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Democracy – how do we define it and what are its strengths and weaknesses

par Matt 20 Juin 2016, 08:12 English

Democracy – how do we define it and what are its strengths and weaknesses

What is democracy?


 What is democracy?  According to Francis Fukuyama (1992), the answer will be easier to answer after the cold war, since all countries will become democracies in the long-run. However, the answer to this question is as complicated as ever. The haziness between democracies and authoritarian countries pretending to be democracies e.g. popular democracies did not disappear with the cold war. Moreover, the multiplication of mixed regime types is a new difficulty. Fareed Zakaria (2003) described illiberal democracies as a mix of elections and authoritarianism.


Defining democracy is hard. Nevertheless, multiples authors’ already defined democracy and it is easy to find a very large number of theories about democracy - more or less objective, more or less ideologically oriented. Finding one universal definition of democracy, however, is not simple. This is the reason why I won’t try to find a universal definition of democracy in this paper – instead I will describe this major historical phenomenon and try to explain it. Thus, the aim of this term paper is to define democracy by explaining the early and recent development of this phenomenon using both history and political science.


Nevertheless, if it is difficult to find a really universal and clear definition of democracy, journalists and scholars often classify countries as democracies or non-democracies, which can be considered as contradictory. However, it is not: it is easier to classify democracies than to define it. How to explain this fact? Indeed, democracy is more a matter of multiple criteria than a strict definition since pure democracies do not exist. E.g. The Economist democracy index is a famous contemporary classification; it is a synthesis of different criteria which we consider important in a democracy, such as for example, political liberty. I state that in order to explain democracy, determining these factors and why these factors are used to classify democracies, is a better way to decipher this notion than trying in vain to define it. This statement will guide our explanations.


Characteristics of democracy

The need of representation


A first way to answer to our questioning can be an etymological one: Democratic is the government which is ruled by the people. However, this approach shows promptly its limits. When this word was originally created in the middle of the 5th century BC (Encyclopedia Britannica Online. n.d.), democracy was a direct democracy: e.g. in Athens, citizens really owned the power, since they directly vote in favor or against policies in the Ecclesia.

Modern States do not and cannot use direct democracy to lead public policies or enact laws; hence the people cannot possess the power the way it was in multiple city-states, i.e. directly. Still, they can nevertheless choose to give their power to a representative which will exercise the power in their place. Whatever its title; it might be a king, an emperor, a president, a lord protector, a prime minister, a god, a priest, a group of persons, an object or even fortune. Montesquieu (1748), for example, claimed himself that choosing representative is necessary in modern democracies, since direct democracy is nearly impossible to put in place:


As in a country of liberty, every man who is supposed a free agent ought to be his own governor, the legislative powers should reside in the whole body of the people. But since this is impossible in large states, and in small ones is subject to many inconveniences, it is fit the people should transact by their representative what they cannot transact by themselves.


A choice of the people


Can we define the 16th century Kingdom of Spain as a democracy? King was the representative of Spanish people and because order was usually maintained without great revolts – it means Spanish people accepted the king as a representative. Then, why shouldn’t it be a democracy?


Since the people’s power has been stolen by force, not given by will; though this is not a democracy. Kings weren’t chosen by the people neither were political institutions: the notion of elections didn’t exist. Public and Ruler private interest was widely merged, and a massive use of force has been observed in order to maintain order (Robert Wilde, n.d.). In fact, revolutions didn’t occur because state legitimacy was both traditional and charismatic, using divine rights as a way to legitimate political institutions – not because it was a choice of the people.  In a democracy, the people need to own the power – so they can choose to transfer it to someone else, but in the case of the Spanish Kingdom, they didn’t have this choice. Even if the people agree to give power to Charles V in a form of passive agreement – it is not a choice – thus it cannot be called a democracy (Beard, Joseph. 2005).


Democracy is not a matter of agreement but a matter of choice. Hence, the first roots of democracy are its political system and its political institutions, which should permit the people to choose by elections; it should as well be composed of institutionalized and non-corrupted bureaucracies, an equal justice, civil liberties, a constitution in order to protect the people and their choices, a check and balance system. Thus, we might distinguish two types of states regarding democracy: Democratic state where the people owns the power since there are elections. Non-Democratic state where the people do not own the power since there are not elections.


This scheme is obviously simplistic. What is missing? In order to know it, we need to study further the notion of choice. Choice is “a mental process of judging the merits of multiple political options and selecting one of them” (Wikipedia (n.d.). However, in an election, political options are never unlimited, the information never perfect, the power of the elected never total, the country never fully independent and autarcic. These multiple facts prevent elections to become perfect. Thus choices are never perfect, hence democracy can’t be perfect.


Political Pluralism


Because the perfect democracy doesn’t exist, it becomes harder to determine what a democracy is and what is not. Democracy is not absolute and the only way to determine a democracy is to define a scale. How to define these scales, and with what factors? “There is indeed no democracy unless the ruled are free to choose theirs rulers, or without political pluralism” (Touraine, 1997, p7). Alain Touraine speaks about one interesting new idea: political pluralism. Choice is the main element of democracy since we can distinguish a quality of choices regarding political pluralism.


What is political pluralism? I define it as the totality of the set of debated political hypothesis in national politics and which are represented in elections. Obviously, it is not only limited only by the State, it can be limited by tradition, Medias, education, culture, religion, history, etc. However, political authorities often intervene to modify political pluralism. An example of a blemished choice is a choice between two fractions of the same oligarchy (army, one-party-system), authorities keeping political pluralism low. A choice in a country where there is a wide set of ideas debated, with a lot different candidates is a valid choice; It is the case in most of liberal western democracies.


Thus, in regard of what I just said: democracy depends of the quality of the proposed choices thus the variety of the possible political options. Is it the only factor? Garrigou (2002, 2008) made an analysis about the French 1848 legislative elections, the first universal suffrage election after the 1st Empire. Studying historical documents from this period, Garrigou concluded that this election was not perceived as a choice at all by the people, but was only a communitarianist vote (or identity vote) which basically means that people didn’t choose, they just voted for the one considered as the traditional leader of the village to confirm the traditional village hierarchy. It was common to observe only one candidate running for the election.  This process was amplified since the entire village was voting all together at the same time, the group of villagers being often led by the priest of the village, saying to the farmers for who they should vote. Politicians were perceived as populist and were hated by the people since they were perceived as individuals trying to change the traditional social hierarchy. Barni (1872, as cited in Garrigou, 2002), a French Philosopher and deputy, speaking of identity vote in a speech at the National Assembly, said in 1872: “The universal suffrage, instead of being the expression of will of a free Nation become a despotism instrument”.


What I tried to show with this example is the importance of education in the voting process. Creating free institutions allowing the vote is not enough. People need to learn what democracy is and what a choice is. It explains why “exporting” democracy is a country produce usually major drawbacks. E.g. the communism-democracy shift after the cold war was particularly difficult because of the lack of civil society. Nowadays, most of African countries, even if they vote, did not learn this; it explains the failure of the democracy in most of them. E.g. in Côte d’Ivoire, we can observe that there is a strict fusion of votes and ethnicities (Oved, 2010; Lewis 2011), thus it cannot be called democratic since election is not perceived as a choice, it is just a ritual showing and determining an identity.




Montesquieu (1748, b) wrote “there is no word that admits of more various significations, and has made more varied impressions on the human mind, than that of liberty”. I won’t try to begin a risky and endless definition of liberty in this paper, but I will just describe the points that are important for our analysis. The main idea about political freedom, because it permits political pluralism, is necessary in a democracy, at least during the conventional state of affairs of the government. Mills (1859) described well the utility of freedom of speech, in a utilitarian perspective: the main idea is that confronting opinions allows moving nearer the truth. I would add that without freedom of speech, no political pluralism is possible, thus a democracy without political freedom cannot possibly exist.



French National Assembly

French National Assembly



Democracy requires three fully developed instances to exist. The first one is political institution, which should permit elections and build institutions to assure a choice for the voter (civil liberties). The second one is political pluralism, which assures to the people a genuine and senseful vote. It is depending of multiple factors, such as the respect of political liberties, cultural aspects of societies (e.g. religion, tradition, philosophy) and the current state of political system (e.g. number of parties, variety of ideas led by politicians). The third one is that people must see the vote as a choice and participate politically; otherwise democracy would be empty of its original meaning.


Hence, democracies are hard to put in place. Fukuyama (1992) wrote that democracy is the final state of countries. It is not true, since it is as difficult to maintain a democracy to build a new one.  When one of these three instances declines, democracy can be flawed, but in a silent and difficult to be perceived way. Political institutions change slowly and by little changes; one change may not damage democracy, but multiple changes can weaken democracy in the long-run. Political pluralism may be altered as well with society transformation and technical advances. These modifications are indeed hard to perceive.


 Eisenhower (1961), in its president farewell address said:

[…] we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence […] by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge […] machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”


Is democracy fragile?


To sum up, As Eisenhower (1961) stated, a permanent citizenry is needed to maintain democracy, which cost energy and time for citizens. It needs education, as well as a political participation culture. Moreover, the financial cost of elections and democratic institutions is high. As I just tried to demonstrate, democracy is fragile since it may slowly convert in a non-democratic system, or more plausibly a mixed-regime state (Zakaria, 2003). Until now, I have focused my analysis on the three criteria democracy needs to achieve to be completed: They are the roots of the difficulty and cost to put in place and maintain democracy, hence they constitute the main weaknesses that a democracy may encounter.


However, it is not only one, the most common arguments raised are: the short-sightedness of elections (Cheema, 2010), the lack of education of the people (Plato, n.d.), the fact that representative democracy is a counterfeit democracy since it creates an oligarchy, a professional political elite (Castoriadis, 1991). These critics are indeed impertinent: which regime is not short-sighted? It is rather a psychological component of human mind than something related to democracy. The lack of education is indeed a problem; however it applies more to direct democracy than representative since politicians and civil servants are more graduated and educated in democracy than in non-democratic regime. Then, representative democracy may be a counterfeit of direct democracy; nevertheless, direct democracy is not possible nowadays anyway thus this argument makes no sense.

Nevertheless, the main critic of democracy comes from Tocqueville (1886) which describes the roots of democracy being in fact contradictory to democracy itself. It distinguished three major risks, coming from the fact that people may give up their liberty. The first one is the tyranny of the majority which can be oppressive against minorities. The second one is that democracy may reduce political pluralism since everyone is becoming equal. The third is that democracy infantilizes its citizens, who in the long-run wait everything from the state without participating politically and giving up their liberty in order to have more from the State; he called this phenomena equality without liberty. At term, when one these three cases become reality, it conducts to the end of democracy to enter in despotism. If we are coming nearer from this point, however, it never happened and we are still far away from it.


Democracy remains the more stable political system, which permit the Elites to alternate without a great cost unlike authoritarian regimes, keep away political extremes from power and make social movement less violent. Moreover, Kant (1795) and Doyle (1983) described the phenomena of democratic peace, which mean that democracies don’t go to war with each over, which increases stability further.


To sum up, real democracies are more a myth impossible to reach than a day-to-day experience, since there is always people more and less influent than others in the different law and policies creating process, even if in theory, they are equal citizens.  Indeed, despite these critics, the classical famous Churchill (n.d.) quote remains true: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.



Primary Sources

Castoriadis, C. (1991). Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press

Doyle, M. (1983). "Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs". Philosophy and Public Affairs(Vol. 12, No. 3. (Summer, 1983)): 205–235

Fuyukama, F. (1992). The end of history and the last man. Free Press

Garrigou, A. (2002). Histoire sociale du suffrage universel en France, 1848-2000. Paris, Points-Seuil

Garrigou, A. (2008). Les secrets de l’isoloirHistoire sociale du suffrage universel en France, 1848-2000, Paris, Points-Seuil

Mills, J, S. (1859). On Liberty

Montesquieu. (1748). The spirit of the laws, book XI: of the laws which establish political liberty with regard to the constitution

Montesquieu. (1748b). The spirit of the laws, book XI: of the laws which establish political liberty with regard to the constitution, paragraph 2

Platon (n.d), The Republic

Touraine, A. (1997). What is democracy? Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Zakaria, F. (2003). The Future of freedom: Illiberal democracy at home and abroad. W.W. Norton & Company


Secondary Sources

Beard, J. (2005), The Administration of Spain Under Charles V, Spain's New Charlemagne. Retrieved from http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc4791/m1/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf

Cheema, G, S. (2010). Workshop on Sustainability and Policy-making: Reconciling Long-term and Short-term Goals in Democratic Governance. East-West Center.

Dyel, S and Loison, S. (n.d.). Le vote et la vertu : Garrigou et l’isoloir. Université Paris 1. Retrieved from http://scpo.univ-paris1.fr/fichiers/vote%20et%20isoloir.pdf

Eisenhower. (1961). Final address. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY

Guionnet, C. (1996). Élections et apprentissage de la politique. Les élections municipales sous la Monarchie de Juillet. Revue française de science politique, Volume number (46), pp. 555-579

Guionnet, C. (1997). L'apprentissage de la politique moderne. L’Harmattan.

Oved, M, C. (2010), How ethnicity colors the Ivory Coast election. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/Africa-Monitor/2010/1128/How-ethnicity-colors-the-Ivory-Coast-election

Lewis, M, W (2010), Ethnic Dimensions of the Conflict in Ivory Coast. Geocurrents. Retrieved from http://geocurrents.info/geopolitics/ethnic-dimensions-of-the-conflict-in-ivory-coast

Wilde, R. (n.d.). Spain 1516 - 22: The Troubled Succession of Charles V. European History About. Retrieved from http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/spain/a/revoltcomun1.htm

Democracy. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/157129/democracy

Choice. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choice

Democracy – how do we define it and what are its strengths and weaknesses


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