ESSAY TOPIC: Is it important to live in a democracy?
The University of Sydney
During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln at his Gettysburg Address spoke of the notion of a "government of the people, by the people and for the people". At face value, the term "democracy" denotes the voice of the people. This is "vertical accountability". It is symbolic of representation and majoritarian rule. Democracy can also include "horizontal accountability"— checks and balances and independence (and sometimes non-partisan) institutions and bodies like congress or parliament, electoral commissions or colleges and the judiciary.
The question is it important to live in a democracy is an interesting one, almost as if it begs contention to the obvious "yes" response. As most would agree, it's a no-brainer that democracy affords us a host of benefits—exercising political and civil rights like protesting, lobbying, critiquing the government, free participation in elections and politics, partisan and functioning institutions and a plurality of voices and opinions. Democracies promote concepts like the right to vote, freedom of speech, fair trials, prevention of authoritarianism or tyranny, separation of powers and self-determination. It must be noted however that while theoretically, democracies are supposed to do all these things, they don't always actually do them. Democracy is a vehicle for, but not a guarantor of individual liberties and civil or political rights.
Political scientists Philippe Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl (1991) define eleven indicators of type of democracy: (1) consensus; (2) participation; (3) access; (4) responsiveness; (5) majority rule; (6) parliamentary sovereignty; (7) party government; (8) pluralism; (9) federalism; (10) Presidentialism; (11) checks and balances (p.84). America and Britain are great examples of such democratic variation. The former, a system of Presidentialism, a representative democracy where people vote directly for a president. The latter, a parliamentary democracy administered via the Westminster System where people vote for a party government and the state figurehead is the Crown. Some countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Switzerland are more democratic than others like Russia, Singapore, Mexico. The former five constitute "western democracies". Here democracy has continuously proved to be of exceptional importance to citizens because it affords, as per Schmitter and Karl’s indicators, consensus (free elections); participation (lobby movements, interest groups); access (constitutional provisions); responsiveness (non-partisan institutions and government bodies); pluralism (multi-partism) and checks and balances (vertical and horizontal accountability).
To offer an extreme case of democratic variation, Venezuela between the late 1990s to early 2000s is my favourite example of a "non-democratic-looking democracy". Democracy was established in 1958 via the pact of Punto Fijo, an alliance between dominant parties of the time which united central groupings of society. Prior to 1998, Venezuela was one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Whilst Chile, Argentina and Brazil experienced democratic breakdown in the 1960s-70s, Venezuela was one of three that survived. Its democratic future was promising. Yet "party-archy"—a choice between two increasingly convergent parties—soon replaced true vertical accountability. And so, Hugo Chavez, a proponent of anti-party-archy discourse and statist who promised (and delivered) redistributive policies, was voted President by the people. Over time Chavez whittled down horizontal accountability. The government shifted from traditional democracy to what Guillermo O'Donnell (1994) refers to as "delegative democracy'—highly majoritarian democracies where vertical accountability is paramount (p.55-69). When elites attempted a coup in 2002, the majoritarian voice of the ordinary people spoke. Chavez survived, as did his government. And whilst it seems the checks and balances of Chavez' government deteriorated with the deterioration of institutional independence, the most important check and balance—the voice of the people—prevailed.
Since 2015, western democracy has experienced numerous political, economic and ideological changes—Britain voted to leave the EU, the Refugee Crisis and spurring terrorism in Europe led to the sustained emergence of anti-immigrant populism, a growing concern for border control and the rise of far-right/left governments in Austria, Hungary, Italy and Czechia; Donald Trump was elected President in America, France experienced the Yellow Vest Movement. Even less-democratic regimes like Mexico and Argentina—the former saw the first-time election of the Morena Party and candidate AMLO and; the latter saw the first-time election of a non-Peronist and non-Kirchenista in over 10 years, Mauricio Macri—have seen drastic changes to the political landscape. Across the board we have exemplary examples of democracy at work. Each event, as with the Venezuelan case, is symbolic of democracy as a tool for the people and a vehicle for the people to manoeuvre the change they seek. Regardless of one's political beliefs, opinions should converge that democracy, as it was fashioned to do, has enabled the voice of the people to prevail and reach a majority rule based on what they wanted. Therein lies the unanimous significance of democracy that transcends variation: we, as citizens, have choice and our decisions have value, at least at a macro level.
These examples of democratic governments and variation at play offer two crucial points— (1) a government does not have to involve significantly high levels of horizontal accountability to be democratic and; (2) vertical accountability alone is the most pivotal indicator of the importance of living in a democracy. It is indeed crucial to live in a democracy for the primary reason that citizens will always have a right to be heard and a right of speech, regardless of democratic variation.
On the flipside, democracy isn't synonymous with economic prowess or government quality and stability. South Korea's foundational rapid economic growth commenced under Park Chung Hee's "development dictatorship" via a highly successful export-led growth strategy. Singapore grew phenomenally under the Prime Minister-labelled dictator, Lee Kuan Yew, as did Indonesia under Suharto, the leader of a regime dubbed a "dictatorship" by foreign proponents. China, a non-democratic regime, is one of the biggest global economies. Whilst some argue democracy promotes free trade and economic freedom and protects economic rights, this is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism isn't democracy. Neoliberalism isn’t dependent on democracy. A glance at Latin America supports this—neoliberalism historically was adopted under authoritarianism such as in Mexico during its one-party hegemonic government and Chile under Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Durability and stability of non-democratic regimes like Cuba and Mexico transcended beyond five decades, versus, for example, Venezuela’s 1958 democracy. That isn’t to say democracy is inversely correlated with stability and durability. In fact, the most stable and durable governments have been democracies because they provide avenues for active participation and politician/ leadership turnover which allows citizens to have a say in government. However, democracies don't guarantee governability. This special role of citizens often means politicians are sitting ducks competing in a zero-sum game to obtain re-election or hold on till their time is up. Checks and balances, whilst beneficially enabling regulation of government and minimisation of abuses of power, produce gridlock and immobilism in dealing with policy issues, as evident presently with America's Congress shut-down. So, whilst democracies are important because they are more likely to lead to stability and durability, there is less importance where governability is concerned.
Sociologist Michael Mann, in “The Dark Side of Democracy” (2004) eloquently writes:
“European settlers from the 17th century on were more genocidal
if they lived under constitutional than authoritarian governments…
The Soviet Union and Tito’s Yugoslavia usually amped down ethnic
conflict, and their collapse led to ethnic wars as majority groups
sought to found ethnocracies (Beissinger, 2002). Brass (1997)
and Tambiah (1996) show that ethnic violence in the Indian
subcontinent rose in periods of vigorous electoral politics and
declined under martial law. “Majoritarian democracy” was the
battle cry of the Hutu Power movement while committing genocide
in 1994 while Northern Ireland Protestants and Sri Lankans denounce
their Catholic and Tamil opponents for undermining (majoritarian)
These examples demonstrate what Mann identifies as rule by a “nation” or “ethnic group” versus “ordinary people/ mass population” (p.3). Such situations can lead to instances whereby “ethnic unity may outweigh the…citizen diversity… central to democracy” and thus result in tyrannizing of minorities (p.3) or forms of restrictive democracy. We have seen this happen in genocides in Rwanda, in Serbia, in Kosovo. In each case, it was not important to live in a democracy for democracy did nothing for the cause of those subjected to ethnic cleansing.
I sum up the importance of democracy in two words: choice and accountability. Without choice, there is no multi-partism. There is no value in holding elections or permitting protests, lobbying and participating in politics. Without some form of accountability, there are zero constraints on political leaders. Despite variations among democracies, we are unified in vertical accountability, and this is what defines democracy in its purest form. Among western democracies, it is our affinity to both vertical and horizontal accountability that makes it important to live in a democracy—these are what guarantee our right to vote, our freedom of speech, our term limits and parliamentary turnover, our protection of minority rights and our valuing of interest groups and movements. So yes, it is important to live in a democracy, if only for the power afforded to the voice of the majority, civil freedoms and overall increased probability of regime stability. Conversely, it is not important to live in a democracy to guarantee strong economic performance or the prevention of gridlock and immobilism.
Guillermo O’Donnell, “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5: 1 (January 1994): 55-69.
Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Philippe C. Schmitter & Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy Is…and Is Not”, Journal of Democracy 2: 3 (June 1991): 75-88.