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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
7) . . . . Citizens also have the right to form relatively independent
associations or organizations, including independent political parties and
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
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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