New book on failed democracies holds lessons for rebuilding Iraq

By Cynthia Yoder

Princeton NJ -- Until now, many scholars of comparative politics have blamed the fall of democracies throughout history on a decision by the masses to support extremists. In a groundbreaking book, Princeton Professor of Politics Nancy Bermeo counters that view, asserting that the responsibility lies with political leaders who polarize themselves, mistake the actions of a few for the preferences of many and then feed extremism.

Nancy Bermeo

Nancy Bermeo

Her study and its findings have important implications for today's political climate, including efforts to launch a democracy in Iraq. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, called the book "a valuable addition to a now crucial debate."

"Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy" was published this fall by Princeton University Press. Bermeo studied 20 historical cases, including every South American country that fell to the right after the Cuban revolution, every democracy that collapsed in the aftermath of the Russian revolution in Europe between World War I and II, and three democracies that avoided breakdown despite serious economic and political changes.

A senior editor of the journal World Politics, Bermeo has written or edited seven other books on regime change including, most recently, "Federalism and Territorial Cleavages." She spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about how her research can inform the building of democracy in Iraq.

When asked what inspired her to study failed democracies, Bermeo recalled witnessing a political coup at age 12. Bermeo was visiting her father's native Ecuador with her family when, she said, "I remember looking out the window and being stupefied to see tanks roll down the street. I realized through that experience that politics wasn't always about elections and campaign posters."

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You've written about the failed democracies in South America and interwar Europe. What have you learned that might inform the establishment of a democracy in Iraq?

I have doubts that Iraq will become a democracy, given the current situation. But if democracy is established in Iraq, an obvious lesson is having leaders whose legitimacy is widely endorsed at the polls. If one looks at the cases in South America after the Cuban revolution, the democracies that collapsed were often led by people who were elected by small pluralities or who inherited power because a more legitimate leader died. Many disastrous democracies emerged from situations where leaders were not seen as legitimate from the very beginning. That's a lesson that I think may apply in Iraq.

Another lesson that comes out of these cases is that politicians and international actors have to be sure that they don't mistake what they see in the streets for what's really going on in people's hearts and minds. We don't know a lot about public opinion in Iraq. It's imperative that we get systematic readings of Iraqi public opinion even if we do not like what we learn. We must not just observe what's going on in public and draw our conclusions from there. It's easy to mistake the public actions of a few for the private preferences of many, especially if elections are non-existent or flawed.

Are there other lessons for leaders as democracy attempts to become established in Iraq?

It's important that a diverse range of leaders have a stake in whatever political system is established, because then they're more likely to cooperate and hold the system together. If someone is excluded, especially a leader of a group that is numerically large, then the likelihood of their mobilizing the popular forces to destabilize the system is very high. Whatever form the constitution takes, it should be as inclusive as possible. Having proportional representation, for instance, rather than the winner-takes-all model elections that we have here in the United States, would be important. Federalism would be helpful too.

The main task that the leaders will have to work on is to establish order, with a consistent, respectable and strong judicial system and a police force of the same nature. If everyone is treated equally under the law, you won't get panic that the regime is serving only one ethnicity, or one religious group, or one sect within a religious group. Anti-democratic forces thrive on fears of mistreatment and exclusion.

You talk about the role of panic in a citizenry bending to military coups. Can you describe that process?

In the cases that I studied, demonstrations took a kind of pendular form. One large demonstration would provoke a counter demonstration, and that demonstration would provoke another demonstration. That can be very dizzying for politicians and can provoke a call to the military to re-establish order at all costs.

In Iraq, we don't have a domestic military, as it was disbanded in May. That makes the situation worse, because if this kind of mobilization did take place, the coalition forces would be responsible for restoring order. There's less mass mobilization than might have been expected so far. But if it were to occur, you'd have a prolonging of the American and British presence. I think people forget that even in post-war Austria, a relatively peaceful state, the U.S. occupation lasted 10 years. This could be a very, very long commitment in Iraq.

You've discussed American influence on the collapse of democracies in some South American countries. What do you think the United States' role in Iraq should be at this point?

Aside from making the reconstruction task a more multilateral effort, I think that the U.S. has to emphasize the democratizing aspects of its program. In recent Senate hearings, there was too much emphasis on new investment legislation in Iraq -- legislation that has now been passed. One of the first laws the appointed government passed says that foreign firms have unrestricted right to repatriate their profits and capital. This feeds the arguments of people who don't see this as a democratizing project but as a money-making project instead.

It would be much better if we emphasized that local council elections have been held throughout the country and that many actors are struggling, against the odds, to devolve power to Iraqis. That's the kind of thing that should be emphasized rather than contracts going to U.S. multinationals.

The other thing that should be happening more is creating ties with the Iraqi middle class. Iraq has a large and well-educated technocratic class. To not cement ties with them and with Iraqi entrepreneurs -- to not be giving reconstruction contracts directly to Iraqis -- is a big mistake.

Nationalism, in the cases I studied, was a really potent way to unify opposition to democracy. Nationalism cuts across class lines and ethnic lines. If we offend the nationalistic and patriotic proclivities of people in Iraq, we're making a tremendous mistake. And it need not happen. If this project really is about democracy, we need not offend national pride.

What is your next project?

I'm working on a book called "Democracy After the War." I've learned that half of all the democracies established since World War II that are still in place were established after a war. And that's good news in a way because it shows that the legacy of war isn't always negative. You can come out of a war and have a consolidated democracy. So I'm looking at the legacies of war, particularly in states where the U.S. had a role in the wartime experience. I'd like to finish it in time to have some impact on U.S. policy toward Iraq.


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