Grounds for Optimism on Democracy?: Agricultural Development and the Chances of Democratization

By Henry Thomson

The relationship between capitalism and democracy has long been one of the most important areas of study in political science, economics and sociology. Today, many are pessimistic about the stability of democracy in rich countries and the chances for democratization in the developing world. The rise of far-right parties in Europe; democratic norm-breaking, political polarization and contentious mobilization on the streets of the United States; and moves towards autocracy in Venezuela, Myanmar and China all seem like bad omens for democratic institutions and civil liberties.

However, we cannot lose sight of global democratic progress made after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client governments around the world. According to one influential measure, the number of states ruled by autocratic regimes has plummeted by three-quarters from 80 to 20 since 1988. Simultaneously, the number of democracies has more than doubled from around 40 to almost 100. Without question, the spread of democracy has slowed since the early 2000s, a good number of autocratic and imperfectly democratic regimes remain stubbornly in place, and some assessments of the quality of democracy show consistent declines – especially in developed democracies – since 2006. Nonetheless, we live in a democratized world. The causes of transitions to, and the stability of, democracy remain key questions in political economy and comparative politics.

My own current research addresses one of the strongest empirical results in political science: the robust positive correlation between economic development and democratic regime type. Wealthier, more industrialized economies are associated with democratic governance. Canonical work suggests that countries dominated by landed elites pose an important challenge to this regularity. Rural landowners often occupy powerful positions in local and national politics under authoritarian regimes. They are resistant to democratic reform because they fear redistribution or expropriation of their immobile assets under a more progressive taxation regime. Landed elites also often rely on the support or acquiescence of authoritarian governments in repressing rural labor, keeping peasants tied to the land and wages low in the countryside. For this reason, countries characterized by high levels of landholding inequality are less likely to democratize, even when their economies modernize.

I dispute this received wisdom on agriculture’s role in the democratization process in a couple of different ways. In my book, "Food and Power: Regime Type, Agricultural Policy and Political Stability" I argue that both democratic and autocratic regimes affect farmers’ economic interests through price policies – not only through their propensity to tax or redistribute land. In fact, though large-scale land redistribution is very rare, agricultural markets are almost always subject to significant distortions through government tariffs, export and input subsidies, consumer price ceilings, direct transfers to farmers and myriad other policy instruments.

The magnitude of these agricultural market distortions is large and follows a distinct political logic: Where farmers form a small, concentrated interest group, they are more likely to organize and threaten incumbent authoritarian rulers, who respond to this threat by increasing the price of farm produce. This mitigates the risk of an intra-elite coup led by landed elites. On the other hand, when a country is dominated by a large urban sector that demands low prices for food and agricultural commodities, incumbent autocrats respond by meeting these demands, reducing domestic price levels vis-à-vis international markets. This, in turn, mitigates the risk of urban unrest caused by high food prices.

Rather than seeing the rural sector as a drag on the democratization process – either because landed elites resist democratic reform or because the peasantry are near-impossible to mobilize for democracy – I draw attention to the conditions under which rural elites will be amenable to regime change. When landed elites are powerful and threatening to an authoritarian regime, they are likely to be the beneficiaries of policies that make them more invested in the political status quo and more resistant to reform. On the other hand, when confronted with a large, mobilized urban population, autocrats will be compelled to reduce subsidies to farmers, lower consumer prices and raise the ire of the rural sector. Under these conditions, agricultural interests are likely to be more amenable to democratization.

In a forthcoming paper co-authored with David Samuels (Minnesota), we question the long-assumed reliance of landed elites’ on labor repression and authoritarian rule to ensure supplies of rural workers and maximize profits. Since the 1930s, agriculture has become increasingly mechanized. Manpower has been replaced by (mechanical) horsepower, eliminating farmers’ demand for labor repression and, hence, authoritarian rule. We document the spread of agricultural mechanization through the number of tractors employed in the agricultural sector, and find that it is not associated with changes in the distribution of land that could signal a broader weakening of rural elites. In a series of regression models, we find a remarkably robust, positive association between agricultural mechanization and democracy in a sample of 141 countries from 1930-2009. More recently, we have extended this analysis to survey data from eight East and Southeast Asian countries. We find a robust positive relationship between tractor ownership and support for democracy among farmers.

The conclusions of this second project are complementary to the first. Revisiting canonical theories about the role of the agricultural sector in democratization processes, we find that modern technological change has undermined the long-standing tendency for rural elites to resist democratic reform.

Arguments linking economic development to democracy are bruised and battered in 2021. Many scholars are more likely to ring alarm bells about threats to democracy than to point to more promising dynamics. My research is not so alarmist. Rural elites – the most consistently anti-democratic force in history – have less reason to resist democratization today than in any previous era. Reductions in agricultural market distortions insisted upon by international organizations such as the IMF and World Bank have removed a tool of co-optation and regime stability from the dictator’s toolbox. And agricultural mechanization has eliminated the demand for rural labor repression. Threats to democracy and democratization are not in short supply, but today more than ever they are unlikely to emerge from the countryside.

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