Political Science Democratic Consolidation
Yana Gorokhovskaia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0224


A democracy becomes consolidated—that is, it is expected to endure—when political actors accept the legitimacy of democracy and no actor seeks to act outside democratic institutions for both normative and self-interested reasons. In other words, democracy is consolidated when, to use a common phrase, it is “the only game in town.” This definition of consolidation, based on the attitudinal and behavioral characteristics of political actors, is simultaneously intuitive and problematic. On one the hand, when democracy becomes routinized, institutionalized, and normalized, acting outside or in violation of democratic norms is both unappealing and disadvantageous for politicians and other political actors. On the other hand, equating consolidation with endurance may strike some scholars and students as a descriptive tautology; consolidated democracies are those that survive, and surviving democracies are those that are consolidated. The way in which to measure and define consolidation, therefore, is debated by scholars in the field. Time is an especially important component of many empirical works that seek to explain regime endurance. Paradoxically, however, long-lasting democracies do not seem to be immune from a degradation in the quality of their democracy. Inspired by the recent rise of populist parties and candidates in some of the world’s oldest democracies, scholars have turned to studying the reasons for democratic rollback and deconsolidation. Although democratic consolidation can be the endpoint of democratization, it is important to understand that these two processes are generally driven by different factors (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on political science “Democratization”). This article focuses on the institutional, economic, social, and international causes of democratic consolidation as distinct from democratization. For example, although there is no consensus on whether economic growth and prospects for democratization are positively linked, scholars generally agree that economic growth contributes to democratic consolidation. Meanwhile, the role of civil society is as ambiguous in consolidation as it is in democratization. This article concludes with an overview of literature on deconsolidation, which challenges the notion that democratic consolidation is irreversible.

General Overviews

Just as many different types of authoritarian regimes and paths of transition exist, so do many roads to consolidation. Some of the authors cited in this section view democratic consolidation as a gradual process of overcoming the problems left by the previous authoritarian regime. Others argue that consolidation is the result of deliberate choices made by political actors. Although some authors are comfortable identifying a single endpoint of consolidation, others urge scholars and students to be wary of claims about what consolidation must include to be considered “complete.” In their important work, Linz and Stepan 1996 popularize the phrase “the only game in town” to describe democratic consolidation and outline how the history of a specific forms of authoritarianism might pose unique problems for consolidation. Linz and Stepan provide a good introduction to the different components of consolidation, which they refer to as the five reinforcing “arenas” of consolidation: political institutions, the economy, rule of law, a usable bureaucracy and civil society. Schedler 1998 also conceptualizes democratic consolidation as a process influenced by prior conditions and argues that the tasks and goals of consolidation will be affected by each country’s unique starting point. Although Diamond 1999 rejects theories that privilege preconditions the success of consolidation, he also suggests that consolidation may take many different paths. Schmitter and Karl 1991 echoes this view and further stresses that consolidated democracies will not be able, nor should be expected, to solve all sociopolitical problems. On the other hand, Huntington 1993 not only demarcates the end of a transition using the “two-turnover” test but also posits that economic prosperity, a peaceful transition, and previous experience with democracy are all preconditions for successful consolidation. O’Donnell 1996 also challenges the view that consolidation can only take one path. He pushes this argument further by proposing that imperfect democracies that are not fully and formally institutionalized can also endure. O’Donnell’s view is critiqued in Gunther, et al. 1996, which argues that certain sociopolitical practices can prevent and undo consolidation. Moving away from arguments about preconditions, Alexander 2002 presents a theory of consolidation based on the strategic choices of political elites. Schedler 2001 and Munck and Verkuilen 2002 discuss issues related to the conceptualization of democracy and the measurement of consolidation.

  • Alexander, Gerard. The Sources of Democratic Consolidation. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2002.

    Premised on the idea that beliefs about political outcomes generated by a regime are important in determining whether democracy is consolidated, the author takes a rational-choice approach to examine the strategy of elite actors on the right side of the political spectrum in five European states. Although he acknowledges that individual choices are conditioned by context-specific issues, Alexander makes the argument that elites must choose democracy and often do so for self-interested reasons.

  • Diamond, Larry J. Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

    Diamond rejects theories of democratization and consolidation that emphasize preconditions, instead arguing for a “development” perspective in which democracies emerge at different rates and in different forms. Consolidation of new democracies requires strong political institutions, horizontal as well as vertical accountability, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society, and improved economic performance, which all generate legitimacy for the regime.

  • Gunther, Richard, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, and Hans-Jürgen Puhle. “O’Donnell’s ‘Illusions’: A Rejoinder.” Journal of Democracy 7.4 (1996): 151–159.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.1996.0066

    The authors respond to the critique by O’Donnell 1996 of the concept of democratic consolidation as teleological and overlooking informal and particularistic practices that are compatible with democratic survival. Instead, the authors suggest that consolidation is a process of stabilization, routinization, and institutionalization of patterns of political behavior. In the long run, informal practices, such as clientelism, are indeed antithetical to democratic survival.

  • Huntington, Samuel. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

    This book coins the term “third wave” to describe the transitions from nondemocracy to democracy in thirty-five countries during the 1970s and 1980s. Huntington argues that a reversal of transition is less likely and consolidation of democracy is more likely to take place in more economically developed states that transitioned peacefully and early in the wave, have previous experience with democracy, and have the support of international actors.

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

    Linz and Stepan offer an intuitive definition of consolidation—a democracy is consolidated when no political actors seek to overthrow it. Consolidation requires the existence of a functional state and presence of five reinforcing arenas: a free civil society, an autonomous political society, the rule of law, a bureaucracy, and an economic society in which institutions and regulations mediate the relationship between the market and the state.

  • Munck, Gerardo L., and Jay Verkuilen. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy: Evaluating Alternative Indices.” Comparative Political Studies 35.1 (2002): 5–34.

    This article offers a systemic assessment existing data sets of democracy used in large-N analysis and evaluates three challenges that researchers face in their construction: conceptualization, measurement, and aggregation.

  • O’Donnell, Guillermo. “Illusions about Consolidation.” Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996): 34–51.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.1996.0034

    O’Donnell challenges theories of consolidation that use institutionalized polyarchies as their benchmark. Instead, he suggests that if consolidation is determined by whether a democracy will endure, then typologies of polyarchy must include informally institutionalized democracies—those in which actors act for particularistic rather than universalistic reasons. These imperfect democracies can endure despite the lack of a close fit between formal rules and political behavior.

  • Schedler, Andreas. “What Is Democratic Consolidation?” Journal of Democracy 9.2 (1998): 91–107.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.1998.0030

    Schedler tackles the expanding field of definitions of democratic consolidation. He proposes that scholars use the definition most appropriate to their starting point: authoritarianism, electoral democracy, liberal democracy, and advanced democracy. This will in turn define the practical tasks as well as appropriate “normative horizons” associated with consolidation: preventing democratic breakdown, preventing democratic erosion, completing democracy, and deepening democracy.

  • Schedler, Andreas. “Measuring Democratic Consolidation.” Studies in Comparative International Development 36.1 (2001): 66–92.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02687585

    If consolidation is complete when a democracy is likely to endure, then observable measures of endurance are needed. Schedler suggests that behavioral evidence is superior to attitudinal and economic evidence because it is more proximate to the phenomenon of interest: regime stability. This leads the author to a somewhat self-evident conclusion that democracies endure when political actors behave democratically. He supports this conclusion with evidence of crisis management in Latin America.

  • Schmitter, Philippe C., and Terry Lynn Karl. “What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2.3 (1991): 75–88.

    DOI: 10.1353/jod.1991.0033

    The authors outline an intentionally broad understanding of what democracy is by focusing on its conceptual definition, procedures, and institutions, as well as its underlying principles not enshrined elsewhere, such as contingent consent and bounded uncertainty. They point out that democracies may take many forms and will not necessarily be better at solving various socioeconomic problems.

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