Michael Bernhard - Communist Legacies and Democratic Survival

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 12 pm
Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies Lecture

"Communist Legacies and Democratic Survival: Liability or Advantage?," with Michael Bernhard, professor, Department of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University. [In January 2009, Professor Bernhard became the Raymond and Miriam Ehrlich Eminent Scholar Chair in the University of Florida's Department of Political Science.]

Sponsored by the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, Center for European Studies-European Union Center, Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Michael Berhnard

Abstract

Much of the literature on the legacy of communism for democracy focuses on negative behavioral factors, e.g., the "Leninist" legacy, "weak" civil society. Others have pointed to geographic proximity to the West and the resource curse as the sources of differences in postcommunist democratic performance. At the same time, aspects of the communist experience, the attainment of relatively high levels of development and socio-economic equality, would seem to be advantages from the perspective of the literature that studies democratic survival. Given the recent movement of many postcommunist states to and from electoral authoritarianism and democracy, the existing literature does not capture what allows postcommunist countries to sustain democracy. Here, using a survival framework, we look at whether the disadvantages posited by the literature on postcommunist democratic performance are in part off-set by the levels of modernity attained by these societies under communism. We test whether a communist legacy is a positive or negative factor in the survival of democracies and which factors promote survival in postcommunist states. (co-authored with Timothy Nordstrom)

Michael Bernhard's curriculum vitae and web resources

Listen to the lecture here.

Discussion Summary

Professor Bernhard's expected, and controversial, findings inspired discussion and ideas for refining his analysis and considering its practical implications. Central to this discussion was the classification of post-communist, and post-Soviet, societies themselves, and whether one might instead examine that Leninist legacy by number of years, and in more subtle comparison to other forms of one party, or authoritarian states across the world. As well, the surprising finding--that being a net energy exporter does not appear to have an independent effect on the likelihood of democracy's breakdown--found several alternative explanations seeking to both preserve, and revise, the resource curse thesis. Linked to this, the audience raised questions about how one might identify, and then measure, the effects of different kinds of economic development and foreign direct investment on democracy's survival. In practical terms, based on this research and other studies, Professor Bernhard cannot say that variations in democracy's institutional design matters; by contrast, if he were to give advice to any who supported democracy's survival, he would emphasize the importance of figuring ways to keep inequality in check and assure basic welfare. That too might be linked to the question of keeping extremism at bay, and assuring that turns toward fascism and Naziism in mid-20th century don't find their 21st century approximations.

Summary prepared by Michael D. Kennedy, WCED Director

Additional Resources

Walter Wasacz, Communist Legacies and Democratic Survival (Polish Times, November 5, 2008)