Economic History

The Roots of Democratisation

Théophile POUGET-ABADIE, (2016), London School of Economics and Political Sciences, Msc Economic History.

After the fall of the Soviet Bloc, “Modernization Theory”[1], as theorized by Seymour Martin Lipset in a 1959 article2, made an impressive comeback in the United States. Indeed, American politicians clamored that democracy, in tandem with economic development, was an irresistible force coming to all, and even China. However, 15 years after Clinton’s declaration, China still is not a democracy, at least not by Western standards[2].

First of all, we must define the terms. According to the United Nations, democratization is the process which leads to more open, more participatory and less authoritarian societies3. Thus, it can be a full transition from an autocracy to a democracy, or a partial transition. This transition can be consolidated, or reversed, as in the case of Germany in the 20th century. Economic roots can mean different things: either that economic development and democratization are positively correlated, or that economic crisis and conditions like rampant inequality create conditions for democratization. In the case of the three major European powers of the past 500 years, democratization seems to have taken very different paths. To illustrate this, I have quickly charted out the scores from the Polity IV datasets that these three countries obtain from 1800 to 2014, and included the United States for comparison.

Thus, France and Germany seemed to have undergone more erratic process of democratization, and seemingly uncoordinated to economic development. Are economic conditions the sole drivers of democratization? Is the process as smooth and linear as modernization theory makes it out to be? Has the process changed over time, or are the different waves of democratization unique?

We begin with a broad historical overview of democratization in the three countries over the two centuries, and we find that there are different lessons pertinent to our question to be drawn from each case. Building on these lessons, we will sketch the main drivers of democratization in a second part. Finally, we build a revised, and more moderate version of “Modernization Theory” that we will attempt to apply to our three case studies.

Part 1: England, France and Germany – three paths to democracy

England was the first modern state to undergo democracy during the 18th and 19th century. In their book on the origins of democracy, Acemoglu and Robinson describe democratization in England as a gradual, consolidated process4. Parliaments were first created as forums for the aristocracy to discuss tax and policies with the King, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 started the transition by handing most powers over to Parliament. Reforms during the 19th century (most notably in 1832, 1867 and 1884) extended the franchise to citizens, mainly to avoid social unrest according to the authors. Although some authors point to the Glorious Revolution as a major cause of the Industrial Revolution[3], England was already undergoing economic changes which seem to drive this democratization process. For example, Barrington Moore Jr. points to the commercialization of agriculture, the rise of trade and capitalism as the main driving force behind the Glorious Revolution5. Here, development seems to be a driving force. This thesis can be complemented by Robert Allen’s recent work on the high wages and the impact of trade in pre-industrial and, more importantly for our question, pre-democratic England6. As industrialization spreads and the middle and working classes gain more economic power, the elites have an incentive to enfranchise them. So the main lessons from the English experience is that economic development seems to be the main driving force behind democratization in England. Here, democratization is a gradual process of legitimate institutional reform. The case of England also raises the question of culture, and as discussed in Moore’s work, that the British seemed to have a stronger culture of peaceful negotiation.

France, however, underwent a much more erratic democratic process over the 18th and 19th century. Przeworski, who refuted “Modernization Theory”, argues that the transition from autocracy to democracy is random7. The experience of France during the period seems to prove him right. The French Revolution in 1789 officially set France on the path to democracy, but quickly degenerated into an oligarchic rule under “La Terreur” and eventually gave way to the first Napoleonic Empire. The Empire itself was replaced by a monarchy in 1815 after having been crushed by a European coalition, and the monarchy hesitated between English-style constitutionalism and absolutism. The fact that Charles X chose the latter precipitated the downfall of the Empire in favor of a Second Republic which was too unstable and gave way to a second Napoleonic Empire. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 in which France was dealt a heavy defeat, the 3rd Republic was born, and lasted until the Second World War. One can easily see how overwhelmed French schoolchildren are in history class when learning about the 19th century. So France has a history of internal and external shocks which led to rapid regime changes. And yet, during this period, France underwent a period of strong economic development, with the rise of a middle class. Moore argues that it was the same factors (commercialization, trade, capitalism) that led to the French Revolution, but in a different social and political environment. He points to the example of the Vendée which fought for the preservation of the monarchy from 1793 to 1796. Crucially, this region was one of the most economically backwards regions of France at the time. Thus, the main takeaways from the French example are that the relationship between economic development and democracy is not linear, and that external shocks and crises play a critical role.

Finally, Germany seems to be a textbook counterexample of “Modernization Theory”, in the sense that economic growth seems to take place in the complete absence of democratization. Indeed, in the 19th century, Germany became the leading continental European power, eventually catching up to and overtaking the United Kingdom in some sectors such as heavy industry. And yet, it was ruled by an autocratic leader who disregarded democracy. As a federation, Prussia was the most powerful state and the least democratic by far. And Germany was dominated by an archaic autocratic military class, of noble Prussian lineage. What’s more, Germany paid all the costs of autocracy, in Mancur Olson’s sense8. They paid the price of an aggressive foreign policy of challenging Britain on the seas and France in the colonies, in order to “make its place under the Sun”. And, again drawing on Mancur Olson’s work[4], when democracy was established in Germany, it was driven by external powers after World War I and World War II. This is the classical view on 18th-19th century Germany. On democratization, the Japanese experience seems to be very close to Germany’s. However, Sheri Berman argues that democratization was indeed taking place in Germany at the time9. Quoting Margaret Andersen, Germans were in effect “practicing democracy”10. The Reichstag was elected by democratic means and it had certain control over the Chancellor. Germans were very active politically, as testified by the circulation of pamphlets, voting turnouts and para-political organizations. By some measures, Germany was actually more democratic than the United Kingdom, which typically calls into question how Polity IV measures democracy. However, the German example shows clearly that the process is reversible.

To conclude this survey of the three paths of democratization, there are three main underlying drivers which seem to conduct the democratization process: economic development (although not always in a linear form), the power of ideas and culture, and a certain type of social infrastructure which enables democracy to consolidate. This is what we look at in the second part.

Part 2: Democratization is a process driven by a multitude of factors

To begin with, it remains clear in the three examples that economic development is a necessary condition for democratization, but not sufficient. In effect, Barro has shown the positive correlation over time between economic development and democracy: the propensity for democracy rises with per capita GDP11. This would confirm the Lipset hypothesis: prosperity stimulates democracy as urbanization, industrialization, wealth and education are closely interrelated and produce democracy. Moore, as we have seen, clearly points to the rise of capitalism as a primary factor in France and the United Kingdom. Berman shows that the wealthier the middle class became in Germany, the more educated and assertive it became. One could also argue, along the lines of Ha-Joon Chang, that economic growth enables the consolidation of democracy in three ways12: it creates a stronger demand for democratic institutions which credibly respect private property rights (something autocracies cannot fully do), it gives these societies the means to pay for these institutions, and it creates new agents of change. I believe this last point is key. There is no unique path to economic development. But when it comes with greater income equality, this creates a strong incentive for democracy. This what Daron Acemoglu argued on British society prior to the Glorious Revolution: a relatively equal society, in which the elites did not have too much to lose. Carles Boix argues that development leads to democratization when income becomes more equally distributed13. Indeed, equality means that the redistributive schemes of democratization would deprive the elites of far less income than in highly unequal societies. So democratization is not so much the result of a rise in GDP per capita, but a rise in income equality that comes with development[5]. This is why South Africa failed to become a strong and stable democracy: the elites had too much to lose over the 20th century. In the case of France and Germany, these new agents of change were constrained by entrenched interest groups like the military and the nobility.

However, economic development is not sufficient. France and Germany did have important middle classes through industrialization. What are other factors that come into play? One set of factors could be cultural and ideological. Inglehart and Welzel argue that democratization is only achieved through cultural change, when societies embrace the values of freedom of expression, gender equality and so on14. Barro did show in the same study that gender equality and democratization are positively correlated. But closer to our examples, Moore argued that the feudal systems that France and England inherited did promote certain values important to democracy, which are a certain idea of the rule of law, and the legitimacy of power. Germany, as it has been shown most notably by Niall Ferguson15, had a very strong militarist culture which could have hindered the development of full democracy. This notion of culture can also be tied in to economic development: the more equal your society becomes, the more the elites can even psychologically consider giving over public office to “commoners”[6]. Ernest Griffith went so far as to argue that Christianity was the primary cause of democracy. Another point that we could develop here is the power of ideas, as extensively studied by Dani Rodrick16. Sometimes, economic or political crises will lead to democratization because of an opportunity for testing out democracy. But to test out democracy, you need to have some political and philosophical background. England, France and eventually Germany were achieving or building up to democracy because they had very influential political thinkers that were broadening the “political possibility frontier”: Rousseau and Montesquieu in France, Mill in England or Kant in Germany. One could argue that East Asian elites do not have the same intellectual heritage and thus are less inclined to democracy.

Finally, a third set of drivers to democratization are the social structures and institutions of society. In the case of Germany reversing its democratization process, Samuel Huntington wrote that societies with highly active and mobilized publics that lack strong institutions to channel and respond to demands often find themselves on paths to instability, disorder and violence. France, for example, had very unstable institutions in the 3rd and 4th Republic, with weak coalitions. The German federal system enabled individual States to pursue democratic reforms, but the Federal Central Government in itself had very limited power, and so the Reichstag could not push its democratic agenda to the fullest. On the other hand, the Glorious Revolution in England and the Parliamentary system provided a framework of credible commitment which enabled the consolidation of democracy. On another note, schooling has often been pointed to as an important prerequisite to democratization and economic growth, most notably by Easterlin17. Acemoglu argues that democratization can only happen when there is a strong civil society which can credibly threaten the autocratic elites of revolution, as in the case of France where the Third Estate came together to challenge royal power. Finally, social structures are also important: in societies dominated by landowning classes, democratization is more difficult, as in the case of Argentina for example.

To conclude this second part, we have seen how democratization does have economic roots, but only when economic development leads to greater equality, and when it is combined with other factors such as a shift in cultural values, the introduction of new political ideas and different types of social structures. This leads to a revised version of “Modernization Theory”, which helps us to understand the different democratic processes in the different waves.

Part 3: A revised version of “Modernization Theory” – democratization as a multi-stage process

To begin with, democratization is not a linear process. The case of France and Germany illuminate this point, and England seems to be the exception more than the rule. Berman argues that there are two stages: in the first stage, structural developments are necessary to create an environment which is favorable to democracy. But to achieve full democracy in a second stage, you need powerful and determined local actors who are willing to lead the way. Otherwise, authoritarian regimes persist. To phrase it differently, there are consolidation and deconsolidation forces along the way.  For example, shocks and crises can provide opportunities for democratization, as in the case of the defeat to Prussia in France. Similarly, that same military victory led Bismarck to redesign German institutions, inadvertently giving the Reichstag more power. But they can also reverse democracy, as in the case of the Great Depression in Germany paving the way for the Nazi party.

Secondly, democratization is a self-reinforcing process. Indeed, as democratization builds on economic development and cultural shifts, it promotes more income redistribution, more primary schooling and induces further democratization. Max Weber described a loaded dice process in which, every time the dice lands on a certain number, that number becomes more loaded18. Democratization works like this, by created conditions that support its own consolidation. In the same line of thinking, Mancur Olson argued that long term economic growth and democracy have the same conditions. Also, to a certain extent, it can be path-dependent. The French Revolution left deep scars on French society and its ability to find a democratic compromise, which fed instability over the course of the 19th century. Also, democracy as an ad-hoc process, and without these different factors that we have mentioned, without Berman’s conducive environment, is bound to fail. More recently, the examples of the United States bringing democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan speaks to this point.

Finally, democratization is never an automatic process. As we have seen with England, France, and Germany, it depends on the concurrence of a multitude of factors. Only certain economic developments and cultural shifts produce democratization. For example, Barro showed how countries who are highly dependent on natural resources as a source of income do not tend to democratize. This is clear in the Middle East[7]. In the case of Germany, it took four years of total destruction and reconstruction, with a purge of the elites following the war, to finally achieve lasting and durable democracy. Although counterfactually, one could argue that the Weimar Republic in itself could have survived had the Great Depression not happened. So, democratization is not automatic because it is dependent on certain internal drivers as well sensitive to external forces.


                  To briefly conclude, it was evident from the beginning that the three European powers took very different paths to democratization. We argue here that democratization does have economic roots, but only a certain type of economic development, as well as cultural and ideational shifts can produce full democracy, if the structures of society enable these new agents of change to push through and consolidate political reform. Thus, we have seen that the path to democracy is not linear, as it is subject to setbacks and goes through different stages. It is also a self-reinforcing process, but never automatic as reversals can happen. So here, we argue in favor of a more moderate version of modernization theory: although democratization is not automatic, it is not possible for a simple authoritarian regime to maintain control over an increasingly economically developed society over the long run.


Clinton, W. (2000). “Letter from the president to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate”. White House Press Office

Lipset, S.M. (1959). “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy”. The American Political Science Review

BoutrosBoutros, G. (1996). “An Agenda for Democratization”. United Nations General Assembly document

Acemoglu, D. &Robinson, J. (2005). Chapter 2. Economic origins of dictatorship and democracy

Moore, B. (1966). Chapters 1 & 2. Social origins of dictatorship and democracy

Allen, R. (2011). “Why the industrial revolution was British: commerce, induced invention, and the scientific revolution”. The Economic History Review

Przeworski, A. & Alvarez, M. & Cheibub, J.A. & Limongi, F. (2000). “Democracy and Development; Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990”. Cambridge University Press

Olson, M. (1993). “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development”. The American Political Science Review

Berman, S. (2001). “Modernization in Historical Perspective: The Case of Imperial Germany”. The Johns Hopkins University Press

Anderson, M. (2000). “Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany”. Princeton University Press

Barro, R. (1999). “Determinants of Democracy”. Journal of Political Economy

Chang, H-J. (2011). “Institutions and economic development: theory, policy and history”. Journal of Institutional Economics

Boix, C. & Stokes, S. (2003). “Endogenous Democratization”. World Politics

Inglehart, R. & Welzel, C. (2009). “How Development Leads to Democracy: What We Know About Modernization”. Foreign Affairs

Ferguson, N. (1994). “Public Finance and National Security: The Domestic Origins of the First World War Revisited”. Oxford University Press

Rodrik, R. (2014). “When Ideas Trump Interests: Preferences, Worldviews, and Policy Innovations”. Journal of Economic Perspectives

Easterlin, R. (1981). “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed?”. The Journal of Economic History

Max Weber, (1949). “The Methodology of the Social Sciences”. The Free Press

[1] Modernization Theory, broadly defined, argues that economic development drives democratization: the wealthier, more industrialized, and urbanized a State is, the more likely it is to go through a democratic transition.

[2] According to the Polity IV dataset, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most democratic, China received a score of 0 for 2014.

[3] New Institutional Economics School, with its accent on institutions as driving economic growth, come to mind.

[4] Mancur Olson argues that the two main sources of transition from autocracy to democracy are either when a democracy defeats an autocratic power and demands a change in regime, or when the groups who have overthrown the dictator are too disperse for one of them to establish a dictatorship on their own.

[5] Another example which comes to mind would be Botswana, which has a relatively equal society and democracy.

[6] This is a point made by Lipset in the same article that I have been quoting.

[7] The only countries in the Middle East with functioning democracies have actually very little natural resources: mainly, Tunisia

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