Performance Legitimacy and its Consequences

“It takes six months to change a political regime, six years to change the economy and at least 60 years to change society.”

Ralf Dahrendorf, 1990

There are more than a dozen aspects of democratic consolidation that may experience a reverse turn if circumstances change for the worse. Some of them hard and quantifiable (legislative and economic framework, institutions). Others however, belong to the soft aspects of consolidation. Almond and Verba call them values and attitudes, Fukuyama political culture, and Dahrendorf refers to it as the above mentioned sixty-year necessary to change a society.

“The underlying conditions of societies around the world point to a more complicated reality. The bad news is that it is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Although the outlook is never hopeless, democracy is most likely to emerge and survive when certain social and cultural conditions are in place.” (INGLEHART – WELZEL 2005)

I have previously researched the political/institutional and the economic aspects of the consolidation of democracies. Both papers (NOVA 2011; NOVA 2011a) concluded that the insufficiency of institutional and economic change becomes apparent during economic downturns.

The general attitude quickly reverses into the old thought patterns or fear, uncertainty, apathy, paternalism, scapegoating, mystical thinking and mistrust. The sense of helplessness leads to inaction and a profound need to justify it. Social capital is eroded in a vicious cycle and so does resistance to populism and authoritarian tendencies.

Whether a democracy can be considered consolidated depends primarily on the definitions we adopt (NOVA 2011).[1] When their legitimacy is primarily based on economic performance, their deconsolidation will be a consequence of a recession.

Ever since the Second World War warfare has gradually ceased to be the major performance indicator in the Western world. Effective defence of territory against foreign invasion and population against domestic or foreign aggression has gradually been replaced by economic (and welfare) success as the primary source of performance legitimacy.

It has not been so for Communist countries until much later. As Linz and Stepan observed the transition from post-totalitarian systems creates, in a sense, more fragile democracies because legitimacy of the old regime has already been based on (primarily economic) performance rather than some utopian ideology. (See the case of Hungary’s “premature welfare state” from the 1970s). The resulting new democracy must face these inflated economic expectations while political rights are almost secondary. (LINZ-STEPAN 1996:295).

The emergence of the welfare state has coincided with the second and indeed the third waves of democratisation. It is thus hard to tell whether the legitimacy of the regimes arises from political rights or economic performance in the form of welfare provision. As a consequence, the population may have greater tolerance for the limitations of their civil liberties than that of their social benefits and welfare, and the economic troubles of the welfare states can erode the credibility of democracy by association.[1] This lends relevance to understanding the underlying sentiment and attempt to soften the backlash.

“Few relations between social, economic and political phenomena are stronger than that between the level of economic development and the existence of democratic politics.” (HUNTINGTON 1991:21)

Lipset warns against such crude determinism. A certain level of wealth (the size of the middle class, better and widely accessible education) is indeed a prerequisite for democracy, but does not necessarily make it happen. (LIPSET 1959) Reversely, democracy may be a “luxury” or meta-need (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) that will be put aside as long as more pressing needs are not served – but not necessarily so.

It is arguably not a certain level of wealth that creates demand for democracy but rather the presence of economic growth. The electorate will thus punish a democratic government for stagnation as opposed to relative poverty. (FERGUSON 2001:364) It may turn an economic downturn into disillusionment with democracy in general – especially in cases where the “sixty years” have not yet passed since democratic transition.

But democracy does not exclusively depend on the state of the economy, and economic weakness does not translate directly into the impossibility of democracy. But the correlation points at something important.

Whatever makes voters receptive to populist, extremist or authoritarian tendencies is the elephant in the room. Once we understand the reasons, we will be closer to the understanding when a democracy is consolidated.

The absence of social capital allows authoritarian overgrowth. Broadly speaking, it is the absence of horizontal bonds between people, which, in turn, is due to old, authoritarian habits and thinking patterns cumulating into political behaviour. The absence of a strong society, and the presence of learned helplessness and moral relativism invite authoritarianism and state capture.

At the core of these coping mechanisms stand the thinking patterns and habits of a society, the directions that social thinking takes, what is expected, accepted and what is frowned upon. These thinking patterns have been subtly influenced by the time spent under oppressive regimes. Coping mechanisms that developed against these regimes linger long after transition – and attract a political and economic elites that capitalise on it.[1]

The absence of social capital – broadly speaking – has much to answer for when it comes to the unobstructed spread of extremism and populism. It has also done a lot for eroding and hallowing out the rule of law, the independent institutions and the idea of checks and balances and government accountability.

Political attitudes are results of habits. Clusters of behaviour, triggered by certain cues that have been adapted as coping mechanism to a certain political environment. They are hard to change, not least because they are automatic and a result of a mental model – developed with the very purpose of justifying that behaviour. They are also a product of social thinking and peer pressure.

The science of habit formation may have the answer to the broad question of shaping political attitudes. Using the science of habit formation and the evidence from cognitive psychology, one can attempt to find inflection points and new cues for habit change, such as the trust in one’s own competence and the role of humour in authoritarian regimes.

(This chapter is a work in progress.)


[1] “…the two most decisive factors affecting the future consolidation and expansion of democracy will be economic development and political leadership. …Economic development makes democracy possible, political leadership makes it real.” (HUNTINGTON 1991:24) The political market, however, is driven by supply as much by demand. Elite conversions rarely come out of nowhere and citizens rarely demand an alternative that is not on offer. Similarly, it is important to note that the same mind set and attitudes that causes ‘parentalism’ (Buchanan, 2005) cause paternalism in the elites.

[1] According to Huntington there are two major alternatives to democracy in the post-communist world. One is the Islamist alternative. The other, much more potential alternative is what he called the “Asian authoritarianism”. (HUNTINGTON 1996:10-11)

[1] Various definitions of democracy exist – ranging from mere electoral democracy to a more complex liberal democracy (see MILL 1859; LIPSET 1959; DIAMOND 1999; HUNTINGTON 1996; SCHMITTER 2010). The same is the case with democratic consolidation (for definitions see PRZEWORSKI 1991; PLATTNER 1998; SCHEDLER 1998; LINZ-STEPAN 1996; ZAKARIA 1997).


(Image: Freedom from Want (also known as The Thanksgiving Picture) by American artist Norman Rockwell, 1943)


3 thoughts on “Performance Legitimacy and its Consequences

  1. Pingback: About the Project | Dare To Be Free

  2. Pingback: How oppressive regimes rob their victims of their sense of agency 1. Terror-bonding | How To Make People Want To Be Free

  3. Pingback: Exit, Voice, or Stockholm Syndrome | How To Make People Want To Be Free

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