Democracy -- rule by the people -- is strongly tied to human flourishing. Rule by the people results in a myriad of different government structures, but the underlying principle remains fixed: the opportunity of the governed to participate in the selection and decision-making of the governing. No two democracies are identical, but they all possess some degree of participation. Many regard democratic governance as end point of the evolution of government. Case in point, Francis Fukuyama, upon the end of the Soviet Union, once declared the spread of democracy to mark the end of history.
Not everyone shares Fukuyama’s reverence for democracy. The importance of living in a democracy hinges on who flourishes in a democracy. And, who flourishes in a democracy is shaped by three attributes: how it defines “people,” what rights it assigns to those people, and whether it is responsive to the needs of its people.
If a democracy defines people broadly, enforces the rights it purports to provide, and adequately adjusts to support the needs of the people, then it is important to live in a democracy. In this sort of democracy, the people have real power. In this sort of democracy, government enhances quality of life. And, in this sort of democracy, institutions and laws are accessible and malleable.
However, for a person living in a democracy short of even one of these aspirational outcomes, it may be more important to live in a governing structure closer to recognizing their agency and promoting their potential. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, a system's importance is measured by how it treats its weakest members. In other words, democracy is not an end; an inclusive, rights-based democracy can be a means to human flourishing, but so can a myriad of other governing structures.
A glance at different governing structures from the perspective of its “weakest members” reveals that democracies vary in their importance to a person’s wellbeing.
Consider democracies, like Israel, that narrowly define its core constituency. As was widely reported, Israeli officials passed legislation in the summer of 2018 stating that "the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people." The weakest members in this sort of democracy are left on the economic, political, and cultural sidelines of society. Exclusion of this sort, whether de jure or de facto, removes agency from entire communities. Their voices go unheard. Their productivity and creativity are untapped. The most important forces in the lives of the excluded population are not government agents but rather community organizations and family.
Palestinian communities in Gaza, left out of many officials’ definition of the Israeli people and previously governed by the languishing Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), selected a non-democratic regime -- Hamas -- in response to placing little faith in democratic organizations. It’s true that Hamas has likewise failed to adequately provide for Gazans. However, Hamas’ election reveals that Gazans favored officials that were ingrained in their communities over potentially more democratic representatives.
Community and family similarly top the significance of a democracy where such a government falls short of protecting basic rights. The Mexican democracy, for example, has proven unable to protect citizens from violent threats to their fundamental freedoms. Residents of certain Mexican states have limited their speech, movements, and association in response to the prevalence of violent gangs. In many cases, as suspected in the state of Guerrero, the government has tacitly permitted such restrictions to take place. After 43 children were abducted in the state, public distrust of the police and politicians of Guerrero has rendered democratic institutions there meaningless. Citizens there fervently believe that officials knew about the abductions and failed to respond appropriately.
Where this sort of seemingly state-sanctioned violence takes place, people offer turn to non-democratic institutions for stability and reliability. For instance, in Afghanistan, residents of some provinces have shunned state-based courts for the more orderly legal system imposed by the Taliban. This trend emphasizes that people place more importance on the outcomes of the predominant ruling system than the system’s title.
Outcomes matter in the political arena as well. In addition to seeking a government that secures basic rights, people expect their government to function. So, even in democracies where key rights are relatively secure -- such as Great Britain, governments can undermine their importance through haphazardly handling pressing matters. Brexit -- Britain’s attempt to exit the European Union -- serves as a prime example of a democracy undercutting its significance to daily life and overall wellbeing. The British people have watched their officials spend loads of time, energy, and political capital with nothing other than continued uncertainty to show for it.
Unsurprisingly, the British may be losing faith in democratic institutions. You see evidence in the press -- the BBC ran an editorial with the title, “Has British democracy left its people down?” -- and in the polls -- nearly of a quarter of Britons said they are dissatisfied in their democracy's public engagement and feel as though democratic officials have provided insufficient justification for their decisions.
Even in the United States, where democratic values pervade civic society and culture, government shortfalls have left people questioning the importance of living in a democracy. A robust majority -- 61 percent -- of Americans would support significant changes to the design and structure of the U.S. government, according to the Pew Research Center. Perhaps even more alarming, democratic shortcomings have made Americans more receptive to strict majoritarian rule. The same Pew research found that "most American say policymakers should heed the will of the majority even if they and their supporters differ."
As the plight of the Palestinians, misery of Mexican families, and betrayal of British residents make clear, a democracy is only as important as its representativeness, stability, and effectiveness. Even Fukuyama, years later, has come to see that democracy is not an end in and of itself. In an interview with The Washington Post, he stated, “When democracies start turning on themselves and undermining their own legitimacy, then you're [sic] serious trouble.”
What people view as important is fairly simple. Throughout time and in the modern era, people have turned to the governance structure that includes them, protects them, works for them and doesn’t pose too much trouble.
-Kevin Frazier, Harvard Kennedy School, Master of Public Policy Candidate