Though once called a perversion of constitutional government by Aristotle, democracy is now lauded by the United Nations as a universal core value. But the rise of Communist China onto the world stage as a fierce economic competitor and potential superpower, as well as the rise of the alt-right in stable democracies has scholars questioning if democracy is indeed the final form of government, or if it is merely an imperfect Western ideal?
The importance of living in a democracy is unclear because of the difficulty in defining democracy itself. Robert Dahl defines democracy in terms of a set of minimal procedural conditions, including the right to vote and run in regular and fair elections, the right to seek out alternate sources of information, the right to expression without persecution, and the right to form independent associations. Schmitter and Karl add two other conditions: elected officials must be able to rule without being overpowered by unelected officials (ie the military), and the government cannot be influenced by a larger, overarching political system. Collier and Levitsky define democracy as, “fully contested elections with full suffrage and absence of massive fraud, combined with effective guarantees of civil liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, and association.”
But regardless of the definition of democracy, the problem is that there are many types of democracies which produce many different effects, impacting its importance in general society because not all democracies are fully democratic. On the less democratic end of the spectrum, Collier and Levitsky observe that the concept of democracy is often unrightfully stretched to cover “diminished subtypes” such as illiberal democracies. While at the higher end, Linz and Stepan remark that a democracy reaches its ultimate stage once it becomes “consolidated” and the “only game in town,” which is difficult to achieve in fragmented states.
So if there are so many variations and degrees of democracy, why would it be important to live in one? The argument is that ultimately, in a more democratic regime, citizens have the right to choose their livelihoods, and that a government that provides that choice, by protecting human interests and well-being, extends its commitment to its citizens by protecting human rights and providing equitable opportunity.
However, Barro would argue that democracy is not important if basic economic needs are not met, and that democracies not only are inefficient at reaching the bottom poor, but they also do not last in poorer countries. In a statistical analysis, Barro found a trend in which democracies do not stick where poverty abounds. The counter to this would be Przeworski’s study in which no country with an average income over $6055 has ever gone back to another regime after becoming a democracy.
So if it is important to live in a democracy, shouldn’t we be seeing a global movement towards more democracies? In a way, the world system is converging on a democratic order. The first wave of democracy in the 19th century peaked at 29 democracies, the second wave of democracy after World War II peaked at 36 democracies, and the third wave, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR, has peaked at over 100 democracies. We live in a world with more democracies than ever before, which may be telling us something.
But another movement is occurring which may debunk this theory. Levitsky and Way write of the rise in popularity of a new regime type, called “competitive authoritarianism,” in which a country possesses democratic institutions but individual liberties are violated to the point at which the regime is more authoritarian than democratic.
Does the rise in competitive authoritarianism mean that democracy is not the ideal? Not necessarily, but it could mean that there are more barriers to democracy than we thought. It’s not enough to have elections or democratic institutions, if basic rights are not protected. Likewise, it is not enough to have a democratic regime, if income and education levels suffer. So the answer is not that it is important to live in a democracy; the answer is that it is important to meet human rights and basic needs, and if a democracy is the best system in which that can be done for a given nation, then that is the best way to go about it, but one nation’s prescription is not the world’s antidote.