Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




Democratization in America

A Comparative-Historical Analysis


Edited by Desmond King, Robert C. Lieberman, Gretchen Ritter & Laurence Whitehead


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

Paperback. viii-337 pp. ISBN 978-0-8018-9325-4. $26.00


Reviewed by Michael L. Krenn

Appalachian State University, Boone, NC




For many citizens of the United States, the terms “America” and “democracy” are virtually synonymous, inseparable, and signifiers of a political experiment that has been, on the whole, successful and unique in the world’s history. Even as other democratic governments have been proclaimed in other nations in the 235 years since the American colonists declared their independence, those “imitators” have generally been found wanting—pale and often unstable copies of the original. This is not to say, of course, that debates about the character of American democracy have not developed over the years. Some commentators view American democracy as a nearly religious experience, put in place by divine providence and given a mission to proselytize among the often unwilling and always ungrateful peoples of the world. On the other end of the political spectrum, critics charge that “democracy” is a rhetorical device used to cloak the reality of an American nation controlled by a small handful of capitalists and their lackeys. As the editors of the wonderfully thoughtful and insightful collection of essays in Democratization in America: A Comparative-Historical Analysis note, throughout much of the discussion and dissection of the issue of democracy in America two conclusions have remained remarkably consistent: that American democracy is a unique political manifestation among the world’s nations and that it has undergone little if any change since its fully developed implementation over two centuries ago. Desmond King and associates go a long way toward suggesting much more complicated, intriguing, and ultimately meaningful methods of interpreting and understanding democracy in America.

The deconstruction of the typical interpretations of democracy and how it has functioned in America begins with the wonderful introductory essay by King and one of his co-editors, Robert Lieberman. They challenge the notion that democracy came upon America fully realized and incorporated into a single document, the Constitution. Instead, it is best to understand the “incompleteness of American democracy” [3] and America as a nation that has had to “undergo a process of democratization” [8]. They conclude that “democratization is not…an inevitable or unified process” [8]. In fact, democratization in the United States has recently come under a number of assaults, particularly in terms of the debate over voting rights, the rights of illegal immigrants, and efforts to undermine much of the civil rights legislation from the 1960s. In an attempt to get a better grip on the issue of democracy in America, the two authors suggest that it might be most useful to bring together what have heretofore been relatively distinct fields of inquiry: comparative democratization and American political development. The former field has traditionally focused on nations that evolved from non-democratic backgrounds (dictatorships, colonial regimes, and so forth), but has now begun to see some interesting points of contact with the American democratic experience. The latter field is moving away from the view that American democracy is unique and virtually unchanging throughout the years. New and important questions—what factors promote or hinder democratization; has the state’s role been to hinder or enable democratization; what were the “galvanizing factors or events that decisively shifted the democratization path of the United States” [26]—have now come to the forefront of the scholarly debates.

The chapters that follow this provocative introduction generally do an admirable job of remaining on task, following through with the issues raised by King and Lieberman while fleshing them out with more specific examples. Guillermo O’Donnell and Laurence Whitehead push forward the comparative angle in their co-written essay, with the former arguing that—as with some nations in Latin America—the United States has certain “brown areas”: local and regional enclaves where national democratic forces are barely present. This, O’Donnell argues, explains why “primordial, ultraconservative ideologies full of moralistic tones win political victories from time to time” in America [33]. Whitehead takes a somewhat different tack, branding the United States as an “immanent” democracy: “a regime so confident of its inherently democratic status that external comparison can be treated as superfluous” [36]. There are problems with that status, however. The United States, according to the author, did not begin as a true democracy, with the Constitution full of undemocratic tendencies. And there are other claimants to the title of immanent democracy: Canada, Australia, Finland, Costa Rica, and the list goes on. Therefore, Whitehead concludes, “The experience of democracy in the United States is too important to be compartmentalized and only celebrated as a unique national achievement” [55]. In a following essay, Whitehead uses the example of the interesting U.S. relationship with Puerto Rico to again argue against the idea of America as an immanent democracy through an analysis that shows that such a relationship is not exceptional among the world’s nations.

Other authors use the lens of ethnicity (Francisco E. González), gender (Gretchen Ritter), and race (Stephen Tuck, Tali Mendelberg, Daniel Kryder, and Leiberman) to explore the tensions and contradictions present in the American democratic order. González argues that the immense Latino immigration into America reveals several interesting points, including how “democracy” has meant different things for different Latino immigrants (Mexicans and Cubans, for example) and how current U.S. laws have forced an increasingly large number of illegal immigrants to live in “legal limbo” [95]. For women, Ritter illustrates, the granting of democratic rights has been a stop and start process since society has always viewed women as having specific roles to play in creating a well-ordered and stable society. In some cases, those roles clash with the notion of greater democratic privileges. And finally, the experience of African-Americans has been perhaps the most painful and sometimes violent reminder that democratic rights can be denied, granted, contested, and even reversed. As Tuck pointedly notes, “there is no inherent reason to assume that the process of democratization will inexorably progress” [156].

Two concluding essays point toward new avenues for investigation. Suzanne Mettler suggests that looking at the very essence of participation in a democracy—citizenship—deserves a closer look. The state, by attempting to grant more inclusiveness in the democratic society to one group may, in fact, lead to further exclusion of another. For example, the GI Bill passed in the post-World War II period sought to democratize the nation’s higher education system by allowing millions of men the opportunity to seek a college degree. As well-meaning as this may have been, it resulted in an “increased gap between men and women” since women made up a minute part of the nation’s armed forces [243]. Whitehead, King, and Ritter vigorously argue for more comparative analyses of American democracy. Acknowledging that there are indeed unique features of the democratic experience in the United States, the authors suggest that a focus on those experiences, institutions, and events shared with other democratic nations will provide a more valuable intellectual exercise.

Taken together, the contributions to this important collection maintain a consistent and clear focus, asking significant questions about democracy in America and pointing out other areas for investigation. The interpretation of American democracy as an on-going process (and one that has not always consistently or logically moved toward greater democracy) and the emphasis on not only the differences, but also the similarities, between democratization in the United States and elsewhere around the globe are themes that make this necessary and thought-provoking reading for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as scholars in the fields of political science, history, and comparative international relations.

While the volume accomplishes many of the goals it sets out for itself, it does tend to fall a bit short in dealing with the comparative aspects of American democracy. There are tantalizing suggestions sprinkled throughout many of the essays that the United States shares important similarities with other democracies. However, this line of thinking is never developed in any sufficient depth by any of the authors. Of course, the purpose of this collection as stated by the editors was to point out possible avenues for further investigation. Nevertheless, the book never quite fulfills the “comparative” aspect of its historical analysis.

In closing, I should make mention of the fact that one significant—albeit perhaps unintentional—contribution made by this fascinating collection of essays is to bridge the gap between scholars in history and political science. (Only one of the contributors—Tuck—is trained as an historian.) As many of my colleagues in history would agree, reading political science studies would be low on their list of priorities. To be sure, frustratingly obtuse jargon and over-simplified historical analyses sometimes make their way into these essays. What is most revealing, however, is the way in which nearly every author combines their own expertise in government, political science, and political theory with what are often sophisticated historical methods of investigation to explore the important issue of democratization in America. In decrying the “compartmentalization” of American democracy, hopefully these authors have also contributed to breaking down the disciplinary walls behind which too many of our colleagues take refuge.



Cercles © 2011
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.