Michael K Miller
George Washington University
are some countries democratic and others mired in endless dictatorship? Why Democracies Develop and Decline, a wide-ranging
volume by leaders of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project, overviews and
reexamines the extensive literature on this question. The approach here is very
data-forward, rather than attempting to develop new theory on how and why
democratic change happens. A big advantage is the authors’ use of the excellent
V-Dem dataset, which extends back to 1789 and even covers pre-independence
colonies. After an introduction and descriptive chapter on historical trends in
democracy, the book’s heart is a series of chapters on five clusters of
explanations for democracy: long-run factors (focusing on geography and
colonial history), international, economic, politico-institutional, and social.
For each, the authors summarize prior work and then present a range of
empirical tests to see which explanations hold up. Careful adjustments are made
to the empirical models in each chapter, but the authors generally compare
predictions of levels, upturns, and downturns on a continuous democracy index.
Many of the findings are novel and surprising. For instance, Chapter 3
identifies distance to natural harbors as a key long-run factor explaining
historical democracy levels. A final chapter attempts to put the various
factors in a causal ordering, distinguishing long-run from more proximate
factors. The comprehensive summaries of prior research and illustrations of how
to improve empirical analysis makes this an ideal book for graduate students
and academics interested in democratization and democratic survival.