Delegative vs. Liberal Democracy in Latin America

Nelson Manrique has touched a nerve with a recent column. The re-election of Correa and Chavez is a dilemma for analysts who have cast these leaders as autocrats, as was the re-election of Evo Morales and Cristina Kirchner. The so-called “bad leftists” – in Jorge Castaneda’s argot – have proven remarkably popular. Reactions have come from Steve Levitsky, Martin Tanaka, Eduardo Dargent, among others. I’m mentioned by Tanaka, so am inclined to add a few thoughts.

Perhaps Manrique should not have rested his case so heavily on survey data of attitudes toward democracy, since we all know that the same data showed the popularity of Fujimori in the 1990s. Democracy is not just a popularity contest. But there are deeper reason for the success of the governments whose democratic credentials have been questioned.

In the first place, they have, by and large, governed well. This is certainly true by comparison with the governments that immediately preceded them. Who can forget the chaos that followed de la Rua’s resignation in Argentina? Or the catastrophic impasse in Bolivia in the middle of the last decade? And does anyone seriously think that any of the leaders of Ecuador over the past 15 years can hold a candle to Correa? Or that Chavez has not governed as well as Caldera or Andres Perez? We forget that these countries went through serious crises before their current governments got them back on track.

And it is not just that they have restored a sense of order, a sense that a better future is possible. They have governed, in contrast to extraordinarily callous neoliberal governments that proceeded them, with a single-minded concern for showing results for the majority of the population. Call it clientelism or vote buying if you like, but they have all tried to redistribute wealth to the benefit of marginalized majorities.

And not just wealth, power too. They have also experimented with a remarkable new repertoire of participatory innovations, from community councils and participatory budgeting to indigenous autonomies and, of course, plebiscitary consultations. These institutionalized mechanisms of popular participation have given citizens a stake in the political order, and in some cases has empowered them in relation to the bureaucracy. I just finished an edited book on this subject, with Eric Hershberg, Ken Sharpe and a great group of scholars from around the hemisphere.

Not only have these governments experimented with new forms of democratic participation, they have largely avoided the kinds of widespread and systematic abuses of rights that characterized authoritarian governments of the past, including the Fujimori regime. It is a gross and ahistorical exaggeration to compare Chavez and Fujimori in these terms, to say nothing of Ecuador and Bolivia. It would also be a gross exaggeration to compare any of the elections that have been held in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, or Argentina with the Peruvian elections of 2000. Nor have any of these countries had an autogolpe. In every case constitutional reform has been pursued by electoral (albeit plebiscitary) means.

There is simply no valid reason to exclude these countries from the set of democratic regimes in the region. There is, however, reason to exclude them from the set of liberal democracies. And this is the nub of the dispute between Manrique and his critics. The problem with using liberalism as the normative base line is that implies that there is only one type of democratic regime. This blinds analysts to the reasons for the success of the delegative democracies we observe in the region today.

Liberalism is about checking the power of the state, but leaders like Chavez and Correa want the state to do things (redistribute wealth, for example), and that is why their followers support them. In Latin America, the tyranny of the majority has never been the central problem. It is the tyranny of powerful minorities – economically powerful groups, the media, the armed forces, and so forth – that prevents the social change demanded by majorities.

Similarly, liberalism offers a passive view of citizenship. Democracy is about voting. Between elections, citizens should be free to pursue their private interests. But the new participatory mechanisms in the region tap into a collective capacity for self-rule that exceeds the institutions of liberalism.

Let me be clear: I don’t like the way that power has been concentrated by the executive branch of government in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. I would like to see powerful legislatures and independent courts serve to represent and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens in these countries. But we have to start making the case for governing more democratically in terms that are more persuasive to the citizens in the region.

We can start by arguing that, in the long run, submissive legislature and politicized courts become obstacles to effective self-government. One of Guillermo O’Donnell’s great insights in his famous article on delegative democracy was that the ostensibly all-powerful delegative leader can quickly become impotent as the institutions of self-rule are eroded by the plebiscitary tendencies inherent in democracies in which mass participation exceeds the capacities of a lawful state. In a forthcoming book I argue that the separation of powers does not make states weak it makes them more powerful. It enhances overall state capacity by mobilizing resources in society for collective action to attain socially desired ends by legally legitimate means.

After all, the common denominator of each of the countries in question is that in none of them has the opposition been able to articulate an attractive alternative. Political scientists, manos a la obra! Our job is to imagine a wider range of possible democracies in which constitutionalism, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, and full and active participation are brought together in mutually reinforcing ways to make it possible to collectively achieve a better future for our children and our planet.

2 Replies to “Delegative vs. Liberal Democracy in Latin America”

  1. Thank you Max for this thought provoking article. I am very much looking forward to reading your book.

    Don’t hesitate to include me in your distribution list of what you write. Best regards,


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