Can democracy ever be ‘fully’ consolidated?

In democratic theories there is the debate whether democracy can be fully consolidated or not. There is the common argument that consolidation is possible in every democratic regime, but a ‘fully consolidation’ seems to be more unlikely.  This essay will discuss: Can democracy ever be ‘fully consolidated’?

In the last decades ‘democracy has been widely recognized as the best political regime yet invented, because its citizens are both treated with respect, dignity and have some say in political decision-making’.[1] In this sense, democracy can be consolidated, but not completely. To understand this: consolidation is seen as a scale; because of multiple different factors that are used to work out whether a democracy is consolidated or not. Therefore, it would be wrong to see democratic consolidation as a dichotomy. For example; if two democracies (A,B) were equal in almost every way sharing similar political institutions, ethnic divisions, size, region, political culture; it would be absurd to classify A as a consolidated democracy and B not just because A has more equality of wealth.  Instead a better classification would be to say that A is more consolidated than B. The bottom-line here is that, democratic consolidation is best understood as a scale; this means that for a country to be ‘fully consolidated’ it must be at the very top of the consolidation scale. Moreover, for a country to be consolidated it would have to be on balance more likely to it to remain a democracy than to revert back to a non-democracy. In this case; it could be argued that for such a state to exist is almost impossible as for it to do so all the possibly relevant factors would have to be a factor strengthening democracy or at least not weakening it. To a national level, even in Britain for example, the lack of a codified constitution, the rise of BNP and declining turnout can all be pointed to as factors which make Britain’s democracy not fully consolidated because under the right conditions they could make the UK slide into authoritarianism.  Although this is not likely the existence of these weaknesses in Britain’s democracy still mean that the UK can’t be called a fully consolidated democracy.

Now, the common question that arises is: what is needed for consolidation? Essentially, we mean by a consolidated democracy a political situation in which, in a phrase, democracy has become ‘the only game in the town’. (Linz and Stepan). It has been argued by Linz that there are three dimensions needed in order to make consolidation possible: first, behaviourally, when no significant political groups seriously attempt to overthrow the democratic regime or secede from the state. Second, attitudinally, when even in the face of severe political and economic crisis, the overwhelming majority of the people believe that any further political change must emerge from within the parameters of democratic formulas. Third, constitutionally, when all the actors in the polity become habituated to the fact that political conflict will be resolved according to established norms.

 Larry Diamond suggest[2] that elites are main actors in the consolidation process of democracy because  their disproportionate power and influence elites matter most for the stability and consolidation of democracy, not only in their behaviours but also in their beliefs. The other aspect that is crucial for Diamond is domestic structures; because structures within a country that is conducive to the consolidation of democracy from within. This can include government institutions, party system and rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, consolidation is obstructed and destroyed by the effects of institutional shallowness and decay. To become consolidated, electoral democracies must become liberal and deeper. In contrast, what is at issue is not the definition or desirability of democracy (even in its most limited forms). ‘What is at issue is the naiveté and analytical shallowness of the current orthodoxy in assuming not only that democracy can somehow be made to happen, but also that it will work on a sustained basis and that it will also promote growth’. [3] Hence, until and unless the politics of a society can devise and sustain a stable democratic system, other non-democratic systems may in practice be preferable at least some of the material objectives of development are not to be lost for another generation, or more.  ‘The key shapers of democratic political thought have held that the best realizable form of government is mixed, or constitutional, government, in which freedom is constrained by the rule of law and popular soveignty is tempered by state institutions that produce order and stability’.[4]

It is to believe that consolidation must rest on conceptual foundations other than what we hypothesize to be its principal consequence: the stability and persistence of democracy. In this case, consolidation encompasses what Dankwart Rustow calls ‘habituation’ in which the norms, procedures and expectations of democracy become so internalized that actors routinely, conform to the written (and unwritten) rules’[5]. Consolidation requires more than a commitment to democracy in the abstract, that democracy is ‘in principle’ the best form of government. For a democracy to be consolidated, elites organizations, and the mass public must all believe that the political system they actually have in their country is worth obeying and defending. Additionally, as consolidation advances, ‘there is a widening of the range of political actors who come to assume democratic conduct on the part of their adversaries’.  [6] As Robert Dahl observes, elites are more likely to have elaborate system of political beliefs, more likely to be guided in their actions by their values, and in any case they will have more influence over political events.

At the level of the mass public, consolidation is indicated when the overwhelming majority of citizens believe that democracy is the best form of government in principle and that it is also the most suitable form of government for their country by the time. Also, democracy can be consolidated even when voter turnout is low but it cannot be consolidated when supporters of rival parties frequently kill and terrorize one another in the struggle for power.

 Consolidation for democracy confronts a number of characteristic challenges in new and insecure democracies. ‘The salience of these challenges varies across countries and over time, and it would be an overstatement to characterize the complete resolution of any one of them as necessary for democratic consolidation.’[7] Is to believe that democratic consolidation must address the challenge of strengthening three types of political institution: the state administrative apparatus (bureaucracy); the institutions of democratic representation and governance (political parties, legislatures, and the electoral system) and the structures that ensure horizontal accountability, constitutionalism and the rule of law. In addition, making political institutions effective involves not only strengthening them in terms of capacity and resources but also designing them to fit the circumstances. Guillermo O’ Donnell is correct to question the theoretical equation of consolidation with political institutionalization.  ‘In principle, countries can have weak, volatile party systems, but highly stable and legitimate democracies. Practically, however, some degree of political institutionalization appears to be crucial for democratic consolidation’. [8]

Essentially by a ‘consolidated democracy’ we mean a political regime in which democracy is a complex system of institutions, rules and patterned incentives.[9] Many scholars, in advancing definitions of consolidated democracy, enumerate all the regime definitions of consolidated democracy; enumerate all the regime characteristics that would improve the overall quality of democracy. ’In most cases after a democratic transition is completed, there are still many tasks that need to be accomplished, conditions that must be established, and attitudes and habits that must be cultivated before democracy can be regarded as consolidated’[10]. In sum, when we talk about the consolidation of democracy; only democracies can become consolidated but to say that democracies can be fully consolidated is not possible.

Spain has become paradigmatic for the study of democratic breakdown; a number of factors contribute to the special status of Spain in the transition. Therefore, is taken in this essay as an example of a democratic consolidated country. ‘Foremost is the fact that it was one of the first in the cycle of what Samuel Huntington calls the ‘third wave’ of democratic transitions, and it consequently influenced thinking in many countries that would later undertake similar tasks’. [11] It has been argued that a reason for the admiration of many observers of the Spanish transition to democracy has been that Spain appeared to outsiders as a highly conflictual and potentially violent society, owing the legacy of a civil war. Another circumstance that makes the Spanish case particularly interesting is that the authoritarian regime had lasted thirty-six years and had created a complex institutional structure; Franco’s installation of a monarchy that had a low historical legitimacy and that could easily be contested by democrats.’ To the theoretical model it appears to be an elegant process’[12]

 From the perspective of the tasks a country must address before it can complete a transition and consolidate democracy, Spain began in a comparatively privileged position. ‘The only task that was immediately urgent in November 1975, when Franco died, was the creation of political institutions with autonomy and support. In this particular case, Spanish consolidation is seen as being almost inevitable; given its supportive socioeconomic and geopolitical context’.[13]  To an extent, one assertion about the Spanish democracy is that it was consolidated no later than the peaceful transfer of power to the socialist opposition after the October 1982 general elections. However, a case could be made that democracy was consolidated even earlier, with the completion of the successful trials of the military leaders involved in the February 23, 1981 coup attempt. Another view maintains that democracy is a system of regular conflicts between competing interests and ambitions, but it can only survive if it resolves these conflicts peacefully and lawfully; ‘therefore implies the need for pragmatism and flexibility, an ability to transcend or even at times suspend ideological beliefs and ethnic’s solidarities’. [14]

The long-established norm of democracy is that political systems should maximize rule by and for the people. Within the tradition of liberal democracy, ‘the people’ are understood as individuals, each of whom ought to benefit from collective self-rule. From this norm is derived that of equal opportunity to affect the decision. ‘Democracy’ in this generic sense could in principle extend to all social relations, institutionalized or not, that enable individuals to influence the collective decisions that affect them. [15]

After the research done in this essay is tempting to conclude:  No; democracy cannot be fully consolidated. There is not a single democratic regime that is based on the top scale of consolidation. Regimes can become more consolidated just not fully consolidated: If any of the relevant factors above changes this can happen but maybe the most important is the introduction of a liberal constitution. Is to believe that although there is no pre-requisite for democracy a liberal constitution and population is key to successful democratic consolidation. If this is not present than chances are that no one either within or outside government would be able to or wish to oppose the ruling elite if it chose to limit free and fair elections. Additionally, elite political culture is crucial to democratic consolidation. Unless elites accept, in a regular and predictable way, the rules and limits of the constitutional system and the legitimacy of opposing actors who similarly commit themselves.  Democracy cannot work.‘ The strength of formal democratic institutions and rules (as opposed to the informal practices of clientelism, vote bullying and rule bending and executive domination) no doubt facilitates the endurance and the consolidation of democracy’. (Diamond)


-Adrian Leftwich; Democracy and development. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.; Polity press. 1996.

-Barry Holden; Global Democracy key debates. Routledge, London and New York, 2000.

-Bruce Cain, Susan Scarrow; Democracy transformed? Expanding political opportunities in advanced industrial democracies. Comparative politics;  Oxford University press,  2003.

-Guillermo O Donnell and Laurence Whitehead; Political Change in Spain and the prospects of Democracy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University press, 1986.

-Juan Linz& Alfred Stepan; Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. 1996.

-Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner; Consolidating the third wave of democracies (themes and perspectives) The Johns Hopkins University press, Baltimore and London. 1997.

-Larry Diamond; Developing Democracy toward Consolidation. The Johns Hopkins University press 1999. Chapter 3: Consolidating Democracy.

-Larry Diamond; The Spirit of Democracy the struggle to build free societies throughout the world. Times Books, New York,2008.

Additional material

-Schimitter, P.C and karl, T.L (1991) “What Democracy is…and is not”. Journal of democracy.

[1] Adrian Leftwich; Democracy and development. P45.

[2] Larry Diamond; The spirit of democracy. P. 89

[3] Adrian Leftwich; Democracy and development. P17

[4] Larry Diamond; Developing Democracy toward Consolidation. P2

[5] Developing Democracy toward Consolidation. P 65

[6] Idem.

[7] Developing Democracy toward Consolidation. P71

[8] Idem.

[9] Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner; Consolidating the third wave of democracies (themes and perspectives). P15

[10]Consolidating the third wave of democracies. P16

[11] Juan Linz& Alfred Stepan; Problems of democratic transition and consolidation. Chapter 6. P87

[12] Idem. P89

[13] Juan Linz& Alfred Stepan; Problems of democratic transition and consolidation. Chapter 6. P90

[14] Larry Diamond; The spirit of democracy. P156

[15] Bruce Cain, Susan Scarrow; democracy transformed? P224


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