My “Introduction to Comparative Politics” class (POLI 130) is a course about democracy. I start off the course by looking at theories and typologies of regime type: democracies, dictatorships, and hybrid democracies and illiberal democracies that display characteristics of both democracies and dictatorships. I then move to an analysis of democratic transitions in the developing world. When, how, and why do dictatorships transition to democracies? We discuss how transitions are a time of great uncertainty and flux. Those in power may find themselves as outsiders in the new regime, while those previously blocked from power could end up as leaders of a new democracy.
I follow this theoretical discussion with two case studies. The first is a study of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship and the installation of democracy in the early 80s. The second case study is of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multiparty and multiethnic democracy in the early 90s. Along the way, I take a detailed look at the human rights abuses perpetrated by both regimes and the efforts at transitional justice taken up by the young democracies.
The class is currently in the fourth unit of the course, which focuses on democratic institutions. We’ve looked at how some democracies are designed to give the majority in society the right to make decisions for the rest of society (“majoritarian democracy”), while others are designed to encourage consensus and minority buy-in (“consensus democracy”). Here, I’ve used the case of the UK to illustrate how a classically majoritarian democracy has adopted several characteristics of consensus democracy in recent years.
Kevin Brondum, the GRC for this course, has been a great help for the research component of this course. Each of the students has selected a “partly-free” country from anywhere in the world that they will use for the whole research project. They must classify the regime as democratic or authoritarian and, identify current challenges to democracy (first paper), and design an appropriate democratic regime (second paper). The centerpiece of the project is a series of group presentations at the end of the semester. I have organized the students into groups by world region (Africa, Latin America, etc.) and their task will be to compare and contrast their cases and explain what lessons can be learned from their efforts at democratic design across the region. I’m excited to see the projects unfold!
At this stage in the semester, students are completing and handing in their first papers. Paula and I shared the work of advising them as they wrote. The assignment for the first paper was to classify a country of the student’s choosing as authoritarian or democratic, majoritarian or consensual. Comparative Politics is concerned with domestic politics in all countries of the world, and students have chosen to write about countries on almost every continent. Of course, Paula and I aren’t experts on the politics of every country in every world region. Paula specializes in Subsaharan Africa, I specialize in Eurasia, and we have complementary background knowledge about different countries in the Americas. During the research process for this paper, Paula and I have shared the work of advising students on their research based on these specialties. If a student asked me for advice in writing a paper about Zambia or Chile, for example, I would help the student to the best of my ability but encourage her to talk to Paula as well.
To write this paper, the students have to identify problems preventing the establishment of a full, functioning liberal democracy in their chosen country. When they write about democracy, what students usually find most challenging is to assess whether the institutions that a country establishes on paper are actually working in practice. Many have difficulty understanding why legal provisions for elections, parties, and a system of checks and balances are not enough to guarantee a strong and lasting democracy. The most important task for Paula and me, therefore, has been to suggest sources that are more likely to show how open political participation, competition, and the recognition of civil liberties are failing in their countries despite constitutional guarantees. We usually start by referring them to reports by organizations whose goal is to assess democratic practices or observance of human rights, like Freedom House, Polity, or Human Rights Watch. However, to discourage them from simply regurgitating these organizations’ conclusions, we tell them to incorporate information from recent news, and require them to evaluate the quality of democracy in their country with reference to Arend Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy and other theoretical readings from the syllabus.
Ultimately, as students start preparing their presentations in groups, our goal is to have them compare countries, synthesizing their knowledge with other students’ and applying the theories they have learned more broadly.