What Kind of Democracy?

At a time when citizens of a number of countries in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were demanding the right to self-determination and converting their governments from other power systems to democracies, author Raymond D. Gastil addressed the question of the degree to which civil liberties within a democracy require protection.

As we congratulate ourselves on becoming increasingly democratic, we should recall that several times before in the past century it seemed that democracy had won universal acceptance, but the acceptance was much less trustworthy than had been imagined. In 1900-1901 leading newspapers announced the good news that the twentieth century was to be the century of democracy; in 1920 a prominent authority on political systems could write that democracy no longer had any challengers.

A society is generally said to be a full democracy if it has a political system that guarantees both the civil and political liberties of its people. In other words, a democracy must not only allow its people to choose freely who will govern them but also guarantee the freedoms of expression and organization, which make possible effective oppositions that can compete for, and eventually attain, office. Unfortunately, in most historical treatments of the growth of democracy the emphasis tends to be on the existence of electoral or legislative mechanisms that allow for choice, with less attention paid to those civil liberties that make that choice effectively free.

It is easy, and probably fundamentally wrong, to assume that the most important characteristics of democracy are the political rights that the word "democracy" most clearly implies. Let me use personal experience to explain this. Annually from 1973 until last year I produced the Comparative Survey of Freedom, which placed countries on a continuum of freedom. I tried to balance aspects of democracy by using a rating system that included both political rights and civil liberties in the final score. During the first few years of the survey I considered that when the final scores of two countries tied, I would give the rating for political freedom—that is, for the extent to which there were free elections and those elected gained power—the greater weight. Perhaps I made this choice because it was much easier to get information on elections and legislators than on the state of civil liberties in a country. However, as time went on and experience accumulated, I dropped this largely theoretical distinction in weighting. In the past few years I have come to believe that if one thinks of freedom, or in this case democracy, in time periods longer than a year, civil liberties will be seen as the more important of the two kinds of democratic freedom. I came to realize that political rights without civil freedoms would offer few of the values that I cherish in democratic societies, while civil freedoms without political rights (insofar as this is conceivable) would offer the major values that I understand democracy to promote. The primacy of civil freedoms becomes even more apparent in societies whose governments appear to respond to the popular will as expressed by the communications media, demonstrations, and other informal channels with more alacrity than they do to the often indeterminate results at the polling station.

Democracy as we know it has two quite different roots. The first is the universal desire of people to manage their own affairs, or at least to have a say in who manages their affairs. In the primitive band all adults, or sometimes all heads of families, tended to have a say in the affairs of the band. This tribal or village democracy can be traced down through all of history. The democracy of ancient Athens is no doubt the most famous example of a community ruling itself—a community of relatively large scale. Of course, women, slaves, and other outsiders were excluded. But a substantial part of the population took an active role in the decisions of the society; when "the people," thus defined, changed their minds, society moved in the direction of the change. When we speak of the democracy of the medieval Swiss cantons, or of the units of the Iroquois confederacy, this is also the democracy we have in mind. The democracy of the New England towns of the seventeenth century and the democracy of the Swiss communities of Rousseau's day, including his native Geneva, were essentially successive expressions of the tribal or community democracy of primitive society. Though for limited purposes these might form together in larger "leagues," they were little more than alliances among independent units whose interrelationships might be no more democratic than those in nondemocratic leagues.

The second root of modern democracy is liberalism, defined as that set of social and political beliefs, attitudes, and values which assumes the universal and equal application of the law and the existence of basic human rights superior to those of state or community. As used here, the term "liberal" is not meant to suggest any particular economic doctrine, or doctrine regarding the state's economic role; nor is it meant to be an antonym of "conservative." It does imply that the state's interests cannot override those of the citizenry. Derived from a variety of secular and religious tenets, liberalism affirms the basic worth of individuals, their thoughts, and their desires. In the liberal canon no one, whether king or majority, has the right to tell people how to think, or even act (except in instances of imminent threat to social well-being). Although it has ancient foundations, liberalism is primarily the outgrowth of the efforts of political and social philosophers since the seventeenth century to free humanity from the fetters of unchecked state power and imposed religious dogma. Before the eighteenth century, liberal democracy's role in history was much less important than tribal democracy's.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In