Thomas Carothers, “The end of the transition paradigm” Journal of Democracy 13 (2002), pp. 5-21.

‘Main Argument: Looking at democratic countries in the “third wave” of transitions to democracy, Carothers debunks the five core assumptions of the transition paradigm. He argues that the reality of the transition paradigm is no longer conforming to the model, and in its stead proposes that countries that have yet to successfully transition end up in the political “grey zone” where they are subject to feckless pluralism or dominant power politics.


Method: Carothers examines a previously existing framework for transition and compares it with empirical political evaluations. However, I would not say that he uses a formal method as his “existing framework” appears to be an accumulation of various assumptions that he has drawn together from disparate sources.


Important Insight: The concept of the political “grey zone” is particularly useful in the sense that it points out that transition is neither a linear process, nor is it unidirectional.



== Notes ==


Shared a dominant characteristic—simultaneous movement in at least several countries in each region away from dictatorial rule toward more liberal and often more democratic governance


The reality of the transition paradigm is no longer conforming to the model


Five core assumptions of the transition paradigm –> reality


  1. Any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition toward

Democracy –> misleading – some of those countries have hardly democratized at all (14)


  1. Democratization tends to unfold in a set sequence of stages: opening, breakthrough, consolidation –> but the assumed sequence of stages of democratization are defied by the record of experience (15) & component processes of consolidation almost never conform to the technocraticideal of rational sequences (16)


  1. The belief in the determinative importance of elections –> in transitional countries,” reasonably regular, genuine elections are held but political participation beyond voting remains shallow and governmental accountability is weak


  1. The underlying conditions in transitional countries—their economic level, political history, institutional legacies, ethnic make-up, sociocultural traditions, or other “structural” features— will not be major factors in either the onset or the outcome of the transition process –> a contrary reality—the fact that various structural conditions clearly weigh heavily in shaping political outcomes—has been working its way back in


  1. The democratic transitions making up the third wave are being built on coherent, functioning states –> state-building has been a much larger and more problematic issue than originally envisaged in the transition paradigm


** all assumed that democracy-building and state-building would be mutually reinforcing endeavours


–  Most of the “transitional countries,” however, are neither dictatorial nor clearly headed toward democracy –> the political “gray zone”

–  They have some attributes of democratic political life: limited political space for opposition parties and independent civil society, as well as regular elections and democratic constitutions

–  But they still suffer from serious democratic deficits, often including poor representation of citizens’ interests, low levels of political participation beyond voting, frequent abuse of the law by government officials, elections of uncertain legitimacy, very low levels of public confidence in state institutions, and persistently poor institutional performance by the state


Two broad political syndromes can be seen to be common in the gray zone:

–  Feckless Pluralism: significant amounts of political freedom, regular elections, and alternation of power between genuinely different political groupings but politics is widely seen as a stale, corrupt, elite-dominated domain that delivers little good to the country and commands equally little respect


–  Dominant Power Politics: have limited but still real political space, some political contestation by opposition groups, and at least most of the basic institutional forms of democracy –> 1 group dominant

–  The state tends to be as weak and poorly performing in dominant-power countries as in feckless-pluralist countries, though the problem is often a bureaucracy decaying under the stagnancy of de facto one party rule rather than the disorganized

–  Produces large-scale corruption and crony capitalism (12)


* Both feckless pluralism and dominant-power politics have some stability. Once in them, countries do not move out of them easily


Getting around these problems:

–  Where feckless pluralism reigns, this means giving concentrated attention to two interrelated issues: how to improve the variety and quality of the main political actors in the society and how to begin to bridge the gulf between the citizenry and the formal political system (19)

–  In dominant-power systems, democracy promoters should devote significant attention to the challenge of helping to encourage the growth of alternative centers of power



Critique: Carothers states that both feckless pluralism and dominant-power politics have some stability, as in once in them, countries do not move out of them easily (13). This is sort of an odd description of stability – though these countries may encounter an institutional stasis of sorts, I’d be hesitant to equate that in any respect with “stability”. It also implies that there is a normative assumption around the concept of stability – and that it is only associated with democracy. As Carothers points out (indirectly), this may not be true.