Democracy can take place in many different forms. For some, democracy is representative of the chocolate given to them by American soldiers following the Second World War. For others, democracy may be represented by an American flag waving in the wind. Many more people might say democracy is simply having the right to vote. All people have different notions of what democracy means to them, but what exactly is democracy? Why is it so popular? It is the form, or maybe better termed “philosophy”, of government that many developing countries strive for. It is something that seems to give hope to struggling peoples. The term democracy can be viewed as an institutional, as well as a cultural process.
Institutionally, democracy is founded on checks and balances. It is a system of government implemented with the intent that no one branch or department of government can ever gain too much power (McCormick 2007, 49). There are limitations of power placed on each part of the government, thus forcing each department to work together, ensuring that the best interest of the people is maintained. For example, the United States has three branches of government; the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judiciary branch (McCormick 2007, 50-58). These three branches must be in agreement in order to pass laws and bills. For example, the president alone cannot pass a law or bill unless he has the required support from the legislative and judiciary branches.
Democracy is also institutionalized through the voting process. Democracies are denoted by having free and fair elections (Linz and Stepan 1996, 15). This means that the voting process is for the most part untainted. Those running for offices are to run clean campaigns. No one person should have a monopoly of the media during their campaign. Each person should have the same ability to get there name and beliefs out there for the public to know. Those voting should feel free to vote for whomever they like. They should have private voting booths and make sure everybody who meets basic requirement set forth by the government has the same chance to partake in the electoral process. Also, those who are elected need to be honest people. They need to, for the most part, keep the promises made during campaigning and work to serve the people.
As it can be seen, there is clearly an institutional aspect to democracy. The government must have checks and balances to create limits on power and protect the best interest of the nation. Without check and balances, the government could be too easily become corrupted (Ottaway 2003, 28). Just a few corrupt officials with power could corrupt the whole democratic system, creating something that is not really a democracy. The voting process must also be implemented and it must be a free and fair process. Everyone should have the same right and ability to vote. If that was not the case, then whoever is elected would not necessarily be the favorite among the majority of the people. And finally, those being elected must keep their word and work towards the good of the people who elected them. Without this basic foundation, the institution of democracy would not be able to be conceived.
However, democracy can also be defined from a cultural standpoint. When most people think of democracy, the first thing that comes to mind is typically not the blueprint for the system of checks and balances or the technical aspects of the voting process. Many people think of democracy more as way of life. The word democracy entails the thought of freedom and opportunity for many people. Those living oppressed in dictatorships or authoritarian countries may view of democracy as new hope. Democracy can be viewed as a mindset for those people; as a new way of life. The democratic voting process is not just an institution, but also a culture. It means the people have a say in what happens in the government. People living in third world countries have no control over what decisions the leaders of their nation make. Democracy gives people a sense that their opinion matters, and that they have the opportunity to better their living conditions (Linz and Stepan 1996, 18).
People living in third world countries most likely associate the American flag or the “American Dream” with the idea of democracy, not the institutional from of government. Undoubtedly there is a cultural notion to the idea of democracy that coincides with its institutional aspect. From the outside, democracy appears to be a mindset; a way of life. People living in democracies have rights and protection that people in non-democratic settings are often missing. They are more able to freely express themselves and there is the belief that the people have at least some control on governmental decisions. From an internal point of view, democracy is an intricately devised system built to create an even and fair form of government. The question still remains, what makes democracy work?
Because democracy is the form of government which most struggling nations hope to achieve, there are obviously some benefits of this specific form of government. One of the main reasons democracy succeeds, or is favored over other forms of government, is because other forms of government do not work. When looking at countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, it is easy to see why they suffer from many problems. One of the biggest troubles those regimes often suffer from is the problem of unjust leaders (Ottaway 2003, 28). The elected officials may say they are for the people, but then abuse their power. The people of the nation have no way to really voice their opinions for fear of punishment. This is evidenced in the case of a country such as North Korea. The peoples are oppressed and have no way real chances to improve their lives. The government has a vice-grip on society. The peoples in positions of power are also pretty much guaranteed to stay in office because they create rules favoring their stay in office.
Communist and post-communist countries like China and Russia suffer from similar problems. They act like they have implemented a fair electoral system, but in reality the same people stay in power and are never at odds to lose their power (Ottaway 2003, 28). These leaders control almost every aspect of what goes on in the country. A monumental aspect of every day life that is controlled by the government is the media. The government controls what the people read and hear. People of these countries do not enjoy freedom of speech or freedom of the press. They do not have the privilege to voice their opinions without worrying about backlash from the government. This can create somewhat of a tense atmosphere, and a feeling of discomfort among the peoples of those nations.
Many non-democratic countries may also suffer from instability. People who are oppressed or do not have the same inalienable rights that peoples of democratic countries have are usually unhappy. They do not have the power to change what is going on in their country. When the peoples of a nation are unhappy, they have a tendency to start conflict with each other and against governmental officials or policies. Those governments may then take drastic measures to quash these possible uprisings or the rebellious peoples. Instability among the people leads to instability of the government. This shows that the governmental institution in place has an effect on the culture of the nation, and vice-versa.
One of the biggest reasons that democracy works is because of its system of checks and balances. The system of checks and balances ensures that no one person or persons will ever control too much governmental power (McCormick 2007, 49). This system also forces all parts of the government to work together. Stability of the government is maintained because the power is divided. This protects the people of a nation from worrying about the government abusing its power. It also means that the protection of the peoples will always be a concern of the government. A democratic government should work for the people and not for themselves. Checks and balances of power make sure that the best decision is made with the people in mind. When a nation looks out for its citizens, that usually means the people are happy and at ease. They know that their rights and best interests are being protected. This creates social stability. There is a low chance of people conspiring against each other or against the government. The democratic culture is shaped by the democratic institution. This is one factor in the success of democracy.
Another reason that democracy works is because everyone has the opportunity to have a say in governmental decisions. In the purest form of democracy, each person residing in the nation would be asked their opinion every time the government was making a decision (McCormick 2007, 24). This is known as direct democracy. However, in most democratic countries the population is too high to do this, so people are elected to represent the views of a group of people. This is known as representative democracy (McCormick 2007, 24). Unless the country has an extremely low population, the country will employ some form of representative democracy.
The fact that the people directly or indirectly have control of governmental decision is a big factor to the success of democracy. They know that that at least have some say in what goes on, opposed to communist or authoritarian governments where the people have almost no say in decisions. This again helps to create stability within society. It is up to the people to make sure that they voice their feelings to their representatives, so there is no one to blame except themselves if bills or laws are passed that they do not agree within. Everyone has the same right to express their opinions. The fact that the common folk can feel like their thoughts and opinions are heard by people directly involved by the government is an important factor that makes democracy work.
The electoral process used in a democracy is also important in the success of the democracy. Elections held in democratic areas need to be free and fair (Linz and Stepan 1996, 15). Everyone residing in the nation should be able to vote, as long as they meet the basic requirements presented by the government. The elections should also be held at places and during days and times that are convenient and accessible for the voters. There should also be no pressure surrounding the elections, so that there is a high turnout and people do not feel pressured to vote one way or another. The election need to be as inclusive as possible.
The campaign tactics used by the candidates also need to be fair (Linz and Stepan 1996, 15). If one candidate has connections with the media and can control what information is put out there by all the potential candidates, then that is not fair. All the candidates would not be playing in the same court. Each candidate needs to have an equal opportunity to put themselves out there for the public to see. The voters should be able to decide who they want to vote for; the candidates should not control who wins the election. It almost needs to be culturally accepted that everyone should get the same opportunity to win the election, along with the technical aspects of campaigning being fair and competitive.
Democracy can also be considered successful only when it behaviorally, attitudinally, and constitutionally is thought of as “the only game in town” (Linz and Stephan 1996, 15). Democracies often have trouble meeting these three criteria. When they do not have the support of their people, they neither behaviorally nor attitudinally can become the only game in town. When the leaders do not follow the constitution and established rules or the nation, it also makes it impossible for democracy to become consolidated. Democracy will work only when everyone works together and sets for the effort to make it work. This inherently shows the why democracy works; because people come together for a greater good.
Another factor that makes democracy work is the high quality of life that people of democratic countries live at (McCormick 2007, 27). People living in democratic nations typically have a “…high standard of living when measured by the availability of jobs, education, health care, consumer choice, and basic services” (McCormick 2007, 27). Because of all the preceding factors discussed, democratic peoples usually have a better life compared to peoples who live in non-democratic regimes. The stable government and society resulting from factors like checks and balances and a fair election process leads to superior lives for democratic peoples. This high aptitude also gives democratic countries influence on global happenings (McCormick 2007, 28). They are among the most respected countries in the world, and thus have more say in global issues than a third-world country would have.
The listed factors that make democracy work are important for various. As stated, democratic regimes typically do not suffer from the problems that non-democratic regimes suffer from. Problems of instability and corruption are addressed by democracies. The system of checks and balances does an adequate job of preventing an accumulation of power, and thus internal corruption. The ability of people to participate in the democratic process is also a very important factor because it gives people the sense that they have a say in governmental decisions. Free and fair elections have importance because without them, elections would be corrupted and the best candidates would not necessarily win.
However, quite possibly the most important factor to the success of democracy is that it becomes “the only game in town” (Linz and Stepan 1996, 15). Without universal support of a nation, democracy will not succeed. All the democratic institutions can be put into place, but there needs to be a sense of urgency among the people to make democracy work. This is evident in developing democracies that have trouble actually making democracy succeed. They have elections and checks and balances of power, but for whatever reason they do not succeed. This is because democracy is not the only game in town in those regimes. People may still support previous regimes. After universal support for democracy, I do not believe that the remaining factors can be ranked in any certain order. They are all equally important. Checks and balances and fair elections run hand in hand, and stability of the country as a culture overshadows all the other factors.
The discussed factors should be pretty much universal among all democracies. In countries where democracy works, the discussed factors are all implemented. Check and balances, free and fair elections, support of the people, and stability are all found in those regimes. The success of democracy is dependent among all these factors. New democracies may not have the high standard of living and global influence that established democracies have, but they should eventually achieve those things or at least be on a lower level of achievement. That would be the only factor that could be considered different from democracy to democracy. Overall, democracies depend on several factors in order to be successful. Without addressing all the discussed factors, a democracy will not work.
Linz, J. Juan, and Alfred Stepan. 1996. “Toward Consolidated Democracies.” Journal of Democracy 7(2): 14-33.
McCormick, John.Comparative Politics in Transition. United States: Thomson Wadworth, 2007.
Ottaway, Marina. 2003. “Facing the Challenge of Semi-Authoritarian States.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 7, 2003): 412-416.