The Medieval Roots of Democracy
By Jørgen Møller
Journal of Democracy, Volume 26, Number 3 (2015)
Abstract: A point of consensus in the so-called “sequencing debate” is that in Europe state-building preceded the development of political accountability, eventually in the form of democratization, by centuries. This is arguably a misrepresentation of the European sequence. Strong institutions of constraints were an integrated part of the political regime form when large-scale state-building began following the sixteenth-century military revolution. European state-builders were therefore checked by countervailing political power but were also able to channel authority through existing institutions. A comparison with Russia shows that it was on this basis that both the modern state and modern democracy emerged and took root in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Introduction: Must state-building happen before democratization can go forward? Do many developing countries therefore need to wait for the state to become stronger and more functional, and only then broach the question of how to become democratic? Or are state-building and democratization mutually reinforcing and hence suited to advance in tandem? Could it even be the case that tackling democratization first will make state-building easier later on?
These questions have been hotly contested as part of the so-called sequencing debate. A number of scholars have argued that state-building and liberal constitutionalism must precede electoral democratization if democracy is to achieve stability and deepening. On this basis, some experts have warned against the pitfalls of “premature democratization,” “out-of-sequence” transitions, and doing “democratization backwards.” Critics have retorted that, since communism fell, all countries have faced potent and widespread democratic expectations that cannot be put off with rhetoric alleging the prudence of delay. Moreover, scholars have argued that there exists no inherent tension between state-building and democratization, while the same cannot be said of autocracy with its fear that strong impersonal rules and bureaucratic institutions will hamper the exercise of authoritarian power.