Foreign Policy Blogs

Can Democratic Values Survive?


Thomas Jefferson once stated, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” (Flickr)

Does economic development lead to democracy? This scholarly and worldly inquiry has been one of the main debates among modernization theorists for over half a century, ever since Lipset’s (1960) seminal work supporting that causation was unmasked. Przeworski and Limongi’s (1996) contributions updated the debate as they invalidated Lipset’s direct relationship proposition and instead presented correlative facts exemplifying their argument that economic development is exogenous, not endogenous, to democracy. In other words, established democracies never fail after their level of economic development surpasses a certain threshold ($6,055 per capita GDP), although economic development is correlated with something other than a particular regime type in developing countries with a GDP per capita below the threshold.

A recent Washington Post article, however, interestingly refutes the well-accepted argument through an analysis of the ongoing political developments in Turkey. Based on the observation that Erdoğan’s authoritarian drive toward stronger presidency trading democratic progress for economic growth alarms stabilization of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ in Turkey, the article claims that Turkey challenges the validity of Przeworski and Limongi’s (1996) arguments. Turkey had a non-oil GDP per capita of $10,972 in 2013 and was recognized as an electoral democracy by Freedom House in 2015.

The phenomenon of authoritarian fervor in wealthy democracies like Turkey goes beyond the country’s borders. In Western democracies, the paragons of Przeworski and Limongi’s (1996) failsafe democracies, the phenomenon is tactically abused by far-right demagogues in their lust to win office. The people lack of a rational understanding of what would indeed happen to their daily lives when the demagogues’ populist promises become reality hypnotically join the wave of authoritarian fervor instead of pursuing new democratic values.

This political enigma raises an interesting question. Why do wealthy democracies, especially those that are well above the so-called Przeworski threshold, often fail to innovate new democratic values to replace anachronistic authoritarian values despite the regularized endogenous Schumpeterian democratic competition in them? Perhaps reflecting the current state of the economy in terms of the supply and demand of democracy in wealthy democracies, the problem is destitution of innovations in the demand-side preferences rather than in the supply-side institutional arrangements. For some reason, the people cannot rationally innovate new democratic values.

Supply-side Logic of Democratic Competition

Joseph A. Schumpeter, an Austrian-born American economist and political scientist, inspiringly introduced the idea of ‘creative destruction’. The concept is that the engine of capitalism lies in the system’s organic, or dynamic, nature. Entities incapable of innovative production die off and become replaced by new, capable entrepreneurial entities. Schumpeter expected the cycle to repeat incessantly. He further applied the principle to politics and formulated his new theory of representative democracy. In Schumpeter’s utopia, politics is strictly the business of highly qualified elites who are fueled by their lust to win democratic competition over the production of innovative redistributive policies and the ‘rules of the game’. Voters, or consumers in the economy of democracy, therefore, assume limited sovereignty, as to the extent the sovereignty entrusts elites the authority to minimize voter preferences, simplifying the process of elites’ democratic competition.

Despite its innate elitist tendencies, such breakthrough logic has positively influenced minimalist democratic theorists and public choice theorists as they seek to find rational, or economically efficient, ways to deal with the undemocratic or bureaucratically inefficient features of democracy. Thanks to the scholars’ enormous contributions, grand theories explaining the mechanisms of utility-maximizing choices and equilibriums in supply-side democracy are now available. Such progress, however, has consciously or unconsciously neglected the importance of the demand-side mechanisms in democracy, unveiling its incompetency in diagnosing the recent authoritarian fervor.

Demand-side Explanations for the Recent Authoritarian Fervor

Human-value-oriented political scientists, Inglehart and Norris’s working paper (2016) compared two main causes of the recent authoritarian fervor phenomenon in Europe and the U.S. from the perspective of the demand-side of democracy. The authors first draw implications from Piketty’s economic insecurity thesis that the current prevalence of far-rightist populism is a product of increasing economic inequality and social deprivation under which the left-behind losers of globalization socioeconomically suffer from the structural changes within post-industrial economies, such as growing technological automation and outsourcing. Thus they embrace populist appeals.

They then examine the cultural backlash approach under the premise that the populist phenomenon cannot solely be accounted for from an economic perspective. According to the post-materialist interpretation, the psychological effects of the sociocultural evolution of human values, or intergenerational value shifts, on individuals plays a more important role. Less-educated, white, and older generations, especially in Europe, took on a retrospective revolutionary backlash against the rising political influence of younger cohorts and the increasing inflows of immigration largely because they have failed to keep pace with the intergenerational cultural shift from traditional nativist and authoritarian values to progressively liberal and cosmopolitan values.

Inglehart’s inspiring work on post-materialism are analytically useful in untangling the demand side functioning of democracy. For instance, the major reason behind the spreading illusion of an ‘autocratic miracle’ among the people in developing democracies like the Philippines could be that a majority of Filipinos feel insecure about their basics needs. They are therefore demotivated from pursuing psychological and self-fulfillment needs. (In the 2010 version of the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world, South Asian countries pursue far more traditional values than secular-rational values and far more survival values than self-expression values). This Filipino case could be further examined by questioning whether Filipinos are structurally cut off from the relevant information, resources, and social networks that are crucial for the attainment of psychological and self-fulfillment needs and also whether Filipinos could voluntarily and rationally participate in politics for the attainment of the needs once obstacles are removed.

The founder of social capital theory, Robert D. Putnam, in his latest publication Our Kids; the American Dream in Crisis (2015), insightfully notes that what is intrinsically unpleasant about today’s growing socioeconomic inequality is the fact that the inherited political inequality takes away from younger generations the opportunities (the aforementioned information, resources, and social networks) to voluntarily participate in political or civic activities.

Is Demand-side Innovation Possible? Through Political ‘Prosumtion’?

Although the role of mass priorities, or democratic values, has been constantly deprecated in the studies of minimalist democratic theory, systematically forecasting the evolutionary development of the values is equally important as is finding the Pareto optimality of the supply-side actors’ democratic competition. Still, Schumpeterian scholars would be deeply concerned about the possible negative consequences of the tyranny of the irrational masses.

Nevertheless, as Thomas Jefferson once stated, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” This is why it is so important to provide the right tools for the people (the masses) to allow them to not only rationally assess, interpret, and present information as they participate and engage in politics, but also to create or increase their own individual political value. Education is, no doubt, the most powerful tool to empower and enable individuals to participate and engage in politics but education does not necessarily incentivize individuals to do so.

Perhaps help from new technologies might solve the problem. Today’s technological advancements in the knowledge economy have hatched a new conceptual form of economic activity that Schumpeter could never have imagined in his time: ‘prosumption’. The term was first coined by an American futurist, Alvin Toeffler. It is defined as production by consumer.

A great example of successful prosumption activity that lays reflective intuitions on the demand-side innovations in democracy is Yelp. Yelp has been very successful for providing local foodies a crowd-sourced online reviewing platform through which they share their restaurant experiences with other foodies and netizens. Such exchanges of information on tried-out restaurants essentially involves rating the values of the restaurants, ranging from atmosphere to menu prices, in a subjective manner, stimulating actively engaged foodies to not only consume a particular restaurant’s menus but also to create or increase the brand values of both the restaurant itself and its menus.

The Yelp prosumers’ mediating role is what today’s wealthy democracies must desire for promoting innovation in the demand side of democracy in an orderly way, since voluntary intermediaries in political interest aggregation  can minimize the risks resulting from the problem of informational asymmetry between elites and the masses. Conceptualizing the notion of political prosumers and applying it to politics will be a challenging task. Nevertheless, devising the institutional arrangement that encourages reputation-conscious political prosumers to rationally remain engaged and participatory will lessen some of the burdens.

In conclusion, recent authoritarian fervor in the wealthy democracies that questions the validity of Przeworski and Limongi’s (1996) beliefs implies that even wealthy democracies with well-established institutional arrangements for supply-side democratic competition need innovation in the demand side of democracy. For this reason, it is worth paying attention to prescient political sociologists’ previous works on post-materialism and social capital theory for understanding the demand-side mechanisms and to devise institutional arrangements that incentivize people to innovate new democratic values.  In the Jeffersonian sense, new technologies can help by nurturing the new clout of prosumers who can take on their role as rational intermediaries bridging elites and the masses.

Providing the people with structural tools other than redistributive resources, such as access to information and social networks, can encourage the people to voluntarily and rationally crave new democratic values.



Mark (Won Min) Seo

Mark (Won Min) Seo is a freelance writer who served as an editor for NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry. He was also a former intern with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He has an MA in Politics from New York University.