“Our democracy is dead.” I’ve heard this phrase uttered all across the world after the passage of a restrictive voter law, the closure of an independent news outlet or the results of a questionable election. Friends and acquaintances over the years have lamented: Because of x, my country is no longer a democracy.
Is it not? Was it ever?
We frequently talk about what democracy means and, importantly, the benefits of a robust democracy and the consequences of its absence. We talk about components, systems, and values of democracy, but when it comes to what democracy itself is, we have trouble producing a concise definition.
I set out to make my own modest attempt at coming up with a concrete answer. Are there ingredients without which a democracy does not exist? Is civil society a nice to have or a must have? Is democracy even definable, or, rather — to completely misappropriate the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart — do you just know it when you see it?
Are there ingredients without which a democracy does not exist? Is civil society a nice to have or a must have? Is democracy even definable, or do you just know it when you see it?
Democracy is much more than just elections. It is strong institutions and freedoms and rights. It incorporates sovereignty of the people. An independent judiciary. It is the uncorrupted expression of the true will of the people. Majority rule with minority protection. A free press. Oh and a government, ideally with checks and balances. And, um, inked pointer fingers and “I Voted” stickers?
I am no Merriam-Webster, but the above is decidedly not a definition. Actually, in my humble opinion, neither is theirs.
I consulted some democracy experts, chatting with former colleagues at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and reading through some of NDI chairman Madeleine Albright’s speeches. I even spent some time with my old grad school buddies, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who were a little annoyed that I haven’t been in touch). I got a sense of all the different elements that can go into a democracy.
Then I made this:
My conclusion: democracy is a system of governance that exists at the point where inclusion, transparency, and accountability intersect with institutions, social contract, and rule of law.
In order to qualify as a democracy, a country must have institutions, including (but not limited to) a legislature, an executive, an independent judiciary, political parties, media, and a body that oversees elections. It must have some sort of social contract with its citizens, likely a constitution, that provides for freedoms and rights while outlining responsibilities. The country must also have rule of law, which punishes crimes and where everyone is treated equally.
In a democracy, inclusion means that no one is excluded from participating in the process of shaping policy and choosing representatives. The citizenry must have the right to know how the process works and what their government is doing, so transparency is also key. Finally, accountability means that a structure exists whereby the powers that be face consequences if they do not follow the rules.
At the intersection of transparency + pluralism + the media, for example, you find public debate, a democratic value. At the intersection of rule of law + accountability + political parties + rights lies majority rule, minority protection. There are similar equations for civil society, women’s rights, youth engagement, political opposition, competitive elections, access to true information, due process, human rights, and every other pillar of democracy.
Visually, I think the definition of democracy would look something like this:
It is complex and a little messy, but democracy does, indeed, have parameters.
In declaring the demise of democracy in their respective countries, my aforementioned friends and acquaintances were referring to the closing of some of these spaces. A restrictive voter law messes with inclusion + competitive elections, while an attack on a newspaper alters transparency + freedom of the press. If we don’t trust the way an election was called, maybe accountability + election oversight is at risk.
Democracy is a process. It is imperfect and needs to be constantly nurtured and protected as we push it closer to the ideal.
Democracy is a process. It is imperfect and needs to be constantly nurtured and protected as we push it closer to the ideal. Democracy is a big, beautiful, evolving creature that comes in various shapes and sizes and speaks with a slightly different accent in each place it resides. As long as it maintains a few fundamental components, however, it qualifies.
The five essays in this background paper explore the factors that are shaping democracy in the 21st century. Philosopher Rob Riemen urges us to learn from history and revive the democratic spirit. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum sheds light on the relationship between disinformation and polarization. Editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes illustrates the dangers of defending freedom of expression from her perspective on the front lines. Transatlantic expert Anthony Silberfeld warns that whoever constructs the new 5G infrastructure will define our future geopolitics, norms, and values. And economist Amit Kapoor argues that the current rise in populism is no accident; in fact, we could have seen it coming if we’d known where to look.
The following pages are meant to spark your most innovative ideas, provide perspectives you hadn’t considered, and prepare you for our discussion at the Washington Symposium: Redefining Democracy in the 21st Century.
Emily Rodriguez, 2019 for the Bertelsmann Foundation Modified from a 2017 essay for the National Democratic Institute