What Can Demography Tell Us About the Advent of Democracy?April 28, 2014 By Elizabeth Leahy Madsen
Democracy is fickle. Many of the competing theories on the best ways to foment and consolidate plural, inclusive governance or predict its rise and fall focus on political and economic forces. Yet a small group of demographers have explored population age structure as a catalyst for and reflection of a host of changes in societies that can affect governance.Population age structure as a catalyst for and reflection of a host of changes in societies
Last year, London School of Economics and Political Science Professor Tim Dyson, an expert on the demographic transition, food security, and population dynamics in Asia, among other issues, published a new article assessing the relationship between demography and democracy. He joins Jack Goldstone (Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World) and Richard Cincotta (Stimson Center demographer and New Security Beat contributor) among the relatively few political demographers who have delved into the intersection between demography and political regime type.
The allure is powerful: Can a seemingly simple and relatively easily measured demographic indicator, like median age, tell us much of what we need to know about a country’s likelihood to become or maintain a democracy?
Three Mechanisms: Agency, Women’s Empowerment, and Adulthood
Noting the relative scarcity of accumulated literature in the field, Dyson aims to assess demographic factors that facilitate the advent of democracy, with a focus on historical trends. He argues that democracy is essentially impossible in the conditions of high mortality (early death) and morbidity (disease) that characterize human populations before they begin the demographic transition – the shift from high to low mortality and fertility rates which has occurred in most developed countries. No state has achieved democracy without some degree of mortality decline, he writes. Until then, individuals lack agency; they are too consumed with day-to-day survival to consider their political surroundings.No state has achieved democracy without some degree of mortality decline
When mortality rates decrease but fertility rates remain high – the early stages of the demographic transition – Dyson writes that autocratic governments are likely to face instability caused by rapid population growth. However, they are able to manage this tumultuous period – or at least, autocracy continues to prevail – until a period of comparative calm is ushered in through fertility decline and the resultant decrease in population growth as the demographic transition progresses. Relative social stability, combined with new pressures from a more politically engaged population, can then facilitate a democratic shift.
In addition to increased individual agency, Dyson proposes two mechanisms that promote a shift towards democracy in lower-fertility populations. First, women take on a more active and autonomous role in the labor force and society. He notes that fertility declines in the West occurred at approximately the same time that women were enfranchised (although this was still decades before they began to achieve anything close to parity with men in the labor force). Second, there is an age structural effect. Because there are relatively more adults compared to children, and adults have the interest and capacity to shape their political environment, there will simply be more people pressuring elites for political influence than when the age structure is dominated by children.
Measuring Historical Levels of Democracy
How is a society’s relative democracy or autocracy determined? Measuring democracy in this context is important, and there is no clear definition. Dyson adjusts a Finnish index, created by Tatu Vanhanen, to account for the proportional size of each country’s adult population (the original does not, skewing voter turnout rates in very young societies, where much of the population cannot vote).
The Vanhanen index is based on two variables: the competitiveness of secondary political parties and voter turnout. He describes this as “more objective” than the widely-used Polity IV dataset, which has six components and also addresses constraints on the authority of heads of state and how they are recruited. Although most countries with the highest index values in the Vanhanen dataset also receive the highest possible Polity score, there are some interesting variations. For example, the United States, which receives a the maximum score of 10 from Polity, is ranked 84th in the Vanhanen dataset, 14 positions below Venezuela and only 12 positions above Russia, likely because of low voting rates and only having two major political parties.Median age is significant as an explanatory variable for level of democracy
Dyson’s democracy scores show notable fluctuation across 5- and 10-year periods, even at higher levels of democracy. He suggests that while demographic change tends to be fairly linear and smooth, political changes are more irregular (for example, the rapid rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s). However, this irregularity may also be a reflection of the selected democracy measure and its inclusion of only two variables, both related to elections.
Dyson conducts several quantitative analyses, first comparing the democracy scores and median ages of Europe and the United States between 1850 and 2005. He finds a general rise in democracy along with median age that is supported by a statistically significant relationship. He also analyzes a broader cross-sectional dataset of 151 countries for the period between 1980 and 2005. Multiple regression shows that median age is significant as an explanatory variable for level of democracy and dramatically tamps down the significance of GDP per capita, suggesting that economic growth is not a primary motivator of democracy on its own.
How Useful Is This Theory Today?
Dyson’s article covers a lot of territory and raises many intriguing questions. Though much of the piece is focused on historical relationships, their implications may be especially relevant for democratic transitions in today’s high-fertility countries. There are some important differences, however.
The specific gender issues that Dyson discusses – labor force participation and suffrage – are generally more equal in today’s high-fertility countries than they were in the U.S. and Europe a century ago. Seven of the ten countries with the highest levels of female labor force participation relative to men – including the top four – are in sub-Saharan Africa, and have fertility rates between four and six children per woman, higher than the global average. Similarly, many high-fertility countries have achieved gender parity in school enrollment rates.
On the question of political participation, regional gender patterns are quite mixed, showing no straightforward association with fertility rates. High-fertility Mozambique and Senegal join five low-fertility Scandinavian countries in the top 10 for the percentage of women in Parliament. Meanwhile, the highest gender gaps in the ratios of professional workers are seen in countries with strong cultural and/or religious prescriptions against women’s activity outside the home, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, where fertility rates are quite varied. While gender inequalities are pervasive in many high-fertility countries, particularly around health, household decision-making, and gender-based violence, the specific pathways Dyson identifies through which women’s empowerment contributes to democracy may be less relevant in contemporary cases.
In addition, Dyson notes that some unexpected countries, such as Malawi and Mauritania, have higher democracy scores under the Vanhanen measure than others typically considered secure democracies, such as Canada and the United Kingdom. He suggests this reflects “external influence,” but this is not explored further.
Building On and Diverging From Previous Research
No political demographer, to my knowledge, suggests that population dynamics are the sole cause of political effects, nor would many policymakers take such an argument seriously. Rather than being triggers, demographic conditions are generally considered among several underlying factors that influence a country’s position on the spectrum of conflict vs. peace, autocracy vs. democracy, and so forth. But this means that constructing theoretical pathways linking demography to democracy, without oversimplifying, is no simple task.
Richard Cincotta on political demography and unrest in the Middle East
Here it is interesting to consider how Dyson’s theory aligns with and diverges from Richard Cincotta’s work. Both scholars consider why autocracy is so prevalent in the early and middle stages of the demographic transition and why regimes become vulnerable as fertility declines and age structures mature. To answer the latter question, both focus on the importance of a more stable political environment, which facilitates a populist push for democracy. Considering the former issue, Dyson does not really address the question of how autocratic regimes respond to the challenges and instability posed by a young and rapidly growing population. But since autocracy remains the norm until later in the demographic transition, autocratic regimes are presumably able to resist these challenges, unless they are continually toppled and replaced with new totalitarians.
On this important question, Cincotta argues that autocracies meet the challenge of population growth and can even consolidate their power by raising the specter of real or potential instability as a threat to generate submission. He suggests that influential elites make a conscious choice, a “Hobbesian bargain,” to side with the security of a dictator, leaving most people disempowered and economically struggling with no political traction.
There are always outliers in social science. Dyson points out many of the most high-profile contradictions to the theory that demographic maturity helps induce democracy, notably in low-fertility Communist countries stretching from Eastern Europe to East Asia, as well as Cuba. He suggests that governments and societies motivated by powerful ideological commitments can explain this. Cincotta adds that popular individual strongmen, such as Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin, have the clout to overcome demographic pressures. Cincotta also focuses on the sustainment of democracy, arguing that countries that enter democracy while still early in the demographic transition, such as Peru in the 1960s, Turkey in the 1970s, or Mali in the 2000s, are unlikely to maintain it over the long term.
The number of political demographers is small, and new contributors with fresh ideas are welcome. (Hannes Weber also recently published a significant article on the topic, not discussed here.) When communicating research findings to policymakers, whose attention spans are necessarily limited, the field faces some challenges. Because demography is one factor among many that shape politics, its predictive power remains limited, and the trends that are clear at the cross-national scale often abut caveats in individual cases.Political demography offers a new tool for understanding major changes in societies
In recent years, some countries that “should” be increasingly peaceful and democratic, based on their population profiles, have experienced regressions, such as Thailand. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has raised hopes for democracy in the relatively mature countries of North Africa – potential that Cincotta highlighted in 2008. But so far, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have not been able to consolidate representative, peaceful governance.
Politics is messy and context is everything. Political demography offers a new tool for understanding major changes in societies, but much of the field’s offerings to date have demonstrated general relationships. In the nuanced and fickle reality of governance, where events like the Arab Spring catch many observers off-guard, political demographers could build a stronger following by strengthening their theoretical underpinnings in order to more fully explain outliers and exceptions – and perhaps help us see the next democracy coming.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group.
Sources: Cincotta (2013, 2008), The DHS Program StatCompiler, Dyson (2013), Polity IV Project (2013), Vanhanen (2014), World Economic Forum (2013).
Photo Credit: Anti-government protests in Bangkok, November 2013, courtesy of Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP Photo (via flickr user Globovision); A pause during protests in Venezuela, April 2014, courtesy of flickr user Marco Hernández. Video: Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.