Democracy as a ‘sinking ship’?



The notion of democracy has been going through a turbulent path these days. From a contemporary aspect, we can refer to phenomena like the Brexit, the rise of nativists-populists epitomized by that corn-haired Donald Trump, and most recently, the military coup attempt in Turkey last Friday. We criticize such outcomes as malcontent, harbingers of something more dangerous to come, or short-sighted, but if we take into account deeper consideration, aren’t all these enabled – either directly or indirectly – from the very core processes we consider as ‘democratic’ instead?

This is not an academic paper that tries to discuss about democracy (although I would be very interested to author one), but – as a way to showcase my right of civil liberties – let us have a frank discussion about it. First thing first, we need to acknowledge that there are no perfect political ideologies, even in the concept of ‘democracy’. To understand about the existing dichotomy, let us the origin of this notion back into Ancient Greece, somewhere around 6th (or maybe 7th) century BC. Aristotle, or our genius philosophy bro’ who invented almost every field we study today, postulated that the main aim of democracy is to achieve freedom. On the other school of thought, we got the other partners-in-crime (Plato and Socrates, one of whom the other betrayed) who argued that democracy is no different from mob rule, or most commonly referred to as ‘tyranny of the majority’. One alternative proposition – or maybe compromise – offered by these philosophers was to use the term ‘polyarchy’. Defined as ‘rule by more than one person’, polyarchy still slightly differs from democracy in that the former postulates a set of institutions, constraints, and procedures that aim to balance the utilization of democracy, which the latter actually does not posit. If we adapt these debates to contemporary settings, the resulting outcome – voila! – is polarization within the society. People debate on how democracy should be done and represented. One school wants maximum participation from the people – and the people alone, while the other wants a more procedural, representative, and legally-constraining measures to not let democracy ‘erupt into complete anarchy’, which this school dreads of.

Efforts to promote democracy have been tied in orthodoxy as part of the Western world’s foreign-policy approaches in their contemporary ‘nation-building’ projects. United States – the current world superpower – is still actively promoting this idea (though no longer as active as in the past), and is followed suit by other European countries. Through epic makeups, democracy is parceled and decorated as though they were ‘gifts from Santa Claus’. Except from the cases of US-led democratization in Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II, most of their efforts have been largely mixed. Ironically, indeed, the idea of ‘democracy promotion’ was so subverted that the West ended up supporting any regimes they could label as ‘democratic’ – as long as they were anti-Communist. Military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Libya, Syria, etc) did not produce any tangible democracies; what we have is instead the rise of ISIS (or a more derogatory one, Daesh), the continuation of tribal, sectarian, and ethnic warfare, and regional instability. What the heck is wrong with all these so-called ‘democracy promotion’ things?

Many scholars have offered various answers and interpretations in order to answer such prevailing puzzle, but many of their explanations are contextually dependent on the regions they are specializing in. Experts such as Scott Mainwaring, James Fearon, David Laitin, David Collier, and Steven Levitsky have expertise in the Latin American contexts – and Collier and Levitsky have published a paper that aims to categorize democracies based on their knowledge in this region. On the other hand, we have experts such as Dan Slater, Tom Pepinsky, Eddy Malesky, Donald Emmerson, etc, who specialized in the context of Asia-Pacific region. We also have scholars that try to explain democracy from a political-economic framework, such as Dani Rodrik, William Easterly, and Stephan Haggard. And then we have scholars that explain democracy through massive global datasets that they have toiled to develop, such as Barbara Geddes, Adam Przeworski, Monty G. Marshall, etc. These are just some people I mention which papers I have read, and I’m sure there are way many more of them whose works I have yet to review. As each of them may offer some variation of insight about the dichotomy of democracy when compared to other issues, I can hardly type in through their postulation in this blog post (it’s too long, and I need to spend quite a large amount of time re-reading their papers).

The best explanation, I would emphasize, is to read Why Nations Fail, co-authored by Daron Acemoglu (MIT economist) and James A. Robinson (Harvard economist). They focus on the role played by institutions, which actually matter more than democracies do, in delivering outcomes from the authority to the people. Thus, here is the premise: if a country can not build an inclusive institutional setup that accommodates everyone’s interests, then the polity is designed to doom. While this book provides a largely historical perspective, in case you want to explore even further, you can try to read their another book titled ‘Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship’. With tons of pages of intricate econometric formula and analyses (which most people, and me – and even some grad students I bet – struggle to comprehend), they provide evidence as to how institutional setup established in the past can affect the political prospects of those countries. I do not recommend you (and myself) to read the latter before taking more Economics and Econometrics courses; Why Nations Fail itself already offers a huge range of fascinating case studies that are more exciting than your high-school history textbook.

In case you want the simplest explanation, I would suggest reading an article written by Fareed Zakaria, titled ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracies‘. Published in Foreign Affairs in 1997, Zakaria provided a thought-provoking argument about the need to differentiate the concept of ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutional liberalism’ (or, in simpler terms, rules and legal regulations that protect individual civil liberties). He attributed that the problem of many newly emerging democracies these days – back in the 1990s, when this article was published – was that these polities paved way for populists and strongmen to seek popular legitimacy to justify their autocratic rule. Going back to the ‘democracy promotion’ mode by US government and its allies, we all came to consolidate the correlation between democracy and ballot boxes alone, all the while overlooking other sets of factors and variables. Here, Zakaria had prophesied his pessimistic trajectory of how such populists – or other political agitators – made use of ballot boxes, securing the widespread support of the existing electoral base, all in the name of justifying their strongman-style rule, or implementing other policies many had thought could be a ‘shot in the arm’, but instead ended up as ‘gunshots in the arm’. Without a certain mechanism in protecting individual civil liberties, democracies can literally become what the ancient Greeks called as ‘tyranny of the majority’. Thus there came the phenomenon of illiberal democracies, where parties or regimes in power make use of elections solely as their defining feature of democracy to consolidate their power and empower their supporters, largely at the expense of protection of civil liberties. I recommend you to read this article, given its (ongoing) relevance to the present contexts in global politics.

Lastly, what about the question of polarization? In a seriously insightful paper, titled ‘Democratic Careening‘, Dan Slater actually refuted the argument by several scholars that ‘democracy is collapsing’. Instead, he stated that ‘democracy can not collapse, but rather careen’ (perhaps as you can see from the Paint-drawn illustration above). Democracy, to some aspect, can become like a ‘warzone’ with two opposing sides intensely fighting against each other – either on the streets or in the legislature – over the competing notions of democracy. He emphasized, in particular, about horizontal accountability (rule of law, checks-and-balances between state institutions) and vertical accountability (political participation among the public). The big ‘danger’ that could cause the war-zone to occur, in this regard, is when leaders in power cause both these features to compete against – rather than complement – each other. This can be achieved by leaders either disproportionately enlarging their executive powers to the degree that they become almost personalized, or that they agitate for mass mobilization among the supporters to take to the streets when there is any ‘threat against their legitimacy’. While Slater only focused on the comparative analysis of Thailand and Taiwan, this argument can be further expanded to look into other countries. Let’s say, the Chavismo phenomenon in Venezuela, how Erdogan rallied his supporters to take to the streets in response to the ‘coup attempt’ (or so the media said?), or the exploitation of ethnic, religious, or social-based cleavages to the ruling powers’ advantage.

This writing can be further explored into a further work, but I would rather stop here, risking the boredom of Internet readers (especially in the age where people simply share articles without really reading them or even clicking the links). In summary, I would say that democracy – in spite of its problems – can be ‘nurtured’, only if there are strong institutional setups from the beginning which can provide checks and balances on elected leaders, and all the while respect people’s civil liberties. Democracies matter, but so do institutions and the principle of constitutional liberalism. If implemented immaturely, we will continue to see any existing weird phenomena resulting from ‘democratic’ processes in the future, and even more half-baked democracies. Democracy is not sinking, but it can be bent in lieu of the desires of the leaders in power. Thus, I would rather advocate for the idea of liberal democracy, rather than ‘democracy’ in itself alone.

In the words of Ronald Dworkin, “democracy is a substantive, not a merely procedural, ideal.”


NB: In case you want to have some more independent study about democracy, here are some useful sources that you can refer to.

Readings (only two first):

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail

Francis Fukuyama – Political Order and Political Decay

Datasets (about the quality of democracy):

Freedom House – not too frequently referred to in academic discourse, but very useful in media and public discussions as the tone is much easier to comprehend

Polity IV – more complicating, but more useful, and is mostly referred to in academic discourse (on a scale of -10 to 10, dictatorships are labelled with scores -6 to -10, democracies from 6 to 10, and hybrid regimes, or what you call as ‘illiberal democracies’, scored precisely in between)


Hope these references help.


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