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Democracy without people:
Political institutions and citizenship in the New South Africa1

Robert Mattes

Prepared for Michigan State University-Afrobarometer Conference on Micro Foundations of African Politics, 12-13 May 2007

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In this paper, I take the first steps to developing a methodology to test institutional theories of democratization with a time series of public opinion data from the first decade of South Africa’s new democracy. South Africa is widely seen as one of, if not the paradigmatic success story of the Third Wave of Democracy. This success is just as widely attributed to the country’s supposedly wise choice of new democratic institutions that averted ethnic civil war and induced all key contenders to buy into the new democratic experiment (e.g. Klug, 200X; Sunstein, 200X; Gibson, 200X). But have South Africa’s new political institutions actually had the effects of generating increased public commitment to the new democracy that are often implied in institutional theory?

Scholars of democratization tend to explain the stability or consolidation of new democracies -- understood here as a very low probability of breakdown and reversal (Schedler, 1996) -- by reference to either of two quite different sets of factors. One school advances a demand led-theory of consolidation, focusing on public values and attitudes, or what Richard Rose and his colleagues (1998) call political “software.” Though they may vary in important ways in how they conceptualize and measure key variables, this school broadly argues that new democracies and their constituent institutions become consolidated only when they become “legitimated,” or when an overwhelming majority see democracy as the “only game in town” (Linz & Stepan, 1996). Put another way, new democracies require democrats (e.g. Almond & Verba, 1962; Diamond, 1998; Gibson, 199X & 2003; Bratton & Mattes, 200X; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005; Gunther, Torcal & Montero, 2006; Shin, Wells & Park, 2005).

From a completely opposing standpoint, another set of scholars argues that democrats are the result of stable and successfully functioning democratic institutions, not their cause. This school advances a supply-led theory of democratic consolidation that focuses on the “hardware” (Rose et al, 1998) of government. Political institutions can be seen either as sets of rules (North, 1990) or as the organizations that perform the work of government, such as legislatures, executives and courts, as well as security, regulatory and welfare agencies.

But -- to complete their analogy -- Rose and his colleagues (1998) have pointed out that any systems designer knows that it takes both hardware and software to make a system work. Thus, Bratton, Mattes & Gyimah-Boadi (2004) proposed an integrated, or demand and supply model of democratic consolidation. They argued that new democracies consolidate when a high proportion of citizens demand democracy, and also believe that they are receiving sufficient levels of democracy from their political regime, and when this condition obtains over time. The model uses public opinion data to measure demand but also to measure supply, not only as a proxy in lieu of good data on institutional development, but because subjective public perceptions of the supply of democracy ultimately matter more than expert ratings or objective indicators.

The framework I develop in this paper expands on this demand and supply model by widening the analytic lens beyond what citizens think about their political institutions and regime to also describe a given country’s institutional choices and subsequent institutional development in order to model how institutional dynamics affect citizen attitudes, and in turn, shape the overall direction of the democratization process. In other words, I use this integrated demand and supply model to develop a more specified explanation of how political institutions and public opinion interact and, in turn, develop a more sophisticated and empirically accurate model that can be used cross nationally to understand why some democracies endure and improve, and why some stagnate or decay.

  1. I would like to thank Amanda Lucey of the University of Cape Town and Joseph Tucker and Andrew Brooks of the National Endowment for Democracy for their assistance in the preparation of the data bank upon which this paper is based. I would also like to thank the National Endowment for Democracy and the Reagan-Fascell Fellowship for valuable support that supported initial research on this project. Finally, I would like to thank the following people for their helpful comments during earlier presentations of these arguments: Michael Bratton, Jeremy Seekings, Kahreen Tabeau, Richard Rose, Roland Rich, Shaheen Mozaffar, Michael McFaul, Peter Lewis, Hoon Jaung, Steve Finkel, Larry Diamond, Marianne Camerer and Michael Bratton.

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