When thinking about the tangle of dilemmas and challenges faced by the processes of democratization around the world, the successful establishment of democracy in Western Europe in the 19th century looks outstanding. Emerging in the shadow of the reaction that followed the French Revolution and confronting new economic shifts, the relative success of democratic reforms in late-19th century Europe should appear almost incomprehensible to modern political scientists. This paper examines how democratization processes have reshaped modern societies and the authority structure of modern democratic systems.
The traditional description of European democratization comes from a fairly well-known periodization, according to which Europe’s transition to democracy was difficult but extraordinary. Most of the major Western European countries have gone through centuries of feudalism, absolutism, and revolutions (Schaefer, 2013). They have gone through industrialization in the era of democracy, and have successfully crossed the line, after which they acquired the characteristics that modern society attributes to democracy. Despite the completion of the first wave of democratization by the middle of the 20th century, in the period between 1820 and 1920, the wave of democratization changed national political institutions (Schaefer, 2013). It led to the formation of a new political regime that was qualitatively different from its predecessor. Regime change in Europe was a rather chaotic and controversial process. European democratization, like any other, not only represented a transition from one regime to another but entailed a combination of democratic reforms with micro-level formal and informal measures.
Economic modernization, cultural secularization, and political democratization have been related since the 19th century. Socio-economic modernization has led to a weakening of external restrictions on freedom of choice, increasing the material, cognitive, and social resources of the individual. This has led to an emphasis on the values of self-expression. Cultural secularization, in turn, has led to an increase in society’s demands for civil and political freedoms, gender equality, and responsive government (Schaefer, 2013). This process has contributed to the formation and strengthening of institutions and the freedom of choice, which is the basis of democracy. The dynamics of human development are based on the expansion of freedom of choice and personal independence. When the significance of this aspect of modernization increased, it engendered cultural change, whose logical institutional outcome was the establishment of democracy.
According to Weber’s typology, the rational-legal type of authority structure is characteristic of modern democratic systems. It is based on the belief in the correctness of the formal rules by which power is formed: free elections, the rule of law, equal responsibility of the government and citizens before the law (Schaefer, 2013). This type of authority is characteristic of the majority of democratic countries. However, in practice, all of Weber’s types of authority structures are mixed. Thus, even in industrially developed and democratically stable countries, such as Great Britain, the legitimacy of power rests on the institution of monarchy and the recognition of the results of free elections.
To sum up, the conflicting outcomes of the first wave of democratization are not so different from modern experience, which may be useful enough to understand both the former and the latter. In modern society, various means of legitimizing power have been developed: political, ideological, and economic. Political means include, first of all, seeking support and expanding the social base of power. An important instrument of this form of legitimization is the democratization of public life and the expansion of citizens’ participation in government. This creates a sense of the general involvement of people in the policies pursued by the authorities, allowing citizens to a certain extent feel that they are its subject.
Schaefer, R. T. (2013). Sociology: A brief introduction (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.