Achieving Democracy

By Pogge, Thomas | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Achieving Democracy


Pogge, Thomas, Ethics & International Affairs


Democracy means that political power is authorized and controlled by the people over whom it is exercised, and this in such a way as to give these persons roughly equal political influence. Democracy involves voting--on political issues or on candidates for political offices--in accordance with the general idea of one person, one vote. But genuine democracy involves a lot more besides.

Elections must feature alternatives that give voters a genuine choice. People must have a way of influencing the agenda (political issues and options) or the list of candidates. Voters must be shielded from pressure and retaliation by government officials and private citizens alike; they must, more generally, be safe from extreme economic need and from arbitrary physical violence and psychological duress, any of which might make them excessively dependent on others. Voters must be free to assemble and discuss, and free also to inform themselves, which presupposes freedom of the press and of the other mass media. Political power must be exercised pursuant to standing, public rules that ensure that the consequences of electoral results on political decisions can be assessed and at least roughly predicted by voters. Last but not least, democracy requires certain dispositions and conduct on the part of citizens: a readiness to accept majority decisions and a commitment to exercise their responsibilities as voters by informing themselves about candidates and political issues and by going to the polls. (1)

A democratic regime might take many institutional forms consistent with these core requirements. Such regimes, present or historical, fall short of being fully democratic in some respects--democracy is a scalar predicate, as political regimes can be more or less democratic in multiple dimensions. A rough and vague distinction can nonetheless be drawn between broadly democratic regimes and the rest, which I will blandly label "authoritarian."

Many countries have become democratic, or more democratic, in recent years. Most of these new democracies seem weak and fragile, and the trend may not last. Still, the phenomenon has been remarkable enough to spawn a burgeoning literature--composed mostly in the rich and well-established democracies--offering political analysis and advice to newly democratic regimes. (2) My essay fits this "transition-to-democracy" genre.

The analysis pays far more attention than is common to the global context within which national democratic regimes succeed or fail, and the advice I offer fledgling democracies consequently has a strong foreign-policy component. In the former respect, my essay is continuous with another body of work that argues that the global order maintained by the rich democracies and their foreign policies is a significant contributor to the lack of democracy elsewhere. (3) I am sympathetic to such work in that I share its goal of global institutional reform toward achieving a more democratic global regime. (4) Still, this essay is not focused on the critique or reform of the rich democracies or of the global order they impose. Rather, its focus is on what the political leaders of a fledgling democracy can and should do--other than repeating justified yet ineffective demands upon the rich democracies. Though I will, for dramatic effect, use "we" and "us" in reference to such political leaders of a fledgling democracy, I am in fact a German citizen living in Manhattan. If this essay is worth reading nonetheless, it is because of how its analysis and advice differ from the mainstream.

The Structure of the Problem Faced by Fledgling Democracies

Let us imagine ourselves in a typical transition-to-democracy scenario. We are associated with a fledgling democratic government newly installed or restored after a period of undemocratic and repressive rule. We must work to establish the essentials of democratic government, of course, including civil and political rights and the rule of law; but we must also come to terms with the enemies of democracy and in particular with the former authoritarian rulers and their supporters. …

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