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1 WHAT DEMOCRACY IS . . . AND IS NOT Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl Philippe C. Schmitter is professor emeritus of political science at Stanford University and professor emeritus in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Terry Lynn Karl is the Gildred Professor of Latin American Studies and Political Science at Stanford University and Senior Fellow (by courtesy) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. She is the author of The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (1997). This essay originally appeared in the Summer 1991 issue of the Journal of Democracy. The original, longer version of this essay was written at the request of USAID, which is not responsible for its content. For some time, the word democracy has been circulating as a debased currency in the political marketplace. Politicians with a wide range of convictions and practices strove to appropriate the label and attach it to their actions. Scholars, conversely, hesitated to use it—without adding qualifying adjectives—because of the ambiguity that surrounds it. The distinguished American political theorist Robert Dahl even tried to introduce a new term, “polyarchy,” in its stead in the (vain) hope of gaining a greater measure of conceptual precision. But for better or worse, we are “stuck” with democracy as the catchword of contemporary political discourse. It is the word that resonates in people’s minds and springs from their lips as they struggle for freedom and a better way of life; it is the word whose meaning we must discern if it is to be of any use in guiding political analysis and practice. The wave of transitions away from autocratic rule that began with Portugal’s “Revolution of the Carnations” in 1974 and seems to have crested with the collapse of communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989 has produced a welcome convergence towards a common definition of democracy.1 Everywhere there has been a silent abandonment of dubious adjectives like “popular,” “guided,” “bourgeois,” and “formal” to modify “democracy.” At the same time, a remarkable consensus has 4 What Democracy Is . . . And Is Not emerged concerning the minimal conditions that polities must meet in order to merit the prestigious appellation of “democratic.” Moreover, a number of international organizations now monitor how well these standards are met; indeed, some countries even consider them when formulating foreign policy.2 What Democracy Is Let us begin by broadly defining democracy and the generic concepts that distinguish it as a unique system for organizing relations between rulers and the ruled. We will then briefly review procedures, the rules and arrangements that are needed if democracy is to endure. Finally, we will discuss two operative principles that make democracy work. They are not expressly included among the generic concepts or formal procedures, but the prospect for democracy is grim if their underlying conditioning effects are not present. One of the major themes of this essay is that democracy does not consist of a single unique set of institutions. There are many types of democracy, and their diverse practices produce a similarly varied set of effects. The specific form democracy takes is contingent upon a country’s socioeconomic conditions as well as its entrenched state structures and policy practices. Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.3 A regime or system of governance is an ensemble of patterns that determines the methods of access to the principal public offices; the characteristics of the actors admitted to or excluded from such access; the strategies that actors may use to gain access; and the rules that are followed in the making of publicly binding decisions. To work properly, the ensemble must be institutionalized—that is to say, the various patterns must be habitually known, practiced, and accepted by most, if not all, actors. Increasingly, the preferred mechanism of institutionalization is a written body of laws undergirded by a written constitution, though many enduring political norms can have an informal, prudential, or traditional basis.4 For the sake of economy and comparison, these forms, characteristics, and rules are usually bundled together and given a generic label. Democratic is one; others are autocratic, authoritarian, despotic, dictatorial, tyrannical, totalitarian, absolutist, traditional, monarchic, oligarchic, plutocratic, aristocratic, and sultanistic.5 Each of these regime forms may in turn be broken down into subtypes. Like all regimes, democracies depend upon the presence of rulers, persons who occupy specialized authority roles and can give legitimate Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl 5 commands to others. What distinguishes democratic rulers from nondemocratic ones are the norms that condition how the former come to power and the practices that hold them accountable for their actions. The public realm encompasses the making of collective norms and choices that are binding on the society and backed by state coercion. Its content can vary a great deal across democracies, depending upon preexisting distinctions between the public and the private, state and society, legitimate coercion and voluntary exchange, and collective needs and individual preferences. The liberal conception of democracy advocates circumscribing the public realm as narrowly as possible, while the socialist or social-democratic approach would extend that realm through regulation, subsidization, and, in some cases, collective ownership of property. Neither is intrinsically more democratic than the other—just differently democratic. This implies that measures aimed at “developing the private sector” are no more democratic than those aimed at “developing the public sector.” Both, if carried to extremes, could undermine the practice of democracy, the former by destroying the basis for satisfying collective needs and exercising legitimate authority; the latter by destroying the basis for satisfying individual preferences and controlling illegitimate government actions. Differences of opinion over the optimal mix of the two provide much of the substantive content of political conflict within established democracies. Citizens are the most distinctive element in democracies. All regimes have rulers and a public realm, but only to the extent that they are democratic do they have citizens. Historically, severe restrictions on citizenship were imposed in most emerging or partial democracies according to criteria of age, gender, class, race, literacy, property ownership, taxpaying status, and so on. Only a small part of the total population was eligible to vote or run for office. Only restricted social categories were allowed to form, join, or support political associations. After protracted struggle—in some cases involving violent domestic upheaval or international war—most of these restrictions were lifted. Today, the criteria for inclusion are fairly standard. All native-born adults are eligible, although somewhat higher age limits may still be imposed upon candidates for certain offices. Unlike the early American and European democracies of the nineteenth century, none of the recent democracies in southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, or Eastern Europe has even attempted to impose formal restrictions on the franchise or eligibility to office. When it comes to informal restrictions on the effective exercise of citizenship rights, however, the story can be quite different. This explains the central importance (discussed below) of procedures. Competition has not always been considered an essential defining condition of democracy. “Classic” democracies presumed decision making based on direct participation leading to consensus. The assembled citizenry was expected to agree on a common course of action after 6 What Democracy Is . . . And Is Not listening to the alternatives and weighing their respective merits and demerits. A tradition of hostility to “faction,” and “particular interests” persists in democratic thought, but at least since The Federalist Papers it has become widely accepted that competition among factions is a necessary evil in democracies that operate on a more-than-local scale. Since, as James Madison argued, “the latent causes of faction are sown into the nature of man,” and the possible remedies for “the mischief of faction” are worse than the disease, the best course is to recognize them and to attempt to control their effects.6 Yet while democrats may agree on the inevitability of factions, they tend to disagree about the best forms and rules for governing factional competition. Indeed, differences over the preferred modes and boundaries of competition contribute most to distinguishing one subtype of democracy from another. The most popular definition of democracy equates it with regular elections, fairly conducted and honestly counted. Some even consider the mere fact of elections—even ones from which specific parties or candidates are excluded, or in which substantial portions of the population cannot freely participate—as a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy. This fallacy has been called “electoralism” or “the faith that merely holding elections will channel political action into peaceful contests among elites and accord public legitimacy to the winners”—no matter how they are conducted or what else constrains those who win them.7 However central to democracy, elections occur intermittently and only allow citizens to choose between the highly aggregated alternatives offered by political parties, which can, especially in the early stages of a democratic transition, proliferate in a bewildering variety. During the intervals between elections, citizens can seek to influence public policy through a wide variety of other intermediaries: interest associations, social movements, locality groupings, clientelistic arrangements, and so forth. Modern democracy, in other words, offers a variety of competitive processes and channels for the expression of interests and values—associational as well as partisan, functional as well as territorial, collective as well as individual. All are integral to its practice. Another commonly accepted image of democracy identifies it with majority rule. Any governing body that makes decisions by combining the votes of more than half of those eligible and present is said to be democratic, whether that majority emerges within an electorate, a parliament, a committee, a city council, or a party caucus. For exceptional purposes (e.g., amending the constitution or expelling a member), “qualified majorities” of more than 50 percent may be required, but few would deny that democracy must involve some means of aggregating the equal preferences of individuals. A problem arises, however, when numbers meet intensities. What happens when a properly assembled majority (especially a stable, selfperpetuating one) regularly makes decisions that harm some minority Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl 7 (especially a threatened cultural or ethnic group)? In these circumstances, successful democracies tend to qualify the central principle of majority rule in order to protect minority rights. Such qualifications can take the form of constitutional provisions that place certain matters beyond the reach of majorities (bills of rights); requirements for concurrent majorities in several different constituencies (confederalism); guarantees securing the autonomy of local or regional governments against the demands of the central authority (federalism); grand coalition governments that incorporate all parties (consociationalism); or the negotiation of social pacts between major social groups like business and labor (neocorporatism). The most common and effective way of protecting minorities, however, lies in the everyday operation of interest associations and social movements. These reflect (some would say, amplify) the different intensities of preference that exist in the population and bring them to bear on democratically elected decision makers. Another way of putting this intrinsic tension between numbers and intensities would be to say that “in modern democracies, votes may be counted, but influences alone are weighted.” Cooperation has always been a central feature of democracy. Actors must voluntarily make collective decisions binding on the polity as a whole. They must cooperate in order to compete. They must be capable of acting collectively through parties, associations, and movements in order to select candidates, articulate preferences, petition authorities, and influence policies. But democracy’s freedoms should also encourage citizens to deliberate among themselves, to discover their common needs, and to resolve their differences without relying on some supreme central authority. Classical democracy emphasized these qualities, and they are by no means extinct, despite repeated efforts by contemporary theorists to stress the analogy with behavior in the economic marketplace and to reduce all of democracy’s operations to competitive interest maximization. Alexis de Tocqueville best described the importance of independent groups for democracy in his Democracy in America, a work which remains a major source of inspiration for all those who persist in viewing democracy as something more than a struggle for election and re-election among competing candidates.8 In contemporary political discourse, this phenomenon of cooperation and deliberation via autonomous group activity goes under the rubric of “civil society.” The diverse units of social identity and interest, by remaining independent of the state (and perhaps even of parties), not only can restrain the arbitrary actions of rulers, but can also contribute to forming better citizens who are more aware of the preferences of others, more self-confident in their actions, and more civic-minded in their willingness to sacrifice for the common good. At its best, civil society provides an intermediate layer of governance between the individual and the state that 8 What Democracy Is . . . And Is Not is capable of resolving conflicts and controlling the behavior of members without public coercion. Rather than overloading decision makers with increased demands and making the system ungovernable,9 a viable civil society can mitigate conflicts and improve the quality of citizenship— without relying exclusively on the privatism of the marketplace. Representatives—whether directly or indirectly elected—do most of the real work in modern democracies. Most are professional politicians who orient their careers around the desire to fill key offices. It is doubtful that any democracy could survive without such people. The central question, therefore, is not whether or not there will be a political elite or even a professional political class, but how these representatives are chosen and then held accountable for their actions. As noted above, there are many channels of representation in modern democracy. The electoral one, based on territorial constituencies, is the most visible and public. It culminates in a parliament or a presidency that is periodically accountable to the citizenry as a whole. Yet the sheer growth of government (in large part as a byproduct of popular demand) has increased the number, variety, and power of agencies charged with making public decisions and not subject to elections. Around these agencies there has developed a vast apparatus of specialized representation based largely on functional interests, not territorial constituencies. These interest associations, and not political parties, have become the primary expression of civil society in most stable democracies, supplemented by the more sporadic interventions of social movements. The new and fragile democracies that have sprung up since 1974 must live in “compressed time.” They will not resemble the European democracies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they cannot expect to acquire the multiple channels of representation in gradual historical progression as did most of their predecessors. A bewildering array of parties, interests, and movements will all simultaneously seek political influence in them, creating challenges to the polity that did not exist in earlier processes of democratization. Procedures That Make Democracy Possible The defining components of democracy are necessarily abstract, and may give rise to a considerable variety of institutions and subtypes of democracy. For democracy to thrive, however, specific procedural norms must be followed and civic rights must be respected. Any polity that fails to impose such restrictions upon itself, that fails to follow the “rule of law” with regard to its own procedures, should not be considered democratic. These procedures alone do not define democracy, but their presence is indispensable to its persistence. In essence, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions for its existence. Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl 9 Robert Dahl has offered the most generally accepted listing of what he terms the “procedural minimal” conditions that must be present for modern political democracy (or as he puts it, “polyarchy”) to exist: 1) Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials. 2) Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon. 3) Practically all adults have the right to vote in the election of officials. 4) Practically all adults have the right to run for elective offices in the government. . . . 5) Citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined. . . . 6) Citizens have a right to seek out alternative sources of information. Moreover, alternative sources of information exist and are protected by law. 7) . . . . Citizens also have the right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.10 These seven conditions seem to capture the essence of procedural democracy for many theorists, but we propose to add two others. The first might be thought of as a further refinement of item (1), while the second might be called an implicit prior condition to all seven of the above. 8) Popularly elected officials must be able to exercise their constitutional powers without being subjected to overriding (albeit informal) opposition from unelected officials. Democracy is in jeopardy if military officers, entrenched civil servants, or state managers retain the capacity to act independently of elected civilians or even veto decisions made by the people’s representatives. Without this additional caveat, the militarized polities of contemporary Central America, where civilian control over the military does not exist, might be classified by many scholars as democracies, just as they have been (with the exception of Sandinista Nicaragua) by U.S. policy makers. The caveat thus guards against what we earlier called “electoralism”—the tendency to focus on the holding of elections while ignoring other political realities. 9) The polity must be self-governing; it must be able to act independently of constraints imposed by some other overarching political system. Dahl and other contemporary democratic theorists probably took this condition for granted since they referred to formally sovereign nation-states. However, with the devel ...
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