Theories of Democratic Change (2016)

Phase 1: Theories of Democratic Backsliding

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Principal Investigators:

  • Ellen Lust, Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Yale University, Project on Middle East Democracy
  • David Waldner, Political Science, University of Virginia

Democratic backsliding is a challenge USAID faces worldwide, in many contexts. Degradation in the quality, functioning, and experience of democracy and democratic rights negatively affects international development goals, in all sectors. The continued decline in democratic governance around the world raises new questions about how DRG practitioners and scholars understand and confront backsliding. Is backsliding simply democratization in reverse? What makes countries vulnerable to backsliding? Which democratic practices and institutions are most at risk? How can DRG programs respond to or mitigate closing political space?

Through a research grant funded by USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (the DRG Center), under the Democracy Fellows and Grants Program, a research team from Yale University and the University of Virginia worked with the DRG Center to organize and evaluate the body of current academic theory that can contribute to understanding how and why a governance system that had been democratizing would shift instead toward greater authoritarianism. The publication was further informed and vetted in two peer review workshops by a group of democratization scholars from Cornell University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, Oxford University, Princeton University, and the University of Illinois.

The document introduces the concept of democratic backsliding, and presents a theory matrix that gives a snapshot of the academic theories relevant to backsliding, organized into six theory families. The publication then presents a deeper background on each of the theories and the theory families, and guides the reader through the process of selecting and organizing the theories. It concludes with four appendices—the first two focused on definitions, the third on the criteria used to evaluate the theories, and the fourth on three case studies in which the theories are applied.

Overall, this research concludes that although democratic backsliding is a common experience faced by USAID, it is not clearly defined in academic literature. In summarizing, evaluating, and deriving lessons for practitioners from academic theories of democratic backsliding, the researchers often inferred insights from broader theories of democratic transition, consolidation, and breakdown. In doing so, the team determined that backsliding is best conceived as a change in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability, and that backsliding occurs through a series of discrete changes in the rules and informal procedures that shape those elections, rights, and accountability. These discrete changes take place over time, separated by months or even years, and the end result is not pre-determined: backsliding may result in democratic breakdown, or it may not, and can occur within both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Regardless of whether these changes ultimately, or eventually, lead to regime change, they do degrade citizens’ rights and their engagement with the state, and both have widespread repercussions for USAID’s work.