What Kind of Democracy?

At a time when citizens in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were demanding the right to self-determination and converting their governments to democracies, a social scientist considered the degree to which civil liberties within a democracy require protection.

A woman casting her ballot in Prague (Pavel Horejsi / AP)

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.

It was liberal democracy that abolished political censorship, that eventually found it impossible to justify slavery of any kind, or torture for any reason, or the unequal position of women and minority races and ethnic groups. It is liberal democracy that is always teetering on the edge of denying that the individual has any substantial duty to sacrifice himself for the community if he chooses not to. It was liberal democracy that fascism and similar ideologies sought to destroy utterly. It was liberal democracy that the Marxist-Leninist regimes now dissolving in Eastern Europe found so repugnant in its individualism and inherent tendency to sacrifice group interests to individual interests.

The international human-rights movement is based on the tenets of liberal democracy, and is a natural product of this political system. Everywhere, these rights have become the hope of the oppressed, and the societies that support these rights become the natural allies of all peoples.

When the current democratic revolution is discussed, we should remember that we are referring to changes that represent the legacy of both these traditions, the tribal democratic and the liberal democratic. We must remember that their conjunction in modern democracies is the result of a long historical process, and far from automatic. Historically, democracies have tended to be more tribal than liberal. Regardless of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the values of the Founding Fathers, acceptance of liberal democracy came slowly to the American public. Even in recent years the United States has had periods in which tribal democracy rode roughshod over liberal democracy, as in the expulsion of the Japanese from the West Coast in the Second World War. Public-opinion polls continue to show that the tenets of liberal democracy may not be as thoroughly accepted in the United States and other democracies as we would like.

The slow pace of the liberalization of democracy, even in recent years, explains why as we go further back in history, the association of democracy and peace becomes more and more tenuous. Although the political systems of Athens and Sparta were far apart, both states were warlike; indeed, Athens became a specialist in imperial wars. The democratic Swiss cantons produced the mercenaries of Europe for several centuries. At the same time that democracy was being perfected in the West, its military forces conquered most of the world. Yet gradually the record has improved, as democracies have become more liberal. War became unfashionable in the democratic West after the First World War. Colonies became unfashionable after the Second World War. But if there is to be a "peace dividend" from the democratic revolution, it will occur only to the extent that tribal democracy has been overcome by liberal democratic attitudes that respect the rights of all peoples.

Today, as we contemplate a democratizing world, we must ask ourselves how strong the tribal and liberal elements actually are in the new democratic movements. We should recall that fascism in Italy, Japan, and Germany grew to maturity in democratizing societies, societies that provided the tools for free discussion and mobilization of all groups. Those groups were then able to use these privileges to overthrow the democratic system by capturing the attention and perhaps the majority support of peoples in whom the assumptions of liberal democracy were only weakly rooted.

Outside the West, democracy is beset with the problem of incorporating basically illiberal peoples and movements into the democratic framework. In the recent Indian election the third most powerful party was a Hindu party dedicated to advancing the cause of the Hindu majority at the expense of both the rights of Muslims and the concept of the secular state. In some parts of India many Sikhs and Muslims and members of other groups are equally intolerant of those whose beliefs or backgrounds are different from their own. Pakistan's emergence as a democracy has been repeatedly delayed by the claims of Muslim movements against the rights of others, and these claims may again cause the collapse of democracy in Pakistan.

The clash of tribal democracy and liberal democracy has been particularly acute in the Middle East. It is either the case or feared to be the case that a really open electoral process in most Middle Eastern states would result in the establishment of an oppressive Muslim fundamentalism in place of the less oppressive current regimes. Sudan's most recent attempt at democracy was ultimately torn apart by tribalism, which made democracy as we know it impossible. We should note that Iran, under Islamic guidance, has had several contested elections with fair voting procedures since 1980. From the political-rights viewpoint it can be argued that Iran is now ruled by an elected democratic government, a government more democratic than most in the Third World. But its oppression of individuals or groups that lie beyond the boundaries of tribal morality or acceptance has been persistent. Its initial unwillingness, for example, to allow the Bahais any place in Iranian society, and its equally vicious destruction of the radical left, represented tribalisms that an elected parliament could overwhelmingly endorse. Despite the panoply of Western political institutions in Iran, it remains outside the democratic world that requires a commitment to civil liberties as well political rights.

From one perspective, the demand for self-determination is a demand for freedom. From another, it is a demand for independence unrelated to the maintenance of those freedoms basic to liberal democracy. Too often the demand for self-determination is a tribalist demand that ends by narrowing rather than broadening the sphere of human rights. It is the demand that has torn Sri Lanka apart, destroying what was a functioning democratic system. It is the demand that came very close on several occasions to arresting the development of democracy in our own South. In itself, self-determination is a legitimate right, and should be recognized insofar as it does not threaten other rights. But this right should not be confused with those basic civil rights fundamental to liberal democracy, nor is it as important as they are.

It is with this consciousness that we must consider the prospects for democracy in those areas of the world that remain nondemocratic but may soon institute full political democracies if current trends continue. We must ask particularly what values we hold most dear. Do we want the establishment of democratic regimes that will soon come to deny those liberal, humanistic values we see as essential to a full human life? Do we want, for example, a politically more democratic but also more fundamentalist Egypt? Would we really want a "free Afghanistan" whose political system put women back in the Middle Ages? Would we still endorse the democracy of an India that ended up exacerbating religious or ethnic tensions to the point of new and endemic slaughter?

If we are lucky, we may be able to avoid facing such questions. But if the development of democracy in the Soviet Union, for example, proceeds as it has, with an increasing emphasis on self-determination at the popular level, will we not find larger and larger sections of the population developing independent political systems in which the desires and opinions and interests of the majority allow for the suppression of all those who disagree, or all those who belong to other "tribes"? Some years ago I regarded descriptions of the danger of the highly nationalistic Pamyat movement in the USSR as little more than the scare-mongering of scholars or anti-Soviets. Today I wonder if "pamyats" might not break out all over the Soviet world, fueled by the frustrations of failure in other sectors of life, much as fascism was fueled between the wars.

What do we bring away from this discussion? Certainly we should not conclude that because democratic movements are often less than thoroughly imbued with modern liberal ideals, we should stop pushing for the democratization of the world. We should continue the effort for several reasons. First, people do have democratic rights to self-determination, even if we do not like what they do with these rights. Second, the continued rolling of the democratic bandwagon may bring us closer to our overall goals. Third, nondemocratic regimes are often as illiberal as democratic ones. Fourth, since democratic systems are often initially more tribal than liberal, by denying the right of tribal democracy we may end up denying the right of a people to any democracy at all.

But the discussion suggests some dangers, and perhaps some changes in direction, in the pursuit of the millennium. It suggests that the campaign for liberal democracy, represented in part by the human-rights movement, should be continued and enhanced even as states become democratic in form. Also, we should develop educational programs that teach liberal values to broader and broader segments of the population in new democracies or states that have not yet become politically democratic. To avoid the arrest of this educational process we should, in particular instances and for particular countries, avoid pressing for the establishment of political democracy so long as the system in power takes an active role in developing and teaching the concepts of a liberal society.

I suspect that one reason for the collapse of communist systems in the Soviet sphere is that they appeared increasingly estranged from the world culture that has penetrated nearly everywhere since the Second World War. This culture simply no longer accepts the controls on movement and thought that characterized most of the world until recently. It no longer accepts discrimination for reasons of ideology, religion, gender, or ethnicity. It no longer accepts rulers that are not freely elected by their peoples. This culture has come upon the world rapidly, and may ultimately be destructive of essential values. But for now it advances the cause of the assumptions basic to liberal democracy, and therefore becomes an important aspect of the struggle for the extension of democracy.

In promoting democracy, governments and private organizations should place at least as much stress on the liberal underpinnings of modern democracy as on the forms of political democracy. The emphasis should be on the absolute value of the individual and the universal applicability of basic rights. We should support movements that undercut tribal thinking. We should refrain from insisting on rapid transitions to the political forms of democracy when establishing these forms appears likely to threaten the eventual attainment of the freedoms due every individual, and not just every group. We should be careful not to confuse the demand for self-determination with the demand for democracy. Thus the campaign for democracy, the campaign for human rights, and the campaign against war and armaments must become ever more closely identified with one another as we press on, both publicly and privately, toward a world of peace and freedom.