Civil Society vs. Elites in the Breakdown of Democracy


Nancy Bermeo, Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times. The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy
Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2003, 265 pp.

Pendulating in the political science literature between friend and foe when it comes to its relation with democracy, civil society – „reassembled from an array of partial identities and abstractions” – receives in Nancy Bermeo’s book a cross-national, cross- regional empirical examination with the purpose of establishing not only its degree of culpability when it comes to democratic break-down but also of indentifying the exact structures which might stand in the way of the breakdown .

Bermeo’s study is very compelling as she puts forward a very well documented comparative historical narrative that places the citizen under central and close examination, thus leading the reader through various stories, whose denouements offer, with three noteworthy exceptions out of the 17 case studies under scrutiny, an intriguing recurring theme of leadership failure.

The author’s central question – are ordinary citizens guilty for the break­down of democracy? – is met with an array of challenges that give the opportunity to re-examine in the first part of the book some of the most important scholarly literature on civil society’s role in regime breakdown and consolidation. Bermeo’s answer, that „democracies will only collapse if actors deliberately disassemble them and the key actors in this disassembling process are political elites”, uses as a platform for argumentation Sartori’s celebrated polarization thesis which states that „when political actors group themselves in opposite and distant ideological camps they vacate a middle ground where cooperation is most likely and democracy open to collapse”. Furthermore, by joining the ranks of anti-democratic forces, the suspect citizenry fills in the two poles of the political spectrum.

Sartori takes his cue from one of the two different perspectives on the issue of civil society and democratization, namely the one argued upon by John Stuart Mill, Proudhon, Beatrice Webb, Hirschman or O’Donnel, according to which the political wisdom of the ordinary citizen must be witnessed with suspicion as democracy may be harmed by an overly active society in which the citizen is „gifted” with the attributes of ignorance.

This challenge from the base contained by the polarization thesis is being evaluated by Nancy Bermeo with empirical evidence drawn from the relation between citizen action and regime breakdown in chronologically different settings. A first analysis is made by the author on interwar Europe, a historical period which has offered the literature on regime breakdown a type of story in which citizens are seen as incapable of handling their new formal rights and the economic scarcity, while leaders are overloaded with demands from a continuously active society. The story goes that in the end, due to an acute lack of political and economic satisfaction „citizens turn towards extremist parties and against democracy itself”.

By looking at popular support in interwar Europe for anti-democratic parties measured through political participation in movements, voting and strikes, the author concludes that there was only a small fraction of ordinary citizens petitioning for the extremes of the political spectrum. The event analysis gives some very interesting information as related to political participation. In what regards strikes for example, Bermeo states that it has been held as a common view that workers were on strike until the moment of regime collapse in the aftermath of WWI, the fact being, as revealed by this study, that although there was an increase in activity due to the expansion of trade-unions freedoms and an inspiration from the Bolshevik revolution, the number of individuals engaging in strike activity was generally decreasing in the years immediately prior to democratic collapse.

The conclusion for this first set of event-analysis is that in Italy, Germany, Greece, Romania and the Kingdome of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, anti-democratic leaders were simply handed power by individual decision-makers who had the option of granting power to someone else, and in the remaining cases democracies fell because of military assaults or executive coups.

This is the moment when Bermeo turns again to Sartori’s polarization thesis in order to see whether elites dismantled interwar democracies because ordinary people polarized. By refuting two of the three core components of the polarization thesis due do the fact that they are inappropriate to the realities of interwar Europe, and backing the remaining component which holds in most of the cases, as ruling parties where flanked by mutually exclusive opposition before democracies broke down, Bermeo concludes that defections from democracy took place among elites and not in popular will. Backing this view in the second part of the book with evidence from Chile, Brazil and Argentina and adding to the list a series of three successful cases of endurance at the threat of democratic collapse represented by Poland, Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, Bermeo offers a classic case scenario of regime breakdown and identifies with the help of the successful cases a key element that might be seen as the strength of the regime in the face of breakdown.

The understanding we have of de­mocratic collapse cannot in Bermeo’s view be drawn from the polarization thesis 100% and it is necessary to pay very close attention to how the process of polarization relates to the interests of the military in terms of effecting the latter’s perceptions. In this case polarization becomes a maneuverable element which if not played out correctly by civilian forces the military might step in as „defender of democracy”.

The key in blocking this type of scenario takes us back to the type of political institutions that best constrain the popular tendencies that work against democracies: parties. Strong political parties, as the literature on the subject suggests, control less desirable instincts. But it is not the strength of the party in its institutionalized form or in its popularity that hold back this malice instincts, but another type of strength that lacked in all but the three successful cases, and which is defined by Bermeo as distancing capacity, by this suggesting the strength to distance a party and its members from acts of violence and lawlessness because where major parties succeed in distancing themselves from violence, electoral democracy is much more likely to survive. The unification of the elite against extremism in Poland around what was called the Petka or The Castle Group, the signing of the Pact of Punto Fijo in 1958 in Venezuela by the country’s political elites for „cooperation in defense of the democratic system”, or Finland’s Lawfulness Front, a coalition of parties which immediately after its formation curtailed the ex­tremist Lapua movement, represent in Bermeo’s view examples of distances capacity through immediate action taken by political elites against the breakdown of democracy.

The almost judicial stance of „ordinary people vs. elites in the breakdown of democracy” and the introduction of a notion such as „distancing capacity”- a notion which implies from the begging a potential imbedded danger for democracy in the actions of the elites - offer to the reader of this study an image of positions of attachment to democracy as a regime, with the civil society almost constantly occupying a position of faith and the elites playing on that position of faith to engineer collapses.

Nancy Bermeo’s study represents a very accurate work of comparative politics with a political subject treated in a thorough historical manner and with original empirical evidence.

Chițac Mădălina Luciana
[The University of Bucharest]



CHIȚAC MĂDĂLINA LUCIANA – Drd. Universitatea din Bucureşti.




Sfera Politicii