Democracy and Violence

Monday, May 31st, 2010

I’m surprised to see a Harvard sociology professor discussing the link between violence and democracy:

The violence tearing apart Jamaica, a democratic state, raises serious questions not only about its government’s capacity to provide basic security but, more broadly and disturbingly, the link between violence and democracy itself.

The specific causes of the turmoil are well known. For decades political leaders have used armed local gangs to mobilize voters in their constituencies; the gangs are rewarded with the spoils of power, in particular housing and employment contracts they can dole out. Opposition leaders counter with their own gangs, resulting in chronic violence during election seasons.

These gangs eventually moved into international drug trafficking, with their leaders, called “dons,” becoming ever more powerful. The tables turned quite some time ago, with the politicians becoming dependent on the dons for their survival.

A case in point is the reliance of Prime Minister Bruce Golding on one notorious don, Christopher Coke, whose refusal to surrender for extradition to the United States to stand trial on gun and drug charges led last week to virtual warfare on the streets of the capital, Kingston, and the deaths of scores of civilians.

By global standards, Jamaica has a robust democracy — voting is fair and governments change at the national level regularly and smoothly:

For most observers of democracy, Jamaica’s violence seems an anomaly. Democracy is held to be inherently prone to good order and peace. According to this “democratic peace” doctrine, democracies do not go to war with each other, and in domestic life they provide nonviolent means of settling differences. Violence, writes the political theorist John Keane, is anathema to democracy’s “spirit and substance.”

It may or may not be true that democracies do not wage war with each other, but a growing number of analysts have concluded that, domestically, democracies are in fact more prone to violence than authoritarian states, measured by incidence of civil wars, communal conflict and homicide.

There are many obvious examples of this: India has far more street crime than China; the countries of the former Soviet Union are more violent now than they were under Communism; the streets of South Africa became more dangerous after apartheid was dismantled; Brazil was safer before 1985 under its military rule.

Three good explanations are offered for this connection between democracy and violent crime. First, it has been persuasively shown by social scientists like David Rapoport of the University of California at Los Angeles and Leonard Weinberg of the University of Nevada at Reno that the electoral process itself tends, on balance, to promote violence more than peace.

Sometimes the ballot can substitute for the bullets of civil wars, as in Nicaragua in 1990 when the Sandinista government was voted out peacefully. However, the opposite is more often the case, as in Greece in 1967, when electoral uncertainty led to a military coup, and Algeria in 1992, when elections were canceled in the face of a certain victory by a fundamentalist Islamic party, leading to civil war.

Another well-supported argument is that democracies are especially vulnerable to ethnic conflict and organized crime. In diverse democracies, the temptation of leaders to exploit ethnic identity for political ends is an all too frequent source of major conflict, sometimes culminating in oppression of minorities and even genocide. We saw this happen in Rwanda in 1994 and the former Yugoslav states in the 1990s. Dennis Austin, who has studied political strife in India and Sri Lanka, has concluded that in such societies “democracy is itself a spur to violence” adding “depth to the sense of division.”

Organized crime, especially international trafficking in drugs, has become a serious threat to democracies worldwide. Felia Allun and Renate Siebert, the editors of an important scholarly collection, “Organized Crime and the Challenge to Democracy,” argue that “it is by exploiting the very freedoms which democratic systems offer that organized crime is able to thrive … although mortifying democratic rights, these kinds of crimes need the democratic space to flourish.”

A third, more nuanced argument is suggested by the work of the Norwegian political scientist Havard Hegre, who has shown that nondemocratic regimes become more prone to civil unrest, and more likely to threaten or start wars with neighboring countries, as they enter the transition period toward becoming democratic. The arc to democratic peace is therefore U-shaped. Authoritarian regimes can tyrannize their citizens into less violence. But as their states become more democratic, the mix of persisting authoritarian traditions and democratic freedoms can be lethal, sometimes resulting in complete state collapse, as in Yugoslavia.

It is only when such countries get very close to democratic maturity that social violence rapidly declines. At least that is the conclusion that my Harvard colleague Ethan Fosse and I came to after examining the relationship between homicide rates and Freedom House’s democracy rankings.

Yet even in these countries on the cusp of democracy there is a complicating factor — they are usually also going through the transition from a poor economy to a more developed one. The expectations of citizens in these transitional economies often outrun the capacity of society to meet them; people get frustrated and feel unfairly treated, leading to high risks of violence.

The worst possible situation for a state, however, is for its economic transition to stall or fail before the transition to mature democracy is complete. And this is what Jamaica now faces. For the first dozen years after independence from Britain in 1962, progress toward democracy and self-sustained economic growth moved nicely in tandem. But then the oil crisis and recession of 1973, and the efforts by the democratic socialist government of Prime Minister Michael Manley to deal with hard times, knocked the wind from the sails of economic progress, and Jamaica has never really recovered. (Disclosure: I was an adviser to Prime Minister Manley at that time.)

(Hat tip to Foseti, who quips, “If only someone could have seen this coming…”)

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