Introduction to Comparative Government, Midterm

These two essays were submitted as a midterm for my Introduction to Comparative Government course.

I remember finding the course fairly irritating, since it took as a premise that democracy was the best form of government. I believe the cites were just out of a few course textbooks; if anybody actually wants them I can look up the books and link to them.

“There is an understandable temptation to load too many expectations on the concept of democracy and to imagine that by attaining democracy, a society will have resolved all of its political, social, economic, administrative, and cultural problems. Unfortunately, all good things do not necessarily go together.” (Schmitter and Karl)

  1. Do you agree with Schmitter and Karl’s ‘warning’ about definitions of democracy? Based on this warning, do you think it is best to rely on Zakaria’s formulation of democracy?  In other words, how would you limit a definition—i.e. what in your opinion is not a part of the definition of democracy?
  2. What institutions are most effective in supporting and/or safeguarding democracy?  How important is civil society relative to political parties and political culture? Draw from TWO (or more) countries we have studied (UK, France, Russia, Japan) in your answer.  (Remember, be consistent with your definition of democracy above.)


Democracy is a watchword of the Western world. Our schools teach that democracy is the highest form of government, that democracy is good, that non-democracies are bad. Black and white, open and shut. But learning more about the world reveals shades in the nature of democracy, shades not just of gray, but of red and blue and silver. Defining democracy in the real world is suddenly much harder than it was in social studies, and what you end up with is not nearly as beautifully good as the ideal in your head. These issues matter at a time when 150,000 American soldiers are engaged in the “democratization” of two nations recently freed from authoritarian regimes.

I. What is Democracy?

Definitions of democracy are abundant. They range from the simple (“a state which holds regular elections”) to the complex (Schmitter & Karl spend 7 pages on the subject, including Robert Dahl’s seven procedural minimum [expanded by them to nine], shared principles necessary for democracy, kinds of democracy, and the ways democracy does not improve on other governments). Schmitter and Karl’s analysis is thoughtful, but overly broad and imprecise. They cite Dahl’s “‘procedural minimum’ conditions…for modern political democracy,” but some of the conditions present — and certainly the discussion of attitudes later on — describe not democracy but good democracy. They even acknowledge that Dahl did not use the term democracy, but a term of his own invention: “polyarchy.” I prefer a simpler definition, one dismissed by Schmitter & Karl but seemingly favored by Fareed Zakaria in his piece “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy:” a democracy is a form of government in which power is wielded by representatives selected through “elections, fairly conducted and honestly counted” (Schmitter & Karl 115). I prefer this form for a few important reasons. First, it is probably the most widespread definition of democracy in the world. Changing the scholastic definition of the word to fit the more rigorous definitions of Schmitter & Karl would create a new language barrier separating political scientists from laypeople — and while language barriers are hardly uncommon in academia, they are not desirable. As much as Schmitter & Karl dislike this barest definition of democracy, requiring modifier adjectives to impart real information about a country’s political system, the adjectives are easy to find and propagating new names for all the in-between democracies (those countries which hold elections but do not satisfy more rigorous criteria) would be difficult and, again, require new language.

Moreover, simpler definitions are inherently desirable. They allow easy reduction of assumptions and associations, so that one can identify the things considered desirable about democracies. Russia is a democracy under many definitions, and on paper it is a democracy under almost all. But nobody who looks at Russia says “we want our country to be like that.” We like democracy as it is in the United States, in Great Britain. One can artificially limit the definition of democracy to include only those countries whose government and society we like, but it is more helpful to identify the desirable traits and their causes than to quibble over whether the country is a democracy. Beyond this, it is troubling to assert that the United States was not a democracy in 1880 simply because women could not vote. Certainly a vast portion of the population was de jure disenfranchised, but you’d be hard-pressed to assert that the United States had any other form of government.

Especially under my definition of democracy (“power wielded by representatives selected through elections, fairly conducted and freely counted”), it is then easy to agree with Schmitter & Karl’s “warning.” Democracy is not a cure-all for societal ills: if it was, there would not be the high rate of regress between democracy and authoritarian government, and even in the oldest of democracies (France, for instance) there is continuing conflict, sometimes violent, over the roles of government, religion, and gender (the murder of Muslim girls who go without headscarves as discussed by Genevieve Renault, for instance, or the vicious rioting described in “Le Paris flambé”).

II. Safeguarding Democracy and Liberality

Given that democracy is essentially the holding of real elections, how do we safeguard democracy? The answer is this: we don’t. After all, as Zakaria implies throughout his paper, we desire liberality, not democracy itself. And the definitions of democracy advanced by Schmitter & Karl are in many ways definitions of liberal democracy, requiring as they do the free flow of information and extra-governmental organizations. The real question is not how to safeguard democracy, but how to safeguard liberality. Throughout history democracies have been one of the best ways to safeguard liberality, as they require the participation of vast populations of people. Once established, the two are self-reinforcing; it is almost impossible to conceive of a true liberal democracy losing either its liberality or its democracy. But it is very easy for a country that is neither liberal nor democratic to gain democracy and lose liberality.

Preventing the erosion of democracy can be one of the best ways to safeguard liberality: democracies, by their very nature, must be liberal when they begin. Russia’s democratic constitution was liberal and guaranteed many rights to the people when established in the nineties. These are slowly being eroded through both changes in law and practice: when Putin cannot be President he becomes Prime Minister and transfers some of the President’s powers to his new office. When a media baron (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) becomes a political opponent, he is jailed for tax fraud — true, perhaps, but given the number of other barons with the same background it’s hardly a rule-of-law investigation. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, started spreading liberal rights with the Magna Carta in 1215, and slowly continued until Parliament was considered supreme over the monarch and nearly universal suffrage was granted in 1928. The UK has been stable for centuries and has experienced a nearly constant expansion of liberal democracy over that time.

If we look at the Russian and British states, where did Russia go wrong? The biggest difference between the two is Russia’s lack of a real civil society. Khodorkovsky seemed to identify this lack as a goal he’d tried to promote and then been arrested for (Kesselman et al, 375). Russia’s many political parties cannot maintain a liberal rule-of-law democracy when they are based on the popularity of individuals rather than on deeply-held political convictions. An open, free political culture cannot be maintained if the only avenue for discussing politics and government is the government itself. The only other avenue for discussion (and, when necessary, dissent) is a civil society of some form: the interest groups and organizations that are independent from the state, the political parties that have real meaning. Why didn’t these organizations spring into existence when Russia became democratic? Probably because the people didn’t know how to create them or have a real desire for them. Putin’s continuing popularity despite sharp declines in personal freedoms (as discussed by Andrei Illarionov) is clear evidence that the people simply don’t care. The most important institution in safeguarding liberal democracy is a an active, liberal populace: Russia’s attempt at a liberal democracy failed because they didn’t have such a populace; France had over 150 years of attempts at stable liberal democracy before they seemed to finally get it right with the Fifth Republic; Japan had an increasingly liberal attitude that expressed itself in the Meiji Restoration to form a basis for their liberal democracy; the United Kingdom has had 800 years of slowly-increasing and expanding liberality and enfranchisement.