Modern conceptions of democracy focus on what Robert Dahl calls “contestation” and “participation.” A modern democracy (which Dahl prefers to call a “polyarchy” to distinguish it from ancient or direct democracy) allows the opposition to contest incumbents for control of the state. A state is also democratic if all adults have the right to express their views and to shape the behavior of public officials. The central component of participation is the right to cast ballots in regularly scheduled and fair elections. Participation also includes the freedom to publicize antigovernment views and to assemble in public and in private spaces. This minimalist definition is commonly traced to Joseph Schumpeter, who famously discussed democracy as a struggle among elites for electoral support.
The conventional definition of democracy comes with at least three assumptions. First, it is threadbare. It says little about basic rights and liberties. For instance, it is not clear whether a government that is a product of free and fair elections can inspect personal correspondence in wartime. Nor does the conventional definition say much about the limits of public gatherings. For example, it does not say whether protest marches that block street traffic and thus affect the rights of third parties are acceptable ways of participating in politics. The conventional definition is thin because it distinguishes between democratic and nondemocratic regimes. It does not offer a measure of how a democratic political system is or can be more or less democratic.
Second, the conventional definition is in fact an empirically oriented definition, and it has little to say about the normative importance of democracy. Dahl’s characterization at least implies that democracies are desirable, because they permit citizens to choose their leaders. Making key public officials win elections forces them to listen to public concerns, because, among other reasons, the opposition will inform voters when incumbents are not representing citizens effectively. However, there is nothing in minimalist conceptions that rules out the developmental or participatory virtues of democracy. In Considerations on Representative Government, John Stuart Mill argues that talking about politics, making demands of government, and otherwise participating in democratic government not only keeps public officials honest but also is part of the good life. Deliberation requires contemplating alternatives and reaching conclusions, characteristics that help humans to become autonomous individuals.
Third, modern understandings of democracy assume that the values of democracy have fixed empirical manifestations. Though a newly democratic regime can no longer curb the suffrage rights of women or of illiterates, democracies of the past had little problem in restricting these rights. Lowering the minimum voting age to 18 is a development of the second half of the twentieth century; a handful of political systems, such as Austria or Nicaragua, have lowered it further to 16. The history of democratic regimes, however, is full of age thresholds that exceed either of these minimums. And, while parliaments seem to be integral parts of democracy, because they are key deliberative arenas, there is nothing in minimalist conceptions of democracy that prohibits constitutions from marginalizing legislatures and strengthening executives.
Types of Democracy
There are at least three important schemes for classifying democratic systems. The first (and perhaps most basic) way of sorting democracies is by the procedure for choosing the chief executive. The second uses alternative counting schemes to identify the fragmentation of political systems. The third empirically measures central features of political systems to create two-or three-category classifications of political systems. The existence of more than one classification suggests that democracies come in a variety of shapes and sizes that complicates efforts to catalog them. Nevertheless, each classification scheme seeks to sort democracies by how centralized their lawmaking authority is.
The first scheme to classify democracies draws a distinction between parliamentary and presidential systems. In parliamentary systems, the parliaments select heads of government, typically called prime ministers. Though prime ministers can typically remain in office for no more than four or five years, they can lose the legislature’s confidence and be forced to leave office before their mandates expire. In presidential systems, presidents are elected independently of the legislature and are simultaneously heads of government and heads of state. Semi presidential systems have both prime ministers (as selected by parliaments) and independently elected presidents.
Differences regarding the election of executives do lead to dissimilar outcomes. Research shows that parliamentary systems last longer than presidential ones. Using a database of all democracies that existed between 1946 and 2002, José Antonio Cheibub calculates that the expected life of a parliamentary system is 58 years and that of a presidential system is 24 years. Presidential systems also tend to run budget surpluses more often than parliamentary ones. Depending on the powers of the president, semipresidential systems can operate more like classic parliamentary systems or like presidential systems. If the powers of the president and prime minister are relatively evenly balanced, then semipresidential systems can produce unique kinds of dynamics that we do not completely understand. As of 2002, 45 percent of democratic regimes were parliamentary, 33 percent were presidential, and 22 percent were semipresidential.
The original impetus behind the second scheme to characterize democratic political systems dates to the eighteenth century, especially to the writings of Baron de Montesquieu and James Madison. The purpose of systems that divide the powers of government among three branches is to prevent dominance by either the royal or legislative branch. This division is known as separation of powers or as the fragmentation of political systems. If a unified state (where the powers of government are concentrated in one part of the government) possesses the unity to oppress the body politic, then fragmenting the state will protect individual liberty. According to Madison, responsibility for the multiple functions of government must be shared among officeholders, each of whom will check the power of the other. The U.S. political system is the embodiment of this type of “checks and balances” democracy, and The Federalist Papers remains the most thorough exposition of its principles.
Parliamentary sovereignty, a doctrine that Madison opposed, gradually displaced monarchical political systems in Europe during the nineteenth century as suffrage reform made popularly elected assemblies the central lawmaking branch of government. These democracies centralize political power, because supreme or constitutional courts cannot strike down parliamentary acts as unconstitutional. They also use single-member districts whose occupants are determined in first-past-the-post electoral systems, which enable the largest minority to convert its share of the vote into a parliamentary majority. The English political system remains the paradigmatic case of parliamentary sovereignty, such that this form of government is known as a “Westminster political system,” though the rise of constitutional review and territorial devolution to parliaments in Scotland and Wales has weakened the power of the English Parliament. The political systems that many Scandinavian countries had until the mid-twentieth century, and those of former British colonies in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, are based upon parliamentary sovereignty.
Several political systems in the twentieth century refashioned the separation of powers into what Bruce Ackerman calls the “new separation of powers,” which adopts functional specialization as its core principle of constitutional design. Instead of splitting each function of government between two or more parts of government, he recommends assigning each function of government to a single part of government. This principle of constitutional design emphasizes the careful delimitation of the authority among the organs of the state. As in the old separation of powers, the multiplicity of state agencies prevents the concentration of power that can lead to tyranny. Unlike the theory of checks and balances, functional specialization reduces conflict and allegedly leads to a more efficient running of the state. By empowering each part of government to pursue a specific function of government, the new separation of powers enables the state as a whole to remain democratic, to protect individual liberty, and to have a unity of purpose often lost with the old separation of powers.
Two prominent classification of democratic government build upon these notions. Arend Lijphart’s distinction between majoritarian and consensual democracies pits Westminster political systems against the new and old separation of powers systems. Lijphart argues that consensual systems (which require the consent of multiple centers of power to change the law) perform better on a host of economic, political, and social indicators than majoritarian systems. George Tsebelis eschews the development of any such typology and instead develops a set of rules to identify the institutions and parties in each political system that can block policy change, actors that he usefully classifies as “veto players.”Tsebelis’s central claim is that changing policy is more difficult as the number of veto players increases, a hypothesis that builds upon and extends thinking about comparative government since the eighteenth century.
The final scheme for classifying democratic governments is more empirical in nature. It is a product of efforts to distinguish between democracies and dictatorships. Though one major effort simply differentiated between democracies and authoritarian systems, most subsequent efforts create a third category of regimes to recognize that a wide range of countries have political systems that combine features of democratic and autocratic regimes. Partial or semi democracies hold competitive elections but systematically bias participation against certain interests in society. They often also have dysfunctional political institutions, that is, institutions that undermine the accountability so characteristic of well-functioning democratic systems. Using Polity IV data, Figure 1 shows that more dictatorships existed in the world (in countries with more than half a million people) than democracies until the early 1990s, when mobilization and political reform reversed this trend. By 2001, more than half of all nation-states had democracies.
Figure 1: Regime Types,1946-2008
Democratization refers to the shift from nondemocratic to democratic forms of government. Samuel P. Huntington suggests that there are three waves of political change through which regimes have become more competitive and inclusive. The first and longest wave started in 1828 with the elimination of property requirements in many states of the United States, so that nearly half of (white male) voters cast ballots in the presidential elections of that year. The first wave ended in 1926 with the fascist coups in several European countries. Political systems in the first wave began to contest control of the state before they gradually extended suffrage rights to the rest of the population. The second wave runs between 1943 and 1962. The third wave begins with the Portuguese generals negotiating a retreat from power in 1974. It crests with the decline of military government in Latin Amer ica during the 1980s and attempts to create new, democratic states in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
Research on democratization has reached several conclusions. First, four decades of cross-national research indicates that, on balance, higher GDP per capita levels do not cause political systems to democratize, even if development is associated with democracy as Seymour Martin Lipset postulated in 1959. Adam Przeworski and his colleagues, using a database of political systems in 135 countries between 1950 and 1990, found that increases in levels of development do not boost the probability that a political system will become democratic. Nevertheless, they showed that democracy is less likely to collapse at higher levels of development, which they argued explains why wealthier countries are more likely to be democratic than poorer countries. Carles Boix and Susan Stokes argued that economic development does a better job of predicting democratization for countries before rather than after World War II (1939–1945). Daron Acemoglu and colleagues, who used a database of political systems in 120 countries between 1960 and 2000, found that no relationship exists between economic development and democracy once country-fixed effects (that is, statistical models that control for the effects of unexplained or omitted variables in cross-national regression equations) are taken into account. They suggested that the relationship between the two factors is a product of how long countries have been independent, how many checks and balances exist on executive authority, and religion. Though Epstein et al. argue in favor of Lipset’s thesis, their findings are contingent upon a threefold classification of democracy: While development does not encourage autocracies to become democracies, departures from autocracy into partial democracy and transformations from this hybrid regime into democracy are highly contingent upon the dynamics of partial democracies.
Second, authoritarian regimes in the post–World War II era have different propensities to turn over power to democratically elected politicians. Barbara Geddes shows that personalist dictatorships end up being overthrown, either in a coup or revolution. One-party regimes like Mexico’s survive the longest. But, when opposition movements threaten their survival, they negotiate a transition to democracy in the hopes of continuing to win in what will be more competitive elections. Finally, military regimes are the most likely to negotiate agreements with civilian politicians, because factionalism makes them the least stable of authoritarian systems. As economic downturns or social movements threaten their unity, they often reach agreement to bargain with their opponents.
Third, the decision to democratize presents both autocrats and opposition movements with a strategic dilemma whose resolution determines both the pace and final outcome of regime liberalization. Przeworski contends that hard-liners on both sides of this divide have no incentives to negotiate with their rivals, because neither wants to share state power. Incumbent hard-liners do not want to change the nature of the autocracy, and opposition hard-liners want nothing less than the dictatorship to capitulate. Neither will back the actions of moderates who are willing to compromise on ultimate ends for the sake of political change. Knowing this, hard-liners exercise their veto to prevent encounters between pro and antigovernment moderates from reaching concrete agreements.
In these strategically fluid circumstances, Przeworski finds that successful democratization is a product of at least one of several conditions. First, regime moderates disguise their true intentions and gain the assent of their military hard-liners to negotiate a mere broadening of the regime’s support coalition. Once negotiations have reached a certain point and the opposition is able to mobilize large sectors of society, regime moderates show their true colors, and democratic forces win the showdown with authoritarian hard-liners. Second, the dictatorship begins conversations with the opposition and discovers that it cannot repress its opponents. It updates its preferences and negotiates an agreement to democratize government. Third, contacts between the regime and its opponents create the possibility of a compromise, because the two sides learn to trust each other. Hard-liners conclude that regime change will not endanger their core interests, because accords can be reached with their opponents.
Authoritarianism can persist because the ruling bloc remains united and represses the opposition. The destruction of the youth movement in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 indicates that the Chinese Communist Party, after several days of apparent disagreement, had decided to quash the prodemocracy movement. Even with the increase in the number of democracies (and states) during the third wave, 15 percent of all countries still have dictatorships.
Note too that conflict is intrinsic to both those cases that experience a transition to democracy and those that remain autocratic. Even if consensus on fundamental policy or values is a trait of stable democracies, the absence of disagreement is more characteristic of autocracies. Discord is pervasive in many democracies. At least since Dankwart Rustow, some students of democratization have highlighted this point. A central implication of this claim is that electoral competition within well-defined institutional boundaries—or constitutional democracy—is fragile, even if it appears to be well entrenched in 30 or so countries.
Establishing a well-functioning democracy therefore requires governments and opposition movements to devise a myriad number of institutions to contain and resolve conflict. At least since Dahl, analysts have recognized that there are multiple routes to democracies. Dahl himself discussed two paths. In the first path, contestation develops before inclusiveness. These are the oldest and most stable democracies, the ones politicians and citizens constructed during the first wave. In many other democracies and semi democracies established during the second and third waves, incumbents and opposition movements must bargain about legislative procedures, executive-legislative relations, legal institutions, electoral laws, and the nature and scope of individual rights (to name just a few areas of institutional engineering) as they negotiate a transition away from authoritarianism. The complexity of these negotiations helps to explain the institutional diversity among democracies and why time is associated with more stable democracy.
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