Democracy is Precious

© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy

October 2019

This booklet is meant to be used only for civic education.

It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Douglas Addison for the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover photo: Lawrence Jackson, whitehouse.gov/public domain

Welcome!  In this learning module, we’ll take a look at non-democratic and illiberal systems of government and compare them with liberal, republican democracies. Doing so will help illustrate that democracy is precious, and our republic, even with its faults, is worth protecting and improving.

1. Electoral Democracies, Electoral Autocracies, and Closed Autocracies

Government systems that are not liberal democracies can be classified into three groups:  electoral democracies, electoral autocracies, and closed autocracies.[1]  Autocracies are defined as systems of government where one person or one small group has absolute power.

  • Electoral democracies regularly hold multiparty elections that are somewhat free and fair, but political and civil rights are weak, and the law is unevenly applied. These deficiencies make it possible to rig elections and legislative outcomes and avoid accountability to voters.
  • Electoral autocracies hold de-jure multiparty elections for the chief executive, but they fall short of democratic standards due to limitations on political competition and other means of ensuring one group or person holds power. Only a favored few people or groups enjoy any political and civil liberties. Dissent is often repressed.
  • In closed autocracies, the chief executive is either not elected or has no competition in an election. Only a favored few people or groups enjoy any political and civil liberties. Dissent is often harshly repressed. Closed autocracies include absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies with active monarchs, military juntas, some theocracies, and one-party states. Within smaller territories, they can also include warlords, drug lords, and crime bosses.

How are leaders replaced outside of liberal democracies?

For all the autocratic leaders who held office between 1946 and 2008, most (62 percent) were forced out involuntarily.[2] (See Figure 1 below.) Most of that happened through coups organized by internal competitors, but there were also assassinations, popular uprisings, and some foreign intervention as well.  Only 18 percent left voluntarily. Some (13 percent) died a natural death in office.  Finally, 7 percent left office due to transitions to democracy, mostly under circumstances the autocrats could not refuse.  All of this lends credence to the corny saying “ballots, not bullets” that many pundits use when describing the benefits of republics and elections.

How are political and civil liberties treated outside of liberal democracies? Here are some examples:

Freedom of Speech and Assembly: 

  • Uzbekistan is classified as a presidential republic but functions as an autocracy.[3]  In Uzbekistan, private discussion has long been monitored by traditional neighborhood organizations coupled with national systems for public surveillance and control.[4] The government also engages in extensive monitoring of electronic communications. 
  • The Russian Federation uses a semi-presidential[5] system of government but displays elements of authoritarianism.[6] In Russia, freedom of assembly is upheld mainly for pro-Kremlin activities: all other protest has usually been met with overwhelming police responses, harsh fines, and prison sentences.[7] 

Freedom of Religion: 

  • Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and a theocratic state.[8] The Saudi government has established Sunni Islam as the only acceptable religion. Conversion from Islam to another faith is considered apostasy and can be punishable by death.[9]
  • The People’s Republic of China is a one-party state without direct elections for most upper-level lawmakers.[10] The constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that residents enjoy freedom of religious belief, yet the Communist Party which rules the country is officially atheist.[11] In practice, the government tightly controls the Falun Gong, Buddhism as practiced by Tibetans, and Islam as practiced by Uighurs.[12]  There are allegations that hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims are being held in re-education camps.[13]

Freedom of Movement: 

  • The ruling Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China created restrictions on rural residents’ travel to the cities beginning in 1958.[14] 

How are civil liberties treated in the U.S.A.? Here are some contrasts to the examples given above:

  • Turkmenistan is a presidential republic on paper but functions as a dictatorship.[15] In 2018, Turkmenistan faced a severe economic crisis. The authorities blocked people from the regions most affected by the crisis from traveling: they could not seek work elsewhere in the country.[16] 

Freedom of Speech and Assembly: 

  • In the U.S., the first amendment to our Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …” We can say what we like – almost anywhere where we like[17] – out loud, in the media, or on the internet. The courts have repeatedly upheld these rights despite many attempts by the government and some citizens to overturn them.

Freedom of Religion: 

  • The first amendment to U.S. Constitution also says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This protection has been repeatedly upheld in our courts throughout our history, even after some groups have tried to deny religious freedom to other groups.[18]

Freedom of Movement: 

  • In the U.S., Article IV, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include the right of all citizens to move from state to state as they please.  In practice, this right was often denied to people of color. They did not have adequate protections against racially motivated harassment and even murder. This defect was corrected when the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745 (1966) that public and private actors cannot conspire to deny citizens of their rights on public roads and bridges or any other interstate commerce facilities.
Note: some scholars consider it possible for a government system to be both autocratic and liberal.  In such cases, they are usually clear that the full set of liberal criteria set out above are not met, particularly concerning freedom of speech and assembly. For example, many European monarchies became more classically liberal after the revolutions of 1848, but people still could not openly express anti-monarchical views. Similarly, in the early 20th century, residents of British colonies had many rights, but organizing against the system was out of the question.
There are no liberal autocracies today.  Based on the three-part typology described earlier, we estimate that in 2018, there were 33 electoral democracies, 53 electoral autocracies, and 23 closed autocracies for a total of 109 illiberal systems.[19]

2. Relative Advantages of Liberal, Republican Democracy

Liberal, republican democracy offers many other advantages, including and beyond freedom, over other systems.[20] They are much less corrupt, more inclusive, better at problem-solving, provide more stability, provide more amenities, and lead to more wealth and happiness than other systems of government.

  • Liberal, republican democracies are less corrupt. Opportunities for corruption, political and personal, are reduced when equality under the law and freedom of the press backstop accountability through elections. As the right-hand side of Figure 2 shows, corruption drops off sharply as countries become fully republican and liberal. This implies that even small amounts of backsliding by advanced democracies can invite big increases in corruption.[21] For example, moving from the position held by the U.S. in 2016 to the position held by Hungary would double the U.S. corruption index from 26 to 52.
  • Liberal, republican democracies are more inclusive.  It is difficult to exclude any group from participation permanently – those excluded will see a direct path to empowerment through voting rights, while some in power will see an opportunity for new allies. In the U.S., over time, the right to vote has been extended to include people without property and wealth, women, young adults, and people of all colors, ethnicities, and religions.
  • Liberal, republican democracies are better problem-solvers.  Most fundamentally, there is a constant pressure for innovation and improvement created by democracy’s competition of policy ideas between all interested political parties and candidates, combined with accountability to citizens through elections and freedom of the press (media).  More people have more freedom to propose new ideas in public and private arenas.[22]  In today’s world, these advantages are significant.  There are more than a few difficult problems before us:  an aging society, climate change, animal and insect extinctions, new genetic and robotic technologies, changes in the global balance of power, and more.  History tells us that we cannot count on a strong ruler or an oligarchy to save us.  In fact, it is often the powerful elite who kill off new ideas that might threaten their power.[23]
  • Liberal, republican democracies offer more stability. They tend to see less internal violence. This relationship can be seen in Figure 3, calculated from data on 151 countries for the years 2006 through 2018 compiled by the Center for Systemic Peace.[24] Liberal, republics are far less likely to kill their citizens than autocratic governments.[25]  Liberal, republican democracies are also less likely to go to war with each other, though they do go to war with illiberal republics and non-democracies.[26]  The more stable, peaceful environments found in democracies also reduces the risks to innovative investments. 
  • Liberal, republican democracies offer more amenities.  Their elected officials feel more compelled by their citizens to provide more public goods[27] on average, than other governments. Examples of public goods include universal education, preventative health care, safe drinking water, and non-tolled roads.[28]  Liberal republics also have less gender inequality.[29]
  • Liberal, republican democracies are richer and happier. Most mature democracies are wealthier on average than most non-democracies because of a competitive policy environment, more successful business innovation, more education, and more public goods.[30]    The net impact is that people are happier in liberal republics than they are elsewhere.[31]
Note: CFFAD is not claiming that liberal, republican democracies are perfect. We know our system could be better. We know many people deserve better than they get.  We are saying, however, that the incentives built into liberal, republican democracies are much less corrupt, more inclusive, better at problem-solving, provide more stability, provide more amenities, and lead to more wealth and happiness than other systems of government.

3. Summary

Congratulations, you reached the end of this learning module.  Here is a quick review of what was covered.

First, the alternatives to liberal-republicanism are not attractive.  Government systems that are not liberal democracies include electoral democracies, electoral autocracies, and closed autocracies.

  • Electoral democracies regularly hold multiparty elections that are somewhat free and fair, but political and civil rights are weak, and the law is unevenly applied. These deficiencies make it possible to rig elections and legislative outcomes and avoid accountability to voters.
  • Electoral autocracies hold de-jure multiparty elections for the chief executive, but they fall short of democratic standards due to limitations on political competition and other means of ensuring one group or person holds power. Only a favored few people or groups enjoy any political and civil liberties. Dissent is often repressed.
  • In closed autocracies, the chief executive is either not elected or has no competition in an election. Only a favored few people or groups enjoy any political and civil liberties. Dissent is often harshly repressed.

Well-functioning, liberal, republican democracies have six primary advantages relative to illiberal regimes. They are:

  • Less corrupt;
  • More inclusive;
  • Better problem-solvers;
  • More stable and less violent;
  • Offer more amenities; and
  • Are richer and happier.

Congratulations!  You have reached the end of this learning module.  We hope you agree that democracy is precious and we hope you agree our republic is worth protecting and defending.

If you liked this material, please also share it and our website with your friends.

In addition, we always appreciate ideas for new topics and ways we can improve, so … 

END NOTES


[1] These groupings and definitions are from the Varieties of Democracy Project which, in turn, is based on Robert Dahl’s 1971 Polyarchy.

[2] From Svolik (2012) The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, Figure 1.1, p. 5.

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Uzbekistan#Political_ parties_and_elections

[4] Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/uzbekistan

[5] A semi-presidential system includes two executive roles, a president and a prime minister.  It differs from a parliamentary republic where there is only one executive, the prime minister, who is elected by the parliament.  Instead, the president is popularly elected and has substantial powers. In addition, the cabinet is selected by the president but is responsible to the legislature which can force the cabinet to resign through a motion of no confidence.

[6] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Russia#Putin_ administration

[7] Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/russia

[8] Elections in Saudi Arabia have been historically rare. Municipal elections were held in 2005 and 2011. In September 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and stand in the 2015 municipal elections.

[9] See https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2013/nea/222311.htm

[10] The People’s Republic of China is not a true republic because supreme power is not held by the people and their elected representatives. Instead such power is limited to local governments. Article 36 of the Chinese constitution as amended in 2018 requires that the Communist Party alone shall lead the nation.

[11] See https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china

[12] See https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/religion-china

[13] The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimates that approximately one million ethnic or religious minorities within the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China are arbitrarily detained in “political re-education camps,” including members of the Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tartar communities.

[14] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hukou_system#1949-1978:_Maoist_Era

[15] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Turkmenistan and https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/turkmenistan

[16] Human Rights Watch 2019. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/turkmenistan

[17] There is a restriction on assembly in areas under Secret Service protection, whether temporary as in a political campaign rally, or permanent, as in the case of the White House grounds. See 18 USC 1752: Restricted Building or Grounds. http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?edition=2011&req=granuleid%3AUSC-prelim-title18-section1752

[18] Examples of religious repression include the conversion of American Indian children, the massacre of 17 Mormons in Missouri in 1938, and the Bloody Monday anti-Catholic riot in Louisville, Kentucky, 1855.

[19] Based on Varieties of Democracy data and classifications for all Freedom House countries labeled “not free” or partially free.”  The author supplied regime types for a few countries where V-Dem data were missing. The author also reclassified two countries from liberal to electoral democracies for consistency with Freedom House data.

[20] Much but not all of this paragraph comes from Holmberg, S. and Rothstein, B. (2014). Correlates of the level of democracy, The Quality of Government Institute, University of Gothenburg https://qog.pol.gu.se/digitalAssets/1510/1510618_correlates-of-the-level-of-democracy.pdf

[21] The relationship between democracy and low corruption holds over time as well. See for example Lederman, Loayza, and Soares (2005). Accountability and corruption:

Political institutions matter. Economics and Politics, 17(1):1-35.

[22] On the importance of inclusive and competitive institutions, see Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. (2013). Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. See also North, D., Wallis, J., and Weingast, B. (2009). Violence and the rise of open-access orders. Journal of Democracy, 20(1), 55-68.

[23] This point is well illustrated in Why Nations Fail.”

[24] Some researchers find an inverse U-shaped curve, with domestic violence lowest in consolidated democracies and in consolidated autocracies, the latter being low due to repression. This finding may be an artifact of the way Polity2 data are calculated.

[25] See Rummel (2017). Power kills: Democracy as a method of nonviolence.

[26] There are many theories why democracies have not gone to war with one another. For one example, see Owen, J. (1994). How liberalism produces democratic peace, International Security, 19(2), pp. 87-125.

[27] A true public good is a product or service available to anyone and that can be consume without reducing its availability to others. Examples include national defense, the eradication of communicable diseases, and clean air. Knowledge is also often cited as an example, at least for those with access to books, media, or the internet.  Public goods tend to be under-produced because there is no way to fully recover the cost of production since there is no way to exclude people who consume the public good without paying for it.  For this reason, public goods are always produced by, or on behalf of, governments.  Conversely, public bads such as pollution tend to be over-produced because it is not possible to fully penalize firms for the damage they cause.

[28] Deacon, R. (2009). Public good provision under dictatorship and democracy. Public Choice, 139(1-2), 241-262.  Dictatorships usually need to please only a small fraction of the population with private threats and rewards. That strategy is too expensive in democracies where all citizens expect some benefit. The solution is to provide public goods which reach all citizens.

[29] Holmberg and Rothstein (2014), page 24.

[30] There is also good evidence that democracy encourages income growth. See Acemoglu, D., Naidu, S., Restrepo, P., and Robinson, J. A. (2014). Democracy does cause growth (No. w20004). National Bureau of Economic Research.  Lipset (1959) argued the causation is the other way around.  In fact, both are possible: democracy may encourage growth, while higher levels of wealth make democracy easier to achieve.

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Acemoglu, D., and Robinson, J. (2012) Why Nations Fail.

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Constitution of the United States of America.

Council on Foreign Relations (2018). Religion in China.

Deacon, R. (2009). Public Good Provision under Dictatorship and Democracy.

Freedom House (2018).

Holmberg, S. and Rothstein, B. (2014). Correlates of the Level of Democracy.

Human Rights Watch (2019). Turkmenistan: Events of 2018.

Lederman, Loayza, and Soares (2005). Accountability and corruption: Political institutions matter.

Lipset (1959). Some Social Requisites of Democracy.

North, Wallis, and Weingast. (2009). Violence and the rise of open-access orders.

Owen, J. (1994). How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace.

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