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Bermeo: Ordinary people in extraordinary times

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Bermeo. 2003. Ordinary people in extraordinary times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

This was an argument that really didn't impress me.


This chapter is just a lit review. She shows how people are sometimes described as great supporters of democracy, heroes against authoritarian elites. Other times, they are portrayed as dimwitted, ignorant, or harboring actual authoritarian tendencies, therefore actively or passively supporting dictatorship [wanting "order" more than "freedom"].


Usually, people are good. It's elites that overthrow democracy.

When we use (Sartori's) concepts of polarization, we need to be careful not to ignore these three things: (1) Party affiliation is sticky in the US, so it is probably sticky everywhere else [not persuasive]. So we shouldn't assume that people can rapidly be pushed by "centripetal" forces the way particles are. People's opinions don't change that quickly. (2) Polarization assumes that there is only one dimension of conflict, but there are often several--so it is false to assume that there are no cross-cutting cleavages [but couldn't one become particularly salient?]. (3) Just as democracy has many arenas, polarization does too. Often, if we think we see society polarizing, it is apparent but not real. Either we are assuming that a movement is much more popular than it is, or we are seeing the effect of expanding the franchise. Individuals probably are not changing their opinions, though, since these opinions are "sticky." In ch. 1, she calls this the difference between private and public polarization. If the "public" seems to be getting more polarized, that doesn't mean that individuals ("private") are also being polarized.

Bermeo claims that her approach solves several puzzles about the breakdown of democracy: timing, intensity, salience.

  • Timing: Why are breakdowns often clustered temporally and geographically? Cites Tarrow's idea about political opportunity structures. When a movement seizes the moment next door, your group is also likely to perceive an opportunity.
  • Intensity: Again, using Tarrow's idea that social movements require dense networks, she argues that variations in "civic density" explain variations in the intensity of antidemocratic movements.
  • Salience: "Why was it that public polarization was so often mistaken for the public will? Why was it that political elites so often failed to recognize ... the distinctions (and moderation) uncovered in our case studies?" Why aren't rulers all as smart as Bermeo? Because elites tried to read public opinion by looking at what movements were saying. They therefore make a false inference about shifts in public opinion (they assumed it was as intense/salient as the movement's opinion) and concluded that the movement was stronger than it was.

When democracy breaks down, it's all the elites fault. Even though citizens often passively allow dictators to rise to power, they shouldn't be faulted for this. Often, it's unclear to ordinary people what the rising dictator has in mind. Other times, they refrain from protest out of a purely rational calculation: their life is more important than their freedom, and they expect the protests to be put down violently. These two dynamics explain why, once elites liberalize a little, the masses (who now know how evil the elites are and who know perceive a chance to do something) will turn out in unexpectedly large numbers to protest.

DISTANCING CAPACITY: A somewhat opaque concept. To resist a rising anti-democratic force, existing parties must be strong in distancing capacity. They must be willing and able to distance themselves from violence and anti-democratic platforms. They have to have the political will to unite with competing parties to [undemocratically?] ban the rising undemocratic party. Bermeo doesn't spend nearly enough time explaininig where this distancing capacity comes from, only that you need it. She does say that parties have greater distancing capacity if they are (1) more hierarchical; (2) led by a charismatic leadership; and (3) have an ideology that puts democracy first, so that (e.g.) rightist parties would rather join with leftists to preserve democracy than join with fascists to effect right-wing goals.