Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy

Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy

Smith, W Rand

Nancy Bermeo, Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times: The Citizenry and the Breakdown of Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. Figures, tables, index, 265 pp.; hardcover $60, paperback $19.95.

Every five or ten years, the field of comparative politics is graced by the appearance of a big book. Such a book has several traits. It addresses a central and enduring question in the field, typically one that “travels” beyond a particular area or region and encompasses a range of cross-regional cases. It addresses this central question by systematically evaluating all relevant arguments and debates, and in so doing, presents compelling evidence, including quantitative and qualitative data from both original and secondary sources. Most important, a big book causes us to rethink the question in a new way; to see things differently. In the best of cases, it is also lucidly organized and clearly, even gracefully, written.

This is such a book. It should be read by every comparativist, not just Latin American scholars, for it illuminates one of the central questions of the field: Under what conditions does democracy break down? That 4 of Bermeo’s central cases are South American gives this book particular interest for readers of this journal; however, the book’s scope is broader, embracing a total of 17 European and Latin American cases from throughout the twentieth century. The author seeks to assess perhaps the most influential argument in the “breakdown of democracy” literature: Sartori’s polarization thesis. Sartori argues that democracies crumble when antisystem parties of both the left and the right gain strength at the expense of centrist, prosystem parties. In such situations, which are often prompted by economic crises, there is “the likely prevalence of centrifugal drives over centripetal ones, . . . the enfeeblement of the center [and] a persistent loss of votes to one of the extreme ends (or even to both)” (Sartori 1976, 132-34, quoted in Bermeo, 19).

The real culprits, in Sartori’s view, are the masses of average citizens who become, in crisis moments, the “masons of polarization” (Bermeo’s term), who “use their votes, one by one, to create distant and uncooperative political blocks” (Bermeo, 5). Sartori’s perspective belongs to a long tradition of what one might call the “fickle masses” view. This tradition links, among others, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Proudhon, Lipset, and Huntington, all of whom view ordinary people as being susceptible to radical appeals in moments of economic or political crisis. Lacking accurate information, strong political party affiliations, or organizational ties, ordinary people, in this view, can become disoriented in crisis situations and thus “available” for mobilization by elites of the extreme left and right. In Bermeo’s phrase summarizing this perspective, “If citizens experience severe material scarcities in new democracies, they don’t just get mad, they go mad” (21).

Bermeo takes issue with this “blame the masses” view. Her basic argument can be summarized roughly as follows (to paraphrase a famous writer): the fault (for democratic breakdown) lies not in ordinary people but in our elites, that they are inept, power-hungry, and ignorant of public opinion. In almost all her cases in which democratic breakdown leads to dictatorship, the essential dynamic is not that of voters deserting centrist, prosystem parties, but of elite polarization; namely, divisions among leaders in the military, government, and interest groups. Even in the relatively rare instances of growing support for extremist parties-Nazi Germany being the notable example-polarization does not stem from vote switching as much as from the expansion of the vote to new groups and the mobilization of nonvoters. Bermeo concludes, “Those who have attributed the breakdown of democracy to popular defections have mistaken changes in the composition of the electorate for changes of mind and heart” (5).

Bermeo thus recognizes that polarization is a crucial component of democratic breakdown, but she contests the dominant view that party polarization based on volatile voters is the driving force. She convincingly establishes this argument by first distinguishing two types of polarization: public and private. The former refers to manifestations of political division that occur in public spaces, such as strikes, demonstrations, and riots. Private polarization, by contrast, refers to changes in voting preferences and public opinion. Using this distinction, Bermeo finds that almost all her cases fall into one of two categories: either there is no significant polarization in either public or private space, or there is polarization in public space alone. In both types of cases, the primary cause of democracy’s collapse is the actions of parliamentary and military leaders; the vast mass of the population continues to support prodemocratic parties.

How does this argument apply to the four South American cases? In Brazil, the months leading up to the March 1964 military coup witnessed much public polarization, a process of “pendular mobilization” in which left-wing and then right-wing activists sought to mobilize almost all sectors of society, including peasants, workers, and university students. But these actors, Bermeo convincingly demonstrates, were not representative of Brazilian society as a whole. Deploying an impressive array of survey and other quantitative data, the author establishes that ordinary Brazilians, including rank-and-file unionists and most peasants and students, were not becoming radicalized and moving either left or right; instead, they remained moderate and supportive of democracy. The breakdown of Brazilian democracy was caused mainly by elites who, in effect, “misread” the signals coming from extensive public polarization as reflecting great private polarization, which in reality did not exist. A generally similar dynamic characterized Uruguay’s democratic collapse in 1973 and Argentina’s in 1976.

Of the four South American cases, Chile is the closest to the Sartori paradigm of a polarizing, centrifugal party system, but even here Bermeo finds that the polarization model falls short. For example, although there was a certain electoral polarization in the late 1960s-with increases in support for left parties (Socialists and Communists) and the main right party (National Party), along with a drop in the centrist Christian Democrats’ vote-the process did not follow the classic model. Electoral polarization occurred before the performance failures of the Allende government, and thus polarization did not result from economic crisis, as the model posits. Moreover, the shifts in party vote noted above did not stem from changing party loyalties on the part of average citizens, but instead from new electoral laws that extended the franchise to new groups. Bermeo’s painstaking reexamination of voting patterns both before and during Allende’s presidency clearly establishes that the standard polarization thesis does not fit the Chilean reality. She concludes, “What stands out as we sift through the historical evidence is the resilience of the political center, the stability of political identities, and the longevity of democratic discourse” (139).

For Bermeo, the process of democratic collapse is too complex to be captured by the classic polarization model. Political conflict takes place in several dimensions (thus transcending a bipolar left-right division) and in multiple arenas, including political society, civil society, economic society, the rule of law, and the state apparatus (see Linz and Stepan 1996). How, then, can one explain this process? In the final chapter, Bermeo offers an alternative based on social movement theory that seeks the cause in the “ignorance of elites,” as the chapter title suggests. A key dynamic in many of her cases is that preexisting groups in civil society transform themselves into social movements and then drive a process of public polarization in the form of strikes, demonstrations, and the like. Such actions create a distorted picture of society for political and military leaders, who mistake these actions to represent public opinion in general and abort the democratic system in the name of restoring order.

As with any book of this breadth, country specialists may take issue with the author’s interpretation of specific cases. Neo-Marxian critics may find that the book slights a class perspective. But these are quibbles compared with the large achievement of this book. Ambitious theoretical scope, exhaustive research, nimble synthesis of scholarly literatures ranging from voting behavior to resource-mobilization theory, systematic assessment of multiple sources of evidence, ancl elegant exposition: Nancy Bermeo has indeed written a big book.


Linz, Juan J., and Alfred Stepan. 1996. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1976. Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

W. Rand Smith

Lake Forest College

Copyright Latin American Politics and Society Fall 2004

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