Definition of Democracy

Democracy is arguably the oldest concept of the two under consideration here and it was first formulated in the work of Aristotle, whose notion of ‘polity’ most closely matches the modern conception of democracy used today. While polity refers to the ‘good’ form of rule by the many2, modern conceptions of democracy are based on the fundamental ideas of popular sovereignty and collective decision-making in which rulers are in some way held to account by those over whom they rule. 

But beyond this basic consensus on what is otherwise a highly contested concept, there are many variations of democracy, or ‘democracy with adjectives’ (Collier and Levitsky 1997) that have been in use by scholars, practitioners and policymakers. These definitions can be grouped broadly into (1) procedural democracy, (2) liberal democracy and (3) social democracy, the delineation of which largely rests on the variable incorporation of different rights protection alongside the general commitment to popular sovereignty and collective decision-making.

Procedural democracy

Procedural definitions of democracy draw on the seminal work of Robert Dahl (1971) in Polyarchy and include two dimensions of contestation and participation. Contestation captures the uncertain peaceful competition necessary for democratic rule; a principle which presumes the legitimacy of a significant and organized opposition, the right to challenge incumbents, protection of the twin freedoms of expression and association, the existence of free and fair elections and a consolidated political party system. 

In reference to some of the discussions in the previous chapter, this idea alone has motivated much foreign and aid policy in ways that have led to the ‘electoral fallacy’, or the over-enthusiasm among certain policymakers for the existence of successive elections as a key indicator for the existence of stable democracy. Participation, on the other hand, captures the idea of popular sovereignty, which presumes the protection of the right to vote as well as the existence of universal suffrage, or that principle that enshrines the right of participation in the democratic process to all within a country’s jurisdiction regardless of social categories, such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

The history of suffrage suggests that this is a right that has been the result of long and widespread social struggle as mentioned above, at least among Western democracies, while new democracies have enshrined, at least formally, universal suffrage in their new (or resurrected) constitutions during their own moments of transition.

Liberal democracy

Liberal definitions of democracy preserve the notions of contestation and participation found in procedural definitions, but add more explicit references to the protection of certain human rights. As outlined above, these rights were traditionally understood as citizenship rights, but with the advent of the contemporary international law and practice they have become largely understood as human rights (see below). Definitions of liberal democracy thus contain an institutional dimension and a rights dimension. 

The institutional dimension captures the idea of popular sovereignty and includes notions of accountability, constraint of leaders, representation of citizens and universal participation in ways that are consistent with Dahl’s ‘polyarchy’ model outlined above. The rights dimension is upheld by the rule of law and includes civil, political, property and minority rights. The protection of these rights provides a particular set of guarantees that guard against the threat of a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and have their provenance in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence and the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. 

For liberal definitions, popular sovereignty and collective decision-making are simply not enough as outcomes under such a system can undermine the rights of individuals and groups. And we shall see later on in this chapter that many new democracies have been relatively successful in establishing procedural democracy, but have struggled to guarantee the kinds of rights that constitute the liberal definition.

Scholars such as Larry Diamond (1999) and Fareed Zakaria (2007) have written extensively about this ‘gap’ between the institutional and rights dimensions that characterize the new democracies that have emerged since the late 1970s. Indeed, Zakaria calls such a state of affairs ‘illiberal democracy’, but what is interesting is that if one looks closely at the collection of so-called ‘advanced democracies’, especially since the advent of the 2001 ‘war on terror’, there are also evident gaps between the institutional and rights dimension in these democracies as well. 

Across a wide selection of these democracies, we have seen the passage of anti-terror legislation that undermines many historic rights commitments relating to arbitrary detention, privacy and freedom of movement (see, e.g. Brysk and Shafir 2007), while the prosecutors of the war on terror have sought ways to reinterpret legal protections relating to such human rights as the right not be tortured, or other forms of cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment.

Social democracy

Social definitions of democracy maintain the institutional and rights dimensions found in liberal models of democracy but expand the types of rights that ought to be protected, including social, economic and cultural rights (although some of these are included in minority rights protection seen in liberal definitions). Conceptually, those advocating a pure liberal model of democracy argue that including such social dimensions mixes intrinsic and extrinsic features of democratic performance, since it is possible for non-democratic regimes to provide social and economic welfare as well as the realization of their associated rights.

This has long been the argument of socialist regimes, particularly those of the former Soviet Union, the Communist countries of Eastern Europe and Cuba, as well as in the case of Venezuela under the Bolivarian Revolution of President Hugo Chavez. Proponents of human rights, on the other hand, argue that the sharp distinction between categories of rights is false, since the exercise of one category of rights is related to the other category of rights, and both sets are required for full experience of democratic rule. For example, access to health, education and welfare will have an impact on an individual’s ability to participate in the democratic process through voting, acquiring and understanding political information and having the personal capacity and capabilities for critical engagement in the political system. 

Thus for a full experience of democracy, both sets of rights are required. Beyond these conceptual and theoretical debates, which see social democracy as a ‘type’ that ought to include this fuller selection of rights protection and provision of social programmes and policy, we saw in the previous chapter that empirical research on the benefits of democracy includes growth rates that are not worse than under non-democratic rule and patterns of human development that are much better. Moreover, Donnelly (1999) argues that in the relationship between development, democracy and human rights, European welfare states have come closest to the normative ideal of ‘rights-protective’ regimes, since the welfare system acts to alleviate the worst effects of market capitalism by providing a social safety net. 

Such an understanding of course has been significantly challenged in Europe since the 2007 financial crisis, as governments across the region have had to cut back on public expenditure in ways that have caused great pain for those most in need of the services expected from the welfare state. Cuts in such countries as Spain, Greece, Portugal, Ireland and the United Kingdom have affected public service workers, those in receipt of housing benefit, educational grants, child benefit and other services typically provided by the state.

The North American tradition of democracy tends to concentrate on the liberal model, while European and African countries tend to concentrate on the social model. Indeed, in Africa, and in particular, the African Union political discourse, there is great attention to the basket of economic, social and cultural rights as essential for democracy in the region. As we shall see below, the main human rights instrument in Africa is entitled the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which signals this normative commitment to collective rights found within the social democratic model. Overall, it is important in any discussion of democracy to take account of these various definitions, which should serve as a general guide to the different ways in which democracy has been understood and how it will be understood in new democracies.

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