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Theories of Democracy

Updated on April 26, 2012

What allows a democracy to flourish?

Political scientists have conflicting views over what pre-conditions must exist for a democracy to grow. There are four main theories proposed which attempt to explain the phenomenon of democracy in the world.

The first is the Modernisation Theory, which is accredited to Seymour Lipset.

The second is the Transition Theory, accredited to Schmitter, Whitehead and O’Donnell.

The third is the "End of History" theory as proposed by Fukuyama.

Finally, we have the "Clash of Civilizations" theory from Huntington.

Each of these approach the question of how democracy comes about from very different perspectives.

Seymour Lipset


Modernisation Theory - Seymour Lipset

The modernisation theory is based upon the assumption that democracy is the output of capitalist developments. In other words, successful capitalism is first required for a transition to democracy to be achieved. Lipset highlighted how socio-economic transformations in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as industrialisation, spurred on democracy.

The reasons behind this are that with industrialisation came higher urbanisation, literacy rates, a diffusion of power to a new capitalist class, and indeed the expansion of the middle class. Seymour Lipset argued that as countries reach these conditions they will gradually democratise. Examples of nations this has happened to include France, Germany and the UK. There are some less successful examples though, such as Imperial Russia.

Criticisms of Modernisation Theory

Modernisation theory has two main criticisms levelled at it.

  1. Academics have highlighted how it is a heavily Eurocentric theory and that it does not hold its water when we attempt to use it to explain democracies in nations like India.
  2. It has been criticised for the emphasis placed upon conditions, rather than actors shaping democracy. Critics argue that individual actors such as Lenin, Thomas Jefferson and other people who have derailed or supported democracy should not have their impact ignored.

Philip Schimtter


Transition Theory

This theory places an emphasis upon the work of individual actors as agents in brining about democracy. Transition theorists highlight how individuals such as Mikhail Gorbachev brining about the end of an authoritarian government in Soviet Russia.

Proponents of the transition theory also argue that democratisation can occur in any context. They highlight the successful democracies in impoverished nations in Africa and indeed India as examples of nations who achieve democracy without meeting the preconditions stated in Lipset's modernisation theory. Further examples in history which support the transition theory include Spain and Latin America in the 70's and 80's.

Criticisms of Transition Theory

Once again there are two main criticisms levelled against the transition theory.

  1. This is a top down model of democratisation. It ignores the fact that ordinary people can shape democracy, think about the Occupy Movement or the Arab Spring.
  2. Can we really explain everything simply by pertaining it to actions of a social elite whilst ignoring the contextual factors of history, culture, economics, geography etc?

Francis Fukuyama


End of History Theory

In 1992 Fukuyama published a book entitled, "The End of History and the Last Man." This book stated that, essentially, democracy is universally appealing to all people across the world. His argument is founded in the victory of capitalism during the Cold War. As the communist nations fell, the only viable alternative was liberal democratic capitalism.

In other words, Fukuyama believes humanity has reached the end of the political road. There can be nothing greater than a liberal democracy, ergo eventually all nations will become liberal democracies and adopt capitalist values.

Criticisms of the End of History Theory

Critics of this theory highlight the illogical nature behind generalising the whole world. There are vast differences between cultures, races, and ethnicities that attempting to put them all in a single box could not work.

They also criticise the belief that liberal democratic capitalism won the Cold War because it exhibited "innate qualities" over communism. Critics highlight how power, economics, and socio-political factors could also have been the reasons behind the victory of liberal democratic capitalism.

Huntington's Nine Civilisations


The Clash of Civilisations Theory

In 1993, and in contrast to Fukuyama's End of History theory, Huntington wrote the controversial Clash of Civilisations theory. Huntington argued that democracy was culturally specific. He highlighted how Western cultural values were particularly suited to democracy, whereas Islamic values were not as suited to the establishment of democracy.

He continues with his belief that these cultures will inevitable be brought into conflicts with each other. The most notable of which is the Western and Islamic culture conflict.

Criticisms of the Clash of Civilisations Theory

Critics point out that the success of the Arab Spring and pro-democracy movements in the Islamic world mean there is a hole in the logic of this theory. They also state that democracy is not necessarily incompatible with certain cultures, and that instead we should look to political, social and economic factors to determine why democracy has not yet flourished in a certain nation or culture.


Which theory do you agree with most?

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