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.