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SCHOLARLY TRANSITIONS.

Richard Rose, William Mishler, and Christian Haerpfer: Democracy and Its Alternatives: Understanding Post-Communist Societies. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 270. $49.00. $16.95, paper.)

The collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has inspired a formidable body of literature on political and economic transitions; it has also stimulated some interesting transitions in the academic sphere. A number of scholars who had established their reputations through their work on capitalist societies, notably those of Western and Southern Europe and Latin America, have turned their attention to the process of change in the former Communist states. The attraction of the region as a laboratory for exploring a variety of pivotal concerns of political theory and analysis is understandable; rarely have political institutions been altered so quickly and populations been required to adapt so rapidly to a drastically changed political, economic, and social environment. Moreover, the newly freed Eastern states offered close to a virgin terrain for the application of empirical research techniques that had become standard practice in the West but had rarely been permitted by the former Communist rulers.

Scholars who had specialized in studying the region prior to 1989 often looked upon their new colleagues with a measure of distrust. The newcomers, after all, had not had to painfully acquire what had once been viewed as the obligatory language facility or immersed themselves in Slavic (or Hungarian, Romanian, Central Asian, etc.) history and culture, or in the art of teasing useful information from between the lines of Pravda, reports of Central Committee meetings, official statistics, furtive conversations with Moscow taxi drivers, and the like. These scholars found it easy to tax the newcomers with superficiality or downright error, and sometimes argued that the uniqueness of the Communist experience meant that their region could not readily be compared to others. They too, however, had to undergo a transition, both in the questions they were asked to address and in the methodological tools with which they examined them.

It would be pleasant to report that these twin developments have resulted in a fruitful intellectual competition, or even a rewarding synergy. In some cases they indeed have. In other cases the results have been disappointing, and it is in that category I reluctantly place the volume under review here, in spite of my high regard for much of the other work of its authors.

The central issue that Richard Rose, William Mishler, and Christian Haerpfer raise has attracted the attention of numerous scholars from both camps: the prospects for successful "democratization" in the region. Some have approached this issue through the examination of elite "circulation" or of institutional change; others, including the authors of the present book, have investigated popular attitudes and political culture, on the fair assumption that no democratic polity is likely to prosper in the absence of a firm popular commitment to democratic principles. In exploring this question, the authors rely largely on the findings of surveys carried out in nine former Communist countries by the "New Democracies Barometer," a survey project established in 1991 by the Paul Lazarsfeld Society in Vienna.

The rather daunting trick in a study of this sort is to establish a satisfactory definition of "democracy" and then to find a reliable way of tapping popular attitudes toward it. The three authors give careful attention to both issues. Their definition of democracy is a multidimensional one, drawing heavily on Robert Dahl, which avoids the simplistic equation of democracy with free elections and/or reasonably free markets. They also argue persuasively that democracy must be understood not in abstract isolation but in comparison to other forms of rule; genuinely democratic citizens, that is, must accept what the authors call the "Churchill hypothesis": that democracy, however flawed, is to be preferred over any realistic alternative, whether "totalitarianism," "posttotalitarianism," or more traditional forms of dictatorship.

The authors rightly recognize that simply asking respondents whether they approve of "democracy" or not would not yield useful results, given the profligate use and abuse of the term. Instead, they asked those interviewed to evaluate both their country's past (Communist) regime and its "current system of governing with free elections and many parties," as well as the current system "in five years time" on a scale of -100 to +100 (p. 104). They then asked whether the respondents' country would be "better off" under any of five undemocratic alternatives: Communist rule, military rule, a single strong leader, monarchy, or decision-making on economic questions by experts. Perhaps because majorities of between 56 and 89 percent supported the last alternative, the authors concluded that it was not, after all, inconsistent with democracy, and thus categorized only support of one or more of the first four as indicators of antidemocratic inclinations. It is on the basis of the responses to these two questions that th e authors base the rest of their analysis, which is concerned with relating the various factors they examine--political, social, economic, cultural--to support for "democracy" or its alternatives, and to the prospects that democracy will survive and be consolidated in the countries surveyed.

The second question is reasonably straightforward, but I find the first problematic. While it seeks to measure generalized support for a democratic system, many respondents are likely to have viewed it as a question about the specific political process in operation in their country at the end of 1993 (when the survey was carried out) and quite possibly about the party and leaders then in power. It is difficult to regard the responses in specific countries in isolation from the political circumstances of each at that time--just after the electoral victory of the postcommunist SLD in Poland, shortly before the fall of Vladimir Me[check{c}]iar's government in Slovakia, close to the height of what then appeared to be the success of V[acute{a}]clav Klaus's economic strategy in the Czech republic, prior to the election of President Lukashenka in Belarus, and so on. By the same token, evaluations of the former Communist regime could have been expected to vary widely according to their ferocity--the relatively benig n Hungarian regime versus the megalomania-driven rule of the Ceausescus, for example. The speculative character of the answers to the question about the present system in five years makes their significance difficult to judge, although one wonders whether the relative optimism expressed would be duplicated now that, in fact, five years have passed.

There is little attempt in the book to explore the results for individual countries: instead, findings for all nine countries are combined, even though the level of support for "democracy" and dictatorship in each ranges widely--as one would expect, since two post-Soviet states (Belarus and Ukraine) are included, along with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The rationale for this approach seems to be that the factors explaining support for democratization are likely to be similar everywhere, although those factors may be present in very different mixes in different countries. The data appear largely to support this supposition, but the mix of political, economic, social structural, and "contextual" factors said to account for a total of some 30 percent of the variance in support for democracy (as defined) is largely unremarkable, and one misses the insights that a more detailed account of the individual cases might provide.

Does the previous inexperience of the authors in the East European-Soviet region explain the disappointing character of the book? While there are no spectacular "howlers," a number of highly questionable or oversimplified assertions appear in the book (e.g., "Moscow gave the Poles the choice of submitting to martial law under a Polish regime or having it imposed by Soviet troops"--p. 55). But the more serious problems to my mind go back to choices of method and approach: the formulation of a critical questionnaire item, the choice of countries, reliance on data gathered at a single point in time (already five years in the past at the time of publication) in a rapidly changing environment. The issues raised by this book are important, but the yield seems surprisingly meager, and I am hesitant on the basis of the authors' data to share their confidence that the survival of at least some form of democracy in the nine countries is all but assured.

THOMAS A. BAYLIS is Visiting Professor of Political Science in the University of Texas, Austin.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Baylis, Thomas A.
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:1400
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