The Big Ideas

For many of us, democracy is like part of the air that we breathe. It is simply there. But that’s wrong. Each democracy is actually something that people consciously decided to create. It isn’t always easy to get right, and it can be broken. It is not something to take for granted at all. It isn’t all about voting either! In this essay, you will find some of the big ideas that make democracies possible.

Democracy is, first and foremost, a way to choose leaders and policies without the need for violence. Democracy is a fundamental political bargain made between leaders and their followers: leaders and policies will be chosen on the basis of votes rather than intimidation, repression or annihilation. There is no need to be all starry-eyed about this: it’s true that some democracies have suffered riots and terrorist acts, sometimes even coups or civil wars. The fact is, however, that such events occur far less in true democracies than anywhere else. For example, as shown in my inaugural post, and in the graph below (left) the number of coups per year fall over time as the global share of dictatorships and autocracies fall. It’s also true that internal violence is typically much lower in democracies than non-democracies. For example, for all the countries rated as full democracies, only 3 percent had any degree of internal violence, compared to 62 percent of all countries with zero democracy. The evidence also shows that strong, entrenched dictatorships have low levels of internal violence – at the price of heavy internal repression.

Democracy and Violence

Functional democracies must ensure that people and ideas will have regular opportunities to compete on a level playing field. Put bluntly, most leaders will accept a defeat now and then only as long as 1) it isn’t winner take all (they still get some seats in congress or parliament) and 2) they believe they will have another opportunity to win in the near future. If they stop believing this, they will eventually want to go back to violence. They will want all armed forces under control of a single elected government, pledged to the common defense of all citizens regardless of political, religious, ethnic or other affiliations. (See Yemen example below.) They will want a regular voting schedule, they will want all their supporters given the right to compete and to vote, and the right to double check election results. Minorities, especially, will want guarantees that their rights will be protected—without this they may see violence as the main alternative. Importantly, everyone will need non-partisan judges, in case any of the other conditions are not well met.

Yemen:  When North and South Yemen were unified in 1990, they set up regular presidential and parliamentary elections but did not also unify their armies. There can be no level playing field when each competing group has its own army. This made it all too easy to go to war in 1994 after a dispute came up over how profits from newly discovered oil reserves should be shared.

Everyone, leaders included, must be bound equally by the rule of law. There is no way a democracy can work if a large number of leaders and citizens do not agree to be bound by decisions reached at the voting booths or by elected leaders – or if there are different rules for different people. (See South Africa below.) By the same token, people also need competent and non-partisan judges to uphold the law. Again, there’s no need for naiveté, it’s true that democracies have criminal elements, just like anywhere else in the world. That’s normally not enough to destabilize a democracy – although there have been some recent examples where drug lords have effectively undermined governments in their areas. Yet, deliberate resistance on the part of some political leaders – either refusing to be held accountable or inciting their followers to break away — can be especially poisonous, causing people to lose faith in the system. If the situation becomes bad enough for long enough, people will consider organizing a violent response.

South Africa: Until 1994, the white minority maintained control by limiting the rights, associations, and movements of the majority black inhabitants and other ethnic groups. This practice, known as apartheid, became official law in 1948. By the 1950s, the non-white population had begun protesting. By the 1960s, the African National Congress had authorized resistance through guerilla warfare and sabotage.

The military and the police must be fully under elected civilian control and funding, with a mandate to protect the safety and property of all citizens, regardless of citizen affiliation. Without this, the most severe threat to democracy is that the military or police will use their weapons to force changes in laws or even entire elected governments. The 1983 coup in Nigeria is an example. Another possibility is that political parties have their own armies (as in Ireland in the 1980s) or each political leader is a warlord with his own army (with many examples from all around the world). In some countries such as Brazil or Egypt, the police have sometimes been allowed or encouraged to jail or even kill citizens with complete impunity. Less severe, but clearly toxic, is the unequal treatment of citizens by police or other security forces. The ongoing tension in the US over police shootings is an example.

Elected leaders and policies are not enough: democracies must be able to deliver good results. They need people with good administrative and technical skills, and they need to be able to pay for their activities year after year. Without this, citizens begin to doubt the merits of their democracy and might begin to feel tempted by more authoritarian approaches. During the great Depression (1929-39), when many governments and businesses were under severe financial pressure, many countries abandoned democracy for authoritarian nationalist or fascist models.

Bureaucracies and judges need to be competent and non-partisan. Political leaders and their parties will not put much faith in a system that provides false victories – it is no good winning an election if one cannot trust the machinery of government to faithfully uphold the laws. In many weak democracies, there are wholesale replacements of bureaucrats and judges with those favored by winning politicians. This sort of political patronage not only undermines trust in the system, it also weakens capacity to get things done (new people will need to be trained) and it harms thousands of families who lose income through no fault of their own.

Over the next many months, I hope to go into each of these topics in more detail. I welcome your suggestions for interesting topics.


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