Democracy and Terrorism

erica chenoweth

Erica Chenoweth, U. of Denver

San Francisco — If you’re looking for a conversation starter, calling your next book “Why Democracy Encourages Terrorism” would probably work. The idea behind the provocative title goes like this: Democracy allows interest groups and political parties to flourish, which then leads to competition. Among those groups that feel most marginalized in the ensuing din, some take extreme measures in the pursuit of attention.

In other words, the conventional wisdom that democracy is the antidote to terrorism—because it provides outlets for people’s grievances—is completely wrong.

I sat down with Erica Chenoweth, author of the forthcoming book and an assistant professor at the University of Denver, at the International Studies Association conference here, to find out how she had reached that conclusion. Her work, under contract with Columbia University Press, is expected to be released next year.

Ms. Chenoweth has made a name for herself for her work on terrorism, political violence, and civil resistance. Her last book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolence Conflict, written with Maria J. Stephan, led to a Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

Ms. Chenoweth said the connection between democracy and terrorism came as a surprise. She was trying to find a link between weak or failed states and terrorist activity, studying attacks from 1970 to 2007. Yet there was one clear correlation she found after mapping and analyzing the data: Terrorism is, as she put it, “an overwhelmingly democratic phenomenon.” It occurs twice as often in democracies as in authoritarian regimes.

“I thought that was really weird,” she said of her initial reaction to her findings. “And totally counterintuitive.”

Having talked to other scholars, policy makers, and activists, Ms. Chenoweth sets about, in her book, to dismantle some of the arguments used to explain why terrorism exists in democracies. One is that democracies are more permissive of terrorism than authoritarian governments are. Not true, she says. Democratic nations are often quite willing to pursue repressive tactics in the pursuit of domestic terrorists.

Another idea is that press freedom encourages terrorist acts because terrorists thrive under media attention. Also not true, she says: A number of countries with free presses have little or no terrorist activity.

Instead, she argues, terrorism should be placed within the broader context of political activism. The open atmosphere of democracies can become crowded with competing interest groups. Some of those groups may be small or weak, and feel that the only way they can draw attention to their cause—or to strike fear in their opponents—is to act violently. The United States, for example, is home to any number of domestic terrorists, Ms. Chenoweth says: neo-Nazis, abortion-clinic bombers, anti-gay hate groups, environmental extremists. (Ninety percent of terrorism worldwide, she notes, is domestic.)

So what are the policy implications of Ms. Chenoweth’s work? Not, she hopes, that people conclude we should champion authoritarianism at home and abandon promoting democracy abroad. Rather, that in setting foreign policy we become more realistic about how democracy and domestic terrorism are naturally linked, and to expect the latter with the emergence of new democracies around the world.

“There’s a bit of a trade-off,” she said. “If you say that democracy promotion is part of U.S. foreign policy, you have to anticipate there’s not going to be less terrorism. There’s probably going to be more terrorism in that country. Some of it also might be directed at your country if you’re going to use military intervention for regime change.”

Iraq comes to mind. By one journalist’s account, she said, about 150 interest groups sprang up after the fall of Saddam Hussein, all vying for a piece of the developing power structure. “The vast majority of violence in Iraq was Iraqis targeting other Iraqis,” she said. “There was now something to fight over. And the stakes were so high.”

Yet a number of democracies have thrived with little or no domestic terrorism, including New Zealand, Japan, and Denmark. Some might say that’s because their populations are fairly homogenous, Ms. Chenoweth said. But she cited research by another scholar, B.M. (Brian) Burgoon, of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research at the University of Amsterdam, who found that the more governments spend on social welfare, the less their societies experience terrorism. Does this mean that as European governments begin dismantling their social safety nets, terrorism will increase? “Absolutely,” she said.

Ms. Chenoweth hopes other scholars will come away from her study looking at terrorism as part of the spectrum of political advocacy. “Terrorism is not an isolated phenomenon unrelated to legitimate grievances people have,” she said. “For people who study terrorism and only terrorism—and don’t look at any other types of political mobilization—this is a strong argument for really taking a wider view. … The terrorist-group sector is not somehow independent from the political life of a country.”

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