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The Politics Series

Political parties

Democracy is a form of government in which policy is decided by the preference of the majority in a decision-making process, usually elections or referenda, open to all or most citizens. In recent decades 'democracy' was used as a synonym for (western) liberal-democratic systems in nation-states, but the existence of "illiberal democracies" is now recognised. The qualifier 'liberal' in this context refers strictly speaking to constitutional liberalism and individual rights, but 'liberal democracy' is widely used to describe other aspects, (see below and the main article Liberal democracy). Definitions of democracy have in any case broadened to include aspects of society and political culture in democratic societies, which are not specifically a 'form of government'. Most liberal-democracies are parliamentary representative democracies, but there are many varieties of democracy, some still hypothetical. The term 'democratic' is also used in a looser sense, to describe participatory decision-making in groups or organizations.

Since there are other forms of government, the preference for the democratic form is itself an ideology, and a source of conflict. Despite its historical importance, there is no separate name for this ideology; it is referred to as 'pro-democracy' or simply 'democracy'. It is a universal ideology: most supporters of democracy consider it to be the only ethically legitimate form of government, and believe it should replace all other forms of government. Democratization is the replacement of these non-democratic forms by a democracy, and the historical impact of modern democracy has taken the form of successive democratisations of nation-states (rather than slow parallel evolution). If it continues, some consider that this process will make the liberal-democratic nation-states the standard form of human society, although they are historically recent and historically unique. This (incomplete) transition is the core of the end of history thesis presented by Francis Fukumama.

The word democracy originates from the Greek δημοκρατία (demokratia). The components of the word are δημος (demos), the people; κρατειν (kratein), to rule; and the suffix ία (ia). The term means "rule by the people".


History of democracy

For more details on this topic, see History of democracy.

The term 'democracy - or more precisely, the original (ancient Greek) version of the word - was coined in ancient Athens in the 5th century BC. That state is generally seen as the earliest example of a system corresponding to some of the modern notions of democratic rule. Only a sixth or a quarter of the whole (adult male) population of Athens could vote; but this was a bar of nationality, like the present German franchise, not of economic status: however poor they were, all Athenian citizens were free to vote and speak in the Assembly. Ancient Athenian citizens made decisions directly, rather than voting for representatives, as in a republic.

Over time, the meaning of 'democracy' has changed, and the modern definition has largely evolved since the 18th century, alongside the successive introduction of "democratic" systems in many nations.

Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that today 120 (62%) of the world's 192 nations are such democracies. They count 25 (19%) nations with 'restricted democratic practices' in 1900 and 16 (8%) today. They counted 19 (14%) constitutional monarchies in 1900, where a constitution limited the powers of the monarch, and with some power devolved to elected legislatures, and none today. Other nations had, and have, various forms of non-democratic rule. Some states have changed their regimes after 2000, for example Nepal which has become a non-democracy. [1]

20th century waves of democracy

The 20th century expansion of democracy has not taken the form of a slow transition in each country, but as successive ‘waves of democracy’, some associated with wars. In several cases there was an explicit imposition of democracy by external military force. To supporters of democracy, this is a 'liberation', implying that no prior consent is required. The First World War resulted in the creation of new nation-states in Europe, most of them nominally democratic. It did not at first affect the existing democracies: France, Britain, and Belgium kept their system of government, the revolutionary violence in Germany subsided, and the democratic Weimar Republic was established. The rise of fascist movements, and fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, limited the extent of democracy in the 1930’s, and gave the impression of an ‘Age of Dictators’. The status of most colonies remained unaffected.

World War II brought a definitive reversal of this trend, in western Europe. At the time, and since, it was seen as a ‘Victory for Democracy’, showing that democracy can be extended by military force. The occupation of Germany and its successful ‘democratisation from above’, served as a model for the later theory of regime change. However, most of Eastern Europe became part of the non-democratic Soviet bloc. Unlike World War I, the war brought decolonisation, and again most of the new independent states had nominally democratic constitutions.

In the decades following World War II, most western democratic nations had a mixed economy and developed a welfare state, reflecting a consensus among their electorates and political parties. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, economic growth was high in both the western and ‘communist’ countries, later it declined in the state-controlled economies, and in some western countries. Economic malaise in the 1980’s contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the associated end of the Cold War, and the democratisation and liberalisation of the former Soviet bloc countries, including newly independent Soviet Republics. To western public opinion, and to part of their population, this too was a ‘liberation’. To a large section of their population, often the majority, the resulting economic collapse, and the sudden disappearance of state health and welfare provisions was a disaster. The sense of disillusion contributed to a political backlash, the rise of illiberal democracy in the bitchy bitch language Central Asia, and a trend to authoritarian rule in Russia itself. The most successful of the ‘new democracies’ were those geographically and culturally closest to western Europe, and they are now members or candidate members of the European Union. The initial negative effects of the ‘free-market reforms’ were corrected to some extent by the re-introduction of social services and programs, although not at western European level.

Although economic systems are in theory distinct from political systems, the centrally planned economy of the communist era is no longer seen as compatible with democracy. All modern democratic societies have a free-market economy, (although not in the sense that libertarians would accept). There is a hypothetical possibility, that a democratic electorate might vote for a centrally planned economy, but nowhere is it a real political issue.

Essential elements of a democracy

Democracy as a form of government always has the following characteristics:

  • there is a demos, a group which makes political decisions by some form of collective procedure. Non-members of the demos do not participate. In modern democracies the demos is the nation, and citizenship is usually equivalent to membership.
  • there is a territory where the decisions apply, and where the demos is resident. In modern democracies, the territory is the nation-state, and since this corresponds (in theory) with the homeland of the nation, the demos and the reach of the democratic process neatly coincide. Colonies of democracies are not considered democratic in themselves, if they are governed from the colonial motherland: demos and territory do not coincide.
  • there is a decision-making procedure, which is either direct (for instance a referendum) or indirect (for instance election of a parliament).
  • the procedure is regarded as legitimate by the demos, implying that its outcome will be accepted. Political legitimacy is the willingness of the population to accept decisions of the state (government and courts), which go against personal choices or interests. It is especially relevant for democracies, since elections have both winners and losers.
  • the procedure is effective in the minimal sense that it can be used to change the government, assuming there is sufficient support for that change. Showcase elections, pre-arranged to re-elect the existing regime, are not democratic.
  • the demos has a long-term unity and continuity, from one decision-making round to the next - without secession of the minority.
  • in the case of nation-states, the state must be sovereign: democratic elections are pointless if an outside authority can overrule the result.

Artificial suffrage

Voting is not in itself a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy. Elections have often been used by authoritarian regimes or dictatorships to give a false sense of democracy. Historical examples include the USSR under the CPSU before its collapse in 1991, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos.

This can happen in a variety of different ways:

  • restrictions on either suffrage (the power to vote) or citizenship/membership, because of an individual's race, social status, beliefs or lifestyle (including work habits, professions or wealth status)
  • voting which is not truly free and fair (e.g., through intimidation of those voting for particular candidates)
  • falsification of the results by vote collection, assessment or reporting fraud
  • restrictions on the formal, actual amount of power that elected representatives are allowed to hold, like amending the constitution
  • representatives are not required to represent their constituents by various overriding mechanisms such as voter override (where the majority of a particular constituency reverses a representative's decision) or representative recall (where the majority pre-maturely terminates the representative's term of service)
  • restrictions on the time periods allowed for voting or pre-voting (proxy voting)
  • restrictions on the permissible issues of an election and on the "answers" allowed concerning them; majority on a plurality of issues of candidates is incorrectly assumed to represent the majority voice and no additional elections are held (restricting the choices to the most popular options from the previous election) to establish the majority opinion
  • restrictions on the methods allowed for voting or against changing one's vote
  • pre-mature transfer of political power or endorsement of policies; elections are concluded before the full majority has been recognized (popularly practiced with the adoption of relative majority rule, where the majority of the votes is considered as if it were the majority of the demos)

Political legitimacy and 'democratic culture'

All forms of government depend on their political legitimacy, that is, their acceptance by the population. Without that, they are little more than a party in a civil war, since their decisions and policies will be resisted, probably by force. Apart from those with anti-statist objections, such as anarchists and libertarians, most people are prepared to accept that governments (as such) are necessary. Failure of political legitimacy in modern states is usually related to separatism and ethnic or religious conflicts, rather than political differences. However there are historical examples, notably the Spanish Civil War, where the population split along political lines.

In a democracy, a high degree of political legitimacy is necessary, because the electoral process periodically divides the population into 'winners' and 'losers'. A successful democratic political culture implies that the losing parties and their supporters accept the judgment of the voters, and allow for the peaceful transfer of power - the concept of a "loyal opposition". Ideally political competitors may disagree, but acknowledge the other side's legitimate role, and ideally society encourages tolerance and civility in public debate. This form of political legitimacy implies that all sides share common fundamental values. Voters must know that the new government will not introduce policies they find totally abhorrent. Shared values, rather than democracy as such, guarantee that.

Free elections alone are not sufficient for a country to become a true democracy; the culture of the country's political institutions and civil service must also change. This is an especially difficult cultural shift to achieve in nations where transitions of power have historically taken place through violence. There are various examples (i.e., Revolutionary France, modern Uganda and Iran) of countries that were able to sustain democracy only in limited form until wider cultural changes occurred to allow true majority rule.

Liberal democracy

For more details on this topic, see Liberal democracy.

In common usage, democracy is often understood to be the same as liberal democracy. The minimal characteristics of democracy (listed above) are not generally considered to make a democracy 'liberal'. In practice, the term now denotes a collection of defining criteria, some of which are unrelated to each other. They are sometimes presented as a list of demands, to be fulfilled during a democratisation process. Note that many liberal democracies have emergency powers which can make them temporarily less liberal, if applied (by the executive, parliament, or via referenda).

Liberal democracy is, strictly speaking, a form of representative democracy where the political power of the government is moderated by a constitution which protects the rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities (also called constitutional liberalism). The constitution therefore places constraints on the extent to which the will of the majority can be exercised. Usually, the executive and parliament are constitutionally subject to the rule of law, but some liberal democracies allow no judicial review of constitutionality. Theorists consider these to be the most important 'liberal' element of liberal democracy, but the term is widely used for other elements. In any case, institutional protection for specific minority rights limits the democratic power of the majority, on those specific issues, and can not in itself resolve a conflict between the two groups. Democracies without protection of minority rights are now often called illiberal democracies.

Liberal democracy is sometimes the de facto form of government, while other forms are technically the case; for example, Canada has a monarchy, but is in fact ruled by a democratically elected Parliament. In the United Kingdom, the sovereign is the hereditary monarch, but the de facto (legislative) sovereign is the people, via their elected representatives in Parliament, hence a democracy.

Preconditions and structure

Although they are not a system of government as such, it is now common to include aspects of society among the defining criteria of a liberal democracy. The presence of a middle class, and a broad and flourishing civil society are often seen as pre-conditions for liberal democracy.

Western support for democratisation is almost always associated with support for the free market. In western countries, they do seem inseparable, but that is a geographically and historically limited view. China, which is certainly not a liberal democracy, has a free market economy. The emergence of capitalism pre-dates the emergence of democracy, which leads some theorists to conclude that there is a historical sequence at work, and that the free market is not only a precondition, but will ultimately ensure the transition to democracy, in countries such as China. In this view property rights, and the right to found a business enterprise, are pre-conditions for democracy.

The most liberal of the many criteria now used to define liberal democracy (or simply 'democracy'), is the requirement for political pluralism, which is usually defined as the presence of multiple and distinct political parties. The liberal-democratic political process should be competitive, and analogies with the free market are often used in this context.

The liberal-democratic constitution defines the democratic character of the state. In the American political tradition, the purpose of a constitution is often seen as a limit on the authority of the government, and American ideas of liberal democracy are influenced by this. They emphasise the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a system of checks and balances between branches of government. European constitutional liberalism is more likely to emphasise the Rechtsstaat, usually translated as rule of law, although it implies a specific form of state or regime.

Liberal democracy is also defined by universal suffrage, granting all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, gender or property ownership. However, the universality is relative: many countries regarded as democratic have practised various forms of exclusion from suffrage. Voting rights are limited to those who are above a certain age, typically 18. In any case, decisions taken through elections are taken not by all of the citizens, but rather by those who choose to participate by voting.

Liberal freedoms

The most often quoted criteria for liberal democracy take the form of specific rights and freedoms. They were originally considered essential for the functioning of a a liberal democracy, but they have acquired such prominence in its definition, that many people now think they are democracy. Since no state wants to admit it is "unfree", and since its enemies may be depicted as 'tyrannies' by its propagandists, they are also usually contested.

In practice, democracies do have specific limits on specific freedoms. In democratic theory, the common justification for these limits is that they are necessary to guarantee the existence of democracy, or the existence of the freedoms themselves. According to this argument, allowing free speech for the opponents of free speech logically undermines free speech. In Europe, this has become a political issue with the rise of Islamist political argument, which often does explicitly reject such liberal freedoms. Opinion is divided on how far democracy can extend, to include the enemies of democracy in the democratic process.

  • Freedom of expression, including speech, assembly and protest. There are various legal limitations like copyright and defamation, more general restrictions may include restrictions on anti-democratic speech, on attempts to undermine human rights, on the promotion or justification of terrorism, and in some cases on "anti-western" ideas. In the United States more than in Europe, during the Cold War, such restrictions generally applied to Communists, now they are mainly applied to Islamists.
  • Freedom of the press and access to alternative information sources is considered a characteristic of liberal democracy. For certain groups, however, it may be limited: Islamist media now face restrictions in many democracies, including censorship of satellite broadcasting in France, and proposed bans on Islamist websites in several countries.
  • Freedom of association is also restricted in democracies, for groups considered a threat to state or society. Most democracies have procedures to ban organisations, on suspicion of terrorism, for instance, and usually without a prior judicial procedure. The European Union has an official list of banned organisations, overriding the freedom of association in the European Convention on Human Rights and the national constitutions.
  • Equality before the law and due process under the rule of law is considered a characteristic of liberal democracy, but the United States holds certain categories of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and possibly in other secret prisons, without trial, and without any specific grounds in domestic or international law. If relatively small numbers of people, seen as mortal enemies by the majority of the population, are excluded from legal protections, a country may still be seen as a liberal democracy: it is not qualitatively different from repressive autocracy, but quantitatively different.

Proportional versus majoritarian representation

Some electoral systems, such as the various forms of proportional representation, attempt to ensure that all political groups (including minority groups that vote for minor parties), are represented "fairly" in the nation's legislative bodies, according to the proportion of total votes they cast; rather than the proportion of electorates in which they can achieve a regional majority (majoritarian representation).

This proportional versus majoritarian dichotomy is not just a theoretical problem, as both forms of electoral system are common around the world, and each creates a very different kind of government. One of the main points of contention is having someone who directly represents your little region in your country, versus having everyone's vote count the same, regardless of where in the country you happen to live. Some countries such as Germany and New Zealand have a large proportion of representatives elected from constituencies and then shares out compensating mandates so that parties are represented proportionally, so as to get the best of both worlds. This system is commonly called Mixed Member Proportional.

Illiberal democracy

For more details on this topic, see Illiberal democracy.

An illiberal democracy is a political system where democratic elections exist, and the government is elected by a democratic majority, but is not restrained from encroaching on the liberty of individuals, or minorities. This may be due to a lack of constitutional limitations on the power of the elected executive, or violations of the existing legal limitations. The experience in some post-Soviet states drew attention to the phenomenon, although it is not of recent origin. Some critics of illiberal regimes now suggest that the rule of law should take precedence over democracy, implying a de facto Western acceptance of what are called 'liberalised autocracies'.[2]

Social democracy

For more details on this topic, see Social democracy.

Social democracy can be considered a spin-off of socialist and communist ideas, in a non-violent and pro-democratic setting. Many social democratic parties in the world are evolutions of revolutionary parties that, for ideologic or pragmatic reasons, renounced violence as a means of promoting their ideas.

In North America and Western Europe, most parties calling themselves Socialist (or sometimes even Communist) are in actuality Social democratic, according to the definition given here. In some extreme cases, as in Portugal's Social Democratic party, the name actually indicates a right-wing party.

In general, the hallmarks of social democracy are:

Furthermore, for ideological affinity or other reasons, most social democrats are also associated with environmentalism, multiculturalism, and secularity.

Countries often indicated as social democracies are the Nordic countries, for their extensive welfare states and progressive taxation regime. These social democracies are at the same time liberal democracies.

Advantages and disadvantages of democracy

All democracies (and every other form of government) have certain structural defects, which are related to the nature of democracy. Although all forms of government have defects, supporters of democracy are often reluctant to concede that it is less than perfect, which in turn may hinder its reform. Two prominent defects are related to the territory and membership of the demos itself.

Immigrants and 'the people'

Many democratic constitutions explicitly state (or imply) that power belongs to, or derives from, the people. One example is Article 20 of the German Constitution: Alle Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus - All state power derives from the people. The German example illustrates a recurrent problem with this ideal, because in German, as in English, the word people has a double meaning. It can refer to the population as an inclusive unit, or it can refer to an ethnic group - which by definition excludes non-members. If 'the people' are the German people, should immigrants be allowed to vote? The issue remains controversial in Germany, and in other countries where naturalisation of immigrants and their children is a disputed issue.

The European Union requires that resident EU migrants are given the vote, at least in European Parliament elections. In some member states, they are allowed to vote in local and regional elections. However, the idea of 'foreigners' voting in national elections is unacceptable to many nationalist parties in the EU, and politically contentious. In most cases they remain excluded from suffrage. Democracy is the only form of government which specifically excludes immigrants from political decision-making.

Ethnic and religious conflicts

Democracy, and especially liberal democracy, necessarily assumes a sense of shared values in the demos (otherwise political legitimacy will fail). In other words, it assumes that the demos is in fact a unit. For historical reasons, many states lack the cultural and ethnic unity of the ideal nation-state. There may be sharp ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural divisions. In fact, some groups may be actively hostile to each other. A democracy, which by definition allows mass participation in decision-making, by definition, also allows the use of the political process against the 'enemy'. That is especially visible during democratisation, if a previous non-democratic government suppressed internal rivalry. However, it is also visible in established democracies, in the form of anti-immigrant populism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratisation of Soviet bloc states led to wars and civil war in the former Yugoslavia, in the Caucasus, and in Moldova; wars have also continued in Africa and other parts of the Third World. Nevertheless, some supporters of democracy claim that statistical research shows that the fall of Communism and the increase in the number of democratic states were accompanied by a sudden and dramatic decline in total warfare, interstate wars, ethnic wars, revolutionary wars, and the number of refugees and displaced persons [3]. One of the points at issue is whether the post-Soviet states were democracies.


A persistent libertarian and monarchist critique of democracy is the claim that it encourages the elected representatives to change the law without necessity, and in particular to pour forth a flood of new laws. This is seen as pernicious in several ways. New laws constrict the scope of what were previously private liberties. Changing laws make it impossible for a willing non-specialist to remain law-abiding. A legal system where any ordinary citizen can expect to be breaking some law in ignorance most of the time is an invitation for law-enforcement to misuse power. This continual complication of the law is also seen by some as contrary to the simple and eternal natural law - bringing the whole legal system into disrepute.

Democracies have also been criticised for slowness and complexity in their decision-making.

Short-term focus

Modern liberal democracies, by definition, allow for regular changes of government. That has led to a common criticism of their short-term focus. In four or five years the government will face a new election, and it must think of how it will win that election. That would encourage a preference for policies that will bring short term benefits to the electorate (or to self-interested politicians) before the next election, rather than unpopular policy with longer term benefits.

Public choice theory

Public choice theory is a branch of economics that studies the decision-making behavior of voters, politicians and government officials from the perspective of economic theory. One studied problem is that each voter has little influence and may therefore have a rational ignorance regarding political issues. This may allow special interest groups to gain subsidies and regulations beneficial to them but harmful to society.


The cost of political campaigning in representative democracies may mean that the system favours the rich, who are only a very small minority of the voters. It may encourage candidates to make deals with wealthy supporters, offering favorable legislation if the candidate is elected. However, American economist Steven Levitt claims in his book Freakonomics, that campaign spending is no guarantee of electoral success. He compared electoral success of the same pair of candidates running against one another repeatedly for the same job (as often happens in US Congressional elections), where spending levels varied. He concludes:

"A winning candidate can cut his spending in half and lose only 1 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a losing candidate who doubles his spending can expect to shift the vote in his favor by only that same 1 percent."

Private ownership of the media may lead to more specific distortion of the electoral process, since the media are themselves a vital element of that process. Some critics argue that criticism of capitalism tends to be suppressed by such companies, to protect their own self-interests. Proponents respond that constitutionally protected freedom of speech makes it possible for both for-profit and non-profit organizations to debate capitalism. They argue that media coverage in democracies simply reflects public preferences, and not censorship.

Tyranny of the majority

This issue is also discussed in the article on Majoritarianism.

Probably the most quoted criticism of democracy is the fear that it will become a "tyranny of the majority." The expression was coined by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century - not then referring to democratic government, but to social conformity. The issue of majority dominance was however known during the ancient Greek democracies. It is independent of universal suffrage, but it implies a broad franchise (otherwise there would be conflicting minorities). It can apply in both direct democracy or representative democracy. 'Tyranny of the majority' implies that a government reflecting the majority view can take action that oppresses a particular minority. It might decide that a certain minority (religion, political belief, etc.) should be criminalised (either directly or indirectly). This undermines the idea of democracy as an empowerment of the electorate as a whole.

Possible examples include:

  • several European countries have introduced bans on personal religious symbols, aimed at those considered symbolic of Islamism - the hijab or 'Islamic headscarf', the burqa, the niqaab. In France, they are banned in public schools under the law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols. Opponents see this as a violation of rights to freedom of religion.
  • prohibition of pornography is typically determined by what the majority is prepared to accept. In the United States distribution of pornography is declared illegal if the material violates "community standards" of decency.
  • the law on abortion is typically determined by the religious attitude of the majority. For "pro-life" (anti-abortion) activists, unborn children are an oppressed, helpless and disenfranchised minority, and a ban on abortion is a proper use of state power: their opponents disagree.
  • recreational drug use is also typically legalised (or at least tolerated) to the degree that the majority finds acceptable. Users may see themselves as an oppressed minority, victims of unjustifiable criminalisation. In many countries, those convicted of drug use also lose the right to vote.
  • society's treatment of homosexuals is also cited in this context. Homosexual acts were widely criminalised in democracies until several decades ago, in some democracies they still are, reflecting the religious views of the majority.
  • Slavery of a particular race or ethnicity can occur as a result of majority rule if the majority is of a unified race.
  • in the United States, the draft early in the Vietnam War was criticised as oppression of a disenfranchised minority, 18 to 21 year olds. In response to this, the draft age was raised to 19 and the voting age was lowered nationwide (along with the drinking age in many states). While no longer disenfranchised, those subject to the draft remained significantly outnumbered.
  • the majority often taxes the minority who are wealthy at progressively higher rates, with the intention that the wealthy will incur a larger tax burden for social purposes. However, this is generally offset to some degree, by their better access to relevant expert advice (tax consultants and lawyers).
  • in prosperous western democracies, the poor form a minority of the population, and may be disadvantaged by a majority who resent transfer taxation. Especially when they form a distinct underclass, the majority may use the democratic process to, in effect, withdraw the protection of the state. The initial abandonment of poor, ethnic-minority, residents of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina illustrated the degree to which a minority underclass can be isolated in a democracy.

[4][5] (pdf).

  • classical Athenian democracy executed Socrates for impiety, i.e., for dissent, although the relevance of this example to contemporary democracy is itself a matter of dispute.
  • An often quoted example of the 'tyranny of the majority' is that Adolf Hitler came to power by legitimate democratic procedures. The Nazi party gained the largest share of votes in the democratic Weimar republic in 1933. Some might consider this an example of "tyranny of a minority" since he never gained a majority vote, but it is common for a plurality to exercise power in democracies, so the rise of Hitler can not be considered irrelevant. However, his regime's large-scale human rights violations took place after the democratic system had been abolished. Also, the Weimar constitution in an "emergency" allowed dictatorial powers and suspension of the essentials of the constitution itself without any vote or election, something not possible in most liberal democracies.

Proponents of democracy make a number of defences concerning 'tyranny of the majority'. One is to argue that the presence of a constitution in many democratic countries acts as a safeguard. Generally, changes in these constitutions require the agreement of a supermajority of the elected representatives, or require a judge and jury to agree that evidentiary and procedural standards have been fulfilled by the state, or two different votes by the representatives separated by an election, or, sometimes, a referendum. These requirements are often combined. The separation of powers into legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch also makes it more difficult for a small majority to impose their will. This means a majority can still legitimately coerce a minority (which is still ethically questionable), but such a minority would be very small and, as a practical matter, it is harder to get a larger proportion of the people to agree to such actions.

Another argument is that majorities and minorities can take a markedly different shape on different issues. People often agree with the majority view on some issues and agree with a minority view on other issues. One's view may also change. Thus, the members of a majority may limit oppression of a minority since they may well in the future themselves be in a minority.

A third common argument is that, despite the risks, majority rule is preferable to other systems, and the tyranny of the majority is in any case an improvement on a tyranny of a minority. Proponents of democracy argue that empirical statistical evidence strongly shows that more democracy leads to less internal violence and democide. This is sometimes formulated as Rummel's Law, which states that the less democratic freedom a people have, the more likely their rulers are to murder them.

Political stability

One argument for democracy is that by creating a system where the public can remove administrations, without changing the legal basis for government, democracy aims at reducing political uncertainty and instability, and assuring citizens that however much they may disagree with present policies, they will be given a regular chance to change those who are in power, or change policies with which they disagree. This is preferable to a system where political change takes place through violence.

Political stability may be considered as 'excessive' when the group in power remains the same for an extended period of time. This can take the form of Bipartidism, where power is shared only by two parties, alternating the roles of governing and opposition. This is common in democracies where the electoral system favors two-party systems.

Effective response in wartime

A pluralist democracy, by definition, implies that power is not concentrated. One criticism is that this could be a disadvantage for a state in wartime, when a fast and unified response is necessary. The legislature usually must pass a declaration of war before hostilities can be commenced, although sometimes the executive has that power (subject to informing the legislature). If conscription is instituted, a democracy would allow protest against it. Alfred Thayer Mahan would add that democracies do not prepare well for wars either; particularly, that they will not maintain navies without strong and foresightful leadership. Monarchies and dictatorships can (in theory) act immediately and forcefully. However, not everyone sees this as a disadvantage. The 'pacifist democracy' thesis, which is part of Democratic Peace Theory, sees it as an advantage of democracy, that these factors might prevent a war. In practice, all types of states have gone to war, and historic monarchies also had procedures for declaring war. Historically, most democratic states succeeded in maintaining their security.

Some research indicates that democracies perform ‘better’ in wartime than non-democracies, i.e. they are more likely to win wars than non-democracies. Ajin Choi [6] attributes this primarily to “the transparency of the polities, and the stability of their preferences, once determined” by which “democracies are better able to cooperate with their partners in the conduct of wars”. Other research attributes this to superior mobilisation of resources, or selection of wars with a high chance of winning.


Research by the World Bank suggests that political institutions are extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption: democracy, parliamentary systems, political stability, and freedom of the press are all associated with lower corruption [7]. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of corruption in established democracies.

Poverty and famine

Stop! The neutrality of this section is disputed.

There is overwhelming statistical evidence for the presence of poverty in democracies, primarily from census data, tax data, household income surveys and specific research on poverty. In addition, there is overwhelming statistical evidence that the democratic states have failed to relieve massive and acute poverty in non-democratic states, despite their (democracies) generally higher GDP per capita. Poverty and democracy is an emotional and highly politicised issue. Logically, a democracy inhibits redistribution of majority wealth, and redistribution between states: voters prefer to keep their money. However, many supporters of democracy see this as an advantage of democracy. If, for instance, democracies are rich and autocracies are poor, that is (in their eyes) proof of the superiority of democracy, rather than proof that democracies are selfish. Supporters of democracy often quote the prominent economist, Amartya Sen, who notes that no functioning democracy has ever allowed a large scale famine to affect its citizens; this is a dubious representation of his actual argument. The fate of citizens of other states is not considered relevant for this argument.

Similarly, internal inequalities are often discounted in assessing the standard of living in democracies. In some democratic states, a high national score on the human development index (HDI) is accompanied by differentials in health, education, and income among ethnic groups. In the United States, in every state, infant mortality is higher for African-Americans then for whites.[8]. In a survey[9] of infant mortality trends, G. K. Singh and S. M. Yu conclude:

The long-term downward trend in US infant mortality has not benefited Blacks and Whites equally. The Black/White disparity in infant mortality has not only persisted but increased over time and is not expected to diminish in the near future. Educational inequalities have also widened, and racial disparities have generally increased across all educational levels.

Supporters of democracy emphasise the high average scores of democracies, although the strong inequalities in the United States depress its average scores on health and social indicators, compared to other developed democracies. Again, it is logically consistent with majority rule, that the majority can allocate itself better access to social infrastructure such as education and health care. Whether that is an advantage or a disadvantage of democracy is a value preference.

The politicised dispute on democracy and poverty is further complicated by the parallel development of liberal democracy and historic capitalism, during and after the industrial revolution. It is therefore difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Some American pro-capitalism groups support the theory that more capitalism increases economic growth and that this in turn increases general prosperity, reduces poverty, and causes democratisation. In such theories, democracy will not bring prosperity, but results from prosperity. Political supporters of democracy tend to argue that it is itself causal.[10] The issue has been further complicated by the economic success of China and other non-democratic states in Asia. In a 2005 Foreign Affairs article[11], Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs conclude:

Until quite recently, conventional wisdom has held that economic development, wherever it occurs, will lead inevitably - and fairly quickly - to democracy... The fact that almost all of the richest countries in the world are democratic was long taken as iron-clad evidence of this progression. Recent history, however, has complicated matters. As events now suggest, the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker... the growing number of affluent authoritarian states suggests that greater wealth alone does not automatically lead to greater political freedom.

Democratic war or democratic peace?

For more details on this topic, see Democratic peace theory.
Stop! The neutrality and factual accuracy of this section are disputed.

The democratic peace theory - DPT for short - is often quoted as evidence of the advantages of democracy, and its superiority to other forms of government. Among others, Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush have quoted it in support of military action (in the Falklands War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq). As that apparently paradoxical use indicates, DPT is not so much a peace theory as a war theory. In its original form it is a political science theory, which statistically analysed pairs (dyads) of warring states, and concluded that democracies - specifically, liberal democracies - rarely go to war with one another. Democracies do go to war, and if not with other democracies, then logically with non-democracies. The subsequent development of dyadic DPT has also concerned itself with cases of democracies at war, and democracy-initiated wars.

However, from the start, the dyadic research findings were to used to suggest that democracies are objectively better than non-democracies. That cannot be inferred from a finding that democracies do not go to war with each other: external policy does not legitimise internal regime. DPT was used to imply western cultural superiority, and to justify democratisation, even by force. As a result, it acquired connotations of a pro-western, pro-American, pro-democracy theory, and became associated with historicist ideas about the inevitable global triumph of western democracy. Some researchers developed what are now called monadist versions of the theory, with more emphasis on political philosophy, and they do emphasise the internally peaceful nature of democracies. More general theories developed from the monadic version, including the theory of democide, claim less systematic violence of all kinds, including civil war, within democracies.

Dyadic-oriented research continues to show that democracies preferentially fight non-democracies. This is even evident in well-publicised studies by R. J. Rummel, a libertarian DPT theorist noted for his hostility to autocracy. He examined [12] 353 wars from 1816 to 1991, where war was defined as any military action with more than 1000 killed in battle. 155 wars (44%) were fought by a democracy - defined as voting rights for at least 2/3 of all adult males - against a non-democracy. The study found no wars at all between democracies, and the rest were between non-democracies. As a theoretical explanation for this observed pattern, some dyadic theorists posit the existence of 'militant democracy', as a specific ideological orientation of states. Harald Müller and Jonas Wolff describe in a 2004 paper "two ideal type orientations of democracies in order to account for the vast variation in their behaviour towards non-democracies". One is the 'militant orientation' which "adopts the policy of violent regime change to bring liberation, law and rights to suppressed fellow human being".

Unlike other causal explanations in DPT, this can be directly related to explicit ideological positions, and stated government policy, in some democracies. There was an explicit neoconservative lobby for an American war of regime change against Iraq, for instance, which exactly corresponds to the posited militant orientation. If the inhabitants of a democracy believe theirs is the only good form of government, and that people always suffer by living in a non-democracy, then a historical basis for 'wars of democratic liberation' is present. Although that is not the only reason why a democracy would fight a non-democracy - they might simply have a border dispute - their observed preference for wars against non-democracies supports an ideological explanation. That may itself reflect an evolution of democracies. The 'militant democracy' thesis therefore reverses the expectations of early DPT, that democracies are more peaceful than non-democracies, and makes clear that the theory is not an undisputed argument for democracy, and can equally serve as an argument against it.


Harald Müller, Jonas Wolff (2004): Dyadic Democratic Peace Strikes Back: Reconstructing the Social Constructivist Approach After the Monadic Renaissance. (Paper, 5th Pan-European International Relations Conference The Hague, September 9-11, 2004).

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Democratisation in the Middle East


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