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Dani Rodrik on the New Savage Democracies


We have all been taught that democracy is the great guarantor of individual liberties, minority rights and social egalitarianism. The voice of the people exists to curb the abuse of power. The voice of the people will prevent overreach by presidents, kings, and central governments. The voice of the people will prevent the exploitation of workers by management and insure the provision of a humanitarian standard of living for the poor. The voice of the people will prevent police brutality. It will halt the curbing of free speech, the suppression of religious liberty, and the repression of political opposition. The forum of freely expressed ideas will allow for the settlement of differences between groups by open negotiation. Democracy is the surest road to personal freedom, and the elimination of violent persecution in a society.    

The average reader will know the previous paragraph is a set-up. The beautiful crystal doll house is about to be smashed with a baseball bat. But the beautiful crystal doll house really does exist in societies. That happy triangle of democracy, civil liberties and some social egalitarianism is known as “liberal democracy”.  It exists in Britain, Continental Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and to some extent, the United States.  Of those societies, the United States is the only one with a legacy of slavery. Slavery and the racial stratification that was a byproduct of slavery produces some exceptions to the liberal democratic ideal – such as disenfranchisement and greater vulnerability to police violence. But substantial civil liberties and social welfare programs do exist in the United States – putting it in roughly the same class as liberal democracies in the rest of the world.


There were initial hopes that the rise of democracy in the poorer nations in the world – Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Southern Asia, and Africa – would have the same beneficent effect of producing civil liberties and social egalitarianism. There is now reason to be skeptical. A number of democracies are arising that can best be described as “illiberal”. These are marked by governments elected by one ethnic group or region with a mandate to violently suppress the economic and political rights of the remaining ethnic groups or regions. An obvious example is Iraq, where elected governments favor Sunnis or Shias. India’s current regime favors Hindus over Moslems. Many Eastern European democracies are elected on platforms of hostility to Roma or to immigrants. This list could easily be extended.   

Dani Rodrik, the brilliant Harvard development economist, laid out a lucid explanation in 2015 of why this is happening. More particularly, he considered why the older democracies tended to be genuinely liberal, while newer democracies in poor nations were showing more savage trends. His article in Studies in Comparative International Development “Is Liberal Democracy Feasible in Developing Countries” argued:    

1. It is remarkable that democracies provide any protection to minorities at all. Elites are mostly concerned about protecting their property rights and their privileges. The popular majorities that challenge these elites are interested in rights for themselves. Minorities, who by definition are small and weak, are generally incapable of negotiating privileges for themselves. The only exception might be if some fractionalization of the political scene into multiple competing groups made a minority group a key swing faction.  

2. Liberal democracies show up under two sets of constrained circumstances:

2a. When inter-elite fighting makes all members of the elite feel vulnerable to both material dispossession and actual physical assault. This motivates elite members to advocate “legal rights for all” as a protection against persecution in future political downturns.  

2b. When the country is ethnically homogenous, so that there is no minority that a majority could persecute for gain.   

Neither 2a. nor 2b. occur frequently today.     

Rodrik further argues that in Europe, civil liberties were often established BEFORE the establishment of democracy. Religious rights were the byproducts of the persecutions of Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. The truces between the warring groups and the formal granting of religious liberty were generally established by kings. (In a few cases, religious liberty was established by patrician ruling councils.) Property rights or the rights to a fair trial were established by nobles negotiating with kings. By the time democracy was established and the franchise was granted to common people as whole, civil liberties had been written into law and culturally institutionalized for over a century.

None of these conditions can be applied to Eastern Europe or the Global South. Many democratic governments had their origin in the throwing off of a foreign oppressor or a colonial overlord. Other democracies had their origin in ethnic civil wars where a dictatorship supporting one ethnic group was overthrown. Keeping political power often involves the inflammation of ethnic tensions, the restriction of political rights and the provision of government services to groups within the winning coalition.

Occasionally, democracies can arise when successful industrialization produces a strong working class. In South Korea and Taiwan, robust economic growth resulting from the development of successful export-oriented manufacture produced a powerful working class that could rise up and demand democracy. The working class was unified in its opposition to the bosses. There were no strong ethnic splits in those societies to distract from straight-up class conflict. Democracy in South Korea and Taiwan looks similar to democracy in Japan or Western Europe.   

Rodrik has reasonable doubts that the South Korean/Taiwanese experience will be replicated. The global success of the juggernaut that is the manufacturing sector of China has squeezed most of the rest of the developing world out of manufacture. Chinese dominance has forced most of the rest of the developing world into export agriculture (Brazil), export mining or petroleum production (Trinidad and Tobago) or services (Thailand). The prospects for rapid economic growth are more tenuous with manufacturing out of the picture. (Cohn comment: When these alt-industries work, as is occurring for example in Trinidad, liberal democracy is still feasible.)

So what happens if liberal democracy is not available to most of the Global South? Rodrik has some hope that some autocracies will move to protect economic and political rights for its citizens. He knows those hopes are limited. He cites positive actions taken by the military in Turkey and by the Communist party in China. He is fully aware of the social inequalities and political injustices that occur in both nations.  

The takeaway from this is that we should be very skeptical of the traditional American diplomatic approach of supporting democracy as a one-size-fits all solution to promoting human rights and economic growth in the rest of the world. The new democracies of the 2020’s and 2030’s may be nasty brutish affairs.

What should be done to promote civil liberties and human rights in the Global South?

More economic growth that can benefit everyone regardless of ethnicity.  

More attention to preventing the ecological despoliation of regions, leaving whole sub-populations with no recourse except turning to crime or warlordism.

More attention to preventing landlessness which by itself is a major spur to social conflict.

More attention to “schools of ethnic hatred” taught by educated elites who are unemployed or underemployed. 

None of these reforms are easy to implement.    

The bottom line – expect more ethnic violence, more persecutions and continuing waves of human rights abuses.  

Even in democratic countries.

For More Information

For a discussion of the other causes of ethnic conflict and Global South Violence, see my All Societies Die: How To Keep Hope Alive (Cornell, 2021) or the other essays on this website.

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