The Fate of Young Democracies

In This Review

The Fate of Young Democracies
By Ethan B. Kapstein and Nathan Converse
Cambridge University Press, 2008
216 pp. $29.99

The wave of democratization that occurred throughout the world beginning in the 1980s seems to have crested, and many young and fragile democracies in Latin America and Asia are in trouble. This tightly argued book asks the question, What determines when democratic transitions succeed or fail? The most widely accepted answer is that the fate of new democracies hinges on economic performance. But Kapstein and Converse argue that the design of political institutions is actually more important. Democratic transitions are more likely to last if the government provides institutional checks on the power of the executive, creating credible and legitimate public authority. The book is rich in statistical data derived from the tracking of new democracies since the 1960s, data finding that democratic transitions have been more durable in eastern Europe and Latin America than in East Asia and Africa. In the end, Kapstein and Converse do not disagree that the flow of material benefits to society is critical to the viability of democracy and that the persistence of poverty, inequality, and ethnic fragmentation increases the likelihood that democracies will fail. Their point is that accountable and limited government is a necessary condition for everything else. If politicians cannot establish themselves as legitimate leaders of the whole society, they will eventually fall back on clientelistic policies or engage in shortsighted economic policies that ruin the possibilities for sustained growth and development. The message to international aid groups and democracy promoters, then, is clear: focus on helping these fragile countries build strong parties and rule-based government.