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Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding

Magazine article
Authors Ellen Lust
David Waldner
Publisher Yale University
Place of publication Yale
Publication year 2015
Published at
Language en
Subject categories Political Science


Democratic backsliding is an unsettlingly common phenomenon. Too often, competitive elections are undermined, citizens lose their rights to mobilize or voice their demands, and governments become less accountable. That is, changes are made in formal political institutions and informal political practices that significantly reduce the capacity of citizens to make enforceable claims upon the government. These changes may not lead to the breakdown of democratic regimes—indeed, backsliding can occur in both democratic and authoritarian regimes—but they do degrade citizens’ rights and their engagement with the state. Yet, despite backsliding’s frequency and the attendant consequences for hundreds of millions of people, there is limited understanding of the phenomenon or its contributing factors. There are large and intellectually vital literatures regarding the definitions of democracy and autocracy, as well as the causes of democratic transitions, democratic consolidation, authoritarian resilience, and democratic breakdown. Of these, however, only democratic breakdown sheds light on processes of democratic backsliding, and it addresses only cases in which backsliding has led to a change from democracy to autocracy. Scholars have paid scant attention to defining and distinguishing modifications of regimes when they fall short of regime transitions. They have also undertaken few studies assessing determinants of backsliding, with much of the extant literature being highly particularistic accounts of individual cases or lightly theorized, large-n, empirical analyses of highly heterogeneous, and problematic, data.1 In short, we know very little about democratic backsliding. This white paper assesses the current state of knowledge on political change through a “Theory of Change” lens, paying particular attention to the processes of democratic backsliding. For development practitioners, a Theory of Change may best be understood as a “description of the logical causal relationships between multiple levels of conditions or interim results needed to achieve a long-term objective. It may be visualized as a road map of change and outlines pathways or steps to get from an initial set of conditions to a desired end result” (USAID, 2013, p. 9). Our goal in this paper is to summarize, evaluate, and derive lessons of theories of democratic backsliding, recognizing that these insights must often be inferred from broader theories of democratic transition, consolidation, and breakdown. We proceed as follows. Section I begins with a conceptualization of backsliding. Section II then assesses lessons learned from six theory “families,” or theoretical strands that have dominated the study of regime change. Given the emphasis the field has placed on democratization, this assessment focuses heavily on classic and exemplary works in the study of democratization, democratic consolidation, and breakdown, with lessons drawn from these dominant works to the study of backsliding. Finally, we conclude by drawing from lessons learned from the six theory families.

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