In Praise of Democracy - Analysis of the Value of Democratic Government in the World Today
An Introduction to the Story of Democratic Government
Which is the greatest word in the English language? 'Love'? 'Peace'? 'God'? Everyone will have their own opinion but I would make a case for 'Democracy'.
If it is the greatest word in the English language, 'democracy' is certainly not English in origin. Democracy derives from the Greek 'demos' (people) and 'kratos' (power), and was coined in the 4th or 5th centuries BC to describe those city states such as Athens in which citizens (common men, but not women or slaves) could have a free say without censorship in the conduct of the state's affairs.
After this promising start, democracy did not have an easy time of it. The baser instincts of mankind - ambition, jealousy, mistrust, and above all the love of power - meant that it seemed not to be in the interests of leaders to submit to the will of the people. It was a long time before democracy took off, but the past 60 years has seen a flourishing of this principle of freedom which has been quite remarkable.
In this page I attempt a brief overview of the key principles of democracy, the advantages (and disadvantages), and the current state of democracy in the world today. It is by no means an authoritative view, as it is just one ordinary person's individual opinion to be agreed with or rejected. But I am exercising my right to express that opinion - that, after all, is what the concept of democracy is all about.
- An introduction to the story of democratic government
- Why write this page?
- What is democracy?
- Democracy is not a political system
- The two fundamental principles of democracy
- Democracy - the most basic of human rights
- The right to dictate?
- The right to vote / the right not to vote
- The disadvantages of democracy
- The advantages of democracy
- The mechanisms of democratic election
- To fight for king and country, or democracy?
- Western policy towards democracy
- Complacency in democracies and respect for other peoples rights to democratic government
- Any country can embrace democracy
- Differentiating between failings of democracy and failings of leaders
- Accuracy of statistics - a note of caution
- History of democratic change - prior to the 20th century
- History of democratic change in the 20th century
- The ever-rising tide of democratic change in the 21st century?
- At the time of writing...
- Links you may like to read
Why Write This Page?
In this piece there are few statistics, but many generalisations, and to be honest, they are generalisations which to some will seem to be common sense, self-evident and unnecessary. So is there any point in writing this page? Sadly, and to my mind quite astonishingly, so many people seem not to understand or appreciate the principle of democracy for what it is.
In the developing world, it has long been a difficult problem for people living under dictatorial regimes to appreciate all the liberties and civil rights which people in democracies enjoy, or to understand the restrictions on excesses of authority under which democratic leaders operate. (I well remember the mystification of some who live under oppressive regimes that a powerful president such as Richard Nixon could be removed from office peacefully - that he could not simply dismiss the courts and clamp down on the free press during the time of the Watergate scandal).
It is much more surprising how many people who have lived all their lives in democracies so often trivialise the merits of these liberties, bracketing together democratic moralities with those of totalitarian states as if they are equally demanding of respect. It is surprising how many would rather utter words of condemnation against a democratic nation such as America or Britain for its actions, than against a dictatorship, for its actions. Startlingly according to one poll, one in seven French people do not believe that democracy is any better than other forms of government . It seems that many who live under democracy fail to appreciate the fundamental virtues and benefits of the freedoms they enjoy - freedoms which others are willing to die for, and for which many are dying today in totalitarian states.
These are the reasons I would like to state the seemingly obvious - everyone should understand what democracy is really all about, and support it.
What is Democracy?
To explain 'what is democracy?' is not quite as easy as it may seem to be. Does it involve everybody having a direct say in all political actions, or does it involve citizens electing an administration. And should any such administration then be charged to carry out in entirety the consensus of the peoples' wishes on all issues, or should it be granted autonomy to act upon its own initiative, to employ all the expertise at its disposal to govern in the best way it sees fit? Every political thinker has their own views and uses their own particular slant on the definition to condemn or to eulogise the administration which interests them.
Some have suggested that in a pure democracy, all adult citizens should have an equal say in the decision making process on every issue of consequence; by such a definition, there would never be any need for a Government to exercise its own judgement, as every citizen would vote in a referendum on every issue. In practice, how this may be achievable, is difficult to imagine. In such a society there would be no sense of direction, no expertise, no deep knowledge to harness, and no cohesion of policy making. What's more, every decision would be subject to interminable delays as referendum after referendum is called.
In practice, therefore, for democracy to work, delegation of decision making on the majority of matters has to be transferred to an appointed or elected body - and as long as this process is conducted openly as the result of a popular vote, then the resultant legislative body or Government still has democratic legitimacy.
If precise definitions are debatable, we are on more certain ground when we consider what qualities a democracy should embrace. It should embrace reasonable freedom to express one's views without fear of recrimination, equality under the law, and above all freedom to have a say, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the country, and the reasonable right of any individual to seek a role in government.
Sadly, the term 'democracy' has been more abused than almost any other. So many nations' leaders have employed the word 'democratic' in their titles, in an attempt to bestow self-respect upon their illiberal regimes, and yet in reality they have been anything but - the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) being obvious examples.
In the following three sections 'Democracy is not a Political System', 'The Two Fundamental Principles of Democracy' and 'Democracy - the most Basic of Human Rights' I seek to explore further what sets democracy apart from all other political concepts, what is most fundamentally distinctive about any democratic process, and why democracy is the most important of all human rights. These three sections should also make clear why such regimes as the 'Democratic' People's Republic of Korea have nothing whatsoever to do with democracy.
Democracy is Not a Political System
It is a common mistake to bracket democracy together with capitalism and socialism, liberalism, communism and fascism, theocracy, and dictatorship, as just one of many kinds of political system. It is not. All of these other concepts are political systems - ways of managing the economy or society to reward the industrious, or to help the weak, to favour a religious belief, or just to preserve the lifestyle of the person in charge. Democracy is not a political system - it is a fundamental human right to express an opinion and have a say in one's future. It is a social freedom whereby in theory at least, almost any of these other political systems can exist and flourish. Under sound democratic principles it should be possible to vote into power capitalists or socialists, liberals, republicans, or even Islamic fundamentalists, if that is what the people of the nation want, and if the government so elected is prepared to respect the principles of democracy outlined below.
This, I think is the single most important message of this article. Democracy is a social freedom and a human right; it is not a political system.
The Two Fundamental Principles of Democracy
1) The Right of the People to Elect a Government of Their Choice
One statement I made in the previous section 'Democracy is not a Political System' requires some qualification. I wrote that democracy 'is a social freedom whereby in theory almost any other political systems can exist and flourish'. Certainly it is a truism (in my opinion) that in a democracy, the people should be free to elect almost any government of whatever political complexion they wish, including the most extreme groupings or individuals. That is the peoples' right, and it is the reason for a free ballot. This is what I would call the First Fundamental Principle of Democracy.
2) The Right of the People to Change Their Minds
But the people must also be free to change their minds and remove that government, and - even more importantly - the next generation must be free to make their own decisions, voice a different view, and take the country in a different direction. That's why in a democracy the leadership must submit to another popular vote every 4, 5 or 10 years (within reason the period is academic and shorter or longer terms each have their merits - the important point here is that the life of the government is limited). This is what I would call the Second Fundamental Principle of Democracy.
This second principle of democracy is the reason why I believe that whilst it may be acceptable for extremist, even reprehensible, groups, to stand in an election and attract votes if they can, the one thing the people should NOT be allowed to vote for, is the demise of democracy itself. Any party or individual standing in an election should be obliged under the constitution of the country to submit for re-election after a set number of years, and the basics of this should not be alterable.
(In Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis actually gained power in a fairly legitimate democratic election. Although there were undoubted flaws and some intimidation in the election, there was, it seems, some popular support for the 'strong government' Hitler offered at a time of great national crisis, and thus the First Principle of Democracy was upheld with some reservation. However Hitler's party, under the pretext of a State of Emergency, then discarded the Second Principle of Democracy, by making political opposition illegal and abandoning the electoral process. At that point the Nazis lost any moral legitimacy to govern).
Basic Freedoms and Rights 2005 - (Freedom House)
Democracy - the Most Basic of Human Rights
Human rights are the most basic of rights and freedoms to which we should all be entitled. A charter of such rights was originally formulated and agreed by the united Nations in 1948 as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . The charter lays out thirty clauses or articles of rights, and I suggest that it is well worth reading. Most of the thirty clauses are worthy aspirations, and all are more likely to be respected in a democracy than in any authoritarian regime. However some of them, I would suggest, are perhaps more fundamental and achievable than others. The term 'human right' is liberally bandied around these days, and diminished as a consequence, because many concepts which activists would wish to promote as basic human rights are - however laudable - nothing of the sort. They are better described as aspirations, which cannot always be guaranteed. For example:
- The right to life (article 3) is not a right, because it is not always in the hands of mere mortals to guarantee this. Flooding, earthquakes, incurable disease, even accidents, may see to that. And sometimes it may prove necessary for society to take human life in time of war or to counteract lethal violence by anti-social individuals. Even in peacetime, the value of life or indeed even the meaning of life is a subject for legitimate reasoned debate on issues such as abortion or euthanasia on which two people can hold different, yet respectable, points of view. One's view will be based upon the values placed upon such elements as religious belief, scientific evidence, social practicalities and human compassion, and will often be strongly and passionately held, but I think more than one view is legitimate among decent thinking people.
- The right to a job and an adequate standard of living (articles 23-25) are not fundamental human rights. If there isn't the money or demand then there isn't a job to go to. It's as simple as that. A third world country which is stricken with devastating natural disaster, can scarcely be accused of denying its people their basic human rights, if it cannot afford to create jobs and pay citizens to take those jobs. Full employment and an adequate standard of living are merely laudible objectives which all societies should prioritise and strive to achieve.
- The right to free education (article 26) or a free health service. There is a very basic morality which suggests any humane, caring society must safeguard the educational interests of its children, and offer care for those who are sick. Therefore no civilised government should neglect its responsibilities in these areas. However whether all education and health care need to be free or whether they should only be free for the least fortunate in society is something for the government - with a democratic mandate - to decide. Some believe that such vital services as these should be freely available to all - rich and poor - in a fair society. Others believe that capitalism and payment for such services drives competition and improvement in standards, which is ultimately of benefit to all. You can argue the case for either point of view, but the point is that there is a case to be argued, and there is no fundamental human rights issue.
Some of these concepts are therefore best described as social or cultural aspirations and economic goals which any government should strive for - not quite the same thing as fundamental human rights. There are indeed very few things which are 'human rights' in the sense that any Government under any circumstances, should necessarily be obliged to provide them, but democracy - the right to participate in the election of the people who govern - is one right which should be guaranteeable by all reasonably stable nations.
I would mention at this stage two subsidiary and genuine human rights which serve to protect democracy. These are the right of free speech, and the right to a free and independent law enforcement body and judiciary.
- Without the right of free speech, it is almost impossible to ensure that ordinary citizens have the ability to make informed decisions when they vote.
- Without the right to a free and independent law enforcement body and judiciary, it is almost impossible to ensure citizens will be free from persecution when voting.
Finally, it is one thing to have rights to free speech and justice written down on paper; it is quite another to ensure that these rights can be made truly available to all. Press monopolies, Government run media and extortionate legal fees, may ensure that although equality for all is to be desired, money or power may still talk loudest. This is a major concern in democracies, and all people - citizens and politicians - need to safeguard the principals behind these rights. Failure to safeguard these principles is perhaps the biggest concern to be aired by citizens of democracies.
Basic Freedoms and Rights 2003 - (Polity IV)
The Right to Vote / the Right Not to Vote
In some countries the belief in the need to strengthen a democratic mandate has led to a requirement in law to vote; it is against the law not to vote. I cannot personally agree with that, even though the intention may be good. I believe an individual should have the freedom not to vote just as much as they should have the right to vote. To be obliged to vote if one has no clear viewpoint is a wasted vote anyway, as such a forced vote is not really supportive of the party or person who receives it.
The Right to Dictate ?
'All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'
There is a clear truism about the above statement. Whichever rights are human rights, I would say the right to dictate is most certainly not one of them. And yet undoubtedly there is an appeal for anybody in a position of power to take actions, and to issue decrees, without the tiresome bother of having to answer to other people. Such behaviour will often be carried out for entirely selfish reasons (to line one's pockets and nurture one's ego), though in some cases the reasons may initially be quite well-intentioned; for example, if one believes one's policies are for the good of the country or the people, then the thinking may be that anyone questioning or opposing those policies can only be a hindrance to effective governance).
However what gives someone the right to lay down laws telling other people - grown adult people - how to run their lives, without their consent? In too many countries some individual or some group, be it a political organisation, a religious faith, or the military, still believe they have a right to tell other people what to do.
One party states : Political parties will sometimes have the audacity to believe that they represent the majority or all of the people, so why in their mindset should other groups or parties be allowed a voice? If your party can represent all the people, then any other party with a different point of view must be against the people. It is an arrogant point of view, but it is the point of view of the old Communist one party states, now thankfully largely discredited and reformed. One party states - usually communist or socialist - still exist in China, North Korea, Cuba and several other countries. (Though in some, such as North Korea, monarchy-like dynastic influences may be even more important than party ideals).
Fundamentalist theocracies : These believe they are on even surer ground. They believe they represent not merely the people, but the Word of God, and the Word of God takes precedence over anything mere mortals want. So if they are doing God's work, why on Earth should they accept a contrary human view? Again, it is utter arrogance in their own self-righteousness which prevents them from acknowledging any alternative philosophy. Despite Western paranoia very few such states exist. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran is perhaps the closest to a theocracy today, as an elected president is answerable to a theocratic council.
Absolute monarchies : An absolute Monarch is in a similar position, as he believes he has a divine right to rule over everyone else. He has Royal Blood, and his rule is decreed by God. Again, what arrogance (which ignores that most have acquired their positions as a result of their ancestors employing force of might in battle to found the dynasty). Absolute monarchies are thankfully rapidly becoming a thing of the past, but a few still exist. Saudi Arabia remains essentially an absolute monarchy.
Absolute dictatorships : An absolute dictator is something different. The phrase 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' can certainly be applied to such people. There's something in all of us which likes the idea of being able to do what we like, simply because we can. If we have that power, then we no longer have to worry about other people's concerns, because they can't stop us. An absolute dictator is freed from the constraints of social conformity, because they have put themselves above society. They can indulge their natural greed for power or aggrandisement. It is difficult to quantify the number of absolute dictatorships today, because many exist under the guise of party systems with seemingly independent parliamentary and legal systems. However the leader in these countries remains unaccountable to either parliament or the law, which can be changed at the leader's whim. The most infamous examples of dictators in the past century include the Fascist leaders of Europe, notably Hitler, whilst Africa has produced the likes of Idi Amin and Emperor Bokassa. More recently we have seen the demise of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.
Military dictatorships : A military dictatorship is one in which a General or Colonel believes that law and order justifies the army taking control. The end - an organised, law abiding society - justifies the means. Put simply, if you have a gun, you can make everyone else do what you think is right. A system traditionally associated with the old military juntas of South America, but in recent times best typified by Burma.
Disadvantages of Democracy
In this section and the next I weigh up the pros and cons of democracy. It is only fair to try to present both sides, so first I will point out some of the drawbacks of a democratic system.
1) Short term benefit at the expense of long term progress. Foremost among the disadvantages perhaps is the fact that politicians and citizens are human beings prone to normal human weaknesses. If democratic elections have to be held on a regular and frequent basis, then those politicians' jobs are on the line on a regular basis. No one likes losing a position of power, and no one likes losing their jobs, and it is in a politician's interest to try to hang on to theirs. Sadly, human nature also decrees that the electorate have their own selfish interests - like it or not, most people will vote for a better standard of living today, rather than an end to global warming or increased prosperity thirty years down the line. Politicians in a democracy tend to pander to that selfishness. They tend to instigate short term policies for short term gain. Long term policies to benefit the planet or our children's children will usually cost the politicians their jobs if it leads to hardships for the population today. A strong dictator is not subject to such worries for his own job, and could ignore his people and theoretically carry out long term policies for the greater good of the country and the world.
(In practice of course dictators - even more so than democratic leaders - are usually more interested in their own self-interest than in the future of their nation or planet).
2) The disruptive inconvenience of elections. A related issue in democracies, is that every election year the business of governing the country effectively comes to a halt. Little practical can be achieved as politicians fight their own battles for survival. The election may bring about a change of government, and new personnel at the top, fresh faces inexperienced in the highly responsible jobs which they are now taking on. Policies may be reversed from one government to the next - hardly good news for the idea of stable progressive development of a package of policies.
(But perhaps better than the continuous promulgation of bad policies - an affliction which served the totalitarian Soviet Union poorly for 70 years).
3) The disadvantage of non-free thinking party politics. In most democracies, too many of the politicians are a waste of intellect, as loyalty to the party is deemed all-important. Too many politicians don't think for themselves or vote according to their beliefs - instead they vote according to the way the party tells them to vote.
(I could of course point out that free-thinking is also not necessarily encouraged in undemocratic regimes either!)
4) The disadvantage of adversarial party systems. A second party related issue (particularly in my country) is the adversarial system whereby rival parties feel duty-bound to oppose each other and condemn each other's point of view at every opportunity. So much time is wasted in parliament with stupid sniping, taunting and bickering, when constructive analytical debate would be more helpful. A compulsion to oppose rivals seems irresistible - if Party A develops a policy with ten advantages and one small drawback, you can bet your bottom dollar that Party B will focus on the drawback, and so try to discredit the whole package.
(Dictators are free from adversarial politics - they imprison or execute adversaries).
Advantages of Democracy
1) Democracy provides for changes in government and policy without violence. This is quite remarkable when you think about it. In democratic elections, huge levels of power can be transferred from one group or from one individual to another by peaceful means. In a non-democratic system, it is almost impossible for a very radical change of direction to occur without major civil unrest or civil war, military coup, or assassination.
2) Democracy prevents arrogant monopoly by the ruling regime. Democratic government is bound by an election term after which it has to submit itself to a popular vote to retain authority. The ruling regime has to make sure it works for its people. It cannot ignore the people if it is to remain in power.
3) Democracy lends authority to the government. A president or prime minister who has won victory in a free election retains a moral authority to speak which no unelected leader possesses. Even if the leader is not universally liked and no longer supported, the majority of the population will at least respect his/her right to govern until the end of his term of office.
4) Democracy ensures a sense of belonging to a society. One important facet of democracy is that the people feel a sense of participation in the process of choosing their government, and the making of decisions. Even in true democracies, people may complain about feeling ostracised in society, and of their voices remaining unheard, because unfortunately not everyone can have their views acted upon favourably, but at least in a democracy there is the opportunity to be heard - try openly criticising the government in an authoritarian one party state or dictatorship and see what happens.
5) Democracy ensures freedom of the press and judiciary. Press freedom and independence of the police and judiciary is only truly possible in a democracy. Even here, governments may seek to limit such freedoms, sometimes with reasonable justification (for example to secure the nation against acts of terrorism or espionage), but at least in a democracy, the level of freedom in society can be openly debated. The pressure group 'Reporters Without Borders' which campaigns for the journalistic freedom to report without censorship, publishes an annual list of countries ranked according to restrictions on freedom of information. (See  for latest report, or  for 2010 figures). Comparing this list of 179 nations to a table of democracy published by the Economist Intelligence Unit , and illustrated on Wikipedia's Democracy Index page , all of the 20 freest countries are described as democracies or 'flawed democracies'. Almost all the bottom 20 - the least free - are authoritarian regimes.
6) Democracy is a fundamental right. Finally, I return to the main theme of this piece. Although there are undoubted disadvantages to the democratic process, as well as advantages, one single point outweighs all others:
It is unarguably, unquestionably wrong that one person or one group of human beings should by sheer force of might or accident of birth, dominate all other human beings and dictate without constraint, how they should lead their lives.
Mechanisms and Procedures of Democratic Election
How a democratic government may be constituted, and how rights and ideals are exercised and regulated, is a matter for each individual nation to determine, as unfortunately there can be no perfect electoral system which will always produce the result which exactly mirrors the wishes of all the people.
In truth there are a great many ways of practising democracy and very many ways of electing democratic governments ranging from 'direct democracy' (full public participation in decision making via referendums and similar devices) to 'parliamentary democracy' (citizens elect politicians to represent them in a legislative assembly, and these politicians then decide who will govern) to 'presidential democracy' (in which the public directly elect the nation's head of state, and possibly a separate and independent legislature).
My country - the United Kingdom - is a parliamentary democracy in which there has long been an impassioned debate concerning the best system by which to elect a government. Arguments have raged for decades over whether 'first past the post ' or 'majority election' (the system currently employed) or 'proportional representation', is the most effective and democratic method. Without wishing to enter into that debate here, there are clear plusses and minuses for both systems relating to the fairness of political representation, the accountability of individual Members of Parliament to the people who elect them, and the stability of the resulting Government (See  for assessment of the pros and cons). The important point is that both systems are genuine attempts to produce effective and fair government through the will of the people, and as such both are democratic.
Many other issues remain perennially open for discussion. How long should the term of office of an elected parliament be? Both short term government of four years as in the case of America, and a longer term of seven years - until recently the norm for the French presidency - have their advantages and disadvantages. And who should have the vote? Ordinary law abiding men and women certainly. What about young people? Aged 21? Or 18? Or 16? What about criminals? Petty thieves or violent offenders? What about people with learning difficulties? Should the right to vote be open to all, or just a major part of the population? How should majority rule be regulated to avoid the oppression of the minority? Or should it be regulated at all? Conflicts of interest abound ; one man's right to be free from racial abuse is another man's restriction on freedom of speech. There are a multitude of issues and for most there is no clear right or wrong answer. All modern democracies continue to search for the magic formula, which - rather like the philosphopher's stone - does not exist.
The purpose of this little discourse is to make clear that whilst individual nations may differ over how best to exercise the right of the people to determine the governance of their country, the important point is that the fundamental principles of democracy should not be compromised. Whatever system is employed, the intent must be democratic - to produce a Government or leadership or a system of establishing laws and policies which involves, and has the support or at least the acceptance of, the majority of the people.
Freedom of the Press - (Reporters Without Borders)
To Fight for King and Country, or Democracy?
The cllchéd defence of the people implicated in Nazi atrocities in World War Two, was that they were 'only obeying orders'. Should one fight for one's national leader in time of war? Or for one's country? Or for some other reason? (Note, this is not a question of pacifism, which is another issue entirely - we are assuming a case for war may on occasion exist.)
No one should feel obliged to fight for their leader if the said leader is not democratically elected. Why should they? A man or party which has gained power through force of military might, who has ruthlessly suppressed all dissent, and who has not allowed opposition to their rule by peaceful means, has no moral legitimacy whatsoever, and there is no reason to respect their decrees.
And it follows that one should also not feel obliged to fight for their country, if the country is ruled by such a man or such a party. Frankly it is better by far to be deemed unpatriotic than to fight for a cause which is evil. But would it really have been unpatriotic for Germans in the 1930s and 40s to have refused to fight for a nation led by a tyrant who was set on violent overthrow of sovereign democracies and racial annihilation? I think not.
Of course, the reality of the situation frequently conflicts with the ethics. To refuse to fight may well risk denunciation and severe punishment as a traitor or a deserter, as well as persecution of one's family. So one cannot necessarily condemn those who fight in the cause of an evil regime, but one can at least state that patriotism is most definitely not a justifiable excuse for fighting.
To sum up, one should not feel obliged to fight for an unelected leader, and one should not feel obliged to fight for a country if the cause is wrong and is advocated by a leader with no legitimacy. Fighting for a democracy is different. I am well aware that many condemn Western governments which 'meddle' in the affairs of other nations, such as has happened all too frequently in recent years, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, but whatever one's views on the rights and wrongs of those wars, at least they were conducted by governments with the legitimacy of being elected by popular vote, subject to a free exchange of opinions and criticisms, and open to subsequent rejection by the people.
Western Policy Towards Democracy
For decades now, it has seemed to many that the priority of some Western Governments including Britain and America has been to support any nation which favours them, irrespective of whether that nation is democratic or whether it is an unfree regime. Time and time again, such misguided policy has come back to bite us. Thus the United States supported the Shah of Iran, and America at one time supported Saddam Hussein (because he was at war with Iran under the Ayatollahs). Now they support Saudi Arabia, most notably in the field of arms sales, despite the autocratic nature of that regime. Such policies inevitably antagonise the populations of undemocratic pro-western governments, and may well leave the citizens of those countries with a residual grudge against America for supporting the regime which oppresses them.
The only sensible, safe and righteous course of action for any democratic nation to follow is first and foremost to support other democracies, irrespective of their wealth, their foreign policies or political leanings. Dictatorships, however powerful they are, will eventually fall - that is the destiny of any regime which lacks the clear-thinking respect of the majority. Democracies on the other hand tend not to fall; they tend to grow in strength.
It is therefore prudent as well as moral for all democracies to support each other.
Complacency in Democracies and Respect for the Right to Democratic Government
Democracy in the west, where the principle is long established, is often dismissed in a rather ambivalent, blasé way. It constantly irritates just how many people equate behaviour of political leaders in democracies with the behaviour of unrepresentative, ruthlessly suppressive political leaders in autocratic regimes. Whilst everyone is happy to exercise their rights in democracies, too many fail to appreciate the good fortune of living under such an ethos, and the inherent right of others in other societies to enjoy democracy too.
All too frequently, even here in Britain - sometimes considered the mother of all democratic governments - intelligent apologists for dictatorial regimes will make patronising statements. Examples include: 'the culture of Country X is not suited to democracy', and 'a strong leader is required in Country Y to maintain law and order'. And they will suggest that we in the west 'have no right or are in no position to tell other people how to run their affairs' (ignoring the fact that it is usually not the people, but an individual or a ruthless clique who decides how another country runs its affairs). All these comments have been heard in British political debates.
Comments like these legitimise authoritarian rule, even though the people who utter such comments, would never dream of sanctioning such control over their own lives. Certainly there may be occasions when strong leadership is required, possibly for example in the aftermath of a civil war, but such times should be brief and should be guided by the over-riding principal of moving as swiftly as possible to democracy.
Any Country Can Embrace Democracy
Examples of democracy shine out like beacons of light in all cultures in all parts of the world - in southern Africa, free nations such as Namibia and Botswana, and S.Africa itself, show what can be achieved. In Northern Africa, Mali* is one of the poorest nations on Earth, and its population is 90% Muslim, and yet it has become a tolerant and free nation, respectful of minorities, and it is a democracy - Islam and poverty are clearly no barriers to the process of free government if the will is present. In Central and South America, most countries are now democracies and nations like Costa Rica and Uruguay stand out as being the equal of any European or North American democracy. And in Asia, South Korea and Taiwan are free nations (which must be protected at all costs from their powerful and less than totally friendly neighbours). And who in the west would think that Mongolia might be one of the most liberal countries in the region? Yet it is making great strides in that direction. Finally India - if any country is least suited to democracy, surely it is India with its history of colonialism, ancient caste systems, religious divides, extreme poverty and disease. And yet India is stable, and progressing fast - because it is democratic, and its governments have a history of good reason.
All nations and cultures are suited to democracy, when the process is adequately and effectively explained, and administered in a manner free from corruption . The majority of people in all countries want to decide their own future, and voice their own opinions; nobody in the west should ever be under the delusion that they do not.
* This was written in 2012. Since then, Mali has sadly been the victim of incursions by extremist Islamic factions. At the Mali Government's request, French forces have become involved in helping this poor nation try to re-establish its control over all the country. One sincerely hopes that the mission is successful - despite setbacks which are not of its own making, Mali has retained a reputation as one of the most civilised nations in Africa, and must not be allowed to fall under the control of terrorists.
Differentiating Between the Failings of Democracy and Failings of its Leaders
I know full well that some who read this will view many of the political actions of democracies with the deep suspicion. They will see every action taken by politicians in a cynical light, they will see darkness in all intentions, they will point to scandals, lies, deceit and broken promises, and they will see sinister conspiracies in every action. They will say all politicians are corrupt, and that we are in no position to preach to others until we have put our own house in order. I am certainly no different in mistrusting politicians, though perhaps I am not quite so cynical as this.
Be that as it may, such matters are an irrelevance in this discussion. Democracy is a moral code by which a civilised society exists, and which politicians are obliged to work within. Politicians are human beings, no different to the rest of us. They have their own motivations, self-interests and fallibilities. Some are honest and genuine and some cannot be trusted, and they will try to exploit their positions for personal gain. But that is not the fault of democracy. It is the fault of human nature. At least in a democracy there is a possibility of uncovering excesses and abuses of power, and of bringing down a leader tainted by corruption or scandal; in a nation without free speech and a genuine opposition, the ruler can act without restraint.
Do not confuse democratic failings with the human failings of politicians who work within the system.
Accuracy of Statistics - a Note of Caution
One problem with writing an article such as this is how to the assess the reliability of information. On this page, quite a significant proportion of the statistical information comes from an organisation called Freedom House , welcomed for the quality of its maps detailing the issues of world liberty and democracy.
This organisation has been described as an independent, non-governmental organization, and its motives and intentions seem fair and good. But it is only right to point out in the interests of honest analysis, that some governments, such as Russia, China, Sudan and Cuba have regularly expressed scepticism about the autonomy and impartiality of Freedom House. Some directly accuse it of being used by the American Government to further its aims, and indeed, Freedom House itself has acknowledged its support for America's leading role in the defence of human rights issues in the world, whilst also condemning some of the allies of America for their human rights records. Some prominent Americans praise Freedom House's integrity and independence, whilst other Americans openly criticise its agenda. 
Certainly some of the designations on the maps included do not quite match. In the first map on this page, 'Basic Freedoms and Rights 2005 - Freedom House', the nation of Russia - though far from perfect - seems unfairly scored as 'entirely unfree', and certainly other authorities look on that country a little more favourably. The 'Economist Intelligence Unit' describes Russia as a hybrid regime with some form of democracy , and the second map on this page, 'Basic Freedoms and Rights 2003 - Polity IV', also portrays Russia in a better light. This kind of discrepancy does not necessarily indicate a political agenda other than the basic one of promoting democracy - it may merely indicate different priorities on certain criteria of freedom, and in most cases the maps do tally significantly.
The advice is to consider all evidence carefully, and maybe the best indicator as to a nation's democratic credentials is to assess whether an open discussion of its human rights record is permitted within its borders. All truly free countries allow this, and the third map, 'Freedom of the Press - Reporters Without Borders', reflects this.
The History of Democratic Change - Prior to the 20th Century
Perhaps the surest indication of both the moral rectitude of democracy and the stability of democratic nations, is the ever increasing number of nations which have embraced and retained this way of life. Totalitarian states and dictatorships fall or are reformed - it is as inevitable as night following day. The only question mark is over how long it takes. Democracies on the other hand, almost never fall, once they have stabilised and people have grown accustomed to the concept and the freedoms and rights which they offer.
The history of democracy is that it got off to a slow start. Despite its ancient origins, and the gradual erosion of dictatorial power through such momentous events as the signing of Magna Carta, and civil war against the absolute power of King Charles I in England (resulting in his execution by parliamentary force), it was in the 18th and 19th centuries that a wave of democratisation brought about significant changes to Western Europe and America. However for the most part these changes were still introducing only a partial democracy. Restrictions on who could vote in elections limited the electorate in most countries to less than 50%, ordinarily excluding the poor, either intentionally, or institutionally (due to an inability to read or write), and almost always excluding women and people of a different race. It was not until 1893, that one nation - New Zealand - instigated 'universal suffrage' allowing all adults - men and women of all races - to vote equally in elections. The United States and Great Britain delayed votes for women until the 20th century.
The Rise in Freedom over Two Centuries
The History of Democratic Change in the 20th Century
It was in the 20th century that big change took place. This took two forms - first there was the increased representation of the people in those countries which had already been practising limited forms of democracy, such as the movement to universal suffrage which was mentioned above. Secondly there was the emergence of new democracies, which is really the subject of this section. As can be seen in the Polity IV graph above, the progress towards world democratisation has - with the exception of the years leading up to WW2 - been relentless, albeit very much a case of two steps forward and one step backwards.
Collapse of the Ottoman-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War One, generated several new partial democracies in eastern Europe, but world economic collapse and depression in the 1920s proved a major set-back. Well established democracies like Britain and America had the stability to withstand such economic downturn, but in Germany and other nations it led to the rise of state fascism and dictatorship. The ultimate result of this was World War Two, and the total suspension of democratic principles throughout most of Europe, The end of war also saw one further major retrograde step - having appeased fascism in the 30's and in no mood for further conflict, the Western democracies now felt it necessary to appease their allies in this victory, the communist Soviet Union. As a result, many nations in Eastern Europe again found themselves under the yoke of an oppressive, undemocratic regime.
In retrospect however, The end of war also saw major advances in the cause of democracy. Former war-like states such as (West) Germany and Japan became models of constructing freedom out of devastation. The aftermath of World War Two also saw the gradual dismantling (usually voluntary) of old colonial empires, such as those of Britain, France and Portugal, leading to the emergence of new independent nations. At various times and with varying degrees of harmony, many of these new nations have since moved towards democracy. Most importantly of all, consolidation of democratic principles took place in Europe and America - as a result of this, today it would be unthinkable for a country like the USA which was theoretically neutral at the beginning of the Second World War, to stand by if a dictator like Adolf Hitler attempts to empire build, and overthrow other more liberal governments. This, I would suggest, was the time when stable democracies really came of age and recognised the fundamental virtue of their philosophy, and the need to defend it through the signing of treaties and the development of the Nato alliance in 1949.
Further liberalisations would continue worldwide including significant returns to the democratic fold in Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, whilst many of the nations of South America - for so long synonymous with military juntas - adopted electoral systems in the 70s and 80s, graphically demonstrated by the steep rise on the Polity IV graph at this time. The failure of the Communist economies, social unrest in Poland and the struggle to compete with the free markets of the West, then led to the biggest single upturn in the fortunes of democracy - the fall of the Soviet Union. The enlightened president Mikhail Gorbachev introduced some liberal reforms and a new air of tolerance in Moscow was enough to encourage dissent against oppression; 1989 became perhaps the third most momentous year of the 20th century after the World War ceasefires in 1918 and 1945, as so many millions of people throughout eastern Europe experienced freedom of expression for the first time in their lives. Progress continued in the 1990s including in Africa, symbolised by the 'walk to freedom' of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Over recent decades, one by one, the old fashioned tyrant dictators of Africa and elsewhere have been swept from power.
The Tide of Democratic Change in the 21st Century
If world war, decolonisation and economics were driving forces behind the push for human freedom in the 20th century, increasing affluence has assisted the process in the 21st century. In China, it will be difficult to sustain the current levels of growth without greater freedom of expression in the future, at least in the economic world. But another factor has been of increasing significance. A controlled press has always been regarded as a pre-requisite for a dictatorial state to survive. With a free press, the people can understand and appreciate the failings of their leaders and the quality of life they have and how this is comparable to standards in other countries. It's not difficult for an authoritarian regime to clamp down on a free printed press, and home-grown dissidents. but today of course, these are not the only ways in which the public can be informed. Increased international travel, the rise of the Internet and growth of international communication including the rapidly developed mobile phone network, are undoubtedly contributing to greater aspirations for freedom in the 21st century. Even in repressive regimes, it is becoming difficult for the governments to suppress knowledge of basic freedoms and injustices being made known to the people. What's more, the Internet and mobile phone services are also enabling opposition groups to co-ordinate their acts of resistance against their undemocratic governments.
It has been suggested by some groups such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, that democracy has recently been in decline as a new down turn in economic fortunes, disenchantment with pace of change in new democracies, and backsliding in some former Soviet bloc countries has seen entrenched governments consolidating their power.  Inevitably there will be retrograde steps in world democratisation, but I do not believe that this can be a long term trend - statistical evidence throughout the last 200 years and the inherent stability of a way of life voted upon by the masses suggests that the future remains bright for democracy. Indeed recent events in the Arab world have shown how many people even in this most problematic part of the world, appear to have a thirst for democracy, or at least for freedom of expression.
The good news is that polls suggest the majority in developing nations do indeed appreciate the virtue of basic concepts of freedom and liberty, and this is what they associate democracy with, even if they are unfamiliar with mechanisms of electoral procedures. It also seems that increased prosperity associated with democracy is a relatively minor consideration even among the poor - important, because whilst liberty and free speech can be rapidly introduced, upturns in economic benefits take longer, and could easily lead to disillusionment with the democratic process if this is not appreciated .
At the Time of Writing ...
This was written early in 2012. We have just been through a year to be remembered for the so-called 'Arab Spring' in which echoes of the fall of the Communist nations of 1989 were repeated in the Middle East. First Tunisia, then Egypt, and then so many other countries - Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria - saw major uprisings, while many more saw people coming out on to the streets in lesser protests.
At the time of writing, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, undemocratic governments have recently fallen. In Tunisia, free elections were held for the first time in October. In other countries, leading ministers have been dismissed, political prisoners have been released, and concessions on constitutional reforms have been introduced in efforts to assuage the peoples' demands. But in some - notably Syria, which will quite possibly be the next country to experience the downfall of its government - protest has been met with violent suppression and the killing of unarmed civilian protesters. And even when reform has occurred, the road to true democracy is not straight. In Egypt, protest at the Government of President Mubarak has been replaced by protest at the perceived reluctance of the military to instigate further reforms and full democracy. People who want to hang on to unrepresentative power put as many obstacles into the way of democracy as they can.
But such obstacles can only be temporary barriers when viewed from the historical perspective - a holding exercise be it lasting a few months, a few years, or a decade or more. Eventually, the majority desire of the population will, I believe. have its way. In October 2011, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya became the latest dictator to feel the wrath of ordinary people. Who will be next? And in which part of the world?
I repeat something I wrote in the introduction to this piece. I am only an ordinary member of the public - that, in a democracy, gives me the right to a say. Equally, others can have their say, including in the 'Comments' section below. Please do so, and I'll welcome any constructive comments. I am especially concerned that my factual statements (as opposed to my opinions) are all accurate, so feel free to point out any factual errors if they exist, or political developments which change the world picture, and I will amend the piece accordingly.
Any impartial review of the facts will show that on almost any criterion that really matters - stability, freedom of speech, political persecution, religious tolerance, equal rights for women, independence of the police and judiciary, torture, commitment to UN peacekeeping operations, wealth and health and life expectancy and literacy, and also altruistic actions such as overseas aid and the granting of political asylum to refugees - democracies consistently score more favourably than non-democracies.
I hope the conclusion to this piece is obvious. There is no justification under any circumstances for an established nation to reject democracy. Whether on grounds of religious belief, political philosophy or economic growth, there is no excuse for any leader - king, revolutionary or soldier - or any political party, to deny grown adult men and women the right to decide their own future.
This essay is written to remind all who live under democracy that this is a way of doing things which should be defended and protected at all costs in all nations. It is also written as a token of moral support and encouragement to those who promote democracy and freedom of speech in countries where self-imposed leaders cling to their trappings of power and dictate how others should live their lives.
Thank you for reading.
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article, on condition that an active link back to this page is included
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Hi. I write web pages on many subjects including film reviews, travel guides, science, astronomy and photography, and essays in creative writing and many other topics which interest me. All these other pages can be accessed at the above link.
Links You May like to Read
- Democracy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- History of democracy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- 1} Economist Intelligence Unit - Democracy in Retreat
- 2] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
- 3] Voting Systems: Majority Election vs. Proportional Representation
- 4] Press Freedom Index 2011-2912 - Reporters Without Borders
- 5] Democracy Index 2011 - Economist Intelligence Unit
- 6] Democracy Index - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- 7] Why the Developing World Needs and Wants Democracy - National Endowment for Democracy
- 8] Freedom House
- 9] Freedom House - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
-  Understanding Democracy in Developing Countries
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