Political Science professor Dan Slater, new director of the University of Michigan Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, gave an inaugural lecture Thursday evening to both begin his time at the center and the unit’s 10th-anniversary conference, titled “Democracies Emerging and Submerging.”
The lecture addressed the theme of the conference while drawing from Slater’s personal research and expertise in the Southeast Asia region. Slater’s lecture emphasized how, in order to understand emerging democracies, it is important to understand their opposites: submerging democracies, emerging dictatorships and enduring dictatorships.
“What does it mean to do research on emerging democracies at a moment when democracies seem to be mostly submerging or at risk of submerging?” Slater said. “First, I want to suggest that our understanding of any phenomenon is always enhanced by improved understanding of its opposite and emerging democracies have at least three opposites to consider.”
To give audience members an understanding of each of the three opposites, Slater introduced a concept that paired with each type of regime. He first presented the idea of polarizing figures with submerging democracies.
“Contrary to research that focuses on deep social and ideological cleavages, (my research) pinpoints the polarizing figure as a source of heightened conflict and in some cases democratic submergence,” Slater said.
With emerging dictatorships, Slater paired the idea of threat ecology, which determines whether or not a dictatorship will develop.
“The threat ecology also helps explain whether dictatorships will take root in the first place,” Slate said.
The final regime Slater explained was enduring dictatorships. He introduced the concept by discussing joint projects in terms of authoritarian regimes.
“The joint project (is) the fundamental source of authoritarian durability,” Slater said. “They bring civilians and military elites together in support of open-ended authoritarian rule.”
In the question-and-answer session that followed Slater’s lecture, Anne Pitcher, professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Afroamerican and African studies, posed a question regarding the influence of urbanization on democratization.
Slater responded with an emphasis on the importance of urbanization, especially for the middle class in the regions he studies.
“If people get more education, then people tend to see corruption more and resent it more,” Slater said. “It defines the middle class — corruption is extremely difficult to stomach.”
Rackham student Adelina Pinzaru, a graduate fellow at the center, attended the event because of her interest in the Southeast Asian region. She looks forward to seeing how the concepts Slater introduced will continue to play out in the global arena.
“I’m really interested in this topic,” Pinzaru said. “I’m excited to see the democratization process in South Korea.”
In terms of the current political climate in the United States, audience members also asked questions regarding polarization and the state of democracy. Slater responded with what he has learned about democracy and its fragility through his research and work.
“Something I’ve increasingly found about democracy even before things have gone the way they’ve been in the United States is that it’s extremely fragile to the abuse of power by people in executive power,” Slater said. “There are certain norms of restraint that we presume that anyone who’s going to rise to national office is going to hold dear.”
Slater tied the charged domestic political climate back to his argument about polarizing figures over ideologies.
“Although there’s certainly a lot of polarization in the United States over health care or gun rights, I doubt any question is as polarizing as what do you think of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” Slater said.
Pitcher said her primary reason for attending the lecture was her interest in Slater’s research and ideas.
“I chose to attend the event because I know the work of Dan Slater very well and I wanted to honor his appointment,” Pitcher said. “I really like the breadth, creativity and originality of his work on different regime types. I just really admire what he does and I’m so glad he’s here.”
In the following two days of the conference, events on various topics including “America Submerging?” and “Backsliding in Europe?” will be hosted by visiting faculty and University faculty. The theme of Democracies Emerging and Submerging will be kept throughout the conference.