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Will the West become the East?

By Sean L Hanley, on 23 January 2014

Toy Trabant on map

Photo: MPBecker BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politically speaking Western Europe is a far more anomalous region than Eastern Europe argues Seán Hanley. However, the ‘advanced democracies’  of the West may, soon catch-up with the fluid, elite-driven politics of the East he suggests.

“I included a dummy for Eastern Europe” the presenter said, explaining the statistical methodology in her paper.

You have, you see, to control for the unknowable, complex bundle of historical peculiarities that mark out one half of the continent’s democracies from the other and might skew your results.

“But not just a dummy for Western Europe?” my colleague and I mischievously wondered.

Silly question. of course. And we didn’t ask it.  Most comparative political science research –West European democracies in the old (pre-2004) EU as their point of departure.  Most political science theories and paradigms have been framed on the experience of established (or as they are sometimes termed ‘advanced’) democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Many political models, – of democracy, interest group politics or party organisation – are abstractions and distillations of the experience Western Europe.

The task of those studying Eastern and Central Europe typically been an exercise in model fitting, of noticing and measuring up the gaps – like a tailor trying to fix up a suit made for someone else with quick alterations.  Eastern Europe – despite geographical and cultural proximity success of democratisation and liberal institution building – is not Western Europe.

The normative question lurking in the background is, of course, that of catch-up and convergence: when will Central and Eastern Europe become more like Western Europe? When would it consolidate ‘Western-style democracy’?

To some extent this was perhaps always inevitable. Western Europe and North America formed the earliest, most stable core of liberal democratic systems – as and wealthy open societies able to develop and sustain large political science communities. When democracy and liberal institutions spread so did the intellectual apparatus of academic political science. In the Bunce-Schmitter polemic of 1990s on pages of Slavic Review pitting East European area studies against mainstream comparative politics it is hard not to come down marginally in favour of the arguments of Philippe Schmitter than the Valerie Bunce’s view of the distinctness of the post-communist region.

But there is still perhaps an element of cultural and intellectual condescension. West Europeans still tend to regard Eastern Europe with an air of superiority. We see across the former Iron Curtain lands of political crisis, shady oligarchs, populist movements, mountains and steppe, still exotic, perhaps even still attractive, but still somewhat uncivilised and certainly marginal. And we place still ourselves, Eurocrisis or no Eurocrisis, at the origins of the highest European democracy.

Political scientists who study Central and Eastern Europe can be a coy lot. Few would probably say publicly what I have heard more than one person say privately: that large chunks of comparative politics are in effect a form of West European area studies with newer of Central and Eastern Europe bolted on as a peripheral component or optional extra. Jammed together in an extra chapter or eased into the equation with a regional dummy.

The societies and polities of the region may, on the whole (Ukraine apart) not matter very much economically or geo-politically individually – they may perhaps not even matter that much as a region. But they may matter more than you think.  Central and Eastern Europeanists sometimes make a pitch for the wider relevance of the region by presenting it as ‘laboratory’ (or a ‘natural experiment’) in democracy or Europeanisation with similarly sized of specimens scuttling down the run all at once.

But in all this it is the specificity and peculiarity of Western Europe that gets forgotten. The oddness of a region with an unusual, never to be repeated historical pathway of state- and civil society (re-)building, modernisation, democratisation and booming post-war welfare capitalism is surely striking.  It is a legacy which, as many have pointed out, is gradually unwinding and eroding. West European political parties as Stephen Whitefield and Robert Rohrschneider note do well to hold together diverse and fluid electorates, but they do so largely because they can still anchor themselves on a declining core of voters loyal voters and members; remnants of grassroots mass organisation and bases in civil society; and historical party identities. When (if) the transformation of West European societies into fragmented ‘post-democratic’ societies of apathetic but angry political consumers and indistinguishable elite-based parties dependent on big money and big media – memorably outlined by Colin Crouch – is completed, Western Europe –  for all its historical uniqueness –  may curiously come to resemble the post-communist East.

Forget for a moment history and geographical location and put Ireland in the place of Slovakia or Italy in the place of the Bulgaria. You will see political parties that are increasingly ineffectual representing and mobilising a resentful anti-political public, screaming tabloid xenophobia, economies in need of reform, welfare services struggling to cope with ageing populations, billionaire populists and oligarchs muscling their way into politics, and politicians struggling to fix a European project they wandered into on a wave of bland mainstream idealism without fully understanding the consequences.

 And would you not conclude that such conditions breed governments vulnerable to pressure from large global firms, populist movements of dubious democratic commitment, voters torn between authoritarianism and social justice and national sentiments vulnerable to exploitation?

To paraphrase Adam Przeworski’s famous conclusion to Democracy and the Market, the West may become the East.

Seán Hanley is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL-SSEES. This piece was first published on his personal academic blog and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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