Foreign Policy Blogs

Taking stock of democracy

Tunisians observe the third anniversary of the end of totalitarian rule, in January 2014. While much progress has been made toward becoming a true democracy, many challenges still lie ahead. Photo: Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tunisians observe the third anniversary of the end of totalitarian rule, in January 2014. While much progress has been made toward becoming a true democracy, many challenges and much uncertainty still lie ahead. Photo: Fethi Belaid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The struggle to establish and maintain stable democracies continues the world over. As I have said many times before, no one ever said democracy is easy or simple, but it provides the best opportunities for freedom and prosperity (also see Churchill’s view of democracy in my “about the author” script). But as of now, how is democracy doing? Should we extol its successes, or be dismayed by its struggles?

“The Economist” brings up this very quandary in its latest (and currently open) online debate. It asks for support or opposition to the question, “Are worries about the health of democracy today overblown?” While the public is welcome to vote and provide comments, a prominent democracy scholar is writing a lead opinion for each side and other experts providing their neutral takes.

My comments here are based on the initial statements for each side, which along with the moderator’s opening remarks were the only official content posted when this article was written. Click here to read the statements.

I consider myself an optimist regarding democracy. I see its potential regardless of how close or far current situations are from it. Initially I expected to agree with the statement, that worries are overblown. But after reading the initial opinions by Larry Diamond (for) and Christian Caryl (against), I found myself siding more with the negative view — democracy worries are appropriate, significant, and troubling.

It seems to me that Diamond hampers the impact of his own argument when he says, in the very first sentence of his opening, “There is plenty of cause for worry about the state of democracy in the world.” He then spends four paragraphs describing these deficiencies in detail, many of which I have touched on in this blog: Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, as well as the gridlock, entrenchment and rising inequality in established democracies like the U.S. (Topic for a different post: why there should be term limits for all members of Congress.)

I believe Diamond has overly generalized the success of democracy in formerly authoritarian locations. Having been in Bulgaria now for several months and learning more about this region’s struggles, labeling “most” of central and eastern Europe as “clear success stories of constitutional stability” is a stretch. I’m also not sure that demand for democracy in Myanmar and Cambodia is as overt as is claimed.

While the preponderance of elections worldwide is good, elections do not assure democratic stability in and of themselves. For one, elections may not be fair, may not be free of corruption and tampering. Rulers often use elections to give the illusion of democracy, when reality is quite different: see Russia, Maldives, Venezuela, Kenya, Cambodia, among others.

Plus, as Caryl points out, to be effective elections must be supported by strong societal foundations such as independent courts, open (not state-controlled) media, multiple political parties and civil society organizations. I would add legitimate, non-partisan, constitutionally-mandated election and government oversight groups. Building and sustaining these institutions are often less visible, but arguably more important, than holding elections and many countries are struggling in completing these tasks.

While Diamond notes the progress Tunisia has made toward democracy, Caryl notes that violence and a flailing economy there remain undeterred. I would say the future of democracy in Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries remains very much unclear.

I do agree with Diamond that “concern about the health of democracy is necessary to reform and improve it,” and that apathy regarding democracy will lead to its decay. While there certainly has been progress for democracy (note my recent story on Chile), this does not mean the worry has been overblown. There’s plenty to worry about now, and when it comes to an issue as vital to the global future as democracy I don’t think there can ever be too much worry. So right now I would agree with the negative view, but I look forward to reading further commentary on this debate.

I would encourage you to vote on this question and contribute comments, both here and on the debate site. After all, active engagement of the public on government issues is one of democracy’s key components.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”