Q&A: How past regimes affect prospects for democracy


Periods of democratic experience in a country’s distant past may affect how democratic it is today. We talk to Anibal Pérez-Liñán about the social mechanisms that make it possible.

For today’s Q&A, we talk with Anibal Pérez-Liñán, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, about some interesting findings of his in Latin America.

Anibal Pérez-Liñán. Image: Nicolás Savine.

Anibal Pérez-Liñán. Image: Nicolás Savine.

Explorer: It seems you’ve found that those countries that had more democratic experiences in the past were more able to build better functioning democracies in our contemporary period. Can you explain why this might be?

By the beginning of the 21st century, pretty much every Latin American country with the exception of Cuba was more or less “democratic.” But if you look at the region, there is wide disparity in terms of how much democracy those countries have achieved. The big puzzle is that, if you look at the levels they’ve achieved today, they pretty much correlate with their experience with democracy at the beginning of the 20th century. So there’s some mechanism in which what happened way in the distant past is still present.

So what we were trying to figure out was, “How is it possible that historical legacies are still operating a century later?” We came up with idea that there are institutions that operate as carriers of a past regime’s legacy. And those past regimes can be democratic or dictatorial.

So a democratic legacy can withstand periods of dictatorship?

Chile and Uruguay today have a high level of democracy and have had democratic experience early in the 20th century. But in the 1970s they experienced brutal dictatorships. Somehow, there was some mechanism that bridged across generations and remained active decades later even when the country’s leadership attempted to erase democratic life.

It can’t just be individuals making the difference, right? Because people die over time. The community has to have something that’s more enduring. So we focused on more institutional things –political parties and courts – but there could be many others.

This is because organizations can outlive people. They can last for very long periods. They socialize new generations. They even have their own goals and interests as organizations. What happens is parties formulate new leaders over time and so new leaders, in turn, train future generations of leaders. Something similar happens in the judiciary. It trains the understanding of the rule of law for judges of later generations.

Could you say that the opposite could be true for countries that didn’t have such a democratic past? If parties and courts were institutionalized in periods with little democracy?

The legacy would be – given the norms, expectations and the way the judges were socialized – that they don’t think of the rule of law in the more democratic way.

So it works both ways. Parties that emerged during authoritarian periods develop structures, practices and an internal culture that are adapted to authoritarian politics. So then, those parties are potentially a liability for democratic reforms later on. In the judiciary, you’d have judges who were appointed in an authoritarian period, who understand their role as simply serving the interests of political power. So they may not uphold the rule of law in a democratic sense.

Image: Nikodemos.

Image: Nikodemos.

You also talk about the idea of “path dependence” but you don’t believe path dependence explains your findings as well as “regime legacies.” Can you explain the difference?

The idea of path dependence implies that once a certain society, or certain organization takes a particular path, then it’s very hard to backtrack. Because you accumulate practices, behaviors, structures, that make it very hard to reverse course. The classic example is the QWERTY keyboard. Over time, people have come up with designs for the keyboard that are more efficient, that allow you to type faster. But what happens is that once the early typewriters adopted this keyboard, it was very hard to reverse a system that’s already been trained in it.

So this argument is often used to explain political phenomena. Sometimes there are trajectories in history that make reversing course difficult. So path dependence is often invoked to explain political phenomena that are highly persistent over time. It’s tempting to say, “Well, the fact that Uruguay had a long democratic experience and has a high level today, might be path dependence.” The problem is, however, that we do not see that kind of continuity. Path dependence implies that it’s difficult to abandon the initial path. But countries like Chile and Uruguay actually did abandon that path in the 1970s.

What is interesting for us, is, despite that reversal, when democracy was reestablished in 1985 in Uruguay or 1990 in Chile, somehow the pattern of democracy reemerged and flourished.

Was a regime’s legacy the most powerful predictor of current levels of democracy, or were there other factors that played a role?

In general, what we find is that regime legacies are one of the most powerful predictors and clearly they’re stronger than other conventional explanations such as class structure, size of the working class or economic development.

There are other explanations related to regime legacies that have to do with the preferences of the political actors. When you have political actors who are radical – in the sense that they are unwilling to bargain with their policy preferences – democracy is very hard to establish or it’s very fragile. You don’t have that natural bargaining that defines democratic politics.

Similarly if political actors value democracy as a goal in itself, like Latin America in the 90s, then it’s more likely that democracy will survive. In other periods, like the 60s, many political actors saw democracy as an instrument to achieve other goals: social justice, revolution, and free markets. Under those circumstances, commitment to democracy is much more fragile.

Pérez-Liñán conducted his research along with Scott Mainwaring, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame.

The study, “Regime Legacies and Levels of Democracy: Evidence from Latin America,” was published in the journal Comparative Politics.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured Image: Augusto Pinochet, third from the left, was dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990. Credit: Library of the Chilean National Congress.