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Professors examine Latin American democratization in new book

| Thursday, December 4, 2014

The book “Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival and Fall,” co-authored by Scott Mainwaring, professor of comparative politics, and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburg and Notre Dame graduate, recently won two major book awards in the area of comparative politics: the American Political Science Association’s Comparative Democratization Section’s 2014 Best Book Award and the Donna Lee Van Cott Book award for the year’s best book in the Latin American Studies Association’s Political Institutions Section.

“You spend years and years working on these things,” Mainwaring said. “I’m still sure that some people will read the book and just hate it because it takes on a lot of established literature. It’s a book that invites controversy. So the awards tell me that even if six million people turn out to hate it, at least a few people liked it.”

Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán began with the purpose of explaining the major waves of regime change that have swept Latin America, Mainwaring said, but he and Pérez-Liñán soon came to realize they had an opportunity to make an important theoretical contribution to discussions of democracy and dictatorships.

“We want to question the way that we currently study political regimes,” Mainwaring said. “We make a strong argument that you have to look at political actors or the people that really have the power in a country.

“You can’t deduce what actors prefer just from their structural location. You can’t assume that the wealthy always support dictatorship and the poor always support democracy. These are misleading simplifications.”

Mainwaring said what makes the book unique is its application of a hybrid model that uses quantitative scales to analyze political actors.

“Most works on democracies and dictatorships use statistical analysis, looking at structural analysis variables such as how wealthy a country or income inequality,” Mainwaring said. “These are things that you can just pull off of a shelf and run regressions on. But where are the actors? They’ve disappeared.”

“Every qualitative analysis of political regimes looks at actors, so there was a weird disjuncture in the literature between qualitative and quantitative approaches,” he said. “We tried to bridge that gap in the literature.”

Mainwaring said they coded the actors on two different aspects, which both relate to the actor’s beliefs.

“The first is whether or not they value democracy or a dictatorship on intrinsic grounds,” Mainwaring said. “Our argument is that some organized actors favor certain regimes that are contrary to what would necessarily benefit them the most. We call this measurement normative preference.”

“The second variable is a measurement of how radical these actors are, on a scale to from moderate to radical,” he said. “The argument for democracies is that radicalism makes it harder for a democracy to survive, but it doesn’t have an effect on a dictatorship.”

“Radical oppositions can help undermine dictatorships and bring about a democracy, but they can also have a countervailing effect,” Mainwaring said. “If there is a radical guerrilla group in my country and I’m a dictator, I may dig in more in order to maintain control.”

Mainwaring said their model is not that different in concept from established literature; rather, it is in the way they have conducted their analysis that makes the model unique.

“The thing that no one articulates is that when anyone writes a history or a political analysis, you always make decisions about who the key actors are, we just systematized these decisions in a dichotomous way,” he said.

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