Guillermo O’Donnell (1936–2011)

Issue Date April 2012
Volume 23
Issue 2
Page Numbers 185-188
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

On October 29, Guillermo O’Donnell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Notre Dame and senior fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies there, passed away in his native Argentina. A longtime member of the Editorial Board and later the International Advisory Committee of the Journal of Democracy and a regular contributor to its pages, he is widely regarded as the leading Latin American political scientist of the past half-century. A major conference in his honor is scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires on March 26-27 with the cosponsorship of the Universidad San Andrés, the Universidad Nacional San Martín, the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. We present below two tributes to O’Donnell: The first, written by Scott Mainwaring, comes from the website of the Kellogg Institute (, which also contains more information about the conference and links to other tributes; the second was written especially for the Journal by O’Donnell’s former coauthor Philippe Schmitter:

Scott Mainwaring, Director, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame: Our dear friend and colleague Guillermo O’Donnell died yesterday afternoon in his native Buenos Aires at the age of 75, following a four-month battle against cancer.

O’Donnell was a giant in contemporary social science, known around the world for his unique intellectual creativity, his pathbreaking originality, and his passion for democracies that function decently. His scholarly work on authoritarianism and democracy established his international reputation as a brilliant and seminal thinker.

Closer to home, he played a pivotal role in creating and developing the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. As Kellogg’s first academic director, he defined an exciting research agenda for the Institute and built an outstanding program of visiting fellows. . . .

O’Donnell’s scholarly contributions can be grouped into three phases. Early in his career, he worked primarily on the origins of authoritarianism in South America, especially in the region’s more developed countries. First published in 1973, Modernization and Bureaucratic Authoritarianism was a seminal work in understanding the origins of modern authoritarianism in Latin America.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Guillermo recognized that [End Page 185] this was a new kind of authoritarian rule. Again unlike his contemporaries, he also understood that this new pattern of authoritarian rule had profound theoretical implications for understanding the relationship between modernization and democracy. He subsequently wrote many important papers about the nature of authoritarianism in Latin America.

In a second phase, O’Donnell was the pioneer in anticipating the wave of transitions to democracy that began in Latin America in 1978. With remarkable prescience, when Latin America was at the zenith of authoritarian rule, he correctly and almost uniquely understood that many of the awful dictatorships then in power were likely to be transient. He studied internal contradictions within authoritarian regimes and then analyzed the wave of transitions to democracy that resulted in part from the tensions within authoritarianism that he had analyzed earlier. Once again, he opened a new research question, hugely important both theoretically and in the “real” world. His 1986 coedited volume, Transitions From Authoritarian Rule (Johns Hopkins University Press), remains a classic. It is one of the most widely cited works in political science.

Beginning in the late 1980s, O’Donnell’s attention turned to the severe deficiencies of most democratic regimes, again with a primary focus on Latin America. While countless other individuals observed these same deficiencies, nobody matched his acuity in the theoretical analysis of new issues that revolve around these shortcomings. He coined many important concepts that remain at the core of analyses of contemporary democracy. For example, his concept “delegative democracy” refers to democratic regimes in which the president and congress are democratically elected, but in which mechanisms of accountability are fragile. He contributed seminal articles on accountability, the rule of law, and the relationship between the state and democracy. His article, “Democracy, Law, and Comparative Politics” (Studies in Comparative International Development, Spring 2001), won the Luebbert Prize for the best article in comparative politics, awarded annually by the Comparative Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

As a scholar, O’Donnell always focused on great normative issues that confront contemporary humanity—how to build better democracies, how to ensure more effective rule of law and more even citizenship. In the last two decades, he achieved a judicious balance between criticizing the deficiencies of Latin American democracies while at the same time not indulging in facile criticisms that could fuel antidemocratic sentiment.

His scholarship won him wide recognition. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, O’Donnell won the 2003 Kalman Silvert Award for Lifetime Achievement, given every 18 months by the Latin American Studies Association. He was president of the International [End Page 186] Political Science Association from 1988 to 1991, and also served as vice-president of the American Political Science Association from 1999 to 2000. In 2006, he won the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Political Science Association. He was the recipient of countless other fellowships and awards, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Indicative of the nearly global reach of O’Donnell’s work, it has been translated into Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, and, of course, English. In recent years, several leading Latin American universities awarded him honorary Ph.D.s and other distinctions.

Throughout his career, O’Donnell posed great new theoretical questions about tremendously important developments in the contemporary world. He was a deeply learned person who always drew upon the antecedent scholarship, yet one of his extraordinary gifts was recognizing new questions and new problems that had not hitherto been addressed. He stands as one of the most important thinkers about democracy and dictatorships in the history of political science.

Philippe C. Schmitter, European University Institute, Florence: If I learned one thing from my association with Guillermo, it was that a political scientist should be responsible.

For him, this implied at least three things.

First and foremost, it meant the capacity to think like a politician: to understand (but not necessarily to admire) the dilemmas that politicians have to face when making important decisions with limited knowledge, under contingent circumstances, and despite uncertain capacities both to act and, then, to deal with the often-unintended consequences of their decisions. For exercising power—whether publicly or privately, legitimately or illegitimately—demands a special set of skills. Machiavelli bundled them together and labeled them virtù.

Granted, not all politicians have these skills, but postulating that they could act “rationally” by knowing all the alternatives and their consequences and choosing the one that optimized their greatest marginal return; or “behaviorally” by consulting public opinion and choosing the option that best ensured their reelection or reappointment; or “systemically” by responding passively to a fixed set of functionally determined requisites—all these points of departure violated this basic imperative of basing one’s analysis on the capacity to think in a politically distinct manner. Needless to say, this banned Guillermo from membership in any of the fashionable paradigms that have swept through the academic discipline of political science in recent decades.

Second, Guillermo wrote as a citizen, not as an academic. Every one of his works was addressed to an imagined audience of intelligent and critical persons of indeterminate nationality. Of course, he [End Page 187] had specific polities in mind—not least his native Argentina—but his message (like his vocabulary) was infallibly generic, which explains why both practitioners and scholars in such a wide range of cultures and contexts could understand what he was saying.

He had a notable flare for coming up with novel and apposite concepts. “Bureaucratic authoritarianism” and “delegative democracy” may have been difficult for positivist-minded academics to measure precisely, but they accurately captured critical emergent properties of regimes. My personal favorite was his distinction between “blandos” and “duros” which I faithfully translated into the more prosaic English of “soft-liners” and “hard-liners.” I sometimes wonder whether a scholar such as Guillermo (or myself) could make it through the overprofessionalized and overspecialized discipline of political science under today’s conditions without paying stricter attention to “peer-reviewed articles in prestigious journals” or without anchoring oneself safely in the company of fellow travelers following the same “dominant paradigm.”

Third, Guillermo focused his attention—especially in his latest works—on a particularly critical aspect of politics, namely, agency. Without the capacity—collective or individual—to make a difference, to exercise power in order to rise above the determinants of what Machiavelli called necessità and fortuna, politics would be an irrelevant activity. We tried to capture this in our Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies. But that book dealt specifically with the highly uncertain period of regime transformation when the behavior of actors or agents is manifestly underdetermined by the absence of agreed-upon rules and the ambiguous presence of new and untested organizations. In his subsequent work, Guillermo carried this notion further—into the functioning of the democracies that emerged from such a transformation—however dubious he often regarded their democratic credentials as being.

It was a responsibility of both citizens and rulers, he believed, to act as agents in both defending and changing existing rules and distributions of power. Guillermo clearly had a preference for the latter—but it did not blind him from acknowledging the dominant influence of entrenched interests and routinized behaviors. Nevertheless, he felt, a responsible political scientist should not only look for opportunities to exercise agency, but should also encourage citizen agents to take advantage of the “political spaces” (another of Guillermo’s favorite concepts) they opened up.

Guillermo and I were brought together by momentary political circumstance. From it, we forged an enduring personal friendship. I like to think that this combination resulted in an opus that was better—and more responsible—than either of us could have produced alone. [End Page 188]