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Bermeo: Ordinary people in extraordinary times

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

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.

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.

Research on similar subjects


Bermeo, Nancy (author)Comparative PoliticsDemocracyAuthoritarianismSocial MovementsInstitutionsOrigins of InstitutionsDemocratization

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