Reconsidering the transition Paradigm

The concept of transitions has been central to discussions of democratization for more than three decades now. “Transi- tion” has been the primary term used to describe the political changes that typified what Samuel P. Huntington labeled the “third wave” of democratization—the birth of new democracies in well over fifty countries that has made democracy the most common form of regime in the world today. The heyday of transitions was the 1980s and the 1990s. But by the turn of the twenty-first century, the birth of new democracies had slowed down, partly because so many countries had already become democratic. As a result, political scientists turned their attention to issues of democratic consolidation, and then to the quality of democracy.

In a widely discussed and influential essay in the January 2002 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Thomas Carothers called into question the continuing value of what he called “the transition paradigm.” For a moment it seemed as if the notion of transition might have become out- dated or at least outlived its usefulness. But with the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, and more recently and even more dramati- cally with the regime changes associated with the “Arab Spring” and the political opening in Burma, the question of democratic transitions has returned to center stage.


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