Is democracy good?
Wednesday 30 August 2017
The global political context has radically changed since the mid-1990s when I wrote Democracy and Apartheid. We no longer live in an age of liberal triumphalism. Political analysts do not expect “democracy” to solve all our problems. And we only have to look at the president of the US to see that democracy can have very negative consequences and not just positive ones.
Some of the critiques of democracy that are worth considering are:
#1 Liberal representative democracy is shallow or meaningless so its presence or absence is of little or no interest
Many critics have complained that this “liberal democracy” is shallow. What is needed, they argue, is a system that is more “deliberative” and/or “egalitarian”. “Deeper” or “deliberative” forms of decision making would involve citizens talking and understanding rather than just voting. A more “egalitarian” system might be one in which urban, educated, wealthy elites do not dominate political debate.
#2 Liberal democracy is counter-revolutionary
More direct critics (especially in the Marxist tradition) have complained that “bourgeois democracy” (the kind that we call “liberal representative democracy”) is a sham.
After all, the power of the “capitalist state” is deployed in the interests of the capitalist class in order to reproduce and sustain the capitalist system. The function of democracy (according to Marxists) is merely to make capitalism seem “legitimate” to those who are oppressed by it. In this way, democracy helps to delay the glorious revolution. “Bourgeois democracy” of the kind introduced in 1994 is therefore bad because it generates “false consciousness” among the population about the real condition of their lives.
“True democracy”, on a Marxist view, can only be realized outside the distortions of the capitalist system. The authoritarian state of East Germany (1949-90), to take one case, called itself the “German Democratic Republic”, despite being a police state with severe restrictions on opposition party and civil society activity, and the holding of “elections” in what was essentially a one-party state.
In the Marxist tradition, liberal representative democracy is a veneer applied to a system in which the capitalist class is dominant and the workers suffer from “false consciousness”. The Communist Party, by contrast, apparently enjoyed a “scientific understanding of society” that allowed it to discern the true interests of the masses. Apparently.
#3 “Liberal democracy” is merely a historically particular Western/colonial idea or practice
Other critics of “liberal democracy” include proponents of pre-colonial political traditions that purportedly offer the advantages of democracy without its malign western elements. See, for example, Andrew Nash’s presentation of something he calls “Mandela’s democracy” (POL5044S students – we will soon discuss this).
There is also potential for untried forms of democratic politics that cannot be realized through current (western) institutions and ideas. These are set out in a variety of utopian traditions, some of which focus on the potential of new technologies.
Can political science help us understand democracy in richer ways?
There have been two decades of innovation in political science since I wrote Democracy and Apartheid. (In my view, this is one further reason why the book is not useful for teaching.)
One trend is to treat many states as “hybrids” that combine different democratic and authoritarian practices, to differing degrees, rather than arguing that they are either democracies or they are not. A second trend has been to break down “democracy” into its various components or dimensions.
If I were writing a similar book today, I would use quite different concepts — such as “illiberal democracy” (Zakaria 1997), “hybrid regime”, or “Competitive Authoritarianism” (Levitsky and Way 2010) — to analyse apartheid SA.
These new concepts all emerged to help political scientists understand the numerous regimes that did not, and do not, fit the classification of states as “democratic” or “non-democratic” (or as “in transition” between the two). This dichotomy, and the idea that there was a general trend towards liberal democracy, dominated western political science in the 1990s. (This was also part of the argument of my book, but sadly I was not successful in developing any useful new concepts myself!)
I particularly value the analytic power of concepts like “hybrid regime” and “competitive authoritarianism”. Levitsky and Way’s “competitive authoritarian” regimes are different to “closed authoritarian regimes” because there are legal channels through which opposition parties can compete seriously for power – and conceivably even win. Examples today might be Russia, Malaysia, Angola, or Turkey.
Elections are held regularly, there is political opposition, and (circumscribed) civil liberties at least permit opposition parties to select candidates and organize campaigns. Not all political journalists are routinely jailed or killed. Not every ballot box is stuffed.
Democratic procedures therefore allow partial but genuine contestation for power. But these regimes are not “democracies”, according to Levitsky and Way, because competitive authoritarian regimes “fall short” on at least one, and usually more, of three “defining attributes of democracy”. These are (1) free elections, (2) broad protection of civil liberties, and (3) a “reasonably even playing field.”
Their writing is very clear although their arguments are complex. You can ask your lecturers about their approach or listen to Levitsky here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aIlSdVhfDM
If I revisited the themes of Democracy and Apartheid today, twenty years on, I might explore the matter in something like these terms: was apartheid SA a “hybrid regime” (one that combined democratic and authoritarian practices) or perhaps a competitive authoritarian regime?
SA probably did not meet even the relatively minimal conditions for competitive authoritarianism after 1960, because the regime began to introduce wide ranging bans on opposition political parties — and to imprison or drive into exile a wide range of political opponents.
It is also interesting to “disaggregate democracy” in the way that has been attempted by the “Varieties of Democracy” project. This new approach makes it possible to trace how some of the contested component dimensions of democracy (they claim there are seven of these) have changed over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in more than a hundred countries (including SA). There is a reference to the project site below if you want to see what is going on today in this part of political science.
30 August 2017
Butler, Anthony (1998) Democracy and Apartheid: Political theory, comparative politics and the modern South African State (New York, St Martin’s Press & Basingstoke, Macmillan).
Fukuyama, Francis (1989). :”The End of History”, The National Interest (16): 3–18.
Levitsky, Steven and Lucan Way (2010) Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (Cambridge University Press).
Zakaria, Fareed (1991), ‘The rise of illiberal democracy’, Foreign Affairs (November-December)
The Varieties of Democracy project can be found at https://www.v-dem.net/en/