Historical Social Research

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John Higley & Michael G. Burton, The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions
and Breakdowns [1989]

Stable democratic regimes depend heavily on the “consensual unity” of national elites. So long as elites remain disunified, political regimes are unstable, a condition which makes democratic transitions and democratic breakdowns merely temporary oscillations in the forms unstable regimes take. Disunity appears to be the generic condition of national elites, and disunity strongly tends to persist regardless of socioeconomic development and other changes in mass populations. The consensually unified elites that are necessary to stable democracies are created in only a few ways, two of the most important of which involve distinctive elite transformations. After elaborating this argument, we examine the relationship between elites and regimes in Western nation-states since they began to consolidate after 1500. We show that our approach makes good sense of the Western political record, that it does much to clarify prospects for stable democracies in developing societies today, and that it makes the increasingly elite-centered analysis of democratic transitions and breakdowns more systematic.