What is a democracy? What are some real-world examples of democratic and non-democratic attitudes? In this video, you’ll discover the answers to all of these questions and analyze democracy through the examples of British political life, Catalonia’s independence movement, and the election of Donald Trump.
Daniel Kselman is Vice Dean at the IE School of Global and Public Affairs. His research emphasizes the interactions between, democracy, economic development, and political governance, with a particular focus on political parties and electoral systems. Daniel’s research has been published in top academic journals including Political Analysis, Comparative Political Studies, and Political Science Research and Methods. He also is former President and current Board member of the Minga Foundation.
The term ‘democracy’ is ubiquitous; you can’t go 10 minutes reading a newspaper without encountering the word in some context or other.
It is also a controversial term. Take the current situation in Catalunya, where protests have been taking place over the decision by the Spanish Supreme Court to sentence leaders of the separatist movement to prison. Important actors on both sides of the conflict refer to ‘democracy’ as a justification for their actions. Catalan protesters talk about the right to self-determination and freedom of expression; supporters of the Spanish state refer to respecting the rule of law, the democratic constitution, and non-violent, democratic procedures.
The fact that actors from completely opposing sides of a conflict both claim to represent ‘true’ democracy is revealing; and it suggests that we need to take a step back and look at the meaning of the term. Here, it is helpful to turn to political science, and in particular the famous political scientist Robert Dahl, who defined democracy based on two distinct criteria: one which we will call the ‘participation’ or ‘accountability’ dimension, and the second which we could call the‘political pluralism’ dimension. Importantly, accountability and pluralism are not the same thing!
Countries have accountable government when everyday citizens have the capacity to participate actively in the political process, and when that process is responsive to their needs and desires. On the other hand, government is pluralistic whencompetition over political office is free, and open to a wide variety of competing interest groups, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a Monarch, a personalist leader, or a single political party.
To see that accountability and pluralism are distinct concepts, consider the political history of the United Kingdom. Ever since the drafting of the Magna Carta in 1215 AD, the UK has seen a steady rise in the practice of political pluralism, withthe Monarchy gradually restricted, and power increasingly in the hands of the Parliament, where factions, interest groups, and political parties compete for power.
However, despite this steady rise in pluralism, up until the middle of the 19th century only a tiny number ofaristocrats and property owners could actually participate in politics. The right to vote was only slowly expanded to a greater portion of the male population over the 2nd half of the 19th century, and it wasn’t until 1928 thatall women were given the right to vote! Thus, while England began developing pluralistic institutions in the 13th century, it only became a participatory democracy much later.
The 20th century witnessed a steady increase in the number of countries globally that combined high levels of both political pluralism and popular accountability. The expansion of global democracy hit its high point with the end of the Cold War in 1989, when a wave of countries in Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa experienced their first democratic elections. In the 1990’s Francis Fukuyama’s famous claim that history was coming to an end, and that it was only a matter of time before all of the world’s countries became liberal democracies, seemed to have some purchase.
The first two decades of the 21st century have seen the 9/11 attacks in New York, the massive economic meltdown in 2007-2008, the never-ending war Syria, and mass migrations. In addition to these traumatic events, since the 1980’s the economic conditions of the middle classes have stagnated and even declined across much of the world, as technological advances and globalization have created economic growth, but also increased levels of inequality.
This combination of economic insecurity and global trauma presents a unique challenge to democracy. It has led to an increasing openness to leaders whose rhetoric and behavior often violates key democratic norms. Interestingly, theseleaders claim to be making politics more accountable to the needs of everyday people, and to be ‘draining the swamp’ of a corrupt elite. At the same time, they threaten and sometimes imprison journalists and the political opposition. They believe that high accountability ‘Trumps’ pluralism; that if you have the support of enough people, there is little need to recognize the civil liberties of those who do not support you.
The rise of these types of attitudes and leaders begs the question: have we seen the end of the delicate balance between accountability and pluralism achieved in the late 20th century? Can this balance be restored, given the increasing economic inequality associated with advanced capitalism? Or will we see ever-increasing tension between populist and pluralist visions of democracy, as described in the above stories from Catalunya and America?
I, for one, continue to think that democracy is the best game in town, and is also the best system for adapting public policy to the world’s new economic challenges. However, in an age of social media echo chambers, it is easy to get caught on one side of the pluralism-accountability divide, and to demonize those with competing opinions.
Polarization is a real threat, and has caused democratic breakdowns in the past. One key step in restoring the balance between pluralism and accountability in the 20th century is thus getting off of our cell-phones and into our communities. The more we talk to those with differing opinions, the more clearly we will see that neither pluralism nor accountability functions well on its own; and indeed that they only flourish in unison with one another.