your opinions (even using the anti-fascist broken swastika is legally problematic).

      Russia: “democracy”: you can be jailed for protesting and never mind if you are Chechen or belong to almost any Caucasian nationality.

      So I do not have very clear what is a democracy, seriously or how these regimes are different from, say, Iran.

    2. Maju

      PS- And never mind NATO’s secret army GLADIO, which is very active and would not probably allow any sort of popular choice that is not within the margins dictated by the Capitalist Empire.

  8. jsmith

    “So the promotion of democracy is laudable, but do we really know how to ‘cause’ democracy?”

    I mean really.

    Gee, I guess we just shouldn’t mention the fact that the world’s only fascist war-mongering empire – oops, I meant “democracy” – the U.S. has actively been supporting fascist/theocratic military around the world for over 5 decades.

    In addition, I like how it talks about “democracy in the Middle East”.

    Hmmm, where have I heard that catch phrase before?

    “Democracy in the Middle East…”

    “Democracy in the Middle East…”

    Oh, that’s right…

    The genocidal and apartheid state of Isreal is “the ONLY democracy in the Middle East…”

    This article is a digusting nonsense.

    1. jsmith


      “…supporting fascist/theocratic military COUPS around the world for over 5 decades.”

    2. jsmith

      I understand that I tripped up the censor when I used a certain word the other day.

      Fair enough.

      But I don’t understand why I’m not able to post information regarding the BS that is Pussy Riot in the Links section.

      This is not tinfoil hat stuff.

      The people defending Pussy Riot have direct and proven links to Western-backed democracy groups.

      The band Pussy Riot did not even play music until late 2011.

      Why are links to information concerning Pussy Riot that people the likes of Mike Whitney think is important being censored?

      1. jsmith

        4 consecutive days of pro-Pussy Riot links in the Links section and nary a word from any poster against this farce, a farce that even Mike Whitney in Counterpunch – a writer whose work is regularly linked to on this site – says is utter bull?


  9. Warren Celli

    Tha author asks “Will democracy establish itself in the Middle East?”

    A better question would be “Will democracy establish itself in Scamerica?”

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

  10. rotter

    “Democracy is on the move in the Arab world”

    Is there one shred of evidence to support that? NATO is on the move. Saudi Arabia is moving between conflicts and protecting its interests and at the behest of the US, NATO and the G7’s interests. There is a sham democracy in Eygypt. Isreal’s Democracy is degenerating at an even faster rate than our US one. Any Democracy we install in Syria will be at least as shamtastic as the one in you must realize that statements like “demiocracy is on the move in the ME” sound pathetically cynical and dishonest. Much like W’s “freedom on the march”

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I think you know what it means, you just don’t like the coding. “Arab Spring is leading authoritarian regimes to loosen their stranglehold a bit. It remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of lasting change or just noise.”

      In addition, to pretend that China or the old Soviet Russia, where people who got out of line politically were sent to gulags, or prisons (in China) where they can have their organs harvested from them while they are still alive, is distinctive from the “democracies” of both the West and Asia. Yes, we may not be as free as we pretend (particularly on the propensity we have to put young black men in prison). And technology is allowing advanced economies to move in a more authoritarian direction. But we aren’t there yet, and blurring the differences actually promotes complacency among the public about the erosion of protections that our ancestors fought and died to win.

      1. Warren Celli

        Rotter you make excellent points.

        Yves — Whether or not…

        “Arab Spring is leading authoritarian regimes to loosen their stranglehold a bit. It remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of lasting change or just noise.”

        …depends upon who you believe is driving the ‘Arab Spring’. Who is behind the coding.

        Is it really a spontaneous eruption of the people in their respective ‘western determined’ nation states, or is it an orchestrated sea change by the Xtrevilist few controllers — the same few aberrant Xtrevilist controllers who plopped Israel smack down in the middle of it all — who now find the carrot of easily corrupted democracy is more advantageous for controlling and herd thinning populations than allowing difficult to manage strong willed dictators to exist.

        Yes we have ‘representative’ democracy here in Scamerica but it is far from one person one vote democracy and it is totally non responsive to the will of the people. No, our organs are not harvested, but our homes and our wealth are, and we are stripped of our freedom and dignity and sent to the tent cities and under the bridges to face early and painful death.

        To point that scamocracy out is not “blurring the differences”, rather it reveals with clarity that the underlying disease has mutated from good old fashioned Vanilla Greed for Profit Evilism, to Pernicious Greed for Destruction Xtrevilism.

        Calling this scamocracy democracy is what promotes complacency.

        Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

  11. stevefraser

    In 1887 Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years prior: “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”

  12. gordon

    Why is it that so many people will undertake such crazy analyses but never, ever, under any circumstances, open a history book? Is it some kind of technocratic hubris? Is it that there is no chance of getting a grant by reading history books? Is it that they don’t read very well? Is it a “two cultures” thing? Is it an inability to understand different cultures as being, actually, different? Is there now a general belief that history is bunk? What?

    There is an amazing thread spinning itself out at Crooked Timber at the moment about the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That thread, too, shows total willingness (by most commenters, though not quite all) to believe any kind of nonsense about “terror”, “conditional arguments”, “police action” and to embrace any kind of wild generalisation about motivations and peoples, and a complete inability to cope with ideas of justice, humanity, peace, security, and most of all the history of the region and the roles of the US and other outside countries over a long period. That thread echoes weirdly the old Vietnam war arguments about bombing and covert incursions into the territories of foreign States, and the use of terror weapons (like bombs from invisible B-52s, napalm, cluster bombs and defoliants, as they were in those pre-drone days).

    In all of these discussions there is an absolute refusal to engage with reality in favour of an obsession with making up stories in which there are heroes and villains, “good guys” and “bad guys”, moral outrage, wounded pride, self-justification, and an amazing degree of ignorance-based vanity and arrogance. There is a departure into fantasyland on a scale which can only be matched by Nazi fantasies about Jewish-communist conspiracies, stab-in-the-back, ubermenschen, lebensraum and all that stuff. Really, it is on that scale. I am absolutely thunderstruck.

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