Corruption and dirty elections are a symptom not the disease

It’s easy to despair at the patronage, vote-buying, and authoritarian turn being taken in so many new democracies. Surely democracy was different in the West? I give you Spain:

The stage of convulsive liberalism in Spain was long, from 1810 to 1874, compounded by riots, military revolt, civil war, and severe regional discord.

…The nineteenth-century Spanish political intelligentsia and elites persistently pushed through sweeping constitutional reforms, for brief periods giving Spain the most democratic suffrages and the most liberal political structures in continental Europe… No other polity attempted such advanced political structures on the basis of such limited education, so little civic training, such an unproductive economy, such poor communications, such extreme regional dissociation, and so much institutionalized opposition in sectors of the Church and Carlism. Stability was eventually achieved by a more modest, restricted form of liberalism in the oligarchic system of the restored monarchy of 1874.

…universal male suffrage was reintroduced in 1890, but its effects were at first spurious if for no other reasons than the illiteracy, lack of civic interest, and poor communications among the lower classes. The existing patronage and party-boss system, commonly known as caciquismo, largely contained or deflected popular voting for about thirty years.

That’s from The Franco Regime by Stanley Payne, which is long but excellent.

Most Western democracies doled out the right to vote very slowly. Maybe more correct: middle classes seized the vote where and when they could. Not Spain. The case of Spain looks more like new democracies today, where everyone suddenly (and sometimes unexpectedly) gets the the right to vote.

The tricky part with this: the people who choose the leaders (the masses) aren’t the ones who control the wealth or weapons or other institutions, and they might have little education or civic organization. So the people who are powerful remain powerful, but now have to work through the quasi-democratic system and the masses, who now have a little more power than before. Thus you get patronage and party boss systems, or the rolling back of rights from the least powerful. At least for a time.

Some people use this as an argument for autocracy. I don’t. I’d rather see rights with corruption than no rights at all. That right to sell your vote is still a power most people didn’t hold before, and it helps them. For me, it’s a reminder to have patience. Also, it’s an argument for for tamping down the Western anti-corruption fetish, and for not setting a standard for new democracies that we never set for ourselves.