Democracy is Precious

Welcome!  In this short course, 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.

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: 

Freedom of Religion: 

Freedom of Movement: 

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

Freedom of Speech and Assembly: 

Freedom of Religion: 

Freedom of Movement: 

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.

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.

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

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 learned something useful, please LIKE and SHARE.

© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
October 2019

This material 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, domain


[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 parties_and_elections

[4] Freedom House.

[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 administration

[7] Freedom House.

[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

[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

[12] See

[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

[15] See and

[16] Human Rights Watch 2019.

[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.

[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

[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.


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

Acemoglu, Naidu, Restrepo, and Robinson. (2014). Democracy does cause growth.

Center for Systemic Peace.

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

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.

Rummel (2017). Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence.

Svolik (2012) The Politics of Authoritarian Rule.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Law Revision Council.

U.S. Department of State, 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom.

Varieties of Democracy.

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