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On September 24, 1809, the canon of the Catholic Church in Santa Fé de Bogotá gave an oration in the city's cathedral at the request of the Spanish viceroy. As he prayed for "public peace," his attention became centered on questions of "legitimacy." He noted the spread of the "idol of liberty" in "pestilent writings" by "monsters [who] inspire rebellion among all the peoples." Against these ideas, Canon José Domingo Duquesne de Madrid reminded his audience that they owed "obedience and submission" to the "legitimate powers"; those who resisted these powers were resisting the will of God. Five months later, on February 22, 1810, the archbishop of Buenos Aires issued a pastoral letter with a similar message: The authority to command the peoples did not originate in the human will; contrary to what the "libertines" imagined, it "emanated from the supreme authority of God" (Duquesne de Madrid 1809; Carta Pastoral 1810).

The oration in Bogotá and the pastoral letter in Buenos Aires were reaffirmations of Spanish monarchical rule and its final source: the divine rights of the king. Yet, paradoxically, both texts were clear expressions of a deep concern among civilian and religious authorities regarding the emergence of alternative sources of legitimacy. Whom, and why, do people obey?

Of course, these questions already had been at the center of political theoretical discussion for a long time, but they suddenly permeated the political reality of the Hispanic world following the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808. The vacuum of power left by the forced abdication of King Ferdinand VII (1784–1833) set in motion a process that finally led to the independence of Spanish America under a new legitimizing principle: the sovereignty of the people. At the core of this process was the crucial issue of "representation," which was addressed from the start by resorting to elections, first in 1809 and soon followed by a series of electoral contests, which, given their unprecedented nature and dimensions, were—according to François-Xavier Guerra and Danielle Demelas-Bohy—"the revolution itself" (Demélas-Bohy and Guerra 1996, p. 34).

Talk of "new democracies" in Latin America is part of the contemporary vocabulary when referring in particular to the processes of regime transition from the military dictatorships of the period 1960 to 1970. These are, however, old creatures, whose origins date back to the early decades of the nineteenth century. Indeed, inasmuch as there was a visible "first 'long' wave of democratization" in the world since the 1820s (to use Samuel Huntington's phrase), most Latin American countries were from their beginnings part of this "wave." Since then, however, each country has taken a singular, individual path, and none of them has seen democratic developments take place in a linear, progressive way (Huntington 1991).

It is nowadays common to state that democracy is one of those "essentially contested concepts," concepts whose use "inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper use on the part of their users" (Gallie 1955–1956, p. 169; see also Whitehead 2002 and Crick 2002). But what came to be known as "modern democracy" in the early twenty-first century is identified with the merge of two different and often contradictory traditions—liberalism (understood as limited power) and democracy proper (the rule of the majority)—especially after World War II. Thus, modern democracies are also known as "liberal democracies" or "representative democracies," terms that will be used indistinctively in this essay (Bobbio 1990; Dunn 1995; Maier 1995; Urbinati 2006).


It seems that there is no history of the word democracy in Latin America like the account Pierre Rosanvallon has written for France (Rosanvallon 1995). Since the early nineteenth century the expression was certainly used by contemporaries in the region, albeit with the ambivalent connotations the term had elsewhere: The word was linked to Jacobin extremism following the French Revolution; it regained favor in the United States only with the founding of Jackson's Democratic Party in the late 1820s; and it became truly dominant in the political discourse of the West after the 1848 European revolutions (Maier 1995; Rosanvallon 1995).

During the first decades of Latin American independence, other words were probably favored over democracy—particularly republic, representative government, and popular government. Yet, contemporaries, even those who became suspicious of democracy, acknowledged the diffusion of "democratic ideas," as the Argentine Bernardo Monteagudo did, reflecting on his experiences in Peru in 1823 (Monteagudo 1916). Intellectuals and nation-builders often were aware of the tensions between liberalism and democracy (which, indeed, have persevered to the present). Some of them were also aware of the need to conciliate their principles. In 1833 Andrés Bello praised the newly reformed Chilean constitution for combining "a vigorous government with the complete enjoyment of well-ordered freedom": It gave "the government strength to defend itself against the attacks of insubordination produced by the excesses of democracy," and gave both the nation and individuals "resources to preserve them from despotism" (Bello 1997 [1833], pp. 254-255). In his Dogma socialista (1838) the Argentine Esteban Echeverría defined the two components of democracy: equality and freedom. Democracy was "the essence of all republican governments," the "government of the majorities," based on the "sovereignty of the people." But, Echeverría noted, people's sovereignty had limits, posed by "the individual, its conscience, its property, its life and its freedom" (Echeverría 1988 [1837], pp. 154-155). The extent to which the ideas and practices of democracy were originally understood in the region, and how they developed from the independence period, still remained understudied, in spite of some significant historiographical advances. In 1845 Domingo Faustino Sarmiento observed that there was a need for an Alexis de Tocqueville in South America—for someone who, knowledgeable in the social theories, could explain "the democracy brought about by the Revolution of 1810, the equality, whose dogma has penetrated even the lower levels of society" (Sarmiento 1976 [1845], p. 15; my own translation).

Although the evolution of the term democracy in Latin America had much in common with its history elsewhere in the Western world, here the focus is on those institutions and practices linked to the development of modern democracy in Latin America, particularly, though not exclusively, on those key aspects of democratization identified by Robert Dahl: inclusiveness and public contestation (Dahl 1971, p. 4). Hence the emphasis on the evolution of the suffrage and political parties, with the aim of exploring the complex, long saga for free and fair competitive elections in Latin America. Democracies are not just about elections; but as Richard S. Katz observes, "elections are the defining institutions of modern democracies" (Katz 1997, p. 3). According to Pierre Rosanvallon, "elections amount to the most condensed and potent form of civic engagement." For this reason, he adds, "the history of democracy … has for a long time simply been identified as a process of concentrating the political field of which the long struggle for universal suffrage has been both the means and the symbol" (Rosanvallon 2006, p. 236).

The following discussion adopts and adapts Huntington's idea of the three democratic "waves." This is done mostly to give some chronological order to a narrative of very disparate movements and to place the Latin American experience in a world context, rather than to suggest that democracy has come, reversed, and returned at the same pace throughout the region in the last two centuries.


The first world democratic "wave" in the 1820s was prefigured by what happened in Spanish America a decade or so earlier.

Between 1809 and 1814 there were at least five significant electoral processes in the American territories under Spanish control: for representatives to the Spanish Junta Central (1809); for deputies to the extraordinary Cortes (1810–1812); and for deputies to the ordinary Cortes, and members of municipal councils and provincial deputations (1812–1814). In addition, elections also took place in several provinces that declared their independence from Spain. Striking features of these movements were their abruptness and their inclusiveness: They showed the sudden evolution from absolutist rule to representative government based on almost universal male suffrage, particularly after the 1812 Cádiz constitution—some of the provinces adopted an even wider suffrage, like Cartagena in 1810 (Helg 2004, p. 129; Lasso 2007, p. 69; Rodríguez, 2000, p. 114. These were precocious exercises amidst extraordinarily circumstances.

On January 22, 1809, the Junta Central—which had been set up the previous September by deputies from the insurrectionary juntas throughout Spain to govern on behalf of the deposed king—called for the election of American representatives to that body. Widely publicized, the decree sparked an intense controversy about the nature of the Spanish territories in the Americas and their rights of representation, while opening up a process of mobilization that had few antecedents in the region: "from the Spring of 1809 to the Winter of 1810, from Sonora (Mexico) to Chile, all Spanish America lived according to the rhythm of this first experience of general elections" (Démelas-Bohy and Guerra 1996, p. 40; see also Guerra 1992; Haddick 1958; Benson 2004; Breña 2006). The elections were confined to the cities, though they were held in about a hundred locations. In some places—for example, Valladolid in New Spain (Mexico) and Cordoba in the River Plate—they evolved into seriously contested events, where anonymous leaflets contributed to the emergence of a public sphere with modern undertones.

The Cádiz Constitution (1812)

The elections for deputies to the Junta Central were held under a restrictive system whose modalities of representation belonged to the ancien régime, but the Cádiz constitution in 1812 adopted a much wider and inclusive definition of the electorate.

As the instrucción to "facilitate" the elections in Guatemala explained, the notion of citizenship defined by the Cádiz constitution incorporated "the white, American or European: the Indian: the mestiso [person of mixed Indian and Spanish descent]." Although those "originating from Africa" were excluded in principle, they could qualify as citizens if they fulfilled certain conditions, such as servicing the "patria," or "distinguishing themselves by their talents, application and conduct." The "exercise of the rights of citizenship" was "suspended" in the cases of those under "judicial interdiction," of those in bankruptcy, and of domestic servants and vagrants (Instrucción 1812, pp. 5-9). Yet, there were no immediate literacy requirements for voting (they were to be applied only after 1830), nor were there income requirements. With the exceptions noted above, any male more than twenty-five years old and born in the Spanish dominions was a citizen, and thus entitled to vote in the first tier of a complex system of indirect elections.

It would be anachronistic to expect full universal suffrage in the region at that time; what is significant is how close the Cádiz constitution came to providing to universal male suffrage (Rodríguez 2005b and 2006). As José Antonio Aguilar has shown, the fact that elections were indirect should not detract from their modern nature either (Aguilar 1998, pp. 423-457; Aguilar 2000).

The Cádiz constitution did not remain a dead letter, in spite of its short life. Its text was received with festivities in América—in Lima, for example, people swore allegiance to the constitution with "splendor and pomp" during the celebrations that lasted from the first to the sixth of October 1812. It encouraged the publication of newspapers such as the Verdadero Peruano—a weekly journal specially founded to accompany the electoral process that followed, with pages devoted to related material, including an "Oda con motivo de la elección popular" written by the pardo (person of mixed African and Spanish ancestry) citizen José Manuel Valdes (Verdadero Peruano 1812, 1813). And of course it called for elections at various levels for the local ayuntamientos, provincial deputies and representative to the Cortes. Elections under the 1812 constitution did not take place everywhere, given the civil war conditions in much of the Hispanic world, but wherever they were held—in New Spain, Peru, Guatemala and Ecuador—they often proved to be significant events, for the intensity of the competition, the participation of voters from a wide range of social actors, and, often, their uncertainties (Rodríguez 2005a and 2006; Benson 1946; Chiaramonti 2005; Guedea 1991; Peralta Ruiz 1996 and 2005; Chust 2006; Chust and Serrano 2006; Morelli 2005; Dym 2006).

These initial processes of electoral mobilization were temporarily interrupted by Ferdinand's return to power in 1814, but their consequences were long-lasting. Above all, they severely undermined the legitimacy of colonial rule, thus paving the way for representative forms of government. The Cádiz constitution was reinstalled in 1820 after a liberal rebellion in Spain. By then, a few countries already had gained independence, but in those that still were under Spanish rule—such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Cuba—the return of the constitution motivated further electioneering. A liberal revolution also broke out in Portugal in 1820, provoking "the first colony-wide election in Brazil"—to select deputies to the Portuguese Cortes, under a "strictly limited suffrage"—which took place the following year (Bethell 1994, p. 3).

It is difficult to identify common patterns of political development from those early years of democracy. The representative governments of some of the new nations were rooted in the Cádiz constitution, but all the emerging countries had quite different experiences of fighting against Spanish forces or dealing with their own internal conflicts. And once they became independent, they all followed different paths.

Evolution of Voting Rights

A wide suffrage—a visible legacy of the Cádiz charter—prevailed in some countries and regions during the 1820s—in the province of Buenos Aires, or in Mexico after the 1824 constitution (Ternavasio 2002; Guardino 1996; Warren 2001). Restrictions to the vote that were introduced generally during the following decade varied and seemed to have kept a spirit of inclusiveness. Literacy requirements, for example, were set in New Granada, Peru, and Chile, but their applications were postponed for a few years, under the assumption that the lack of literacy was a colonial deficit to be remedied by the republics (Posada-Carbó 2003, p. 322). Income restrictions also were introduced, but sometimes the sum required was not that large; in other instances the wording of the restriction was vague, thus allowing for a flexible implementation. Domestic servants and dependent rural laborers were still explicitly excluded from suffrage in the 1832 constitution of New Granada, as in many other constitutions of the period.

A renewed drive to expand the suffrage took place in the mid-nineteenth century: In 1853 Colombia and Argentina fully adopted universal male suffrage, a measure also taken by Mexico and Venezuela in 1857 (Bushnell 1968 and 1972; Negretto and Aguilar 2000) Following in the footsteps of Cádiz, these also were precocious developments by world standards. However, none of the institutional advances became landmarks of democratic consolidation. In Mexico and Venezuela they soon were overshadowed by war and dictatorship. In Colombia universal male suffrage was partly reversed in 1863, when the electoral regime was decentralized—although some states kept it, others reintroduced voting restrictions. Voting restrictions became the norm for national elections after 1886, but universal male suffrage was adopted for the elections of all city councils and departmental assemblies. The measure was never reversed in Argentina, but a later set of reforms, known as the Saenz Peña Law (1912)—which introduced a permanent register of electors, minority representation, and compulsory and secret voting—marked the effective expansion of male suffrage there.

Other countries also expanded the vote, though without fully embracing universal male suffrage. Peru came close to it after 1861, but returned to a restrictive regime in 1896. Ecuador relaxed its income requirements in 1861 but kept literacy restrictions, and in 1869, restricted voting to Catholics. Catholicism was a condition to vote in Brazil under the 1824 constitution, which also excluded slaves and imposed income requirements that were relatively modest, allowing for an extensive suffrage for some decades. In 1881 the Saraiva Law removed the income qualifications and allowed non-Catholics to vote, but introduced literacy requirements, drastically curtailing the suffrage: 80 percent of the adult male population lost the right to vote.

Such changes in the suffrage—expansion followed by restrictions time and again—are not specific to Latin American countries. Similar movements can be detected clearly in the history of European countries such as France, or in the ways the United States excluded blacks from the franchise at the end of the nineteenth century (Warren 2001, pp. 158,159; see also Keyssar 2000). Linear democratic developments towards universal suffrage, as in Great Britain, were more the exception than the norm. The closest to such an exception in Latin America was in Chile, where the expansion of the suffrage followed a gradualist path after adoption of the constitution of 1833, which set income and literacy restrictions. But the income restrictions were modest, and the literacy requirement was enforced with some flexibility. As J. Samuel Valenzuela has observed, income levels were never raised in later years, and they were "swept aside" by a 1874 reform that stated that it was presumed by law that all literates had the required income to vote (Valenzuela 1985 and 1996).

Unlike the precocious though interrupted enfranchisement of men, Latin America was relatively slow in giving the vote to women. The only country to embrace women's suffrage nationwide during the "first long wave of democratization" was Ecuador, and this was not until 1929 (Markoff 2003; Maza Valenzuela 1998). There had been a few earlier instances when women were formally given voting rights, but they were confined to particular regions and there is no evidence regarding their implementation. The earliest case seems to have been in the Colombian province of Vélez in 1853, when the provincial constitution provided the right of suffrage to all citizens "without distinction of sex." Similarly, women were entitled to vote in San Juan (Argentina) in 1862. These look like isolated and unsuccessful experiences; so were the attempts by women to register to vote in Chile in 1875, following vague legislation passed in 1874 (Maza Valenzuela 1995, p. 141). There were other provinces that also gave voting rights to women, but much later, in the 1920s: Yucatán, San Luis Potosí, and Chiapas, in Mexico, and Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. The main organization to fight for women's suffrage in Brazil, the Federacao Brasileira pelo Progesso Femenino, was established in 1922 (Hahner 1979).

The final acceptance of universal male suffrage was generally a post-1930 conquest, except in Argentina and Mexico, where the constitutional provisions of the 1850s were never reversed, and in Uruguay, where it was adopted in 1916. In Costa Rica the vagueness of the restrictions introduced in the 1871 constitution "meant that, by the early twentieth century, all men at least twenty years old were registered to vote" (Lehoucq and Molina 2002, p. 41).

In spite of the "accidental" evolution of the suffrage, the institutional developments described above were not democratically insignificant: They not only reflected the early acceptance of popular sovereignty as an undisputed legitimacy principle, but also encouraged extraordinary levels of electoral popular politics (which, until recently, have been neglected by historians) (Annino 1995; Posada-Carbó 1997b; Sábato 1999). With the available information it is not possible to trace the movement of the electorates in a systematic fashion. Yet, some indicators show that electoral participation was often intense, with important variations in time and place, and according to the type of electoral contest and degree of competition.

There was a massive irruption of the electorate in most Spanish American countries from the early years of their independence through the 1830s. Some of the accounts of the elections under the Cádiz constitution reveal a picture of community involvement. Electoral participation continued to be high in Mexico City after independence: According to Richard Warren, "voter turnout for municipal elections of the late 1820s and early 1830s fluctuated in the range of 25 to 70 percent" (Warren 2001, p. 164). He also estimates that in 1829 to 1831, turnout "hovered around 27 percent" of the city's male population. Mexico City was perhaps not representative of all of Mexico, but as the capital of the country its importance should not be undervalued. The figures also suggest that in some areas there were extraordinarily high rates of participation by the world standards of the time. Electoral mobilization seems to have slowed down during the following decades in some countries as a result of new voting restrictions. In other countries—as in Argentina under the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas—elections simply lost significance except for their symbolic function.

Participation after Mid-Century

There was a second surge of extensive mass participation in the mid-nineteenth century, after some countries adopted universal male suffrage, or lowered voting requirements. In Colombia 210,000 people—40 percent of the electorate—voted in the presidential election of 1856. This was an extraordinarily high rate by world standards, as David Bushnell has shown, and even more when transport and communication difficulties are considered (Bushnell 1971). The electorate in Chile was around 30,000 people by the 1850s, but this figure more than tripled following the 1874 electoral reform. During that decade the largest electorate was in Brazil: One million people voted in the 1872 elections (11% of the total population), a rate higher than Italy (2%), Holland (2.5%), Portugal (9%), and Great Britain (7%). (Murilo de Carvalho 1995, p. 25; see also Graham 1990)

Although the voting populations of some countries shrank during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was a renewed general expansion of the electorate in the first three decades of the twentieth century. This was perhaps most dramatic in Argentina after 1912, and in Uruguay, where the electorate grew almost seven-fold between 1906 and 1930. In Colombia—as a result of the 1910 reforms that lowered the income requirements for voting at national elections—the electorate grew at a faster pace than the general population did in those same years. More than 800,000 voted in the presidential election of 1930, or about 48 percent of the adult male population (Posada-Carbó 1997a; Barrán 1996).

These successive "waves" of expansion and contraction must have produced substantial variation in the social composition of the electorate. But almost from the start, elections were not confined to the elites, as many historians long assumed.

Charles R. Berry might have exaggerated when he wrote that during the Mexican elections of 1810 to 1822, "the enfranchised populace participated enthusiastically, taking their obligations as citizens seriously" (Berry 1976, p. 41), but people from all classes and ethnic backgrounds voted in those early contests. The involvement of the popular sectors in electioneering persevered throughout the century, and was more intense of course during periods of suffrage expansion. Following the Peruvian electoral reforms of 1847 to 1849, "political participation increased among a wide cross section of Peruvians: tradesmen, teachers, journalists, professionals, small shopkeepers and villagers" (Peloso 1996, pp. 194-195). Artisans figured prominently in electoral campaigns in Peru, Chile, and Colombia (Sowell 1992).

There has been very little systematic research on the social composition of voters over time, but the available studies confirm the general picture of a socially diverse electorate where the popular element was often dominant, as in Buenos Aires, and in São Paulo, where low-income and illiterate voters—including those from rural districts—formed a large proportion of the electorate (Alonso 1996; Kline 1995). Closer examinations may reveal substantial variations in the electorate's social composition over time, as for example in Chile between 1863 and 1878: As the proportion of "property owners and capitalists," "professional, merchants, and other middle class sectors," and "public and private employees" declined, that of "artisans," "farmers," "miners," and "labourers" increased during those years (Valenzuela 1985, p. 118). During the first decades of the twentieth century, following urbanization and industrial development, the participation of the popular sectors in electoral politics became even more prominent. Even when suffrage restrictions remained, as in the Bolivian elections of 1904, parties had to court the artisan vote (Irurozqui 2000). The founder of the Chilean Communist Party claimed that more than 60 percent of the Chilean electorate in the 1920s was made up of people who either were members of the Workers Federation or were somewhat linked it (Valenzuela 1998, p. 285). Undoubtedly this is an exaggeration of an interested party, but nonetheless it shows awareness of a new social landscape.

The development of labor unions often went hand in hand with the organization of socialist parties, sometimes with the explicit aim of gaining representation in congresses, state assemblies, and city councils. There were significant inroads for social democrats in Chilean representative politics. In other countries, however, they faced the resistance of fellow socialists who favored revolution over electioneering, or even more challenging, the competition of well-established parties with traditional links with the laboring classes. A good illustration of this was offered by the union leader Ignacio Torres Giraldo (1892–1968) in his account of the politics of the Colombian labor movement during the 1910s and 1920s (Torres Giraldo, n.d). The Liberal return to power in the presidential elections of 1930 owed a great deal to the support the party received from urban labor.

Many historians and social scientists have dismissed as insignificant the early experiences with a wide suffrage—even universal male suffrage—and the evidence of popular participation in electoral politics. In this view, Latin American elections before 1930 (especially in the nineteenth century) generally have been perceived as mere theatrical events, where voters were controlled by governments and elites through fraud, clientelism, bribery, and coercion. The regimes resulting from those elections have thus been labeled regimes of "democratic fiction" (Guerra 1994; see also Graham 1990 and Escalante Gonzalbo 1993).

Electoral Competition and the Formation of Political Parties

There were dictatorial regimes—such as Porfirio Díaz's in Mexico—where voters were regularly paraded at the polls in elections that were democratically meaningless. The politics of influence—be it by governments, the clergy, landowners, or politicians—were part and parcel of electioneering. Fraud and violence also were constant reminders of the shortcomings of democracy in the region. But these were far from typical of Latin America. As Alan Knight has observed regarding Francisco Madero's reform movement in revolutionary Mexico: "In no country were the constitutional practices admired by Madero and his fellow reformers rapidly implanted: they grew up gradually, often developing out of earlier 'corrupt' practices, associated with 'artificial' or 'limited' democracy and characterized by boss-rule, networks of patronage and machine politics" (Knight 1986, p. 412).

What needs to be acknowledged more fully is that the politics of influence or the existence of fraud and violence did not preclude democratic developments, which—it should be stressed once again—occurred with important variations over time and place, and often following what Hilda Sabato has referred to as a "zigzag path" (Sabato 2001; see also Deas 1973; Posada-Carbó 1994 and 2000b). Above all, scholars need to reconsider some of the stereotypes that tend to undermine the significance of elections during this period, and the extent to which elections reflected competitive politics—the realm of democratic aspirations and, indeed, achievements.

Electoral corruption coexisted with the development of competitive politics, and fraud did not always determine the results at the ballot box, as Lehoucq and Molina have demonstrated for Costa Rica. Moreover, an exclusive focus on corrupt methods draws attention from the constant efforts in some countries to develop a fairer competitive field. As early as the 1830s there was a body of experts on voting regulations in Colombia to challenge the results at the polls and foster a culture of electoral litigation. The adoption of the secret ballot was a late development, as it was also in Europe and in the United States. Chile established voting booths in 1890, more than two decades before France, where it was mandated in 1913 (Valenzuela 1998 and Markoff 1999).

Electoral competition went hand in glove with the formation of political parties. As in the earlier phases of other Western democracies, in Latin America the terms party and opposition had a pejorative sense well into the nineteenth century. Yet, as early as 1844 some figures such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento defended their legitimacy, and the legitimacy of opposition parties contesting elections (Sarmiento 2001, pp. 63-85). Electoral clubs, much in evidence during the 1820s, again sprang up in Argentina after the fall of Rosas in 1852. Indeed, political organizations to fight elections emerged almost in tandem with the adoption of suffrage throughout the continent. Pipiolos ("novices") and pelucones ("big wigs") were the nicknames in Chile for the Liberal and Conservative Parties, two of the four parties (together with the National and Radical) that formed Chile's first party system, during the administration of President Manuel Montt Torres (1851–1861) (Collier pp. 49-50; Valenzuela 1995). The Colombian Conservative and Liberal Parties, which also originated from earlier factions organized around the struggle for power, were established in 1849 to 1850. They, too, struggled for power in Mexico, but the Conservatives disappeared after 1863, whereas the Liberal Party was somewhat transformed under the Porfirio Díaz regime (Hale 1989).

Of course, party developments varied from country to country, and not all parties evolved into durable machines. There were no consolidated national parties in Brazil; instead, parties tended to be state-based, such as the Paulista Republican Party, organized in 1873, or the Democratic Party of São Paulo, established in 1926. The first national civilian party in Peru was founded in 1871 (McEvoy 1997; Muecke 2004). Argentine parties were also latecomers, and often had short lives. The Partido Autonomista Nacional was set up in 1880 but barely outlived his major leader, General Julio Argentino Roca. In contrast, the Unión Cívica Radical—established in 1891—became one of the two most important Argentine parties of the twentieth century (Alonso 2000). A significant number of parties founded during this period either ceased to exist or survived with diminished roles after 1930. The Blanco and Colorado in Uruguay, and the Liberals and Conservatives in Colombia, were exceptional for their influence in shaping their nations' party systems in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, there were other long-lasting parties that originated during this period, including the Cuban and Chilean and Communist Parties and the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), established in 1922.

The development of durable and competitive party systems was a slow, complex, and frustrating process. Party systems were more likely to evolve in countries that managed to hold regular elections because they helped to anchor social roots within the electorate. In the absence of strong electoral authorities, however, party competition unsurprisingly turned into violent conflict. Yet, civil war was no impediment to the evolution of competitive electoral politics between Blancos and Colorados in Uruguay, particularly after 1919, when elections were held almost annually (Barrán 1996, p. 52).

These reconsiderations by no means ignore the extent to which suffrage practices and political competition were still distant from the democratic ideal. Where in the world was that "ideal" in the nineteenth century? Indeed, a proper understanding of how democracy evolved in Latin America ought to reexamine the subject from a wider, comparative perspective. Furthermore, a detailed historical revision reveals a complex picture that cannot be framed by caudillismo—the common view of Latin American politics identified with personal, tyrannical rule that was popularized in the English-speaking world by Mary Mann's translation of Sarmiento's Facundo in 1868 (Jaksic 2007, pp. 306-308). Neither can it be framed within the usual history of permanent stagnation and failure.

Attempts at building constitutional regimes did meet with enormous difficulties from the start, and all countries subsequently suffered periods of instability and repression. Such setbacks should not be surprising. At the time of independence, republican liberal constitutionalism was a rarity in the world. As José Antonio Aguilar has noted, the emerging Latin American nations were "voluntary guinea pigs" in adopting a set of novel institutions considered to be appropriate for representative government—popular elections, separation of powers, individual rights, freedom of the press—but whose effectiveness was largely unknown: "Latin America represents the great post-revolutionary constitutional experiment" (Aguilar 2000, p. 24; see especially pp. 15-56). The menu of institutions chosen, the timing and circumstances of their adoption—without a proper state apparatus in place for their implementation—coupled with the lack of experience, help to explain why early attempts at democratization were frustrated (Valenzuela 2006).

The long-term consequences of those early experiences have not been assessed completely. An evident legacy, amply recognized in recent historiography, was the incorporation of popular sectors into electoral politics. Less studied has been the roles played by congresses and other representative assemblies since these nations' independence. Congresses might have been just rubber-stamping bodies under conspicuous dictators, but their main function is "often overlooked" (Kinsbruner 1994, p. 119). They were most visible in imperial Brazil, in Chile during the crisis leading to the 1891 civil war and the subsequent parliamentary period, and under the federal regimes adopted in various nations. They also figured prominently in the politics of countries usually identified with caudillo rule, such as nineteenth-century Peru. Congresses represented provincial interests and served as constraints on the power of executives, even under centralist constitutions, as in Chile after 1833 or in Colombia under the Conservative hegemony (1886–1930).

Role of the Press and Civil Society

In addition to congresses, another key actor in the early phases of Latin American democratization was the press, whose role also has been neglected by historians. The press flourished unprecedentedly during the first decades of independence. Repeated instances of repression, political instability, and undeveloped markets made for a bumpy ride for the consolidation of newspapers. "The history of the Mexican press is a narrative of failure," noted Walter McCaleb in 1920, following the destructive effects of the revolution (McCaleb 1920, p. 443). More often than not, newspapers had a short life, but some lasted for a number of significant years, even decades, and a few of those established during this period have survived to the present—notably El Mercurio (1827) in Chile, El Comercio (1839) in Peru, La Nación (1862) in Argentina, O Estado de Sao Paulo (1875) and Jornal do Brasil (1891) in Brazil, and El Espectador (1885) and El Tiempo (1911) in Colombia (Posada-Carbó 2007b; see also Soto 2004 and Alonso 2003). Regardless of their life spans, the history of newspapers is inextricably linked to the processes of democratization because their very existence is determined by a basic liberal principle: freedom of the press. Overall, newspapers were instrumental to most electoral campaigns: They publicized the candidates' profiles and platforms; they discussed the issues at stake; they informed about electoral regulations and procedures; and they helped to shape a fundamental aspect of modern democracies—public opinion, a term that was already in common usage in the press by the 1830s.

"Newspapers … were embedded in and constitutive of democratic life," Carlos Forment acknowledged in a stimulating attempt to revalue the "democratic tradition" of Latin America during the nineteenth century (Forment 2003, p. xviii). Newspapers were part of that terrain of associative practices through which Latin Americans became "democratic citizens," also exemplified by the more than seven thousand voluntary groups that formed in Mexico, Peru, Cuba, and Argentina throughout the century. But Forment presents a disjunctive picture of public life: Although "civil society" was the domain of "democratic-minded" Latin Americans, "political society" was the realm of authoritarians. Such generalized disjuncture is difficult to accept because it not only idealizes the former and demonizes the latter, but also assumes that there were no links between the two. Early artisan societies were set up with the encouragement and support of political leaders, and often with the purpose of contesting elections—consider those established by the pelucones in Chile in 1829, and by the progresistas in New Granada in 1836. Mutual societies such as the Argentinian Sociedad Tipográfica Bonaerense, founded in 1865, included politicians from its beginning, and "cultivated a special relation" with the political world: Its first president was a newspaper editor, the founder of La Tribuna, and later a government minister and senator (Sabato 1998, pp. 55-57). Rather than contradicting it, Forment's revisionist work serves to complement the narrative presented here, thus adding more elements—those from civil society—to underline that "the democratic tradition in Latin America is far more robust than most scholars have claimed" (Forment 2003, p. xi).

Moments of Democratization

As already suggested, this "democratic tradition" originating from independence did not develop in a linear, gradual way. Although all countries followed different paths, it is possible to identify two major "moments" of democratization during the first half of the nineteenth century: the early decades of independence, and the mid-nineteenth century, when developments were influenced to some extent by the 1848 European revolutions. The European revolutions had significant repercussions in Latin America, most visibly in Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Pernambuco (Brazil), but also indirectly and later in Argentina and Mexico. As Guy Thomson notes, "the revolutions of 1848 renewed and extended Latin America's democratic vocabulary and republican symbolism" (Thomson 2002, p. 7). Such "moments" of democratization also had deep practical consequences besides the massive enfranchisement of popular sectors. The abolition of slavery, which began during the independence period—with Chile abolishing it altogether in 1823—was finally accomplished in the 1850s, except in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. These "moments" of democratization also brought important reforms, some of them fostering social mobility and elite rotation, as exemplified by the career of Benito Juárez in Mexico. The drastic liberal reforms in Colombia during the 1840s and 1860s might not have produced all their desired effects, but there were a few democratic advancements (Posada-Carbó 2002). As José María Samper lamented in 1861, "the European world has made more efforts to study our volcanoes than our society … it has much more learning about how quinine bark is cut, or how hides are salted in Buenos Aires, than about the vitality of our infant democracy" (quoted in Deas 1985, pp. 537-538).

A third "moment" of democratization—this time more gradual and prolonged—took place from the 1880s to 1930, when liberal constitutional rule made significant inroads. This occurred, for example, in Brazil since the 1891 constitution, in Chile under the so-called "República parlamentaria" (1891–1925), and in Colombia after 1910. Electoral reforms made it possible for some political parties to achieve power via the ballot box, as did the Argentine Radicals, who won the presidency in 1916. During this period, under the influence of José Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguayan democracy first embraced the welfare state. Some attempts at opening the political system ended in disaster, the most extreme example of which was Francisco Madero's anti-reelection campaign in 1910, which sparked the Mexican Revolution. With a few exceptions, however, this third moment came to an end with a succession of breakdowns after 1929—a democratic reversal similar to that which was already taking place in Europe.


As the above narrative suggests, there was no easily identifiable "first democratic wave" in Latin America, but rather a mixed set of developments in different directions varying from country to country, though there were various "moments" of democratization that acquired a regional dimension. References to the "second wave" are at least as problematic. In Huntington's classification, this second global democratizing movement took place in 1943 to 1962; some Latin American scholars date it to 1956 to 1962 (Huntington 1991, p. 16; Hagopian and Mainwaring 2005, pp. 18-19).

A glance at some individual cases reveals the difficulties in fitting their experiences into such patterns. It is true that from 1929 to 1933 democracy in the region was in retreat following a succession of coups d'état. However, Costa Rica and Colombia avoided the trend—in the latter, power changed hands via democratic election in 1930, a landmark in the country's history (Posada-Carbó 2000a, pp. 35-47). In 1932 constitutional rule returned in Chile, where a military coup (as in Uruguay), "rather than leading to sharp breaks [with their] political evolution, represented serious but passing setbacks" (Hartlyn and Valenzuela 1995, p. 138). Indeed, as totalitarian and dictatorial regimes expanded in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, the democratic perspectives in some Latin American countries did not look so dark. This was not the case, however, in Brazil under the authoritarian Estado Novo ("new state") inaugurated by Getúlio Dornelles Vargas in 1937, or in Argentina under Juan Domingo Perón's rule. But confronted with the horrors of Europe, the leading Colombian liberal statesman Alberto Lleras Camargo (1906–1990) optimistically claimed in the early 1940s that the future of world democracy was in the Americas.

After World War II, democracy did expand in the region. From 1945 to 1964, according to José Murilo de Carvalho, Brazil historically enjoyed its first "democratic experience" (Murilho de Carvalho 1995, pp. 95, 97). Venezuela, having emerged from the long dictatorial regime of Juan Vicente Gómez (1909–1935), underwent a period of political opening in the 1940s. Later significant developments encouraged Milton Eisenhower to report in 1959 to the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–1961), that dictatorships in Latin America had been "steadily" declining since 1933. J. Fred Rippy, critically commenting on Eisenhower's statement, skeptically observed that "with few exceptions, newsmen of every media of information (in the United States) have conveyed the idea that the general trend south of our border is toward democracy and more democracy" (Rippy 1960, p. 99). Rippy questioned the assumption that the recent downfall of tyrants signaled an "advance toward democracy" in the region. Four years later, the 1964 military coup in Brazil proved him right. Though the democratic regimes in Chile and Uruguay survived more than a decade beyond the end year of Huntington's second "wave," they did break down in 1973. "Those were the darkest of days," Fernando Enrique Cardoso recalled in his memoirs, "not just for us [Brazilians], but for all of Latin America. Like dominoes, democracies were collapsing everywhere: Uruguay, Chile, Argentina" (Cardoso 2006, p. 115).

Not everywhere. Costa Rica had been on the path towards a consolidated modern democracy since 1948. Democracy had flourished in Venezuela since 1958, and Colombia had returned to constitutional rule after the brief dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953–1957). There was no regime breakdown in Mexico, though the long dominant rule by the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) brought into question the country's democratic credentials. Yet, in 1957 Russell Fitzgibbon argued that in spite of being "vitiated by the absence of genuine party competition, Mexico should be classed as a 'democratic country' [because] the democracy which is lacking in inter-party competition may in part be supplied by the intraparty operation of the PRI" (Fitzgibbon 1957, pp. 18-19).

Suffrage Reform

Too much emphasis on the so-called "second wave" leaves out significant democratic developments that took place before and after the short "second wave." By and large, however, these developments occurred amidst a hostile ideological atmosphere. Arguably, there were conflicting views of democracy at play, but with a few exceptions, the guiding principles of political liberalism at best took second stage, and subsequently some of the major values of modern democracy lost currency (see Posada Carbo 2007a and 2008).

Nonetheless, beginning in the 1930s there was a significant expansion of the suffrage and, unlike those of earlier periods, few of these renewed constitutional achievements have been removed from the legal texts.

Universal male suffrage returned to Colombia (1936) and Venezuela (1947), and was officially adopted by Costa Rica in 1949. Literary restrictions were kept in some countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and Chile, though in Chile the 1874 electoral reform and the high literacy rates had made such restrictions redundant by the time they were finally abolished in 1970. This was also the period of incorporation of women into the political body. Country after country adopted female suffrage: Brazil and Uruguay in 1932, Cuba in 1934, El Salvador in 1939, Dominican Republic in 1942, Guatemala in 1945, Argentina and Venezuela in 1947, Costa Rica and Chile in 1949 (in Chile women had been granted the right to vote in municipal elections in 1935), Bolivia in 1952, Colombia and Honduras in 1955, and Haiti in 1958 (Brandenburg 1958, p. 212).

The electorate subsequently grew, even in countries that kept suffrage restrictions. Compulsory voting—adopted in Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil, and Venezuela—might in some cases explain higher rates of electoral participation, but not in every case, as enforcement was not always strong. At any rate, the electorates grew more quickly than the general populations did in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and Brazil. By 1964 more than fourteen million people voted in Brazil, a massive expansion from the 1.8 million who went to the polls back in 1930. The numbers seemed modest in Bolivia, yet its electorate doubled between 1940 and 1951, when about 200,000 people voted (Murilo de Carvalho 1995, p. 108; Whitehead 2002, p. 316). Although members of the laboring classes in some countries had been mobilized during the earlier period, the overall Latin American electorate acquired a new profile following this expansion.

The Growth of Parties

Wherever parties had developed strong social roots in the past, they often were successful in incorporating the respective expanding electorates, though in most cases they faced the challenges of new parties and populist figures. Some of the new parties were the results of merges, such as the Chilean Partido Socialista (founded in 1933), or of internal splits—the Chilean Partido Demócrata Cristiano, set up in 1957, grew out of factions from the Conservatives. Christian democratic parties were established during this period and became leading actors in the politics of Costa Rica and Venezuela. Catholics in Mexico sponsored the foundation of the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN). The Mexican Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), originally known as Partido Nacional Revolucionario in 1929, consolidated as a party that was "almost unbelievably well organized": "No other political group in Latin America … can equal it in the completeness and effectiveness of its organization" (Fitzgibbon 1957, p. 19). Brazil saw the emergence of national political parties for the first time under the republic, such as the Uniao Democrática Nacional (UDN) and the Partido Social Democrático (PSD) (Bethell 1994, p. 9). Innovations in party politics were perhaps more significant in countries that had had dictatorships and thus required new organizations almost from scratch. This was the case in Venezuela, where Acción Democrática was established in 1946 and soon was followed by the Christian democratic party Comité de Organización Electoral Independiente (COPEI). These developments were interpreted positively by contemporary political scientists such as Fitzgibbon: "Party progress is erratic but there is ample evidence in many directions that parties are becoming more mature and sophisticated, more responsive and responsible, and a more significant part of the broad political landscape" (Fitzgibbon 1957, p. 21).

The extent to which party developments led to free and fair electoral contests during the 1940s to the 1960s varied from country to country. There were significant electoral reforms including the establishment of new electoral courts, and electoral rules to allow for minority representation and encourage party competition, as in Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile (McDonald 1967, p. 702; Brandenburg 1958, p. 217). Costa Rica's electoral code of 1946, adopted in a revised version by the 1949 National Constituent Assembly, is considered a landmark because it "contributed to the development of one of the most stable democratic regimes in the world" (Lehoucq 1995, pp. 24, 42). Contemporary foreign observers acknowledged important electoral developments, because some electoral contests were perceived as being relatively free and fair, including the presidential elections in Peru in 1956; in Uruguay in 1946 and 1950; in Venezuela in 1947; in Costa Rica in 1953; in Chile in 1946 and 1952; and in Ecuador's Galo Plaza in 1948, where the victor four years later became "the first popularly elected president in more than twenty-five years to complete his full term in office." But electoral irregularities persevered in most countries. Control of voters was made easier by preregistration arrangements and the general practice of parties and candidates printing their own ballots, though the state-printed ballot was introduced in Chile in 1958 (Brandenburg 1958, pp. 214-215; 218-220).

According to the surveys conducted by Fitzgibbon (and others) between 1945 and 1955, the nature of elections seriously hampered the quality of Latin America democracy, as did other factors that "were thought to be in a bad way": civilian supremacy over the military, freedom of party organization, and the state of local government. What impressed the "specialists" about the democratic progress during those years—and indeed encouraged their optimism about the future of democracy—were the improvements in education, the standard of living, and the status of social legislation (Fitzgibbon 1956, pp. 71-72). Whether or not the level of socioeconomic development should be a precondition for democratization is still a matter of scholarly debate today, but the frustrating experiences of the mid-twentieth century illustrate the difficulties of establishing any simple correlation. "The clearest … threat to civil liberty [in Latin America]," Germán Arciniegas wrote, "is that which has developed in the country with the lowest rate of illiteracy—Argentina" (1953, p. 10).

Military and Populist Regimes

Arciniegas, a Colombian liberal intellectual who lived in exile in the United States from 1942 to 1960, left a testimony of what he referred to as a "vast conspiracy against democracy, liberty, and respect for human rights"—an increasing movement away from representative government that was placing Latin America outside the "democratic orbit" (Arciniegas 1953; 1996 [1956], p. 18). His rallying cry was not just against military dictatorship but also against the rising populist regimes, which he labeled "neo-caudillism"; Perón and his party were the object of his harshest criticism. Arciniegas reflected on the dilemmas those regimes posed to democracy: "the caudillos … have started out with the backing of groups of people, sometimes with a real majority of popular support. Invariably their programmes have carried a glimmer of the democratic ideal." Demagoguery was an effective weapon, but "once the spellbinders have won power, their promises have gone up in smoke, leaving only the bitter bread of dictatorship" (Arciniegas 1953, pp. xv, 7, 384; 1996 [1956], p. 21). What was to Ariciniegas an "arbitrary use of words" was to populists a problem of definitions. Indeed, some foreign contemporary scholars were of the view that, in contrast to (U.S.) Americans, the average Latin American was "thinking more in terms of social and economic than of political democracy" (Fitzgibbon 1967, p. 130). However, Arciniegas supported the alternative notion of "representative, democratic government," a system that "would become a stimulus and challenge" for the alleviation of social problems, as they could be "trashed out in the press, in the legislative chambers, in the streets and the homes" (Arciniegas 1953, p. 7).

As noted above, representative democracy seemed to flourish at the end of the 1950s. According to Mainwaring and Pérez Liñán, there were twelve democracies and "semi-democracies" in the region by 1961—a significant expansion since 1955. This was a "short wave." The impact of the Cuban Revolution (1959) was devastating. Added to the antidemocratic attitudes in traditional circles was now a devaluation of the suffrage by those who embraced guerrilla violence, further polarizing the struggle for power. After the military coups in Brazil and Bolivia in 1964, the breaking down of democracies seemed to be the rule for the next decade, in Argentina in 1966, Peru in 1968, Ecuador in 1970, Chile and Uruguay in 1973, and Argentina again in 1976—this was the "zenith of authoritarianism in Latin America" (Mainwaring 2000, p. 146).

The fact that democratic regimes survived in the 1970s in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela has often been obscured—firstly, by the dominant ideological climate of the time, which tended to despise liberal democracy as just "formal" or "bourgeois"; secondly, by the restrictive nature of the consociational pacts upon which those regimes were based, particularly in Colombia and Venezuela; thirdly, by the lack of recognition of their significance in relation to the rest of the continent; and finally, by their classification as "anomalies" in a region associated with an authoritarian tradition, where liberal democracy could find only an "inhospitable soil" (Peeler 1985, p. 134).

After the Pacto de Punto Fijo in 1958, Venezuela demonstrated that an authoritarian past was no impediment to democratic developments. The setbacks experienced since 1989 should not detract from the accomplishments of Venezuelan democracy during the second half of the twentieth century. For a start, a democratic system was established where there were limited democratic antecedents. Although Rómulo Betancourt became known as the "father of democracy," and other personalities played prominent roles, political parties were the major actors in the regime (Caballero 2004, p. 149). Party competition, though effectively confined to Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Electoral Independiente (COPEI), became the rule for the peaceful transfer of power through regular electoral contests. The 1968 election was a "decisive turning point" as COPEI, hitherto in opposition, reached the presidency through the ballot box. Similar power turnovers took place in 1973, 1978, and 1983 (Levine 1989, p. 260). Parties were "broadly representative of society," and each had a large body of members (Coppedge 2003, p. 172). Freedom of the press flourished, together with other rights associated with free elections. Economic and social indicators also improved during the 1960s and 1970s. There were serious shortcomings, mostly related to corruption and clientelism, and the economy was severely hit in the 1980s when oil revenues declined. Yet, at the end of the decade, in spite of the unfolding crisis, Daniel Levine acknowledged that Venezuelan democracy had been remarkably successful: In less than three decades, the country had "built strong institutions, tamed the military, and combined high popular participation with social and political stability" (Levine 1989, p. 265; also Coppedge 2003, p. 172).

These democratic achievements are better appreciated in a comparative context, during a period when authoritarian rule was widespread not only in Latin America but also elsewhere, including in southern Europe. By 1974 only about forty countries in the world could be classified as "more or less democratic," and Venezuela, together with Colombia, and Costa Rica was among them (Huntington 1991, pp. 14-21; Diamond 1996, p. 20). A similar comparative perspective serves to highlight the significance of democratic survival in Colombia during the National Front (1958–1974). There are no doubts about Costa Rica's democratic credentials after 1949: Competitive elections were guaranteed by the establishment of the Supreme Election Tribunal, "a virtual fourth branch of the state." Its role became crucial in the evolution of a political system where free and fair elections prevailed, giving way to "an entrenched pattern of power alternation" every four years between 1958 and 1970 (Casas-Zamora 2005, pp. 63, 66).

Aside from these three countries, Latin American democracy was barely surviving by the late 1970s, but the electoral legacies of many nations may have contributed to the demise of some authoritarian regimes (Drake and Silva 1986, pp. 1-7). Elections were crucial in undermining military regimes and thus encouraging democratization; examples of this include the referendums of 1980 in Uruguay and 1988 in Chile, which inflicted serious defeats on their respective military rulers. The military junta in Brazil, which had been in power since 1964, allowed for an electoral opening. In the 1974 elections the "official opposition party" won a substantial number of seats in the Senate, and afterwards elections were the major vehicle through which Brazilians made the transition to democracy (Mainwaring 1999, pp. 83-87; Lamounier 1989, pp. 112-117). "Participating within the system, and using it to our own advantage, was the surest path to democratic change," recalled Fernando Henrique Cardoso (2006, p. 131). Cardoso himself, a member of the opposition, agreed to be a candidate for the Senate in 1978, and became a senator in 1983. "How can you participate in this fraud?" demanded his friends, who still believed that "Congress was just a farcical theater that the military tolerated in order to pretend Brazil was still a democracy" (Cardoso 2006, p. 147). Yet, the opposition persevered, and two years later its candidate, Tancredo Neves, was elected president by the Electoral College. On January 15, 1985, a billboard in Brasilia announced the new regime: "Good morning democracy."


By 1989 the "third wave" of democracy had reached most Latin American countries (with the exception of Cuba and Haiti). This wave started in 1978 when the opposition Dominican Revolutionary Party won power through the ballot box. As in the past, the third wave of democratization has not been a uniform process across all nations of the region.

Peru's successful general strike in 1977 has been singled out as the "most important event in triggering the … democratic transition of 1980" (Collier 1999, p. 118). In Argentina the "triggering event" was the military's defeat in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, which led to the collapse of the regime. Collier argues that any evaluation of Argentine democratization also should take account of the labor movement for its roles in undermining the authority of the military and in negotiating during the interim government that preceded the election of President Raúl Alfonsín in 1983 (Collier 1999, pp. 119-126; Foweraker 2004). Indeed, the extent to which these processes were affected by labor mobilization or by "elite settlements" (such as Uruguay's Naval Club Pact [1984] between the military and the leaders of the major parties) is a subject of academic debate. None of these processes were just "elite affairs." The leaders of the parties in conflict, along with key foreign powers, organizations, and individuals, were instrumental in negotiating a settlement that brought to an end the civil war in El Salvador in 1992, but such "pacted democratization" involved a wider social universe.

Whether the result of regime collapse, elite pacts, or any other modality, democratization in Latin America generally has expanded since the 1970s, and in this "third wave," it "has been far more extensive, involving far more countries, and has lasted for longer than any previous waves of democracy in Latin America" (Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán 2005, p. 15). As the process unfolded, very few predicted that it would be long-lasting. "The dice are probably loaded in favour of repeated iterations and shaky and relatively short-lived democracy and ever-uglier authoritarian rule," Guillermo O'Donnell wrote in 1986. Although he tried to convey a message of moderate optimism, O'Donnell also considered that the "prospects for political democracy in Latin America" were "not very favorable" (O'Donnell 1993, p. 14). Three years later, in 1989, Larry Diamond and Juan Linz were also of the view that "the prospect of new democratic breakdowns in Latin America during the 1990s cannot be dismissed" (Diamond and Linz 1989, p. 52).

There were many reasons for pessimism, including fresh memories of the recent authoritarian experiences, the generally poor economic performance in the 1980s, and the continuing social problems of the region. Serious setbacks in the 1990s provided clear warnings against complacency. Threats to democratic stability were already visible in Venezuela during the Caracazo in 1989, and were made explicit during the failed military insurrections of 1992. In that year, in his infamous autogolpe (self-coup), President Alberto Fujimori closed down Peru's Congress. A year later, in 1993, the Guatemalan president Jorge Serrano Elías attempted a similar antidemocratic putsch, but failed and was forced to resign. These and other presidential crises (there were fourteen "interrupted presidents" in ten different countries between 1985 and 2004) added to a discouraging picture. According to Arturo Valenzuela, presidential failure was "among the reasons why democracy's future now hangs in the balance across a huge swath of the Western Hemisphere" (Valenzuela 2004, p. 18).

Current shortcomings are many and, once again, differ from place to place. The debate about the state of democracy in Latin America to some extent echoes earlier discussions in that often it focuses more on its socioeconomic performance than on political conditions. Poor social indicators (e.g., levels of poverty and inequality) are singled out as the major barriers to democratic development. From a liberal democratic perspective, however, the problems faced by representative institutions are of special concern. As the 2004 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report observed, "the crisis surrounding political parties in Latin America is one of the greatest threats to democracy in the region" (p. 37). The belief that some countries did not seem to be "on the path toward becoming representative democracies" led O'Donnell to coin the expression "delegative democracies" to refer to regimes where presidents, backed by the majority of voters, govern with few constitutional constraints (O'Donnell 1994). The "crisis of representation" has been particularly acute in the Andes (Mainwaring, Bejarano, and Pizarro Leongómez 2006).

Nonetheless, in spite of severe problems, what should be underlined is the perseverance of democracy in the last decades. As Marta Lagos pointed out in 2003, "public support for democracy has shown surprising resilience. Overall, the reaction of Latin American citizens to failures of economic and political performance has been one of dissatisfaction with the way in which democracy is working …, but not an abandonment of faith in democracy itself" (Lagos 2003, p. 163). Perhaps no other country exemplifies this better than Argentina since 1983, which has survived crisis after crisis (Levitsky 2005). Throughout the region, the ballot box is the means for transfer of power. Elections are regularly conducted and generally represent fairly genuine electoral competition. There were seventy national elections in Latin America between 1990 and 2002, and "in most instances where irregularities were observed they did not appear to have had a determining impact on the outcome of the polls" (United Nations Development Programme 2004, p. 35).

Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán have noted that since 1978 Latin American democracies have been "more able to withstand polarized party systems" and "more likely to survive despite a vastly worst economic record after 1978" (2005, p. 38). In their view, this durability is due more to political than to socioeconomic factors. In what seems the most comprehensive survey of key variables, they conclude that "it is implausible that higher levels of development, changes in class structure, or better economic performance could account for the vastly greater durability of democracy" in the last three decades (2005, p. 32). Instead, they attribute this success to a more favorable regional environment conducive to democracy, conditioned by a process of diffusion (i.e., "what happens in one country affects another"; idem, p. 58) and by the role played by international actors, including in particular the United States and the Organization of American States, which in 2001 adopted a Democratic Charter to respond to unconstitutional alterations of constitutional regimes. They also pay special attention to changes in attitudes towards democracy.

These changes, though difficult to accurately assess, are particularly significant. Hostility towards liberal democracy had not just been confined to right-wing quarters; it also dominated left-wing intellectual and political circles, where revolutionary violence was favored over electioneering. Jorge Castañeda pointed out that "much of the left wrongly dismissed representative democracy for many years as a sham: a bureaucratic, corrupt device invented by local elites and foreign agents to trick the Latin masses into tolerating forms of government and domination contrary to their interests" (1993, p. 327). The end of the cold war eased ideological tensions, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall encouraged reconsideration of long-held beliefs. In his Utopia Unarmed, Castañeda described this reconciliation of the Left with liberal democracy as paradoxically motivated by the harsh experiences of living under dictatorship (Castañeda 1993; Mainwaring 2000, pp. 178-182; O'Donnell 1993, pp. 15-16; see also Posada-Carbó 2008). There were exceptions, notably in Cuba, and Marxist-inspired guerrilla warfare survived in Colombia.

Accepting some of its most basic tenets did not mean fully embracing representative democracy. By the early 1990s it seemed that it was becoming "more difficult to elaborate an alternative ideology to democracy [that raised] enthusiasm among the population," but conflicting views of democracy soon resurfaced (Nohlen 1995, p. 23). The common expression "competitive elections are not a sufficient condition for democracy" is often repeated to signal dissatisfaction with what liberal democracy can offer, undermining the pivotal significance of democratic procedures. Demand grew for "participatory democracy" instead, and this phrase was incorporated into many Latin American constitutions. ("Participatory democracy" calls for "direct participation of citizens in the regulation of key institutions of society; and making party official accountable to membership" [Held 1996, p. 271]). This provided a new conceptual framework, as well as a rhetorical device, for a revived populism. When signing the "democratic clause" in Canada in 2001, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez said, after raising his hand: "We sign this but we have to reserve our vote from representative democracy, we believe in participatory democracy" (Chávez and Harnecker 2005, p. 107; see also Kornblit 2005, p. 136).

The challenges of a populist revival and the threats it poses to the prospects of liberal democracy should not be underestimated. Its revival has so far been limited, but instances of populist revivals capture international attention, feeding old Latin American stereotypes while obscuring the reformist democratic experiences of countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, and especially Chile under the Concertación governments since 1990 (Angell 2007).

In a period of thirteen months during 2005 to 2006, Latin Americans voted "with an intensity never seen since the transition to democracy in the region": Eleven countries went to the polls to elect their respective presidents (Malamud 2007). The results painted a heterogeneous picture, both in terms of the politics of the various governments and the quality of their democratic institutions.

As the last "wave" of democratization in Latin America enters its third decade, questions of democratic performance have attracted increased attention from scholars. How have the democratically elected governments dealt with the acute socioeconomic problems of the region?: "Quite badly," with some exceptions, was Guillermo O'Donnell's assessment (2001, p. 601). Nonetheless, O'Donnell warned against condemning the existing democratic regimes for their deficits in social and civil rights: These "political democracies," as he called them, "are not a fake." Their significance should not be dismissed as "purely formal"—the establishment of "political democracies" had been a "huge achievement," opening the avenue for further democratization (2001, pp. 599-609).

Such prolonged "waves" of democracy in the region, and above all the revaluation of "political democracy," should motivate historical reconsiderations of democracy in Latin America. The military regimes and dictatorships after the 1960s often prompted modern scholars to propagate the idea that Latin American societies had a "secular disposition" towards "authoritarian regimes" (Véliz 1980, p. 3). Some even suggested that the "use of the 'democratic' label" for Latin America, "implies not just political and economic imperialism but cultural imperialism as well" (Wiarda 1980, p. 18).

References to "new democracies" in Latin America ignore a rich history that dates back to the early nineteenth century. "Democracy," Margaret Lavinia Anderson points out, "is never a destination, a resting place" (2000, p. 437); "Democratic successes are never irreversible," notes Sean Wilentz (2005, p. xix). There is a long story of representative democracy in the region worthy of further study. If changing attitudes towards democracy partly explain its more recent fate, a fuller appreciation of that story may provide a better prospect for this "unfinished journey" (Dunn 1995).

See alsoBatlle y Ordóñez, José; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Chávez, Hugo; Corruption; Cortes of Cádiz; Delegative Democracy; Echeverría, Esteban; Estado Novo; Falklands/Malvinas War; Ferdinand VII of Spain; Fujimori, Alberto Keinya; Gómez, Juan Vicente; Juárez, Benito; Junta: Spanish America; Liberalism; Lleras Camargo, Alberto; Madero, Francisco Indalecio; Mercurio, El; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican Revolution; Nación, La (Buenos Aires); Organization of American States (OAS); Pardo; Perón, Juan Domingo; Rojas Pinilla, Gustavo; Sáenz Peña Law; Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino; Serrano Elías, Jorge Antonio; Slavery: Abolition; Vargas, Getúlio Dornelles; Women.


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                                  Eduardo Posada-CarbÓ


views updated May 09 2018


Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Joan Didion


Democracy, Joan Didion's fourth novel, published in 1984, takes a sardonic look at the relationship between politics and personal life. The tension between the public and private persona of the novel's main character, Inez Victor, is examined in the context of a life led in the glare of mass media. As the wife of an ambitious congressman, senator, and aspirant to the Presidency, Inez has been groomed in playing to the public. She is not at all comfortable in this role.

The novel is at its most biting when Inez and Billy Dillon, her husband's political adviser and public relations operator, are goading one another. Although she appreciates Dillon's ironic abrasiveness rather more than her husband's woolly political jargon, Inez resents, for example, interviewers deciding in advance the angle of their profile on the basis of library cuttings. It is as if she has lost all personal claim to her past. Her own memory, and hence her history, have been fictionalized. The main events of the novel occur in 1975, the year of the United States's withdrawal from Vietnam. It is therefore impossible to read the story of Inez's marriage, and her affair with the elusive Jack Lovett, as pure personal drama.

Democracy, as the title implies, is also the story of the way in which a nation has lost touch with its own past and with the principles that once guided it. Many of those who commented on the novel when it was first publication greeted it as Didion's best novel to date. It was seen as a book that combined the barbed observational precision of her journalism with the broader scope of the novelist. Others were put off by the tentative nature of its composition, and in particular by the intrusive voice of the narrator, who regularly informs the reader of directions previous versions of the book might have taken.

Author Biography

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California, on December 5, 1934, into a family that had put down roots in the region during the mid-nineteenth century. Her great-great-great-grand-mother, Nancy Hardin Cornwall, had travelled part of the way west with the members of the ill-fated Donner-Reed wagon train, most of whom died while trapped in the Rocky Mountains during the winter of 1846-47. Sensibly, as it proved, Didion's ancestor parted company with the main group and took the northern trail through Oregon. Critics often refer to this ancestral heritage, arguing that Didion has the frontier in her blood and the confidence to take her own course. Both thematically and stylistically, these are observations which are relevant to a study of the novel Democracy.

Didion's childhood became nomadic during World War II. Her father was moved from one Air Corps base to another, and the family had spells in Washington, North Carolina, and Colorado. By the time they were re-settled in Sacramento, Didion was already developing a serious interest in writing. As a young teenager she spent hours typing out entire chapters from the novels of Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. She enrolled at the University of California in February, 1953, and it was there, at Berkeley, that she had the first of her own works published—a short story entitled "Sunset," which appeared in the student magazine Occident.

In her senior year Didion won Vogue magazine's Prix de Paris Award, and, after her graduation in 1956, she went to work in the magazine's New York office. She was quickly made an associate editor. In addition to her work for Vogue, she contributed articles to National Review and Mademoiselle. In 1958 she met John Gregory Dunne, a graduate of Princeton and staff writer at Time. They married in January, 1964. Didion's first novel, Run River, had been published (and hardly noticed) the previous year. The newly-married couple both resigned from their magazine positions and moved to California.

Working as freelancers, they earned only seven thousand dollars between them in their first year. However, Didion's reputation as a columnist with an individual voice grew steadily, and her essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968, brought her fully into the public eye. Her second novel, Play It As It Lays, became a bestseller two years later. Didion spent much of the seventies collaborating with her husband on screenplays, including a version of her second novel and the much-more successful A Star is Born. This was a lucrative decade, but not a satisfying one for Didion, who preferred working on her own as a novelist.

The novel which Didion published in 1977, A Book of Common Prayer, concerned a detached narrator trying, and failing, to find some coherence in the life of the book's protagonist. Didion's second essay collection, The White Album, reflected a mood of personal and clinical depression. Democracy, Didion's fourth novel, did not appear until 1984. The difficulties and false starts encountered in its composition form an essential part of the book's texture.

Both Didion's fiction and nonfiction are characterized by self-consciously stylish prose and attention to circumstantial detail.

Plot Summary

Part I

Joan Didion's Democracy chronicles a woman's search for identity during America's turbulent 1960s and 1970s. It is a quest that is completed in 1975, soon after the final evacuation of American troops from Vietnam and Cambodia. Didion, who identifies herself as the narrator of the story, compiles fragments of Inez Christian's life in an effort to help order Inez's experiences, and thus provide meaning to her life.

The novel focuses on Inez's marriage to Harry Victor, a prominent politician, and her long love affair with Jack Lovett, a CIA freelancer. She first meets Jack in Hawaii on her seventeenth birthday and begins a brief affair. A few years later, she marries Harry Victor and adopts the role of a politician's wife. Though Inez finds little fulfillment in her private or public life, she dutifully supports her husband, who eventually wins a seat in the U.S. Senate. She and Jack see each other intermittently during the next twenty years, until the death of her sister, Janet. When her sister dies, Inez finally leaves her husband for Jack and a new life in the Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur, where she helps resettle Vietnam war refugees.

The novel opens in the spring of 1975 in a bar outside Honolulu, where Jack and Inez watch the evacuation of South Vietnam on television. Jack describes the colors of the sunrise and the scent of the air during nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1952 and 1953. Then, commenting on her situation, he exclaims, "Oh shit Inez … Harry Victor's wife."

Didion introduces herself as the author of this account of Inez's life and jumps forward to the present, when she is struggling to arrange the bits and pieces of what she knows and what she has heard about Inez Christian. She explains that she abandoned the "novel" she had intended to write about Hawaii and Inez's family history there, deciding instead to focus on Inez's life from the time she met Jack Lovett in 1952 to her relocation to Kuala Lumpur in 1975.

After explaining Inez's reason for staying in Kuala Lumpur—"colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the air"—Didion relates brief but significant details of Inez's childhood and her family gained from Inez's memory, from photographs, and from her own knowledge of the family. She introduces Inez as the daughter of a prosperous Hawaiian family: her mother, who abandoned Inez and her sister when they were teenagers; Inez's sister, Janet, and her husband, Dick Ziegler, who "made a modest fortune in Hong Kong housing and lost it"; her uncle Dwight, who caused Dick's financial ruin; and her father, Paul, who was arrested in the spring of 1975 after fatally shooting Janet and her suspected lover, Hawaiian congressman Wendell Omura. She then introduces Jack Lovett, who has "waited for twenty years for Inez."

During the 1960s Harry Victor, Inez's husband, plotted his political career, participating in protest marches and sit-ins. He successfully campaigned for Congress in 1964, 1966, and 1968. In 1969 he won an appointment to the Senate, and in 1972 lost a bid for the presidency. During those years, Inez fulfilled the duties of a politician's wife. She expressed a desire to help refugees, but her husband and his aides considered this work "an often controversial and therefore inappropriate special interest." Inez tells Didion that she has a difficult time recalling all the details of her past, admitting that her memory has faded.

Didion next introduces Inez's two children: her son, Adlai, who has crashed two cars and seriously injured his passenger, and her daughter Jessie, a heroin addict who has attempted suicide.

Didion returns to 1975 and to a class she taught in Berkeley, California, on the theme of democracy in literature. She relates her students' views on Vietnam and her own scouring of the papers for news of the evacuation, when she comes across the details of the murder of Janet Christian and Wendell Omura.

Part II

Didion describes Jack meeting Inez at the Honolulu airport in March, 1975, as Janet clings to life in the hospital after being shot by her father. She then flashes back to Inez's seventeenth birthday in 1952, the first time Jack and Inez met. Although Jack was married, the two began a short affair soon after. Inez married Harry Victor in the spring of her sophomore year at Sarah Lawrence College; she was two months pregnant with his child. She lost the baby, but was quickly swept up in the responsibilities of being a politician's wife.

Inez meets Jack on several occasions over the years, including once in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1969 on a trip with Victor, her children, Victor's campaign manager Billy Dillon, and Frances Landau, Victor's aide. During that trip a grenade exploded at the American embassy, and Jack moved the family to a safer location.

Returning to 1975, Didion reveals specific details of the shootings and of Paul Christian's confinement to a mental hospital in Honolulu soon after. Inez's family and Billy Dillon try to downplay both incidents to the press. Inez visits her father in jail and her comatose sister in the hospital, and afterwards she begins to remember bits and pieces of her childhood, especially memories of her mother.

Jessie refuses to come to Honolulu after hearing about the shootings. She walks out of a drug treatment clinic in Seattle and, with the help of a fake press card, boards a transport to Saigon, Vietnam, where she hopes to find a job. Didion then returns to the scene that opens the novel—Inez and Jack at a bar outside Honolulu trying to find information about Jessie. Later that night, the two take a flight to Hong Kong.

Part III

Inez waits in Hong Kong while Jack tries to find Jessie in Saigon. While she waits, she takes long walks in the rain, reads American newspaper reports about the evacuation, and spends time watching Chinese children playing outside a nursery. Jack finds Jessie waiting tables at the American Legion outside of Saigon.

Part IV

Eight months later, Didion interviews Inez in Kuala Lumpur. During that time, Paul Christian is found mentally unfit to stand trial and Jessie is sent back to the United States. Didion had previously spoken to Harry, Billy Dillon, Dick Ziegler, Jessie, and Adlai about Inez and the events that spring. Inez tells Didion that Jack died of a heart attack in her arms after swimming in a hotel pool in Jakarta. She buried him in Honolulu and then flew immediately by herself to Kuala Lumpur. Jack's presence in Vietnam had been questioned, but his death quieted the rumors. Didion repeats Inez's reason for staying in Kuala Lumpur—"colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the air"—and her insistence that she will remain there "until the last refugee was dispatched."


Betty Bennett

Betty Bennett, introduced as a "Honolulu divorcee," was a close neighbor of Janet and Dick Ziegler. For eighteen months, between 1962 and 1964, Betty is Jack Lovett's second wife, an experience which "left little impression on either of them."

Carol Christian

Carol Christian, who is married to Paul Christian, is the mother of Inez and Janet. Although it is Inez and Janet who become the two main female characters, Didion admits early on in the novel that she "was interested more in Carol Christian than in her daughters." Having arrived in Honolulu as a bride in 1934, Carol Christian is always an outsider on the islands, and stubbornly lonely in her marriage. She leaves dark red lipstick marks on her cigarettes, which she stubs out after barely smoking them, and spends hours at her dressing table, which is strewn with paper parasols from cocktails. She dies in a Piper Apache plane crash near Reno, Nevada, soon after her daughter Janet's marriage to Dick Ziegler.

Dwight Christian

The brother of Paul Christian, and therefore uncle to Inez and Janet, Dwight has a moral saying ready for every occasion, a characteristic which Didion treats mockingly. The quotations come from extracts torn from a weekly column, "Thoughts on the Business Life," subsequently typed up on index cards by Paul's secretary to form a file. Paul is described as having more significance in the early life of Inez and Janet than their father, but the sympathetic qualities of his character are never properly explored.

Paul Christian

Paul Christian, husband of Carol Christian and father of Inez and Janet, kills Wendell Omura with a .357 magnum and fatally injures his own daughter Janet. The shooting is motivated by business, family, and racial jealousies, but it is described in terms of a cold assassination. Having developed an eccentric objection to his family's financial dealings in Honolulu, Paul Christian has taken to living off canned tuna. The description of his actions immediately before and following the murder (living in a single YMCA room, going for a swim in the YMCA pool) gives the impression of a man turned clinically insane, a fact that Billy Dillon is keen to make the most of in his efforts to contain the situation.

Ruthie Christian

Ruthie Christian, Dwight's wife and aunt to Inez and Janet, is rarely mentioned in the novel.

Sybil Christian

Known in the family as "Cissy," Sybil is Inez and Janet's grandmother.

Billy Dillon

Billy Dillon is a major character, but one whose exact role is shadowy and only gradually discerned. On a first encounter with the novel, a reader will only gradually identify the full and politically sinister part that Dillon plays in the narrative. Initially, Billy appears as a mere business assistant and personal friend of Harry Victor. He is a witness at the wedding of Harry and Inez in 1955. The key events of the novel take place twenty years later, but Billy Dillon is still there, the archetypal, political backroom-boy, image-controller, and manipulator. His concern is for appearances and surface-gloss. His advice to Inez, after she has listened to her father confessing to two shootings and showing no remorse, is typical: " … trot out the smile and move easily through the cabin, babe, O.K.?"

Frances Landau

Frances makes only brief appearances in the novel—at a dinner at Jakarta airport with Harry Victor—but she is representative of a type of woman who will hang on to public figures, "deprecating their own claims to be heard."

Carla Lovett

Carla Lovett, a druggist's daughter from San Jose, California, was Jack Lovett's first wife. They were married from 1945 to 1952.

Jack Lovett

Jack Lovett is an undercover operator with a finger in many pies. An opportunist, he makes the best of a given situation. The exact nature of his operations is kept vague, but the reader is given the strong impression that he makes his living by armsdealing and similar activities. In particular, towards the end of the novel he is implicated in profiting from events surrounding the American withdrawal from Vietnam. However, Didion is at pains to exempt him from accusations of treason: "It would be accurate only to say that he regarded the country on whose passport he traveled as an abstraction, a state actor, one of several to be factored into any given play."

For Jack, Inez is certainly not an abstraction. He falls for her on their first meeting, which is on her seventeenth birthday, during the intermission of a ballet. They have a brief affair. His marriage to Carla Lovett ends in the same year. But Jack is much older than Inez. She has her young life to lead, and the two of them meet only sporadically across a span of more than twenty years. At each encounter it is apparent that the old spark is still alive. However, Inez, despite the shallowness of her life with Harry, will not leave her husband for Jack. His entreaties are always charmingly understated. Finally, in the melodramatic closing of the book, Jack is able to seize the initiative, and Inez surrenders to his man-of-action prowess.

The renewal of intimacy between Jack and Inez is short-lived. Jack dies in a swimming pool in Jakarta. The timing and circumstance of his death are suspicious, but not belabored by Didion. However, the reader is clearly intended to note the fact that Jack's name had been increasingly mentioned in government investigations into wrongdoing during the American withdrawal from Vietnam. After Jack dies, a certain Mr. Soebadio takes over (from Inez) all matters pertaining to the death.


It is tempting to identify the first-person-voice narrator as Joan Didion herself. She mentions her time at Vogue in the early 1960s, and ventures several opinions about the art and complexities of narrative construction that are known to be representative of Didion's own views as a novelist. However, if Janet, Inez, and the other characters are accepted as fictional, it is perfectly possible to accept the first-person voice as a fictional construct, too. The construct serves two purposes: It allows Didion to speak directly to the reader, and it suggests that she is passing on information that has been intimately communicated to her by certain characters in the novel.

Wendell Omura

Wendell Omura is a black political activist. He is shot by a deranged Paul Christian, who has become unhinged by Omura's apparent involvement with his daughter Janet.

Mr. Soebadio

Mr. Soebadio is a mysterious gentleman who appears at poolside following Jack Lovett's death and takes over (from Inez) all responsibility for dealing with the removal and transportation of the body.

Frank Tawagata

Frank Tawagata is a lawyer. He is married to a cousin of Wendell Omura, and represents the Omura family during the period following the arrest of Paul Christian. In Part Two, section 9, pressure is put on Frank to lobby for Mr. Christian to be committed to an asylum. Although Inez's father is certainly mentally incapacitated, she and Billy Dillon's apparent motive is to avoid the embarrassment of the case going to trial.

Adlai Victor

Adlai Victor is the twin brother of Jessie Victor. Both were born February 23, 1957. Adlai is involved in a serious accident in June, 1973, in which a "fifteen-year-old from Denver lost her left eye and the function of one kidney"—an example of carefully-placed, circumstantial detail not later developed by Didion. Adlai is less important to the novel than his sister, Jessie.

Harry Victor

Harry Victor, Inez's husband, is a creature consumed by political life and personal ambition. After successful campaigns for Congress in 1964, 1966, and 1968, he is made a senator in 1969, following the death of the incumbent. After his attempt to become the 1972 presidential nominee of his party fails, his life revolves around public dinners and public speaking. He lectures at Berkeley during the spring of 1973; and, estranged from his wife, he dines in London in the company of a glamorous woman. At the end of the book, his political ambition and personal life are in tatters. Harry Victor is seen as a pathetic figure who is powerless to prevent his wife from taking off with another man.

Inez Victor

Inez Victor, Harry Victor's wife, was born Inez Christian on January 1, 1935. She is the mother of twins: Adlai, a boy, and Jessie, a girl. She is the strongest character in the novel, and the one whose point of view the reader most frequently shares. Indeed, the author testifies that Inez was to have been the first-person narrator of an abandoned version of the book. As the wife of an ambitious politician, Inez has to develop mannerisms peculiar to people in the public eye. She is the primary focus for one of the book's most insistent themes: the insidiously destructive nature of public life. Inez, like others in her position, has "lost track." In playing a part for so long, in so diligently ensuring that her every gesture is tailored for general scrutiny, she has lost all memory of what being herself means.

Inez met and fell in love with Jack Lovett in 1952, before leaving Honolulu to start an art course at Sarah Lawrence College. But she marries Harry Victor in 1955. The private story told by the novel concerns Inez's repeated encounters with Jack, and her apparent resistance to his entreaties, up until the climax of the novel in which she finally walks out on her husband.

Jessie Victor

Jessie Victor, born Jessica Christian Victor on February 23, 1957, is the twin sister of Adlai and daughter of Inez and Harry Victor. Another victim of her father's immersion in public life, Jessie becomes a heroin addict. In June, 1973, she is found in a state of collapse, and the following year is placed in a clinic. Quite bizarrely, at just the point when American troops and civilians are pulling out of Vietnam, she decides to go and work in its capital city, Saigon. She flies out the night before her aunt Janet's funeral. Significantly, it is not her father who goes to fetch her back, but Jack Lovett (accompanied by Inez), using his clandestine connections. Jessie is found working as a bar girl at the Legion club.

Kiki Watt

A fading beauty who is interviewed by Vogue in the early part of the novel, Kiki is just a walkon player. The single interlude in which she is featured is a significant one, however. Kiki rattles away in an amusingly well-captured banter, communicating nothing. The other characters present—Inez, Jack Lovett, and the novelist—say little but communicate a great deal. Kiki is a colorful, minor character used as an effective foil, or contrast, for the more important players.

Janet Ziegler

Janet Ziegler, born Janet Christian, is Inez's younger sister. Janet is a less significant character than Inez, although she figures in many of the flashbacks to the two sisters' childhood and early adolescence. This is especially so at the end of the novel, when Janet has been shot and is in hospital on a life support machine.


Truth and Falsehood

Didion's self-conscious intrusion of herself, the author, into the novel's narrative is fundamental to one of the book's major themes: the degree to which meaning can be ascribed to events by telling a story. Linked to this theme is consideration of its mirror image: the degree to which meaning can be eroded by telling a story falsely. Didion is not simply experimenting with the narrative method, though she acknowledges that the reader has certain expectations, some of which may not be satisfied by her own peculiar narrative approach. Declaring that she understands traditional techniques, Didion writes in Book Two, Chapter 11, "I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said and know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know."

The reader has already been told that an earlier version of the novel was modeled on nineteenth-century family sagas. There was to be a great deal of family background and provincial Honolulu detail. The early focus of the book was to have been on the older generation, or so the "author" would have the reader believe. In fact, the final structure of the novel is so perfectly wedded to its themes that it is difficult to believe this other version of the book ever existed. The author's presence in the narrative, referring as it does to known details from Didion's own biography—her time at Vogue, her teaching at Berkeley—is intended to prompt the reader to ask: "Does that mean the other characters are real too?" The issue of the border between reality and fiction is also raised by Didion's specific references to media coverage of the political events in the novel, and the increasing impossibility of separating truth from falsehood. Nearly every character in the book is adept at projecting a phony veneer. Billy Dillon makes an art of it. Harry Victor is an impassively deceiving political animal. Jack Lovett is direct but secretive. Young Adlai pompously puts on airs. Perhaps the only character "true" to an inner self is Jessie, who has utterly rejected the values of her environment to become a waitress and heroin addict. At the end of the novel, she is declared to be well, living in Mexico City, and writing a novel.

American Dream

At the end of the 1970s, Didion was in a depressed mood. Her sour look at the 1960s—the essay collection The White Album—was published in 1979. Democracy, published five years later, was created out of the same feelings of pessimism. Thomas R. Edwards said in his New York Review of Books review of the novel, "The devastating personal and public consequences of the loss of history are Didion's theme." The scramble to get out of Saigon is implicitly seen as the deeply humiliating consequence of a political system that has become riddled with humbug and secrecy. Inez, in her private life, has lost the thread of her existence and only barely clings to a sense of self by remembering simple moments from her childhood. The nation is in a similar state. Clinging to simplistic notions of manifest destiny and freedom of the individual, and led by politicians who mouth jargonized platitudes, the country has had to come to terms with defeat. The novel is not about the rights and wrongs of being in Vietnam. Its theme is the difficulty of holding on to the thread of history, the problem of constructing a continuous story in which the present is linked to the past. Its depiction of the unravelling of the American Dream makes it a resignedly philosophical book, rather than a fierce diatribe. Indeed, in its happy, epilogue-type ending, it is almost forgiving.

Topics For Further Study

  • Read some of the firsthand accounts of the American withdrawal from Saigon and identify details which Didion has used in her novel.
  • Didion's novel was originally going to be "a study in provincial manners" centered on one particular family in Honolulu. Investigate the business and social history of Honolulu during the 1940s and 1950s.
  • Didion's essay collection The White Album contains a piece about Honolulu—"In The Islands"—in which she writes at length about Schofield barracks and From Here To Eternity by James Jones. Reading extracts from Jones's novel and watching the 1953 Columbia movie version of the book, identify parallels and contrasts in Didion and Jones's portrayals of life in Honolulu.
  • The opening sentence of the novel refers to the testing of nuclear devices in the Pacific. Research the history of nuclear testing, and on a map of the Pacific area mark and date all places used for such tests.
  • Inez Victor is a study of the effect that being in the public eye has on a character. Researching the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Diana Princess of Wales, and other women subjected to public scrutiny through association with their husbands, attempt to analyze what Didion means when she suggests that the "major cost" of public life is "loss of memory."
  • Carry out a statistical analysis of Didion's oneline or very short paragraphs (do not include dialogue). You will need to set your own parameters for this study—will you look at paragraphs of ten words or less? Eight words or less? Carry out a sentence analysis on each paragraph in your sample and attempt to show the results graphically, using computer software.

Search for Self

Having lost touch with her inner self for so much of the novel, Inez appears to have found fulfillment at the end by ministering to refugees in Kuala Lumpur. She has been through the mill, and only an act of selflessness such as she has undertaken can bring her satisfaction (for the rest of her days, it would appear, for "Kuala Lumpur is not likely to dispatch its last refugee in Inez's or my lifetime"). Inez's nunlike change of life is peculiar to her. The other survivors of the novel go on in ways that suggest that, for them, the search for self-fulfillment means simply carrying on. Billy Dillon has a new congressman to groom for the Presidency. Harry Victor has become a special envoy to the Common Market (what is now called the European Union). Adlai has a lowly clerical position, working for a federal judge. Jessie ("her weakness is for troubled capitals") is in Mexico City, living with a Newsweek reporter, and writing, of all things, a historical romance. In other words, the difficulties of modern life, of existence as an American citizen, have touched them all. The conclusion of the novel would therefore appear to be saying that only by consciously removing oneself from the structures of contemporary life can true selfdiscovery be made.


Most characters in the novel prefer to play the system—to stay within the structures and gain whatever personal advantage they can. If this means cheating, they cheat. If this means being secretive and underhanded, they are secretive and underhanded. If it means betraying those who are close to them, they betray them. Most of all they betray themselves, but only the thin-skinned, such as Inez, are aware of their self-betrayal. Political candidacy has so hardened Inez's husband that he can cheat on his wife and on his principles without the slightest sign of remorse. As far as politics are concerned, he has probably forgotten he ever had principles. Billy Dillon relishes the game so much—he is so slick a public relations man—that for him conventional morality is turned on its head. It would be a betrayal of the game to give the honest answer; it would be a betrayal to act naturally.

The wealth of the Christian family makes them paranoid about business betrayals. The important subplot concerning Wendell Omura and Inez's sister, Janet, adds further to the pervasiveness of the betrayal theme. In addition, the reader is never sure whether Jack Lovett is a secret agent, a loose cannon, or a mixture of the two. The appearance at the poolside, immediately following Lovett's fatal collapse, of the significantly-named Mr. Soebadio ("So-bad"), and the things that Mr. Soebadio just "happened to know" about getting a body out of Indonesia, suggest that Lovett belonged to a network of covert intelligence operators that made possible the breaching of protocol. The questions being asked about him at the end of his life, regarding possible profiteering from the American withdrawal from Vietnam, amount to a treasonous and undemocratic betrayal of his country.


Narrative/Point of View

"This is a very hard story to tell," the narrator declares at the end of Chapter 1. Immediately after this, Chapter 2 begins, "Call me the author," an echo of the famous opening line "Call me Ishmael" from Moby-Dick. This is immediately undermined by a playful pastiche, or imitation, on the intrusive voice of nineteenth-century British novelist Anthony Trollope. On the same page, there is a quotation from a Wallace Stevens poem: "A goldfeathered bird/Sings in the palm, without human meaning,/Without human feeling, a foreign song." Didion is at pains to establish that the narrator of Democracy is not a fictional character, but the author herself. Although the rest of Chapter 2 is largely about problems she, as author, has supposedly encountered with the structure of her story, the reader is also asked to accept her as a character in her own book, playing an important role as witness and reporter (the passer-on of direct evidence).

This dual presence of Didion the novelist and Didion the character—the artist constructing her fiction vs. the reporter recording true-life events—has a disconcerting effect upon the reader. The strongest presence is of Didion the novelist, so that although the reader is made vividly aware of several of the characters, there is never any serious attempt to tell events from their point of view. The unbroken awareness of the novel as artifice—of something being self-consciously manufactured by the writer—is compounded by Didion's stylistic quirks, which again draw the reader's attention to the author. The reader is kept at a cool distance from the characters and events by the narrative voice, an effect which (if the quotation from Wallace Stevens is kept in mind) would appear to be intentional, rather than a failure of engagement.


The book is divided into four sections. Section 1 has twelve chapters; Section 2 has fourteen; Section 3 has three; and Section 4 has four. Chapters are usually short, focusing on one key scene, or on the musings of the author. The main narrative action takes place during 1975—before, during, and after the American withdrawal from Saigon, Vietnam. But Didion's narrative method, especially in the first two sections of the novel (which together comprise eighty per cent of the whole book), is not a consecutive one. She visits and revisits, in no particular chronological order, other important years in the lives of her characters: 1934, the year in which Carol Christian, Inez's mother, arrives in Honolulu as a bride; 1952, the first meeting between Inez and Jack Lovett; 1955, Inez's marriage to Harry Victor; 1960, the year in which Inez and the author worked together at Vogue; 1972, the year of Harry's failed attempt to win his party's presidential nomination; and 1973, when Adlai has a serious accident and Jessie's heroin addiction is revealed.

Didion's circling around this narrative material evoke in the reader thoughts of the investigative journalist. The book is not a mystery or a thriller. Told conventionally it would be a family saga with a political edge. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a popular novelist using the same material to work up a fat, five-hundred-page, episodic bestseller. The structure Didion chooses suits her own purpose, which is to explore connections and continuities between the past and the present. She wishes to make the reader aware that life experiences are often connected with events fairly distant in time, rather than those immediately preceding. To this end, the narrative structure works well, and it is something of a surprise when the two short, final sections of the novel deliver a conventional episodic conclusion.


The use of repetition which occurs in the opening lines of Democracy—recurring from time to time throughout the novel—is one of the novelist's stylistic trademarks. She takes the words from the end of one sentence and uses them to begin the next. Cadenced repetition is not a new technique. One of Didion's early influences was Ernest Hemingway. As a teenager she copied out whole sections from his novels. The opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms is a famously effective example of the use of repetition. But Didion's use of repetition has prompted criticism more than praise. Commentators find it over-formulaic. Her habit of separating repeated phrases so that each is on a separate line, in a paragraph of its own, has been called "padding."


Critics do not always consider Didion's use of poetic repetition effective. However, the consensus is that she is excellent at writing dialogue, although she chooses to transcribe it idiosyncratically; sometimes with quotation marks, sometimes without. In Democracy her use of dialogue is highly edited. She uses only those exchanges between characters that illuminate the themes she is developing. Snatched conversations are Didion's most effective means of characterisation. The reader understands Inez through her conversations with Billy Dillon and Jack Lovett, rather than through any direct comment from the novelist. Didion makes use of two types of dialogue. One (the kind presented without quotation marks) is overtly impressionistic and not intended to be literal. The other, and the kind in which Didion excels, is presented conventionally, and purports to be the direct transcription of words actually spoken.

Historical Context

The Legacy of the 1970s

Democracy was published in 1984, but the major part of the narrative focuses on the previous decade. An important political theme—the existence of individual wheeler-dealers brokering deals with the connivance of government, and sometimes at the government's bequest—touches upon one of the major political stories of the 1980s: the Iran-Contra crisis. The scandal was first revealed in 1986, when a secret CIA operative was shot down over Nicaragua. His cargo was a load of weapons intended for the Contras, a group of anti-Communist rebels. Further investigation into the matter revealed that this illegal shipment had been funded by secret sales of arms to Iran—a country under an arms embargo since hostages were seized at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. High-ranking members of President Ronald Reagan's administration were later implicated in the scandal, but most received pardons or were granted immunity for their testimony.

When Didion chose to write explicitly about this story in her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, she set the events in 1984. Democracy's first readers were able to read the book with detail and background to the Iran-Contra events unfolding in realtime. Inevitably, early reviewers and commentators on the book drew attention to this. However, the primary political and social focus of the novel is still the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, the 1960s.

From many points of view the 1970s was a featureless or transitional decade. One commentator, Peter Carroll, named his 1984 survey of the decade It Seemed Like Nothing Happened. During the first half of the 1970s, the cultural and political trends of the 1960s remained dominant. In the second half, many of the trends that were to characterize the 1980s began to manifest themselves. However, deeper analysis reveals it to be possibly the most important decade in the postwar history of the United States. Two ideological positions were challenged at the time. The first of these—the belief in the expansion of American influence overseas—had before been taken for granted by both Democrats and Republicans. The second—support for liberal civil rights programs—had been more rigorously debated. But the legacy of the Lyndon Johnson administration, and the cultural climate of the closing years in the 1960s, seemed to protect such programs from attack. These basic principles

of national self-belief were given a severe jolt by defeat in Vietnam. It was not so much the fact America lost the war as the ignominious and chaotic nature of civilian withdrawal that dented national pride most profoundly.


The concept of "Manifest Destiny"—that Americans had been divinely chosen to spread their influence and belief in freedom of the individual to all parts of the globe—had been axiomatic in American political affairs since the 1840s. In the nineteenth century, this belief had mainly fed the frontier spirit during the period of westward expansion. In the twentieth century, and particularly after World War II, America had extended its influence overseas, such as to the Philippines in Asia. In the 1960s a further frontier had been confronted, with manned flights to outer space and the Moon.

In conquering this latter frontier, America was in direct competition with the Soviet Union, its Cold War enemy. Initially, involvement in Vietnam had been explicitly explained as a stand against communism and a defense of the free world. It had become complicated by America's importation of corporate capitalism into South Vietnam (so that business interests jockeyed for position with political and ethical factors) and, during the Richard Nixon administration, by increasing signs of detente (an easing of political conflict) between the two superpowers. At home presidential and national attention on the war was diverted by the Watergate affair, in which Nixon tried to cover up the illegal break-in at the Democratic National Committee office in Washington, D.C. The incident eventually led to Nixon's resignation.

Didion refers repeatedly in her novel to the exact circumstances of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in April 1975. The hectic and frantic helicopter flights out of Saigon are vividly described in a firsthand account by Stephen Klinkhammer, published in Al Santoli's Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. In this account Klinkhammer repeatedly describes the withdrawal as "total chaos" and "really a mess." Further details from this and other firsthand accounts are also used by Didion. In the novel, there are several references to money changing hands, and to certain people profiting out of the situation. Klinkhammer describes the Vice President of South Vietnam escaping with "an immense amount of gold bars." Didion implies that some American civilians also profited from the situation.

Watergate and Secrecy

As reported in the June 4, 1973, edition of Time magazine, President Nixon issued a four thousand word statement attempting to explain his actions with regard to Watergate. This statement explicitly attempted to defend political espionage because of a climate in which sensitive political matters were brought into the open for the sake of openness. "I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in newspapers," Nixon is reported (in the same article) to have said to a rapturous audience of ex-P.O.W.s. And in the statement itself: "By mid-1969, my Administration had begun a number of highly sensitive foreign policy initiatives aimed at ending the war in Vietnam, achieving a settlement in the Middle East, limiting nuclear arms, and establishing new relationships among the great powers. These involved highly secret diplomacy. They were closely interrelated. Leaks of secret information about any one could endanger all. Exactly that happened. News accounts appeared in 1969 which were obviously based on leaks—some of them extensive and detailed—by people having access to the most highly classified security materials. There was no way to carry forward these diplomatic initiatives unless further leaks could be prevented."

In such a way did those at the helm in public life defend secret, undemocratic methods—in the name of the democracy that those methods and "diplomatic initiatives" so flagrantly flouted. There is not a polemical point running through Didion's novel relating to its title. Rather, she takes for granted her audience's experience of contemporary political life and allows readers to draw their own conclusions from the focus of the narrative. Didion was writing the novel from the perspective of a disenchanted Republican.

Critical Overview

A tendency for critics of Didion's fiction to draw upon knowledge of her public and private character was taken to the limit in 1980 by Barbara Grizutti Harrison. In a witheringly unsympathetic essay included in her 1980 book Off Center, Harrison accused the author of being self-consciously neurotic, a reactionary, and a stylistic trickster. Reviewers of Democracy were not disposed to receiving Didion's intrusions of herself into the narrative with much sympathy. Many of them were convinced that these intrusions weakened the novel. But a number of early reviewers were more positive about Didion's style than Harrison. Phoebe-Lou Adams, reviewing the novel in the Atlantic, described it as being "striking, provocative, and brilliantly written." Janet Wiehe, despite thinking that the book had the "immediacy of journalism" rather than the emotional depth of a great novel, nevertheless summarized it in Library Journal as "sophisticated political fiction, written with skill and wit."

One of the book's staunchest early supporters (and one of the few defenders of Didion's intrusive narrative device) was Thomas R. Edwards, who reviewed the novel at length in the New York Review of Books. Treating it as serious fiction, and drawing on its echoes with the book of the same name by Henry Adams, he wrote: "Democracy is absorbing, immensely intelligent, and witty, and it finally earns its complexity of form. It is indeed a 'hard story to tell,' and the presence in it of 'Joan Didion' trying to tell it is an essential part of its subject." A different point of view was expressed by Thomas Mallon in The American Spectator. In this review Mallon complained about a lack of range in Didion's female characterisation. "Inez Victor has in the past gone by the names of Lily Knight McClellan, Maria Wyeth, and Charlotte Douglas. They were the heroines of Didion's first three novels, and they're still the heroine of this one. All four women have the same frayed psychic wiring." About Didion's entry as a character in certain scenes of her story—for example, a conversation she has with Inez in the office of Vogue—Mallon writes, "There's a sort of desperation to the device." And about Didon's characteristic short sentences and repetitions, he observes, "One can sit down with the same syntax too many times, just as one can bump into the same heroine once too often."

The novel has been the subject of several critical essays. In "A Hard Story to Tell—The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Democracy," Stuart Ching analyses both the fragmentary nature of the novel and its factual correspondences: "Jessie's flight to Vietnam illustrates the confusion in South-east Asia during the last few weeks before the final evacuation of Saigon. For example, between April 15 and April 28, 277 whites and blacks without identification or passports who spoke English and presented themselves as Americans at evacuation sites were evacuated without question." The cumulative conclusion of Ching's analysis is that "the fragmentation of the fictive world—Inez's flight to Hong Kong—concurs with the collapse of the external world—the fall of Saigon."

The novel's political themes were considered by Michael Tager in his 1990 essay "The Political Vision of Joan Didion's Democracy." The concluding paragraph of this essay states: "Didion's novel portrays a democracy vitiated by a secretive national security apparatus and image-conscious national politicians. Both use euphemisms and vague phrases to disguise or justify their questionable activities to the public… The plot of Democracy illustrates [George] Orwell's claim from his essay 'Politics and the English Language' that the misuse of language contributes to sloppy thought and misconceived action, and that indefensible acts require misleading language for justification." In "Postwar America and the Story of Democracy," an essay concentrating on the novel's structure, another critic, Alan Nadel, explores how the language of justification affects the tone of the novel as a whole. "By foregrounding her roles as author and as character and by mixing the levels of fact, Didion denies the reader the same distance she has denied herself."


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is an Assistant Professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland. In the following essay she examines how the form of Democracy illustrates the problematic search for identity.

Some critics read Joan Didion's Democracy as a romance novel that centers on Inez Christian's love affair with Jack Lovett. Others consider it a political novel, finding a relationship between Inez's internal and external worlds. Didion's innovative construction, in fact, highlights both of these aspects as it reinforces and helps develop the novel's main theme: the problem of identity, especially in gaining a clear view of self and others in a society that encourages concealment and deception. The novel's fragmented form and shifting point of view illustrate on three levels the difficulties inherent in separating fact from fiction: Inez, the narrator, and the reader all struggle to understand Inez and her world.

Mary McCarthy, writing in her New York Times Book Review article, "Love and Death in the Pacific," suggests that the "construction of Democracy feels like the working out of a jigsaw puzzle that is slowly being put together with a continual shuffling and re-examination of pieces still on the edges or heaped in the middle of the design." Didion creates this "jigsaw puzzle" by replacing traditional chronological order with flashbacks and flashforwards of fragmented scenes that allow us only glimpses of her characters. Our view is further complicated by Didion as narrator. She identifies herself as a journalist but insists she is writing a "novel" about Inez. As she begins the story, she admits she lacks "certainty… conviction … patience with the past and interest in memory" and feels she has "lost her authority as a novelist." Her confessions reveal the tension between fact and fiction, truth and imagination—a tension that the characters and the readers also feel.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion's 1996 novel, was her first work of fiction after Democracy. It develops several of the same political themes.
  • Didion is admired as an essayist as well as a novelist, and the work in The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, evolved from state of mind similar to the one which created Democracy.
  • From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones is a popular wartime novel set in Honolulu in the period leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • A reading of Democracy, the 1880 novel by the nineteenth-century historian Henry Brooks Adams, helps to throw into sharper relief some of the cultural and political concerns which Didion's later novel of the same name explores.

Didion is not a traditionally omniscient narrator in the novel. She continually questions her ability to present an accurate portrait of Inez, acknowledging that she gains much of her information from unreliable sources: her own memory, interviews with Inez's friends (Jack, Billy Dillon) and family members (Harry, Adlai, Jessie), press clippings, and Inez's memory. Didion's and Inez's memories have faded, press clippings have provided only distorted images of her, and she doubts the truthfulness of other people.

The narrator begins Inez's story with a fragment of the scene where Jack and Inez stop at the bar outside Honolulu. They are trying to gather information about Jessie's flight to Vietnam. The narrator finds it difficult to continue, however, insisting that she has "no memory of any one moment in which either Inez Victor or Jack Lovett seemed to spring out, defined. They were equally evanescent, in some way emotionally invisible, unattached, wary to the point of opacity, and finally elusive." For several pages the narrator explains how hard it is to even begin to tell Inez's story. At one point she had intended to write a history of Inez's family in Hawaii, but decides instead to shift her focus to Inez's life in the United States. Ultimately, the narrator takes on the task of telling Inez's story, piecing together the collage of images and "fitful glimpses" in an attempt to provide shape and order to Inez's life and thus to help establish her identity.

As the narrator assembles the parts of Inez's story, she weaves in glimpses of other characters that impact Inez's life. However, the contradictory images we gain cloud our vision of these characters. We cannot fault the narrator entirely for this ambiguity, however, since the characters themselves invent fictions to cope with the realities of their lives.

Carol Christian, Inez's mother, explains her husband's frequent absences from their home in Hawaii by insisting "When a man stays away from a woman, it means he wants to keep their love alive." The narrator later suggests that infidelities kept her husband away. Inez's grandmother considers Carol's abandonment of her teenage daughters "a sudden but compelling opportunity to make the first postwar crossing on the reconditioned Lurline." Elsewhere the narrator hints that Carol's "stubborn loneliness" while living as an "outsider" in the islands triggered her departure. Inez's married sister Janet, who maintains a "defensive veneer of provincial gentility" is suspected of having an affair with a Hawaiian. Paul Christian, who had "reinvented himself as a romantic outcast" after his wife left him, murders his daughter and her suspected lover. The shadowy Jack Lovett has been identified as an "army officer" by his first wife, an "aircraft executive" by his second, a "businessman" on his visa application, and a "consultant in international development" on his business cards. The narrator leads us to suspect he is a CIA agent but never actually confirms this.

Harry Victor also invents fictions about himself, but the narrator provides us with a clearer vision of him and his contribution to his wife's loss of self. This self-seeking, ambitious politician creates an image of himself as a moral crusader, while in his private life he commits adultery and thwarts his wife's search for identity. On a family trip to Jakarta that includes his mistress, he appears more concerned about his press conference than the safety of his family. As a result, Jack Lovett tells him, "You don't actually see what's happening in front of you. You don't see it unless you read it. You have to read it in the New York Times, then you start talking about it."

The narrator complicates our view of Inez by revealing only fragmented scenes of her life. Inez and others also contribute to our confusion, as well as her own, as personal and public pressures help strip her of her identity. During her marriage, Inez is defined by the press as the ideal politician's wife. Yet this role confines her. For twenty years, she acts solely in her husband's political interests, not in her own. Her husband and advisors suppress her desire to work with refugees, since that special interest was "often controversial and therefore inappropriate" to the political image they had created for her.

The press helps reinforce this image as it reports her "very special feeling for the arts" and "very special interest in education"—interests manufactured for her by her husband's political machine. As a result of fabricating appropriate stories for the press and viewing her life as a series of "photo opportunities," Inez's memory fades to the point where she loses a true sense of herself. She admits that during this process "you drop fuel. You jettison cargo. Eject the crew. You lose track." While being interviewed, she tells a reporter "Things that might or might not be true get repeated in the clips until you can't tell the difference…. You might as well write from the clips … because I've lost track."

Inez's memory also fades because she suppresses painful facts like her abandonment by her mother, her son's two car crashes (one of which left his passenger seriously injured), her daughter's heroin addiction, and her husband's frequent infidelities with the ever-present political groupies. Inez's apparent indifference to these past events often makes her appear cold.

Inez's family and Billy Dillon also suppress the truth at times, but for a different reason. They conceal details of "uncomfortable" events to avoid hurting Harry's public image and thus his career. Michael Tager, in "The Political Vision of Joan Didion's Democracy," notes that "media scrutiny requires that one establish a pleasant past for public consumption while concealing or eliminating those elements that clash with the desired image." An example of this process occurs after the shootings, when the family rallies to downplay the incident to the press, to "manage" the situation for Harry and to "contain [it] to an accident."

The deception and lack of clarity in Inez's private and public life become comparable to and intertwine with larger political issues. The novel begins with a focus on this link as Jack describes to Inez the breathtaking sunrises and sweet-smelling air during nuclear testing in the Pacific in the mid-1950s, without commenting on the devastation that soon followed. The narrator offers contrasting views of the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the main action of the story takes place. While many in the United States considered the evacuation disastrous for the South Vietnamese, the narrator's students interpreted it as their "liberation from imperialism."

Tager argues that "democracy" is the "name we have given to a narrative of American global politics … [that] placed Americans in the roles of reader and viewer of a series of adventures, in which the heroes and villains were clear, the desirable outcomes known, and the undesirable outcomes contextualized as episodes in a larger narrative that promised a happy ending." The Vietnam War, however, had no such happy ending. Both the novel's political and personal narratives fall apart during the evacuation of Saigon. The idealistic vision of America as defender of world democracy, and of the Victors as a model American family, crumbles.

This process begins when Inez's father shoots Janet, an incident that jolts Inez's memories to the surface and prompts her to begin to sort out truth from fabrication. After she leaves with Jack to find Jessie, she breaks from her family, deciding "she was not particularly interested in any of them." While she waits in Hong Kong for Jack to ship Jessie home, she begins to separate herself not only from her family, but her country as well: "The world that night was full of people flying from place to place and fading in and out and there was no reason why she or Harry or Jessie or Adlai or for that matter Jack Lovett … should be exempted from the general movement…. Just because they were Americans." When Inez decides to stay in Kuala Lumpur to work with the war refugees, ironically, she becomes a refugee herself, from her family, her country, and her past.

This separation allows Inez to begin to find freedom and a sense of identity. She permits her love for Jack to surface, and they find happiness for a short time, until his accidental death. At the end of the novel, Inez seems content with her new life, noting the "colors, moisture, heat, [and] enough blue in the air" to keep her in Kuala Lumpur "until the last refugee was dispatched." Yet, the narrator tells us she learned of Inez's intention of staying on from an article in the newspaper—not, as she has proven, a reliable source.

While Inez seems to gain a clearer vision of herself by the end of the novel, the narrator leaves the reader with only a partial view of her, attained through the fragmented narrative. We have only gained glimpses of Inez, and thus are not sure whether or not Inez has completed her search for identity and meaning in her life. The narrator voices her uncertainty as well, when she concludes: "Perhaps because nothing in this situation encourages the basic narrative assumption, which is that the past is prologue to the present, the options remain open here. Anything could happen."

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Janis P. Stout

In the following excerpt, Stout examines the narrative technique that the author employs in Democracy. The critic contends that the narrator, named "Joan Didion, " includes hesitations, blanks, gaps, and other "silences" in her narration as a means of both implying more than what is said and emphasizing the ways in which a male-dominated American society inhibits the expression of women.

[In] Democracy, Didion writes in the terse, elliptical style [her] novels had taught us to expect of her, but with a somewhat different and more highly politicized import. As in A Book of Common Prayer, the narrative strategy involves a first-person narrator only slightly distanced from the author herself. Indeed, the distance is even less here. The narrator of the earlier book is particularized with a name, Grace Strasser-Mendana, and a personal background clearly distinct from Didion's own. The narrator of Democracy is a thinly fictionalized Joan Didion; we might call her "Joan Didion": a persona in only the most circumstantial of ways. This persona advances and retreats. At those points when she is at the narrative fore, she addresses the reader directly, calling our attention to the difficulties entailed by getting and presenting the story. Several chapters open abruptly with terse one-line "paragraphs" focusing on the act of telling—imperatives:

"Call me the author," "See it this way," "Let me establish Inez Victor"; personal declarations: "I also have Inez's account," "I am resisting narrative here." The directly accostive narrative voice that such openings establish creates the sense of urgency avowed in the narrator's "warning" to the reader,

like Jack Lovett and (as it turned out) Inez Victor, I no longer have time for the playing out.

Call that a travel advisory.

A narrative alert.

The issuance of a "narrative alert," an overt tactic for gaining reader involvement, is a part of the entire strategy by which "Joan Didion" is placed within the novel. The narrator's struggle to understand her characters' story becomes part of the fiction, which is a fiction of reporting rather than creating. "Joan Didion" is here, like Joan Didion in fact, an interpretive journalist, trying to get at the truth and communicate it before the failure of the social situation, represented in the fall of South Vietnam, makes investigation and interpretation impossible. When she says that she does not have time for a fully elaborated narrative, we feel not only the wildly accelerating events of the evacuation of Hanoi and the family tragedy being played out against it but also the impending breakup of the social order and the brevity of human life. The urgency "Didion" asserts is communicated to us, in part, by the rapid succession of terse, often fragmentary phrases….

In all Didion's work, the breaking into brief stand-alone sentences or phrases, or often strings of such sentences or phrases, is a device for emphasis, usually an ironic twist of emphasis. But in Democracy, the device gains a faster pace and a more hard-bitten, slangy tone. The rapidity is largely a matter of achievement of a sense of fastbreaking events, even of events being out of control. This is true both of family events and of events on the large scale. Social structures collapse more rapidly than politicians, generals, and weapons dealers can shore them up. The fast verbal pace is achieved also through associative listing of items….

Rapid exchanges of smart dialogue, often in brief, slangy phrases tossed off sarcastically, also contribute to the fast pace of the dramatized scenes and to the harsh tone. The narrative voice, as well, often employs bitten-off slang to convey a mocking commentary or a sense of world-weariness….

The narrator's hard-bitten phrases, not quite hiding a fullness of emotions sensed behind them, often, though not consistently, emulate the glibness of sarcasm of this campaigning, image-building circle in which Inez moves as Harry Victor's wife. Mulling her story, she comments mockingly: "Cards on the table"; "Water under the bridge" "The Alliance qua Alliance"; "His famous single room at the Y." At other times, it is the laconic, tough yet nostalgic voice of Jack Lovett that we hear in the narrator's brief phrases. The beautifully taut opening of the novel, for instance, starts in Lovett's voice, then elides into Didion's own terse identification of the character, emphasizing (significantly) Inez's marital state, then returns to Lovett's distinctive blend of nostalgia and hardboiled realism….

In part, Didion adopts Lovett's savvy understatement as a way of conveying, through its own cadences, some sense of an elusive personality, as if, though the mystery cannot be analyzed, it can be glimpsed….

In part, however, she adopts this tone, with its characteristic curtailments, as a protection from the pressure of emotion—just as, we suspect, Lovett himself adopts it. Indeed, all the people we respect in this book—Lovett, Inez, and the narrator—are "wary to the point of opacity." They adopt a tough exterior—such as Lovett's exclamation, conveying a lifelong caring and a lifelong frustration, "Oh shit, Inez, Harry Victor's wife" (repeated or echoed [several times])—to cover their vulnerability, knowing full well even as they do it that toughness "never stopped any plane from crashing." Disaster happens despite the surface toughness that they nevertheless maintain because, like the Hemingway hero's style, that is the way to do it, or at any rate their way to do it.

The narrator tells things in a compressed shorthand, sometimes imagistic but sometimes carefully abstract, both for impact and for control, for protection from the disorder. Inez's mother, Carol Christian, she tells us, clung to an assortment of romantic notions "in the face of considerable contrary evidence." It is not necessary to specify what that evidence was; we get the idea well enough, and she would rather not go into it. Just as the device of curtailed references is a means of refraining from specification, implying that that specification would be too unpleasant, so silences in the text, blanks or gaps, serve the same purpose, conveying ideas without spelling them out. In this novel, many blanks are structural, signaling shifts in the action. Many [blanks], however, … tacitly invite the reader's particularized understanding even as they imply the narrator's brooding. After a long, wordy sentence conveying, in its cadences, the jumbled, densely populated quality of Harry Victor's politicizing, the narrator sums up,

These people had taken their toll.


By which I mean to suggest that Inez Victor had come to view most occasions as photo opportunities.

After an account of Inez's conference with her daughter Jessie's first therapist, ending in "'What I don't do is shoot heroin,' Inez said," there appears a gap on the page, then, "The second therapist believed…." In the gap occurs the whole messy process of breaking off with one and finding the second, a process the narrator spares us all. Indeed, the gap says something that a full account could not say, that that messy process is not worth repeating and that it is so obviously unavoidable at this point that it goes without saying.

Inez Victor herself, in this way a typical Didion heroine, is equally reticent. In part her silences and the oddity of her speech when she does express herself are a result of being squelched. As the daughter of a son of a powerful family in a relatively closed society (Hawaii) and the wife of a powerful man with presidential ambitions, she has had to preserve appearances throughout her life. Her expression of self is subordinated to the building of her husband's political image. She has had to calculate every word, every facial expression, to ensure that that image is not damaged, playing a role in a planned script, repeating empty enthusiastic phrases—" 'Marvelous day.' 'You look marvelous.' 'Marvelous to be here' "—and "fixing her gaze in the middle distance." When traveling she always has to go through a routine of phony accessibility, to " 'trot out the smile' " and, as her husband's public relations aide puts it, " 'move easily through the cabin.'" So well trained is she in playing the "tennis" game of public relations that Billy Dillon, the aide, has only to "mim[e] a backhand volley" to get her back on track if she slips into real communication. What she says gets smoothed over and reinterpreted, polished for press release beyond all recognition. Even the personal interests she is allowed to pursue are selected for their political appeal: a trumped up "special interest" in selecting the paintings to be hung in American embassies is safe; her real interest in "work with refugees" is offlimits because it is controversial and therefore "inappropriate." This is why it is so significant at the end that after Jack Lovett's death she devotes herself, in an almost saintly way, to the administration of refugee relief in Kuala Lumpur: it is the most emphatic possible way to express her independence from her husband's control.

Inez's public self has been an "impenetrable performance" protecting the mystery and the vulnerability of her private self. At times she uses silence, as she uses diversionary performances, to protect her self from manipulation and from the intrusion of a curious public, largely the intrusion of journalists. Within that protection, she has developed a "capacity for passive detachment," avoiding verbal acknowledgment of unacceptable things. But she also uses silence more aggressively. After a party at which her husband passes off empty, stale rhetoric she has heard him use "a number of times before" to cover lack of knowledge, she drives fast and says nothing until he finally notices and gets the point. Defensively, he taunts her for her "quite palpable unhappiness." They go to bed in silence. On another occasion, seeing her husband condoning what she regarded as specious activities by their son, she again spoke tersely and then "said nothing." Again Harry gets the point: " 'Very eloquent. Your silence,' he says."

Inez Victor, like other women in Didion's novels, and like Didion as narrator, manages to say more than she says and to speak by not speaking. This, of course, is a time-honored way with women—women writers and women generally. Inez Victor speaks out of the frustration of feminine roles that inhibit her self-realization and interfere with her freedom of action. When she tries to assert her own judgment, as a free and intelligent adult, she is muffled and manipulated and her sexual relations with her husband deteriorate: they "had gone to bed in silence, and, the next morning, … Harry left … without speaking"; they had "slept in the same room but not in the same bed." The marital relation hinges on her being constrained in her self-assertion, on her foregoing a lifelong love relation with another man even though she had repressed her own reactions to her husband's succession of affairs because "girls like that come with the life." Her achievement of communication with "Joan Didion," the narrative persona, despite all the negative constraints of a lifetime of resisting honest personal communication and honest public statements, has to be regarded as a victory—like her victory in asserting her right to pursue the social service work to which she feels drawn. The end of the book, with Inez still in Kuala Lumpur, speaking to whomever she wants to when she wants to, stating her reasons in her own terms and with an edge of mockery (asked by Billy Dillon for "one fucking reason" why she is there, she writes back tersely, "Colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the air. Four fucking reasons"), is thus, in a limited way, a happy ending, despite its solemnity.

As in the other novels, the frustrating and repressed nature of the central character's life is not hers alone, but a condition she shares with other women….

The narrator, too, "Joan Didion," shares the frustrations of being a woman in what continues to be a man's world, and a disordered world as well. Because of the unusual narrative strategy, with the author's real self represented in a fictive world that includes events, people, and places we also recognize from the daily newspaper, the figure of "Joan Didion" ("call me the author," the narrator says, but particularizes herself by quoting textbook comments on Didion) becomes a bridge between fiction and fact. Naturally, by the creation of verisimilitude in her fictive world, the author invites (as do authors generally in realistic fiction) a sense of identification which generalizes the import of the story. To the extent that we recognize aspects of the characters' lives as resembling our own, we say that the story represents general experience. Accordingly, women readers will recognize the silences in the marriage bed, the conversational slightings, and other experiences of the fictional Inez and will validate the representational character of her story. But the bridging effect of "Joan Didion" accomplishes such generalizing in a much more direct way.

Clearly, the narrator objects to aspects of her world that are not gender-related. Her difficulty in telling her story does not stem simply from the fact that she is a woman, writing about a woman. The main burden of the story is a stringent objection to the ebbing of traditional values, family values, and a moral horror at the spectacle of America's role in Vietnam. It is an objection to dishonesty. Didion affirms the importance of what we must consider traditional values and traditional sources of satisfaction for women as well—stable relationships with men and with extended family, motherhood. Whether there has ever been a time when these roles alone did in fact provide adequate sources of fulfillment is a question she does not address. At the same time, Didion does not ignore the need for other satisfactions as well, means of achieving personal autonomy and self-definition. At any rate, the uncentered state of American society that undermines public and private honor also makes traditional role-fulfillment impossible. Gender problems are implicated in Didion's broad social criticism, even when they are not specified.

Within the novel, "Joan Didion" is drawn to the story of Inez Victor largely by her own need. Obviously it is, in a journalistic sense, a good story, with interesting social trappings and an odor of scandal. But it is not those aspects that keep the novelist working to find the right narrative approach to what is "a hard story to tell." Those externals are aspects of the story that she has "abandoned," "scuttled," "jettisoned" in favor of a focus on Inez's feelings and on her achievement of a personal value perspective on a world falling apart. That "Joan Didion" shares the need for such a perspective is clear from her account of the genesis of the novel: "I began thinking about Inez Victor and Jack Lovett at a point in my life when I lacked certainty, lacked even that minimum level of ego which all writers recognize as essential to the writing of novels, lacked conviction, lacked patience with the past and interest in memory; lacked faith even in my own technique." She focuses, in the early part of the novel, on the powerful emotional pull of a daughter's feelings toward a mother who has abandoned her and on the liminal position of looking with regret at a disappearing world, giving the "last look through more than one door." If she finds it a "hard story to tell" because of its complexity, occupying as it does the intersection of many issues, she also finds it hard to tell because its emotional impact evokes her own shared feelings.

The narrator's feelings are apparent in her hovering, circling style, with its tone of stiff-upper-lip compression. Her own experience of the breakup of American pretenses and the revelation of the hollowness at the core, epitomized in the fall of Vietnam, leads her to reinterpret the behavior of Inez Victor, also experiencing that breakup in a very direct way, so as to see it as a coping mechanism. "After the events which occurred in the spring and summer of 1975 I thought of it differently. I thought of it as the essential mechanism for living a life in which the major cost was memory. Drop fuel. Jettison cargo. Eject crew." In the same way as Inez jettisons the troubling cargo of memory, "Joan Didion" jettisons the cargo of superficial approaches to the story and Didion jettisons the cargo of excess verbiage. She retains only the words that epitomize emotional states and qualities of experience, not elaborated descriptions of those states and qualities, and the terse sarcasms that pronounce her judgment in the shortest possible fashion. The quickness of her verbal step shows her distaste for the moral muck. These few summary phrases she sets off as significant units ("drop fuel" and the parallel phrases quoted above) and repeats in meditative litanies. Her sense of the preciousness of Inez's long love for Jack Lovett, for instance, is conveyed in the sequence,

to keep the idea of it quick.

Quick, alive.

Something to think about late at night.

Something private.

She always looked for him.

The reader's sense of such a sequence encompasses not only its realization of Inez's emotion but its evidence of the narrator's involvement. The selection of the few emphasized phrases conveys a correspondence of feeling which goes far to explain the powerful emotional hold of the story of "Joan Didion," evidenced by her "examining this picture for some years now" to understand Inez's motivation, including Inez's motivation for first concealing and then revealing her memories to the writer "Joan Didion."

We may conjecture that the answer to that puzzle, the puzzle of why Inez finally shares her memories after long concealment, lies in her final achievement of an autonomous personal space. Released from the confusions and trivialization imposed on her by others, notably by both her natal family and her husband, she can at last achieve emotional balance and pursue work that she herself finds important. Only the sense of security gained by achieving that space allows her to communicate freely with "the author." "Didion," too, needs to find such a space, and does find it vicariously in her relationship to Inez—thus becoming enabled to write her novel. "Didion's" relation to Inez, then, becomes a kind of daughter-to-mother relation, a version of the relation that had first drawn her into the story. Inez, through her suffering and her eventual achievement, gives birth to and nurtures the eventual achievement of "the author."

Joan Didion represents a very different achievement in using strategies of reticence than the achievement we see in Austen, Porter, or Cather. Her strategy is more directly aggressive than theirs, employing sarcastic barbs to undermine the dishonesty and specious values that are her target. Conversational sarcasm, too, is often, of course, conveyed in brief phrases and monosyllables. Didion's interrupted style lends itself to our "hearing" a voice of sarcastic stringency, with anger and grief seething in the interstices. At the same time, sarcasm does not attack its object directly, but obliquely. It is another means of saying without saying, of speaking—virulently—by indirection or by not speaking. Didion's acerbic voice is a radical transformation of the traditional female reticence we see brought to fullness in Austen. It is also a continuation of that female strategy.

Source: Janis P. Stout, "Joan Didion and the Presence of Absence," in The Critical Response to Joan Didion, edited by Sharon Felton, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 147-87.

Thomas R. Edwards

In the following review, Edwards favorably assesses Democracy and how Didion articulates its theme of "the devastating personal and public consequences of the loss of history. "

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Source: Thomas R. Edwards, "An American Education," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXI, No. 8, May 10, 1984, pp. 23-24.


Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Democracy in Atlantic Monthly, May, 1984, p. 122.

Stuart Ching, "A Hard Story to Tell—The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Deomocracy," in Fourteen Landing ZonesApproaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 180-87.

Thomas R. Edwards, "An American Education," in New York Review of Books, May 10, 1984, pp. 23-24.

Barbara Grizutti Harrison, compiler, "Joan Didion: Only Disconnect," in Off Center: Essays, Dial Press, 1980.

Stephen Klinkhammer, "The Fall of Saigon, April 1975," in Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-three American Soldiers Who Fought It, edited by Al Santoli, Random House, 1981, pp. 252-56.

Thomas Mallon, review of Democracy, in The American Spectator, August, 1984, pp. 43-44.

Mary McCarthy, review of Democracy, in the New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, Sec. 7, p. 1.

Alan Nadel, "Postwar America and the Story of Democracy," in Boundary 2, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 96-120.

"Nixon's Thin Defense: The Need for Secrecy," Time, June 4, 1973, pp. 17-23.

Michael Tager, "The Political Vision of Joan Didion's Democracy," in Critique, Vol. XXI, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 173-84.

Janet Wiehe, review of Democracy, in Library Journal, April, 1984, pp. 821-22.

For Further Study

Peter Carroll, in It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: The Tragedy and Promise of America in the 1970s, Holt, 1984.

A full-length social and historical study of the 1970s.

Martha Duffy, review of Democracy, in Time, May 7, 1984, p. 114.

This review criticizes Didion's placement of herself in the novel. Overall, Duffy considers the novel "flawed" yet "very fast and shrewd," especially in the depiction of the minor characters.

Sharon Felton, editor, The Critical Response to Joan Didion, (Critical Responses in Arts and Letters, No. 8), Greenwood, 1993.

A very useful compilation of reviews and other critical responses to Didion's work.

Ellen G. Friedman, "The Didion Sensibility: An Analysis," in Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations, Ontario Review Press, 1984.

Friedman argues that while Didion's characters are often unable to find meaning in their lives, they do have an "immense capacity for commitment and love," even when that love is doomed.

Katherine Usher Henderson, "Joan Didion: The Bond between Narrator and Heroine in 'Democracy,' " in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 69-86.

Henderson compares the character of the narrator and Inez Christian and argues that both search for meaning "in a world where society and politics are defined by artifice and self-seeking."

Al Santoli, editor, Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-three American Soldiers Who Fought It, Random House, 1981.

Santoli's book was almost certainly used by Didion as source material for her portrayal of the chaos surrounding American withdrawal from Saigon.

Susan Stamberg, "Cautionary Tales," in Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations, edited by Ellen G. Friedman, Ontario Review Press, 1984.

In this interview, Didion discusses her belief that "experience is largely meaningless" and talks about how that view has affected her novels.

Janis P. Stout, Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Works of Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter and Joan Didion, University Press of Virginia, 1990.

An example of an academic title placing Didion in the continuum of American female novelists.

Anne Tyler, review of Democracy, in New Republic, April 9, 1984, Vol. 190, pp. 35-36.

This review comments on the narrator as a character and on the fragmented structure of the novel.

Mark Royden Winchell, in Joan Didion, revised edition, Twayne, 1989.

A biographical and critical survey of Didion's career.


views updated May 23 2018


Democracy, a direct translation of the Greek dēmokratia, means rule (kratos ) by the people (dēmos ). Both as a political idea, and as a political institution, democracy originated in the thought and practice of the ancient Greeks. They understood democracy literally: the people, deliberating and acting together in an assembly, was both sovereign and legislator. The people was not only the source of legitimate authority, but also the wielder of political power. In modern times the role of the people is limited to the legitimation of political authority, and power is wielded by elected representative assemblies.

Greek Origins

In the history of Western political thought the Greeks were the first to think and reflect about their political and social organization. The polis, with its multiple forms and varied institutions, was the center of Greek life and culture. This plurality of political associations engendered intense philosophical speculation and lively intellectual debate regarding the relative merits of different types of government. In the process the Greeks elaborated a language and a vocabulary adequate to the analysis of the political world they had constructed.

Herodotus (484420 b.c.e.), in his constitutional debate, weighed the value of the three governmental forms of a polis: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy promotes equality before the law, yet it brings to power the many who are ignorant, incompetent, unstable, and violent. Oligarchy is equally unstable and violent, and both forms eventually lead to tyranny. Only a law-abiding monarchy can inhibit the few and the many from succumbing to tyranny.

The "Old Oligarch," a short pamphlet from the fifth century b.c.e., presents a similar picture of the many and their democracy: feckless, unreliable, and irrational. Only the best and cleverest, that is, the few, are capable of rule. At the same time the argument adds a novel element to the analysis of democracy: class conflict and factional strife. The problem is whether the demos is capable of understanding and recognizing their own particular good, a question that permeates classical political thought.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides (d. c. 401 b.c.e.) describes the moderate democracy under Pericles (c. 495429 b.c.e.), and praises his prudence and wisdom in leading the people. The distinction he makes between Pericles and Cleon (d. 422 b.c.e.) underlines his dislike of the many and his preference for a democracy guided by the wise and the best. He attributes the fall of Athens to the rise of demagogic leaders who flattered the masses and catered to their appetites and desires. Athens was defeated by Sparta because the war generated among Athenians factionalism, greed, violence, and lust for power and for acquisition. He introduces a theme later amplified by Plato and Aristotle: external expansion and imperialism are directly related to the rise of democracy in Athens. Democracy whets the many's appetite for power, which only expansion can satisfy and secure. For Thucydides the desire for power and the appetite for expansion are inherent to the nature of the people such that their rule is always accompanied by violent disturbances, expropriation, and instability. The rise of the many to power liberates the passions and the appetites to such an extent that the democracy is inexorably led to imperial conquest, overextension, and finally violent collapse.

Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.), in such works as Gorgias, The Statesman, and The Republic, translated Thucydides' historical narrative of the Athenian decline and fall into a thoroughgoing critique of contemporary practices and institutions within the polis. He found all politics wanting, because those who possess knowledge are powerless, and those who have power are ignorant and thus do not know how to rule. The problem was to discover ways in which power and knowledge, politics and philosophy may be so wedded as to ensure a just and stable sociopolitical order. Statesmanship requires within the individual the rule of reason over appetite, and within the polis the rule of those who know over those who do not know. As such, it means the exercise of self-discipline and self-restraint by both the rulers and the ruled.

To Plato, all states are divided into the few who are rich and the many who are poor, and therefore class struggle and class strife are endemic to all states. Both democrats and oligarchs pursue their particular self-interest, and thus both are motivated not by rational thought but by appetite, desire, and lust for power. Each faction when in power pursues its interest to the exclusion of the other's, such that the polis is subjected to unstable and violent cycles of revolution and counterrevolution. The conflict between the two factions leads to the destruction of both and to the rise of tyranny. Thus no just society is possible unless the passions and appetites are subordinated to rational control, and unless the conflicts they engender are resolved and harmonized by wise and just leadership.

Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), following Plato, presents in his Politics a six-fold classification of constitutions or governments: the rule of one is monarchy or tyranny, the rule of the few is oligarchy or aristocracy, and the rule of many is either law-abiding or lawless democracy. Three are just and legitimate, three are unjust and illegitimate. The first of each set is lawful and rule is for the good of all, the second is lawless and rule is in the rulers' particular interest. Each in its pure form is inherently unstable because its foundation is narrow and exclusive. Democracy rests on mere number and thus excludes ability and property. Similarly, because oligarchy is based on property and birth, it excludes the propertyless many. Thus each type tends toward faction, strife, and instability. The problem is to construct a type that would combine stability, legitimacy, and competent rule. This type is the polity, a constitutional government that includes the best elements of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. It combines number, ability, and property, and so guarantees that the class base of polity avoids the opposing poles of overly rich and overly poor. The welding of the best elements of democracy and oligarchy enables the polity to escape the cycle of violence and instability endemic to many Greek cities.

The polis, whether oligarchic or democratic, was class based, and most writers, especially Aristotle, recognized the close relationship between property, power, and stability. They also recognized, and never questioned, the centrality of slavery to the polis. Even in democratic Athens the slavery and subjection that prevailed within the private sphere of the household made possible the liberty and equality of the male citizens as they came together in public to deliberate in the assembly.

After the Polis

Greek political theory is a reaction to the decline of the polis, which was superseded first by the territorial Hellenistic monarchies and later by the Roman republic. Polybius (c. 200c. 118 b.c.e.), who wrote his history to show how Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, ascribes its success to its republican institutions. He superimposes Greek categories onto Roman political experience, and using the six-fold classification of governments, sees Rome as having a mixed constitution. The consuls represent the monarchical element, the senate the aristocratic, and the popular assemblies the democratic. Wealth, ability, birth, and number were each given a role in the constitution. When the people became too violent and tumultuous, or the senate too arrogant and selfish, the republic nevertheless survived. The mixed constitution established a self-regulating system in which each element checked and balanced the other.

Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) repeated the now-standard Greek classification of governments (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) as well as the traditional critiques of each. Although he preferred monarchy, he understood that practical prudence required a mixed form that combined the best of all three. The state is a res publica, or "public affair," and is therefore also a res populi, or "people's affair." It exists to provide justice, security, and peace. Although legitimacy and power emanate from the people, competent administration and stable authority require the wisdom and ability of the senate.

The fall of the republic and the rise of monarchy signaled the death of republican and democratic politics. The growth of quietistic philosophies such as Stoicism, the advent of Christianity, and the barbarian invasions together combined to destroy the classical world and to create a feudal and medieval civilization in which democracy and republic had no meaning.

Democratic and republican thought and practice regained their vitality and importance with the rise of the Italian communes and the concomitant rebirth of classical thought. Such an interest, when added to the historical experience of the Italianespecially Florentine and Venetiancity-states culminated in Niccolò Machiavelli's (14691527) rediscovery of the people (and of the "opinion of the many") as the foundation and ground for a new type of politics, both republican and democratic.

The passing of medieval society was a long process of religious, social, political, and economic transformation. It culminated in profound social, cultural, and political change: the disintegration of traditional ties, the Protestant Reformation and the resulting fragmentation of European Christianity, the spread of commerce and trade, the proliferation and dissemination of knowledge and wealth, literacy and printing.

The English Civil War (16421649), the Dutch rebellion (16211648) against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and the Glorious Revolution (16881689) heralded the rise and growing importance of these new developments. The execution and deposition of kings exploded traditional beliefs in the passive acceptance of governmental authority, and revealed its basis in human will and action. Major political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679); Hugo Grotius (Huigh de Groot; 15831645); Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694); Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Monstesquieu (16891755); and John Locke (16321704) reflected these far-reaching changes by reevaluating and retranslating traditional ideas of natural law, human nature, and government. Dutch republicans such as Benedict de Spinoza (16321677) and the de la Court brothers, Jan (Johan; 16221670) and Pieter (c. 16181685), distilled ancient Roman writers, Florentine and Venetian republicans, and the work of Thomas Hobbes, and envisioned a democratic politics whereby the state is the expression of the people's will. Hobbes, with his absolute individualism and radical skepticism, expressed the breakdown of traditional forms of community and legitimate government and their reconstitution by human reason and will. Locke tried to wed natural law with emerging individualism and used them to domesticate and limit the power of the newly centralized state. His theory of government as a trust located authority with the representative of the people, who always retained their right to withhold consent to the government. Montesquieu, reacting to the growing absolutism of the French monarchy, translated the classical theory of mixed government into his concept of separation of powers. His theory of despotism and the balanced constitution was a major source for liberal constitutionalism and for the theory of limited government. Natural right, political obligation, social contract, and natural law were ideas used to explain and to justify radical and revolutionary change. Yet, at the time, their range and application was circumscribed, and the notion of the people to which they referred was interpreted narrowly.

Age of Enlightenment and Revolution

The Enlightenment, by underlining the human capacity for rational and critical thought, for scientific and intellectual inquiry, and generally for the future growth and "perfectibility" of humanity, slowly subverted the cultural, religious, and traditional foundations of state and society. Thinkers such as Voltaire (16941778) and Denis Diderot (17131784) in France, and David Hume (17111776) and Jeremy Bentham (17481832) in Britain, inquired into the natural and historical sources of political and social power. They produced a body of work that linked political and civil liberty and freedom of thought and speech with cultural, moral-intellectual, and scientific progress. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (17121778) critique of the Enlightenment paradoxically affirmed the movement's belief in the centrality of human will and liberty. For Rousseau, liberty and equality define the human, such that the people assembling together as sovereign generate the general will that looks to the public, as opposed to the private, good. The general will as the embodiment of popular sovereignty was a radical critique of the inequality and the competition within civil society.

The spirit of opposition to established forms of authority (whether secular or religious), the distrust of any government not derived from rational consent, culminated in the American Revolution and its penchant for constitution building. American revolutionaries proclaimed the sovereignty of the people while simultaneously constructing a political structure that would limit and channel the power of popular majorities. They preached a new secular order while buttressing it with arguments that reached back to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The political literature of the Revolution adumbrated and summarized the arguments for and against democracy since Plato. From Thomas Paine (17371809), who explicitly defended democracy, to John Adams (17351826), who feared direct popular rule, Americans during the two decades of revolution and constitutional experimentation attempted to find a balance between the few and the many, the rich and the poor. The compromise presented by the federalists asserted the legitimating and authorizing role of the people while establishing a self-regulating system of checks and balances at both the state and national levels. Legitimate power would issue from popular majorities, but institutional mechanisms such as separation of powers, federalism, bicameral legislatures, and indirect election would channel, control, and check the power of the people.

The American Revolution began the slow process that changed the meaning of democracy as it was understood from the Greeks to Rousseau (direct rule of the people meeting together in their assembly). As James Madison (17511836) noted, direct democracy, which is feasible (according to Rousseau and Claude-Adrien Helvétius) only in small states, is prone to violence and class strife; what is needed is a republic where representation refines and filters the opinion of the people. Representation both controls popular passions and makes popular government possible over a large territory and a numerous population.

The French Revolution, in terms more radical and clear than the American, proclaimed the rights of man and the citizen. It contrasted these with the privileges and aristocratic inequalities of the old order. In Jacobin ideology, the people were increasingly identified with the nation. Jacobin terror and the supremacy of Maximilien de Robespierre (17581794) reinforced the traditional historical unease and distaste with popular rule. Republican and democratic ideaspopular sovereignty, government as guarantor and custodian of natural rights, the idea of citizenship, and the right to liberty and equality under lawspread throughout Europe. Lively and sometimes bitter polemics emerged, some like Edmund Burke (17291797) attacking the Revolution, others like Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797) defending it. The novelty was that for the first time democracy and popular government were defended by elements of the educated and wealthy classes.

Threat and Promise of Mass Democracy

Both the American and French Revolutions signaled the emergence of the popular masses as a force in history. Henceforth the people became a factor in the power equation. Whether for ill or good, whether democratic or antidemocratic, rulers must address the people to attain or to maintain power. This profound realignment of the relation between ruler and ruled produced three responses during the nineteenth century: liberal, conservative, and revolutionary.

The liberal response is embodied in the thought of John Stuart Mill (18061873) and Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859). Tocqueville believed that the European future could be foreseen in the American present. And Mill's thought was heavily influenced by Tocquevillian concerns with the safeguarding of ability, virtue, and liberty. Tocqueville analyzed the social and cultural conditions of American democracy and found in them the germs of a future tyranny. Democracy is founded on a belief in individual rights, equality, and self-government, yet the public opinion it spawns is more tyrannical than any monarch. The passion for equality generates a uniform mass of self-centered individuals whose opinions will dominate those of the minority. This passion is antithetical to ability and strives to level all forms of excellence and skill. Mill elaborates on Tocqueville's antithesis between equality and liberty and tries to find a solution that incorporates both the people's desire for equality and the need for competence and ability. Though democracy means the rule of the many, government and administration presuppose the rule of the few over the many. Mill sees representative government based on an educated and responsible electorate as best able to link the egalitarian aspirations of the many with the competence and ability of the few.

Political participation (voting and office holding) in the West was at first circumscribed within a narrow social, ethnicracial and economic base: property holders and white males. During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, various political and social groups arose calling for the extension of full civil and legal rights to all. Elite competition for power combined with popular social movements gradually to expand the electorate. In the United States, the property qualification was eliminated with the rise of Andrew Jackson, in Britain with the various reform bills of the middle-to late-nineteenth century. The expansion of male suffrage in continental Europe was a complex and contradictory process. In France it was hostage to successive revolutions and changes in governmental systems, in imperial Germany it was achieved under the auspices of Bismarck as a means of bolstering the power of the ruling elites, and in Italy it facilitated elite manipulation of the parliamentary elections. Suffrage expansion in pre-World War II Italy and Germany ultimately led to the breakdown of liberal democratic institutions, while in Britain and the United States it promoted the integration of the lower classes into the pre-existing liberal structures.

In the United States, the Civil War (18611865) abolished slavery, and the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution gave the emancipated slaves full political rights. Yet through such devices as the poll tax, the white-only primary, literacy requirements, as well as the use of legal and extra-legal force, African Americans were effectively denied these rights until the advent of the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The struggle over the vote was intimately linked with the struggle for the emancipation of women. Women's suffrage movements, whose prominent figures included Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18151902), Susan B. Anthony (18201906), and Emmeline Pankhurst (18581928), were particularly powerful in the United States and Britain. Women were granted the vote in 1920 and in 1928 respectively, though not until 1945 in Italy and France. Even today, in many countries women are excluded from public and political life. Ethnic-racial and gender equality and the integration of excluded groups into the prevailing system are considered crucial to the contemporary understanding of democracy. The right to vote is fundamental to democracy. Yet the struggle for universal suffrage underlines the importance of establishing a widely accepted culture of civil liberties and civil rights, without which the suffrage would become meaningless.

Industrialization and urbanization, as well as painful social and economic dislocations, intensified mass mobilization and mass participation in politics, which in turn created new demands partly addressed by the liberalization of social welfare measures and by the expansion of the franchise. The expansion of the electorate in turn made the system more democratic and thus more responsive to mass politics. Revolutionaries such as Karl Marx (18181883) and his followers argued that the equality and liberty guaranteed by liberals and democrats were merely political and formal. They did not address the material basis of rule, which is social and economic. The rights of the citizen are spurious given the underlying inequality of bourgeois capitalism, where the few wealthy dominate the many poor. What Marxism and socialism desired was a democracy both social and economic, where the unequal relations of power established by private property are eliminated. Such a concern underlay most critiques of liberal democracy, whether social democratic, syndicalist, or communist. They differed, however, in both their methods and their goals. The socialists accepted the rules of the game and worked within the system, while the latter two worked for a revolutionary overthrow. Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov; 18701924) and the Bolsheviks represented a shift in the location of revolution, from the center of the bourgeois world to its periphery.

The conservative reaction to democratic politics ranged from the reactionary ideas of Joseph-Marie de Maistre (17531821) and Louis de Bonald (17541840) to the elitism of Vilfredo Pareto (18481923), Gaetano Mosca (18581941), and Roberto Michels (18761936). While the former wanted to return to prerevolutionary and aristocratic Europe, the latter accepted modernity and the political consequences of the American and French Revolutions. Pareto and Mosca argued that in all societies the rulers are always the few, that wealth and ability will always prevail over numbers. Michels formulated an iron law of oligarchy, which asserted that in modern society where bureaucracies and organizations are constantly proliferating only minorities can rule. Democracywith its representative systems, electoral mechanisms, referenda, initiatives, and recallis an illusion, a mere political formula devised to veil oligarchic power. What these writers attempted to show was the empirical and sociological impossibility of democracy. Whatever the claims of democratic ideals, government and administration must inevitably rely on organized minorities to function well and effectively.

Recent Concepts

In the first half of the twentieth century democratic theory was devoted to addressing the claims of elitists such as Mosca and Michels. First Joseph Schumpeter (18831950) and later Robert Dahl (b. 1915) tried to devise a theory that would account for the empirical reality of democracy (the necessity for elites) and simultaneously retain its ideals. Schumpeter saw democracy as an institutional arrangement of elite competition for the electorate's favor guaranteed by legal and procedural mechanisms. Twenty years later Dahl saw democracy as a polyarchy of social groups whose competition was also guaranteed by procedural arrangements, while Samuel Lipset and Barrington Moore Jr. distinguished between the empirical and normative criteria of democracy. They too discerned a contradiction between the claims of majority rule and the empirical reality of mass electoral politics. The attack on the classical democratic theory produced a fundamental reinterpretation of democracy itself. Democracy no longer means rule by the people, or rule by the many. The majority legitimate power and consent to it, but organized elites rule. Whether the many rule is not as important as whether the system provides free and open elections guaranteed by civil liberties and civil rights.

Democracy as a political form and as an ideal arose from the conflict in society between the few and the many, between the wealthy and the poor. The cycle of violence and instability produced by this conflict led to attempts to establish political structures that would address the egalitarian and just demands of the many while simultaneously maintaining the rule of law. It is from the struggle to resolve the opposing interests and values of these two antagonists that the social and political ideals associated with modern democracy emerged and developed.

Today democratic theory centers on critiques of liberal democracy and on devising alternatives to it. Critics such as Hannah Arendt (19061975), Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), and John Rawls (19212002) identified an elitist, inegalitarian, and antiparticipatory core in liberal theories of democracy. They questioned the validity and desirability of liberal democracy's major principles: interest aggregation, economic utility, rational choice and game theory, methodological individualism. Most important, they objected to the reduction of political activity to economic categories and lamented the use of the market as the model for democratic politics. While retaining the procedural and constitutional guarantees so important to liberal theory, its critics aspire to a democracy where the people may come together as citizens and participate in public deliberations and discussions.

The criticism of liberal and elite democratic theory has produced two major schools of thought: civic republicanism and deliberative democracy. Both share a classical Aristotelian belief in the possibility of achieving a common good by means of an egalitarian politics of participation. They believe that political activity is crucial to developing a well-rounded and educated citizen. Civic values, civic engagement, and open discussion help create a public space in which the business common to all citizens may be conducted. Civic republicanism and deliberative democracy, by emphasizing such ideas as the common good, virtue, common action, and political education, delve into the ways that a public-political space may emerge and grow. They also recall the ideals of political virtue and political participation first enunciated by classical thinkers, and later reclaimed by Machiavelli and Rousseau.

See also Constitutionalism ; Equality ; Liberty ; Public Sphere ; Republicanism .


Ball, Terrence, and Richard Bellamy, eds. The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Bohman, James, and William Rehg, eds. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

Burns, James Henderson, ed. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Cnuddle, Charles F. and Deane E. Neubauer, eds. Empirical Democratic Theory. Chicago: Markham, 1969.

Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Dunn, John, ed. Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 b.c. to a.d. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Finley, Moses I. Democracy Ancient and Modern. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973.

Fontana, Biancamaria, ed. The Invention of the Modern Republic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hazard, Paul. European Thought in the Eighteenth Century. Translated by J. Lewis May. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. Translation of Pensée européenne au XVIIIème siècle.

Held, David. Models of Democracy. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Lijphardt, Arend. Democracies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Palmer, Robert R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 19591964.

Pateman, Carole. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Rahe, Paul A. Republics Ancient and Modern. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Rowe, Christopher, and Malcolm Schofield, eds. The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sartori, Giovanni. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1987.

Skinner, Quentin. Foundations of Modern Political Thought. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Benedetto Fontana


views updated May 29 2018


Charles Tilly

Even today, visibly viable democracies remain a minority among European forms of rule. Like tyranny and oligarchy, democracy is a kind of regime: a set of relations between a government and persons subject to that government's jurisdiction. (A government is any organization, at least partly independent of kinship, that controls the principal concentrated means of coercion within a delimited territory or set of territories.) The relations in question consist of mutual rights and obligations, government to subject and subject to government. A regime is democratic to the extent that:

  1. regular and categorical, rather than intermittent and individualized, relations exist between the government and its subjects (for example, legal residence within the government's territories in itself establishes routine connections with governmental agents, regardless of relations to particular patrons);
  2. those relations include most or all subjects (for example, no substantial sovereign enclaves exist within governmental perimeters);
  3. those relations are equal across subjects and categories of subjects (for example, no legal exclusions from voting or officeholding based on property ownership prevail);
  4. governmental personnel, resources, and performances change in response to binding collective consultation of subjects (for example, popular referenda make law);
  5. subjects, especially members of minorities, receive protection from arbitrary action by governmental agents (for example, uniformly administered due process precedes incarceration of any individual regardless of social category).

Thus democratization means formation of a regime featuring relatively broad, equal, categorical, binding consultation and protection. Summing up variation in all these regards, we can block out a range from low to high protected consultation. Any move toward protected consultation constitutes democratization; any move away from protected consultation, de-democratization. These are obviously matters of degree: no polity anywhere has ever conformed fully to the five criteria. Hence to call any particular polity democratic means merely that it embodies more protected consultation than most other historical polities have.


Why stress such abstract standards when we might simply check for familiar constitutional arrangements, such as legislative assemblies, contested elections, broad franchise, and the like? Certainly any social historian of European democracy must pay close attention to the extensive constitutional innovations that occurred in these regards after 1750. Yet three facts speak against the adoption of straightforward constitutional tests for democracy: the origins of most democratic practices in undemocratic regimes; the frequency with which ostensibly democratic constitutions remain dead letters; and the contingent, erratic emergence of democratic regimes from struggle.

First, almost all major democratic institutions initially formed in oligarchic regimes, as means by which narrow circles of power holders exercised constraint on each other and on their rulers. To take the obvious example, Britain's Parliament combined a House of Lords assembling the realm's peers with a House of Commons in which the country's small landholding class held sway. That bicameral legislature eventually became a worldwide model for representative governments. In standard adaptations of that model, an upper house speaks for territories, self-reproducing elites, and/or powerful institutions, while a lower house more nearly speaks for the population at large. In Britain itself, however, the House of Lords never became a means of democratic consultation, and the House of Commons hardly qualified before the reform bills of 1832 and 1867 expanded the national electorate to include most male working-class householders.

Second, many constitutions that look quite democratic on paper remain dead letters. Rulers cook elections, jail opponents, restrict the press, disqualify voters, bypass legislatures, suborn judges, award contracts to cronies, and terrorize popular movements despite constitutional provisions forbidding all of these activities. For instance, when Louis Napoleon Bonaparte reacted to opposition following his popular election as French president in 1848 by executing a coup d'état in 1851, he did not dare to repeal the 1848 constitution's provision for general manhood suffrage, but his henchmen immediately set to work intimidating Louis Napoleon's opposition, cutting back voters' lists, restricting the press, and weakening the national assembly. With little change in its nominal constitution, France took giant steps away from protected consultation. Not the sheer existence of standard democratic forms of organization, but their integration into effective protected consultation, signals the presence of democracy. We must trace the history of democratic processes, not merely of their simulacra.

That injunction leads to the third reason for avoiding concentration on the enactment of constitutions: the erratic, contingent emergence of democracy from struggle. As we shall see abundantly, European democratization did not result mainly from cool contemplation of political alternatives. It always involved intense political struggle. It often resulted from international war, revolution, or violent domestic conflict. Rarely, furthermore, did the struggle simply align one well-defined bloc of democrats against another well-defined bloc of antidemocrats. People changed sides, third parties intervened, and democratic institutions often formed haphazardly as compromise settlements of otherwise intractable conflicts. To explain democratization, we must examine a wide range of political struggles and detect democracy-producing processes within them—even where participants themselves did not know they were advancing democracy.


In principle, we could search for democratic processes within households, associations, firms, churches, and communities, just so long as each one contained something like a government—a distinctive position or organization controlling its principal concentrated means of coercion. Some analysts of democracy argue, indeed, that democracy originates in such smaller-scale settings before spreading to a national or international scale, while still others claim that robust democracy can only operate on a small scale, among people who know and care about each other personally. Here, however, we will concentrate on the larger scale, asking how, when, and why national regimes moved toward protected consultation in Europe since the Renaissance.

Governmental capacity. Part of the answer concerns changes in governmental capacity. Governments vary significantly in control by their agents over people, resources, information, and spaces within their jurisdiction. Capacity matters to democracy because below some threshold governmental agents lack the means of implementing protected consultation. Beneath the minimum, democracy gives way to anarchy. Anarchists and utopians, to be sure, have often taken the relative democracy of some crafts, shops, and local communities as warrants for the feasibility of stateless democracy on a large scale.

The historical record, however, suggests another conclusion: where governments collapse, other predators spring up. In the absence of effective governmental power, people who control substantial concentrations of capital, coercion, or commitment generally use them to forward their own ends, thus creating new forms of oppression and inequality. As the Soviet Union collapsed after 1989, for example, the dismantling of central authority did not release a liberating wave of democratization but gave a new set of tycoons, tyrants, and violent entrepreneurs (many of them, to be sure, former members of the Soviet state apparatus) room to ply their trades. If high governmental capacity does not define democracy, it looks like a nearly necessary condition for democracy on a large scale. In European experience on a national scale, extensive increases of governmental capacity always preceded and underlay the formation of democratic regimes.

We cannot, however, conclude that expansion of governmental capacity reliably fosters democracy. In fact, expanding governmental capacity promotes tyranny more often than it causes democracy to flower. In the abstract calculation that quantifies governmental experiences, the relationship between governmental capacity and democracy is no doubt curvilinear: more frequent democracy results from medium to medium-high governmental capacity, but beyond that threshold substantial cramping of democratic possibilities prevails as governmental agents come to control a very wide range of activities and resources.

Citizenship. Citizenship only forms on the higher slopes of protected consultation. Only where governmental capacity is relatively extensive, where established rights and obligations vis-à-vis governmental agents involve some significant share of a government's subject population, where some equality of access to government exists among subjects, where consultation of those persons makes a difference to governmental performance, and subjects enjoy some protection from arbitrary action can we reasonably begin to speak of citizenship. Although citizenship of a sort bound elite members of Greek city-states to their governments and elite members of many medieval European cities to their municipalities, on the whole citizenship on a national scale only became a strong, continuous presence during the nineteenth century. Understanding its emergence requires attention to political changes, including revolutions, but also to the social forces unleashed by industrialization, such as the rise of working-class movements.

Democracy builds on citizenship but does not exhaust it. Indeed, most Western states created some forms of citizenship after 1800, but over most of the nineteenth century the citizenship in question was too narrow, too unequal, too nonconsultative, and/or too unprotective to qualify their regimes as democratic. The regimes we loosely call "totalitarian," for example, typically combined high governmental capacity with relatively broad and equal citizenship, but afforded neither binding consultation nor extensive protection from arbitrary action by governmental agents. Some monarchies maintained narrow, unequal citizenship while consulting the happy few who enjoyed citizenship and protecting them from arbitrary action by governmental agents; those regimes thereby qualified as oligarchies.

In searching for democratic regimes, we can take relatively high governmental capacity for granted because it is a necessary condition for strong consultation and protection. We will recognize a high-capacity regime as democratic when it installs not only citizenship in general but broad citizenship, relatively equal citizenship, strong consultation of citizens, and significant protection of citizens from arbitrary action by governmental agents. By these criteria, Europe produced no national democratic regimes before the late eighteenth century. Then, by comparison with their predecessors, the (slave-holding but at least partly democratic) United States of the 1780s, the abortive Dutch Patriot regime later in the same decade, and the French revolutionary regimes of 1789 to 1793 all added significant increments to protected consultation.

Consultation and protection. Both consultation and protection require further stipulations. Although many rulers have claimed to embody their people's will, only governments that have created concrete preference-communicating institutions have also installed binding, effective consultation. In Europe, representative assemblies, contested elections, referenda, petitions, courts, and public meetings of the empowered figure most prominently among such institutions. Whether polls, discussions in mass media, or special-interest networks qualify in fact or in principle as valid and effective preference-communicating institutions remains highly controversial.

On the side of protection, democracies typically guarantee zones of toleration for speech, belief, assembly, association, and public identity, despite generally imposing some cultural standards for participation in the polity. A regime that prescribes certain forms of speech, belief, assembly, association, and public identity while banning all other forms may maintain broad, equal citizenship and a degree of consultation, but it slides away from democracy toward populist authoritarianism as it qualifies protection. Thus the five elements of democratization—categorical relations, breadth, equality, binding consultation, and protection—form and vary in partial independence of each other.


Yet in any particular era, available precedents make a difference. Previous historical experience has laid down a set of models, understandings, and practices concerning such matters as how to conduct a contested election. During the early nineteenth century, France's revolutionary innovations offered guidelines for democratic theory and practice. After World War II, similarly, existing regimes of Western Europe and North America provided models for dozens of new regimes, including those of former European colonies. This political culture of democracy limits options for newcomers both because it offers templates for the construction of new regimes and because it affects the likelihood that existing power holders—democratic or not—will recognize a new regime as democratic.

Historical development. Over the long run of human history, the vast majority of regimes have been undemocratic. Democratic regimes are rare, contingent, recent creations. Partial democracies have, it is true, formed intermittently at a local scale, for example in villages ruled by councils incorporating most heads of household. At the scale of a city-state, a warlord's domain, or a regional federation, forms of government have usually run from dynastic hegemony to oligarchy, with narrow, unequal citizenship or none at all, little or no binding consultation, and uncertain protection from arbitrary governmental action.

Before the nineteenth century, furthermore, large states and empires generally managed by means of indirect rule: systems in which the central power received tribute, cooperation, and guarantees of compliance on the part of subject populations from regional power holders who enjoyed great autonomy within their own domains. Seen from the bottom, such systems often imposed tyranny on ordinary people. Seen from the top, however, they lacked capacity: the intermediaries supplied resources, but they also set stringent limits to rulers' ability to govern or transform the world within their presumed jurisdictions.

Only the nineteenth century brought widespread adoption of direct rule, the creation of structures extending governmental communication and control continuously from central institutions to individual localities or even to households, and back again. Even then, direct rule ranged from the unitary hierarchies of centralized monarchy to the segmentation of federalism. On a large scale, direct rule made substantial citizenship, and therefore democracy, possible. Possible, but not likely, much less inevitable: instruments of direct rule have sustained many oligarchies, some autocracies, a number of party- and army-controlled states, and a few fascist tyrannies. Even in the era of direct rule most polities have remained far from democratic.

Varieties of democratization and paths to democracy. Figure 1 schematizes variation and change in regimes. Where low governmental capacity and little protected consultation prevail, political life goes on in fragmented tyranny: multiple coercive forces, small-scale despots, and competitors for larger-scale power are possible, but no effective central government. The diagram's opposite corner contains the zone of citizenship: mutual rights and obligations binding governmental agents to whole categories of people who are subject to the government's authority, those categories being defined chiefly or exclusively by relations to the government rather than by reference to particular ties with rulers or membership in categories based on imputed durable traits such as race, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

At point A of the diagram's triangular citizenship zone, a combination of little protected consultation and extremely high governmental capacity describes a regimented state. We might call such a state totalitarian; Nazi Germany illustrates political processes at that point. At point B, protected consultation has reached its maximum, but governmental capacity is so low the regime runs the risk of internal and external attack. Nineteenth-century Belgium never reached that point, but veered repeatedly toward it. Point C—maximum governmental capacity plus maximum protected consultation—is probably empty because of incompatibilities between extremely high capacity and consultation. This line of reasoning leads to sketching a zone of authoritarianism in the diagram's upper left, overlapping the zone of citizenship but by no means exhausting it. It also suggests an idealized path for effective democratization, giving roughly equal weight to increases in governmental capacity and protected consultation up to the point of entry into citizenship, but then turning to deceleration, and ultimately mild reduction, of capacity where protected consultation has settled in.

Figure 2 sets limits on real histories of democratization by sketching two extreme paths:

  1. a strong-state path featuring early expansion of governmental capacity, entry into the zone of authoritarianism, expansion of protected consultation through a phase of authoritarian citizenship, and finally the emergence of a less authoritarian, more democratic, but still high-capacity regime. In European historical experience, Prussia from 1650 through 1925 came closer to such a trajectory than most other states
  2. a weak-state path featuring early expansion of protected consultation followed only much later by increase in governmental capacity on a large scale, hence entry into the zone of effective citizenship from below. Although few European states followed this trajectory very far because most of them that started succumbed to conquest or disintegration, Switzerland—shielded from conquest by mountainous terrain, rivalries among adjacent powers, and a militarily skilled population—came closer to this extreme than most other European regimes.

All real European histories fell within the extremes. Most described much more erratic courses, with reversals and sudden shifts in both dimensions, and the vast majority entered or approached the zone of authoritarianism at one time or another. The schematic map simply makes it easier to describe the concrete paths of change we are trying to explain.

Elements of democratization. Democratization emerges from interacting changes in three analytically separable but interdependent sets of social relations: inequality, networks of trust, and public politics.

  • Categorical Inequality: Categorical inequality—collective differences in advantage across boundaries such as gender, race, religion, and class—declines in those areas of social life that either constitute or immediately support participation in public politics. Buffers arise that reduce the representation and enactment of those inequalities in collective political life. For example, rich and poor alike perform military service, pay taxes, serve on juries, and gain access to courts.
  • Trust Networks: A significant shift occurs in the locus of interpersonal networks on which people rely when undertaking risky long-term enterprises such as marriage, long-distance trade, membership in crafts, and investment of savings: such networks move from evasion of governmental detection and control to involvement of government agents and presumption that such agents will meet their long-term commitments. Subjects do not necessarily come to trust individual leaders, but they do make commitments on the presumption that the government will meet its own commitments. For example, people increasingly invest family funds in government securities, rely on governments for pensions, allow their children to serve in the military, and seek governmental protection for their religious organizations.
  • Public Politics: Partly in response to changes in categorical inequality and trust networks, and partly as a consequence of alterations within the political arena itself, the bulk of a government's subject population acquires binding, protected, relatively equal claims on a government's agents, activities, and resources. For example, governmental agents quell rebellions against wartime conscription, taxation, and expropriation not only with threats and punishments but also with displays of fairness, acts of mercy, enactments of bargains, and articulations of rules for future conscription, taxation, and expropriation.

Only where the three sets of changes intersect does effective, durable democracy emerge.

Conquest, confrontation, colonization, and revolution. Most of the time, alterations in categorical inequality, trust networks, and public politics occur slowly and incrementally. Nevertheless, certain shocks sometimes accelerate these processes, producing surges of democratization. In European experience since 1500, the chief shocks have been conquest, confrontation, colonization, and revolution.

Conquest is the forcible reorganization of existing systems of government, inequality, and trust by an external power. In the history of European democratization, the most famous example is no doubt conquest by French revolutionary and Napoleonic armies outside of France, which left governments on a semidemocratic French model in place through much of western Europe after Napoleon's defeat. Reestablishment of France, Germany, Italy, and Japan on more or less democratic bases after World War II rivals French revolutionary exploits in this regard. Conquest sometimes promotes democratization because it destroys old trust networks, creates new ones, and provides external guarantees that the new government will meet its commitments.

Confrontation has provided the textbook cases of democratization, as existing oligarchies have responded to challenges by excluded political actors with broadening of citizenship, equalization of citizenship, increase of binding consultation, and/or expansion of protection for citizens. Nineteenth-century British rulers' responses to large mobilizations by Protestant Dissenters, Catholics, merchants, and skilled workers fit the pattern approximately in Great Britain, but by no means always—and certainly not in Ireland. Confrontation promotes democratization, when it does, not only because it expands and equalizes access to government but also because it generates new trust-bearing coalitions and weakens coercive controls supporting current inequalities.

Colonization, with wholesale transplantation of population from mother country to colony, has often promoted democratization, although frequently at the cost of destroying, expelling, or subordinating indigenous populations within the colonial territory. Thus Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand began European settlement with coercive, oligarchic regimes, but rapidly moved some distance toward broad citizenship, equal citizenship, binding consultation, and protection. (Let us never forget how far short of theoretically possible maximum values in these four regards all existing democracies have always fallen; by these demanding criteria, no near-democracy has ever existed on a large scale.) Colonization of this sort makes a difference not merely because it exports political institutions containing some rudiments of democracy but also because it promotes relative equality of material conditions and weakens patron-client networks tied closely to the government of the colonizing power.

As England's Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 illustrates, revolutions do not universally promote moves toward broad, equal citizenship, binding consultation, and protection. Let us take revolutions to be large splits in control over means of government followed by substantial transfers of power over government. As compared with previous regimes, the net effect of most revolutions over the last few centuries has been at least a modicum of democratization, as here defined. Why so? Because they typically activate an even wider range of democracy-promoting processes than do conquest, colonization, and confrontation. Revolutions rarely or never occur, for example, without coalition formation between segments of ruling classes and constituted political actors that are currently excluded from power. But they also commonly dissolve or incorporate nongovernmental patron-client networks, contain previously autonomous military forces, equalize assets and/or well-being across the population at large, and attack existing trust networks. Revolutions sometimes sweep away old networks that block democratization, and they promote the formation of governing coalitions far more general than those that preceded them.


To watch the impact of revolution, conquest, and confrontation (if not of colonization) on categorical inequality, trust networks, and public politics from closer up, consider the remarkable experience of Switzerland from the late eighteenth century to 1848. Up to the eighteenth century's end, Switzerland operated as a loose, uneven confederation of largely independent cantons and their dependent territories. Although the Confederation had a Diet of its own, it operated essentially as a meeting place for strictly instructed ambassadors from sovereign cantons. Within each canton, furthermore, sharp inequalities typically separated comfortable burghers of the principal town, workers within the same town, members of constituted hinterland communities, and inhabitants of dependent territories who lacked any political representation. In Bern, for example, 3,600 qualified citizens ruled 400,000 people who lacked rights of citizenship, while in Zurich 5,700 official burghers governed 150,000 country dwellers. Within the ranks of citizens, furthermore, a small—and narrowing—number of families typically dominated public office from one generation to the next.

Both the countryside's great eighteenth-century expansion of cottage industry and the mechanized urban industrial concentration that took off after 1800 increased discrepancies among the distributions of population, wealth, and political privilege. Cantonal power holders controlled the press tightly and felt free to exile, imprison, or even execute their critics. From the outside, the confederation as a whole therefore resembled less a zone of freedom than a conglomerate of petty tyrannies. The majority of the population who lacked full citizenship, or any at all, smarted under the rule of proud oligarchs. Meanwhile, politically excluded intellectuals and bourgeois formed numerous associations—notably the Helvetic Society—to criticize existing regimes, promote Swiss national patriotism, revitalize rural economies, and prepare major reforms.

The French Revolution and democratic reforms. The French Revolution shook Switzerland's economic and political ties to its great neighbor while exposing Swiss people to new French models and doctrines. From 1789 onward, revolutionary movements formed in several parts of Switzerland. In 1793 Geneva (not a confederation member, but closely tied to Switzerland) underwent a revolution on the French model. As the threat of French invasion mounted in early 1798, Basel, Vaud, Lucerne, Zurich, and other cantons followed the revolutionary path. Basel, for example, turned from a constitution in which only citizens of the town were represented in the Senate to another giving equal representation to urban and rural populations.

Conquered by France in collaboration with Swiss revolutionaries in 1798, then receiving a new constitution that year, the Swiss confederation as a whole adopted a much more centralized form of government with significantly expanded citizenship. The central government remained fragile, however; four coups occurred between 1800 and 1802 alone. At the withdrawal of French troops in 1802, multiple rebellions broke out. Switzerland then rushed to the brink of civil war. Only Napoleon's intervention and imposition of a new constitution in 1803 kept the country together.

The 1803 regime, known in Swiss history as the Mediation, restored considerable powers to cantons, but by no means reestablished the old regime. Switzerland's recast confederation operated with a national assembly, official multilingualism, relative equality among cantons, and freedom for citizens to move from canton to canton. Despite some territorial adjustments, a weak central legislature, judiciary, and executive survived Napoleon's defeat after another close brush with civil war, this time averted by the intervention of the great powers in 1813–1815. In the war settlement of 1815, Austria, France, Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Spain, and Sweden accepted a treaty among twenty-two cantons called the Federal Pact as they guaranteed Switzerland's perpetual neutrality and the inviolability of its frontiers.

Switzerland of the Federal Pact operated without a permanent bureaucracy, a standing army, common coinage, standard measures, or a national flag, but with multiple internal customs barriers, a rotating capital, and incessant bickering among cantonal representatives who had no right to deviate from their home constituents' instructions. The Swiss lived with a national system better disposed to vetoes than to concerted change.

With France's July 1830 revolution, anticlericalism became more salient in Swiss radicalism. After 1830, Switzerland became a temporary home for many exiled revolutionaries (such as Giuseppe Mazzini, Wilhelm Weitling, and, more surprisingly, Louis Napoleon), who collaborated with Swiss radicals in calling for reform. Historians of Switzerland in the 1830s speak of a Regeneration Movement pursued by means of publicity, clubs, and mass marches. A great spurt of new periodicals accompanied the political turmoil of 1830–1831. Empowered liberals began enacting standard nineteenth-century reforms such as limitation of child labor and expansion of public schools. Nevertheless, the new cantonal constitutions enacted in that mobilization stressed liberty and fraternity much more than they did equality.

Protestant-Catholic divisions and civil war. With a Protestant majority concentrated in the richer, more industrial and urban cantons, an approximate political split between Protestant-liberal-radical and Catholic-conservative interests became salient in Swiss politics. In regions dominated by conservative cities such as Basel, the countryside (widely industrialized during the eighteenth century, but suffering a contraction in cottage industry during the early nineteenth) often supported liberal or radical programs. In centers of growing capital-intensive production such as Zurich, conflict pitted a bourgeoisie much attached to oligarchic political privilege against an expanding working class that bid increasingly for a voice in public politics and allied increasingly with dissident radicals among the bourgeoisie. In these regards, political divisions within Switzerland resembled those prevailing elsewhere in western Europe.

The political problem became acute because national alignments of the mid-1840s pitted twelve richer and predominantly liberal-Protestant cantons against ten poorer, predominantly conservative-Catholic cantons in a Diet where each canton had a single vote. (Strictly speaking, some units on each side, products themselves of earlier splits, qualified as half-cantons casting half a vote each, but the 12/10 balance of votes held.) Thus liberals deployed the rhetoric of national patriotism and majority rule while conservatives countered with cantonal rights and defense of religious traditions. Three levels of citizenship—municipal, cantonal, and national—competed with each other.

Contention occurred incessantly, and often with vitriolic violence, from 1830 to 1848. Although reform movements were already under way in Vaud and Ticino as 1830 began—indeed, Ticino preceded France by adopting a new constitution on 4 July 1830—France's July Revolution of 1830 and its Belgian echo later in the year encouraged Swiss reformers and revolutionaries. As the French and Belgian revolutions rolled on, smaller-scale revolutions took place in the Swiss towns and cantons of Aargau, Lucerne, St. Gallen, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, Thurgau, Vaud, and Zurich. Thereafter, republicans and radicals repeatedly formed military bands (often called free corps, or Freischärler) and attempted to take over particular cantonal capitals by force of arms. Such bands failed in Lucerne (1841), but succeeded in bringing new administrations to power in Lausanne (1847), Geneva (1847), and Neuchâtel (1848).

The largest military engagement took place in 1847. Switzerland's federal Diet ordered dissolution of the mutual defense league (Sonderbund) formed by Catholic cantons two years earlier. When the Catholic cantons refused, the Diet sent an army to Fribourg and Zug, whose forces capitulated without serious fighting, then Lucerne, where a short battle occurred. The Sonderbund had about 79,000 men under arms, the confederation some 99,000. The war ended with thirty-three dead among Catholic forces and sixty dead among the attackers. The defeat of the Sonderbund consolidated the dominance of liberals in Switzerland as a whole and led to the adoption of a cautiously liberal constitution, on something like an American model, in 1848.

A last ricochet of the 1847–1848 military struggles occurred in 1856. Forces loyal to the king of Prussia (effectively, but not formally, displaced from shared sovereignty in Neuchâtel by the republican coup of 1848) seized military control over part of Neuchâtel's cantonal capital, only to be defeated almost immediately by the cantonal militia. Prussia's threats to invade Switzerland incited other European powers to hold Prussia in check. From that point on, the liberal constitution applied to all of the Swiss Federation. Between 1849 and 1870, furthermore, all Swiss cantons terminated their profitable, centuries-old export of mercenary units for military service outside of Switzerland. Thereafter, only papal guards and a few ceremonial military units elsewhere represented Swiss soldiery outside of Switzerland itself.

Swiss democracy. Between 1830 and 1847, Swiss democracy receded into civil war. Only military victory of one side wrenched the confederation back toward a democratic settlement. As of 1848, we might call Switzerland as a whole either a weak democracy or a democratic oligarchy. Property owners prevailed and only males could vote, but the confederation transacted its business through elections, referenda, and parliamentary deliberations, as well as making citizenship transferable among cantons. Democratic institutions comparable to those that now prevail in western Europe still took a long time to form. Women could not vote in Swiss federal elections, for example, until 1971. By the middle of the nineteenth century, nevertheless, Switzerland had formed one of Europe's more durably representative regimes.

The Swiss experience is remarkable for its transition to representative government in the presence of consistent linguistic differences. Important distinctions have long existed between Switzerland's Germanic-speaking northern and eastern cantons, its French-speaking western border cantons, its Italian-speaking southern rim, and its Romansh-speaking enclaves in the southeast. Switzerland also features sharp town-to-town differences in the Alemannic dialects known generically as Schwyzerdütsch, which actually serve as languages of choice for spoken communication in nominally Germanophone Switzerland. With dominant cleavages based on religion and inherited from the Reformation, the Swiss have rarely fought over linguistic distinctions.

Switzerland is even more remarkable for the vitality of representative institutions in company with fairly weak state structures. Similar regimes elsewhere in Europe generally succumbed to conquest by higher-capacity (and much less democratic) neighbors. Switzerland's topography, its ability to summon up military defense when pressed, and rivalries among its powerful neighbors gave it breathing room similar to that enjoyed by Liechtenstein and Andorra. Switzerland's tough independence likewise inspired Europe's regional politicians, so much so that Basque nationalists of the nineteenth century proposed that their own land become the "Switzerland of the Pyrenees."

Whatever else we say about the Swiss itinerary toward democracy, it certainly passed through intense popular struggle, including extensive military action. The same process that produced a higher-capacity central government, furthermore, also created Switzerland's restricted but genuine democracy: as compared with what came before, relatively broad—if unequal—citizenship, binding consultation of citizens, and substantial protection of citizens from arbitrary action by governmental agents were established. As compared with late-nineteenth-century French or British models of democracy, however, the Swiss federal system looks extraordinarily heterogeneous: a distinctive constitution, dominant language, and citizenship for each canton; multiple authorities and compacts; and a remarkable combination of exclusiveness with the capacity to create particular niches for newly accepted political actors. Through all subsequent constitutional changes, those residues of Swiss political history have persisted. In all democratic polities, similar residues of past struggles and compromises remain.


The Swiss experiences of 1798, 1830, and 1847–1848 should remind us of a very general principle. Rather than occurring randomly and separately country by country, shocks such as conquest, confrontation, colonization, and revolution bunch in time and space. They bunch partly because similar processes—for example, wars, depressions, and mass migrations—affect adjacent countries. They also bunch because a shock to one regime reverberates among its neighbors. As a consequence, democratization occurs in waves.

Europe's first important wave of democratization arrived with the French Revolution. Although the French themselves retreated rapidly from the radical democratic reforms of 1789 to 1793, French regimes from 1793 to 1815 all embodied broader and more equal citizenship (if not always binding consultation or effective protection) than their prerevolutionary predecessors. As French armies conquered other European territories, furthermore, they installed regimes on the French model, which means that in general they increased protected consultation by comparison with the regimes they displaced. Even after Napoleon's defeats between 1812 and 1815, both the French model and French-style constitutions left residues of democratic practice through much of western Europe.

Europe's next wave of democratization arose with the revolutions of 1847–1848 in Sicily, Naples, Piedmont, Lombardy, France, Austria, Hungary, Wallachia, and Prussia. By 1851, to be sure, counterrevolutionary movements and external invasions had reversed most democratic gains in all these regions. Still, from that point on at least the forms of protected consultation prevailed as benchmarks for European regimes. In different ways, furthermore, the revolutions of 1847–1848 promoted or enabled democratic reforms in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland as well. On balance, the struggles of 1847–1851 moved western and central European regimes significantly in the direction of broad, equal, categorical, binding consultation and protection—that is, toward democracy.

After 1848, revolution receded as a democratizing shock in Europe. Portugal, Spain, and the Balkan countries experienced repeated forcible seizures of power between 1848 and World War I, but protected consultation advanced little or not at all in those regions. In 1870 and 1871, France's revolutionary changes opened the path to a turbulent but broadly democratic Third Republic that survived to World War II. Precipitated by Russia's loss in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia's revolution of 1905–1906 temporarily introduced a radically democratic regime, but succumbed to tsarist counterforce soon thereafter. In the aftermath, the tsar instituted a series of political and economic reforms that, compared to pre-1905 regimes, moved Russia modestly in the direction of protected consultation.

Over Europe as a whole, nevertheless, confrontation took over from revolution as the chief promoter of democratization between 1849 and World War I. In western and central Europe, mass labor movements formed, making impressive gains in representation through strikes, demonstrations, electoral campaigns, and a wide array of organizational activities. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, for example, eligible voters reached 50 percent of adult males through hard-fought reforms at various dates from 1848 to 1912.

In those same countries, most workers acquired the right to strike—previously an illegal activity—through parallel struggles between 1848 and 1921. Legalization of labor unions, formation of labor parties, proliferation and reduced repression of popular media, regularization of nonmilitary policing, and expanded freedom to associate and assemble all constituted increases in protected consultation. They all rested, furthermore, on rising governmental capacity, the capacity both to deliver services and to enforce popular rights over the frequent opposition of landlords and capitalists.

With World War I, the pendulum swung back to conquest and revolution. Conquest, in fact, then promoted revolution; such wartime losers as Germany and Russia experienced deep democratizing revolutions. In Germany, a social democratic regime came to power, and after extensive struggle (contained by the victorious Allies) the country emerged from its war settlement with a broadly democratic regime. In 1917, Russia's March and October Revolutions brought in first a liberal and then a radical regime. Although many analysts of 1917 claim to detect in the Bolshevik seizure of power an irresistible impulse to totalitarianism, as compared with preceding regimes, the initial transformation installed breadth, equality, consultation, and protection to an almost unimaginable degree. What remains hotly debated is how much and how soon a vast civil war, the formation of the Red Army, creation of a centralized Communist Party, and management of economic disaster reversed those early democratic gains.

That was not all. Hungary (also on the losing side as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) passed through a brief radical revolution only to see it terminated by separate attacks of monarchist and Romanian forces. Elsewhere in Europe, struggles that had begun with strike waves during the war's later years swelled to massive postwar mobilizations in nominal winners Italy, France, and Great Britain. In Ireland, resistance to British rule greatly accelerated with the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and culminated in the formation of an Irish Free State (1922), now a British dominion similar in status to Canada and Australia, with a similarly democratic constitution. (With severe costs for democratic practice in both parts of Ireland, Ulster remained attached to the United Kingdom.)

One outcome of these diverse struggles was widespread adoption of proportional representation, an electoral system that increased the chances of small parties—hence minority interests—to place spokespersons in national legislatures. Another was considerable expansion of the suffrage, including female suffrage. As of 1910, Finland alone granted full voting rights in national elections to women. By 1925, the roster had expanded to Iceland, the Irish Free State, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. (By that time, most other regimes had made lesser concessions to female suffrage: while British men voted at twenty-one, for example, British women thirty and older had the vote.)

De-democratization occurred during the 1920s and 1930s. Fascist regimes seized power in Italy and Germany, the Salazar dictatorship displaced Portugal's weak parliamentary regime in 1932, and Spain slid from a half-dozen years of republican government (1931–1936) into civil war and an authoritarian regime that lasted until Generalissimo Francisco Franco's death in 1975. Dictatorial leaders came to power in Greece, Lithuania, and Latvia, while Stalin's rule grew increasingly despotic in the Soviet Union. Despite minor advancements of protected consultation in western Europe, by 1940 Europe as a whole had slid back considerably from the democratic heights it had reached in the aftermath of World War I. German conquests of Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Yugoslavia, the formation of a German puppet regime in Norway, and the alignment of Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria with the German-Italian-Japanese axis reduced European democracy even further.

Evaluation of the postwar settlement raises thorny issues. On NATO's side of the Cold War divide, the United States, Great Britain, and their allies used force and persuasion to establish extensively democratic regimes in most European areas outside Iberia and the Balkans. Impelled by popular mobilization and encouraged by Western Europeans and North Americans, Greece, Spain, and Portugal replaced authoritarian regimes with parliamentary democracies during the 1970s. That much looks like a great wave of deliberately promoted democratization.

On the Warsaw Pact side, however, newly installed socialist regimes of the 1940s generally promoted relatively broad, equal, and categorical citizenship while placing severe limits on both consultation and protection. Simultaneously, socialist states used their rising capacities both to equalize entitlements at the base and to increase repression of dissidents. Depending on the relative weight given to breadth, equality, consultation, and protection, then, we might rate Eastern European shifts in democracy between 1940 and 1950 as anything from minor losses to substantial gains.

In any case, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, beginning in 1989, introduced a new bifurcation into Eastern Europe. In Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine after 1989, mighty political transformations but little or no increase in protected consultation occurred despite the introduction of parties, oppositions, and contested elections. In those territories declines in state capacity undermined protection, equality, and even the breadth of political rights. In the former Yugoslavia and Albania, shattered by civil war, democracy declined from its already modest earlier levels except for the emergence of an independent and relatively democratic Slovenia. Elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, the record varies but on balance shows increases in protected consultation. One more wave of democratization—this one just as vexed and incomplete as those of 1789–1815, 1847–1850, and 1914–1922—is rolling slowly across Europe.

See also other articles in this section.


Aminzade, Ronald. Ballots and Barricades: Class Formation and Republican Politics in France, 1830–1871. Princeton, N.J., 1993. The emergence of an industrial working class promoted popular republicanism that differed in important ways from its bourgeois cousin.

Andrews, George Reid, and Herrick Chapman, eds. The Social Construction of Democracy, 1870–1990. New York, 1995. The authors, mostly social and political historians, take up the social origins of democracy in the comparative spirit of Barrington Moore.

Burawoy, Michael, and Katherine Verdery, eds. Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocialist World. Lanham, Md., 1999. Not only the editors but also other perceptive observers offer close-up studies of a world in turmoil.

Collier, Ruth Berins. Paths toward Democracy: The Working Class and Elites in Western Europe and South America. New York, 1999. Bold, yet careful, comparison of multiple political transitions.

Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy. New Haven, Conn., 1998. Admirably compact, concrete, and accessible exposition of Dahl's conception and defense of democratic institutions.

Downing, Brian M. The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, N.J., 1992. As the subtitle hints, extended and well-documented argument for the revision of Barrington Moore's classic theses by considering the financing of military organization and the survival of medieval representative institutions.

Downs, Charles. Revolution at the Grassroots: Community Organizations in the Portuguese Revolution. Albany, N.Y., 1989. How direct democracy and demands for its institutionalization actually worked in 1974–1975.

Fish, M. Steven. Democracy from Scratch: Opposition and Regime in the New RussianRevolution. Princeton, N.J., 1995. Russian politics under Gorbachev as a series of social movements under the influence of a rapidly changing state-shaped political opportunity structure.

Giugni, Marco G., Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly, eds. From Contention toDemocracy. Lanham, Md., 1998. Essays on relations between social change and social movements.

Hanagan, Michael, and Charles Tilly, eds. Extending Citizenship, ReconfiguringStates. Lanham, Md., 1999. Why citizenship matters, historically and politically.

Held, David. Models of Democracy. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif., 1996. Varieties of democracy in history and the choices they offer today.

Herzog, Don. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders. Princeton, N.J., 1998. Rich, riotous reflections on discourses of inequality, copiously illustrated from British literature and public life between 1750 and 1830, almost entirely uncontaminated by social scientific work on its subject.

Koopmans, Ruud. Democracy from Below: New Social Movements and the PoliticalSystem in West Germany. Boulder, Colo., 1995. Political process in comparative perspective.

Laba, Roman. The Roots of Solidarity: A Political Sociology of Poland's Working-ClassDemocratization. Princeton, N.J., 1991. Laba counters the idea of an intellectual-led revolution with a grassroots account of worker initiatives.

Linz, Juan J., and Alfred Stepan. Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe. Baltimore, 1996. Reflective, tentative comparisons of democratization and its failures in three critical world areas.

Markoff, John. Waves of Democracy: Social Movements and Political Change. Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1996. How and why democratization comes in bunches with extensive popular mobilization.

Moore, Barrington, Jr. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Boston, 1993. Reprint of 1966 book with new preface by James C. Scott and Edward Friedman. A grand comparison—and theoretical analysis—of modern politics' alternative forms and their origins.

Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York, 1988. Whence and wherefore the idea of government by the consent, and in the interest, of the governed.

O'Donnell, Guillermo, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy. Baltimore, 1986. Vast inquiry into democratization and related transitions.

Prak, Maarten. "Citizen Radicalism and Democracy in the Dutch Republic: The Patriot Movement of the 1780s." Theory and Society 20 (1991): 73–102.

Putnam, Robert D., with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, N.J., 1993. An exploration of how embedding democratic institutions in civic reciprocity and sociability makes them work.

Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens. CapitalistDevelopment and Democracy. Chicago, 1992. How industrialization generated uncontainable popular demands, thereby opening the way to democracy.

Schwartzman, Kathleen C. "Globalization and Democracy." Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 159–181.

Schwartzman, Kathleen C. The Social Origins of Democratic Collapse: The First Portuguese Republic in the Global Economy. Lawrence, Kans., 1989. How the fragmentation of a semiperipheral state's bourgeoisie made a democratic regime vulnerable.

Somers, Margaret R. "Citizenship and the Place of the Public Sphere: Law, Community, and Political Culture in the Transition to Democracy." American Sociological Review 58 (1993): 587–620.

Tilly, Charles. European Revolutions, 1492–1992. Oxford, 1993. The interplay of state transformations and revolutionary situations.

Tilly Charles, ed. Citizenship, Identity, and Social History. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Historically informed analyses of citizenship and its politics.


views updated May 21 2018


Scope and meaning

Secondary meanings

Democracy as a form of government

Prospects and alternatives


The term democracy indicates both a set of ideals and a political system—a feature it shares with the terms communism and socialism. “Democracy” is harder to pin down, however, than either “socialism” or “communism”; for while the latter labels have found in Marxism an ideological matrix, or at least a point of reference, democracy has never become identified with a specific doctrinal source—it is rather a by-product of the entire development of Western civilization. No wonder, therefore, that the more “democracy” has come to be a universally accepted honorific term, the more it has undergone verbal stretching and has become the loosest label of its kind. Not every political system claims to be a socialist system, but even communist systems claim to be democracies. Since World War ii, “democracy” encompasses everything; as stated by a UNESCO report: “… for the first time in the history of the world … practical politicians and political theorists agree in stressing the democratic element in the institutions they defend and in the theories they advocate” (United Nations … 1951, p. 522).

One reaction to this state of affairs has been to avoid using the term. As has been forcibly stated, “… discussions about democracy … are intellectually worthless because we do not know what we are talking about” (Jouvenel 1945, p. 338 in 1948 edition). The alternative is, of course, to dissect the term as analytically as possible.

Scope and meaning

Democratic legitimacy

Democracy is, to begin with, a principle of legitimacy [see alsoLegitimacy]. So conceived it is both the minimal and the sole common denominator of any and all democratic doctrine. From the democratic viewpoint nobody denies that power is legitimate only when it is derived from the authority of the people and based upon their consent. Nobody questions that democracy is the opposite of autocracy. But this agreement is short-lived and indeed rests on fragile foundations. For democracy as a legitimizing principle lends itself to two diverging interpretations: (1) that the consent of the people can be a mere presumption, an untested assumption; or (2) that there is no democratic consent unless it is verified through ad hoc procedures (which exclude, notably, consent by sheer acclamation). And these opposing views are related to an even more fundamental disagreement over the very meaning of the term people—a hazy notion indeed.

“The people” can be understood as a singular term (in fact, peuple, Volk, and popolo are singular nouns in French, German, and Italian) or as a plural, that is, as a single entity or as “everybody.” And, clearly, it is only the latter notion that calls for a legitimacy ascertained by means of reliable procedures; for “the people” conceived as an entity, or as an organic whole, easily combines with a legitimacy assumed on the sole basis of acclamations and plebiscitary approbations. Therefore, on the grounds of democracy conceived merely as a principle of legitimacy, any and all governments can easily claim to be democracies simply by switching from verified consensus to presumed consensus. By itself, then, popular consent does not suffice to qualify any particular political system as a democracy. Such qualification is given only by the procedures of consent—and these are controversial.

The normative focus

From a normative standpoint the definition of democracy strictly derives from the literal meaning of the term—“power of the people.” We may say that the ought of democracy amounts to the etymology of the term. There are, however, three different normative approaches: oppositional, realistic, and perfectionistic (or Utopian). Used as an oppositional concept, democracy indicates what ought not to be; realistic normativism points to what could be; while Utopian normativism presents the image of the perfect society that must be. Moreover, since the normative attitude is basically future-oriented, it is easily converted into “futurism” in the sense that “democracy” becomes a long-range projection unrelated to current deeds. The use of undemocratic means to achieve democratic ends finds its justification precisely in this attitude.

The descriptive focus

A descriptive standpoint leads to definitions that bear little resemblance, if any, to the normative definitions of democracy. A concern with what democracy is in the real world seldom, if ever, makes reference to the notion of people. As Dahl puts it, in actuality democracies are “poliarchies” (1956, pp. 63–89). And the standard definition provided by most authors describes democracy as a system based on competitive parties, in which the governing majority respects the rights of minorities. The discussion is focused on the concepts of representation, majority rule, opposition, competition, alternative government, control, and the like—hardly ever on the notion of a self-governing people. Even descriptively, however, the approaches can be quite different: structural, procedural, or behavioral. These are not clear-cut distinctions, for both the structures and the procedures of democracy are meant to elicit and to enforce a given behavior. Yet procedures are not necessarily related to institutional structures; and moreover the behavioral definition may be incompatible with the structural and procedural definitions, as we shall see.

The typological focus

Democracy is also one type of political system among others, and from this viewpoint the problem becomes to define the properties that distinguish it from nondemocratic polities. When the issue arises, the attempt is often made to qualify democracy with reference to an ought rather than to the is. Clearly, however, the identity of a political system cannot be ascertained on normative grounds. It can only be assessed on factual grounds, that is, with reference to the possibility of verification provided by a descriptive account.

Another source of confusion lies in the intermingling of three different standards. At times democracy is taken to include all the political systems falling short of outright dictatorships. This identification is purely negative; the standard is very low, and we are thus confronted with an unspecific type. However, since no political system has a definite form at the moment of its inception, this minimal standard of democracy may aptly indicate its “initial” type. In other instances the standards are higher, and democracy is identified positively by the existence of developed representative institutions and by the establishment of “constitutional government” [seeConstitutions and constitutionalism; see also Friedrich 1937]. Since this is the more frequent case, as well as the meaning in which the term democracy is more frequently used, we may speak of it as the medium or normal type. Finally, when we use a high standard and refer to maximum achievement, we are confronted with a strict meaning of democracy, according to which the term denotes an advanced type.

According to the minimal standard, roughly half of the world may be included in the realm of democracy; according to the medium standard the number of democratic countries dwindles; and according to the high standard a mere dozen or so countries have achieved a satisfactory degree of democracy. And it requires little effort to imagine how easily the label “democratic” can be turned into “undemocratic,” and vice versa, simply by switching from one standard to another.

The dimensional focus

A distinction must also be made between small-scale and large-scale operations, between microdimensions and macrodimensions. Microdemocracy applies to face-to-face relationships, i.e., to small groups. Macrodemocracy applies whenever a collectivity is too large and/or spatially too scattered to allow any direct interchange among its members and any kind of face-to-face relationships. The distinction implies that a macrodemocracy is not some kind of enlargement of a microprototype. Their respective properties have very little, if anything, in common, at least in the sense that voluntary associations and small political units provide no clues for understanding a modern political democracy. They are perhaps the most essential inner nourishment of a democratic political system, but they can neither replace it nor dispense with it. In particular, they provide no model for macrodemocracy. It may be argued that no definite line can be drawn between small and large, which are indeed relative concepts; nonetheless the fact remains that micro- and macrodemocracy are inversely correlated: the greater the geographical extension of democracy, the less its intensity as a real experience of shared decision making.

Secondary meanings

From the time the term demokratía was coined in the fifth century b.c. until roughly a century ago, democracy was used as a political concept. Tocqueville was struck, however, by the social aspect of American democracy, and we thus speak of “social democracy”; Marxism has popularized the expression “economic democracy”; and guild socialism, particularly the Webbs’ book, Industrial Democracy (1897), has given currency to the label “industrial democracy.” These are the major secondary usages of the term democracy; and since we shall be concerned mainly with the primary political usage, they will only be briefly considered.

Social democracy

“Social democracy” is generally conceived as an endogenous state and style of the society and should therefore not be confused with “socialist democracy,” which is a policy enforced by the state upon the society. The expression social democracy usually points to the democratization of the society itself, as expressed by its manners and customs, and particularly by the belief in what Bryce called “equality of estimation,” that is, equal treatment and equal respect for every man. Social democracy may thus be defined as an ethos and a way of life characterized by a general leveling of status differences. By implication it may also indicate a “multigroup society” in which a lively network of microdemocracies sustains and implements political macrodemocracy.

Economic democracy

Since political democracy is primarily concerned with political and juridical equality, and since the expression social democracy denotes equality of status, it follows that concern for the equalization of wealth may be called economic democracy. In this generic and obvious sense then, the label denotes a democracy whose primary policy goal is the redistribution of wealth and the equalization of economic opportunities. So conceived, economic democracy presupposes political democracy—indeed, it is meant to be the ultimate feedback of a democratic form of government.

However, in the Marxist sense—which is by far the prevalent association of the expression—“economic democracy” does not presuppose political democracy; it replaces it. This follows from the materialistic conception of history, i.e., from negation of the autonomy of politics. In the Marxist approach political democracy has no value in itself, for it is only a superstructure of bourgeois and capitalistic oppression, and “political” democracy is thus reduced to “capitalistic” democracy. But once the domain of politics disappears from our purview, there remains little, if anything, that one can say about democracy in constructive terms. One can oppose the “false” existing democracies, but what can one propose for the sake of rebuilding a “true” democracy? Therefore in the Marxist meaning “economic democracy” is only an oppositional concept, and a distorted one at that, for it is not really the obverse of capitalist democracy but merely the obverse of capitalist economy. In other terms, in this context, democracy only means an economic system, and one based on the assumption that politics can be taken out of politics.

Industrial democracy

“Industrial democracy” is a narrower but more constructive term for pinning down the problems associated with the idea of economic democracy. Basically, industrial democracy is democracy within industrial plants. In many ways it is an adaptation of the Greek formula to an industrial society: it is a microdemocracy in which the member of the political community, the polítes, is replaced by the member of an economic community, the worker. In its ultimate form, industrial democracy calls for self-government by the workers in a plant—a direct self-government which could or should be crowned at the national level by a “functional democracy,” that is, by a political system based on functional representation [seeRepresentation]. In practice, the ideal of industrial democracy has materialized only at the microlevel in a number of schemes concerning the workers’ participation in management: “codetermination” in Germany and Austria, workers’ councils and “self-management” in Yugoslavia, and institutionalized practices of joint consultation between management and trade unions in various other countries (reviewed, for example, in Clegg 1960).

To sum up, nobody will deny the importance of social democracy as a vital basis of a democratic polity; and it is usually conceded that economic equalization and industrial democracy are valuable goals. Nonetheless, all these conceptualizations are secondary in that they presuppose, explicitly or implicitly, a political democracy. In other words, these democracies are not sovereign. In particular, if the over-all political system is not a democratic system, economic equality has little meaning and industrial democracy can be eliminated overnight. This is the reason why democracy is first and foremost political democracy, with the understanding that “the importance of the democratic political method lies mainly in its nonpolitical by-products” (Frankel 1962, p. 167).

People’s democracy

The labels “people’s democracy,” “progressive democracy,” “Soviet democracy,” and the like, pose a special problem. The difficulty is not simply that they point to a cluster of manifold elements but that the components of the cluster are so slippery that they defy analysis. A communist democracy is a “politico-economic” democracy, a “macro–micro” democracy, and a “supra–infra” democracy. It is almost impossible, therefore, to classify a people’s democracy in terms of the distinction between the political and extra-political meanings of democracy. The notion is clearly derivative, however, and may be considered in this sense as another secondary meaning of democracy.

For one thing, the expression “people’s democracy” was coined and launched only after World War ii, as a transparent response to the “goodness” of the word democracy. The derivative nature of the notion is also revealed by its thinness. The range of any discourse about the communist-type democracy is basically confined to a normative context and leans particularly on normative–futuristic democracy. In any case, it remains refractory to empirical verification, since the communist theory bypasses both structural and procedural arguments and draws exclusively on a behavioral definition of democracy that cannot be disproved. It follows that the theory of communist democracy does not succeed in showing how this democracy is meaningfully related to the facts. All in all, by no criterion can the systems labeled “people’s democracy,” “Soviet democracy,” etc., be differentiated from nondemocratic political systems [seeCommunism].

Democracy as a form of government

Greek and modern democracy

Greek democracy, as practiced in Athens during the fourth century b.c., was the closest approximation to the literal meaning of the term. One could argue, in effect, that the Athenian demos had more kratos (power) than any other people since. At the same time Greek democracy represents the maximum conceivable enlargement of a microdemocracy. When the demos gathered, the Athenian system actually operated as a “town-meeting” democracy in which some thousands of citizens expressed their ayes and nays.

To be sure, when the demos was assembled “democracy” consisted largely of decisions made by acclamation. But the town-meeting aspect was only the impressive part of the system. Its most effective part resided in the mechanism that made “all command each, and each in his turn all,” as Aristotle concisely put it; i.e., the exercise of power was effectively and largely shared by means of a rapid turnover of officials. The sharing in the exercise of power was also effective in that it occurred at random, for most officials were chosen by lot. On both counts—the collective “self-governing” and the individual “governing in turn”—Greek democracy was a direct democracy based on the actual participation of the citizens in their government.

Modern democracy is entirely different. It is based not on participation but on representation; it presupposes not direct exercise of power but delegation of power; it is not, in short, a system of self-government but a system of control and limitation of government. While Greek democracy can be defined literally as a “government of the people over the people,” modern democracy cannot, for the people who are governed are not the same people who govern. Therefore, we should not be misled into believing that present-day “electoral participation” resembles the real participation of the Greek citizen and even less that the devices we call “direct democracy” (referendum, initiative, etc.) can bridge the gap between the Greek and the modern formulas.

Greek and modern democracy are also entirely different in respect to political freedom. In fact, only the modern form can be called “liberal democracy.” The vagueness of the term liberalism and the multifarious aspects of freedom make this a controversial topic, with some authors flatly denying that men of antiquity were free (for example, Fustel de Coulanges 1864) and other scholars (recently, Havelock 1957) affirming the contrary. Yet there is at least one sense, and a very real one, in which we can follow Benjamin Constant in contrasting ancient and modern liberty (1819). The freedom of the citizen of the polis consisted in his part of sovereignty. Moreover, his freedom was not conceived as liberty for each individual rooted in, and protected by, “personal rights.” The individual as such, “each body,” was absorbed in the collective “Allbody,” that is, the polítes was called to exist for the polis; whereas we are likely to hold the opposite, that the state exists for the sake of the citizens. And while this does not imply that the Greeks called freedom what we consider oppression, it does point to the fact that their liberty was entirely dependent upon the existence of a diffuse and relatively small political community (hardly a “state” in our sense of the term) in which the liberty of the individual could still be entrusted to his share in the exercise of sovereignty [seeFreedom].

It is fairly obvious that the Greek type of democracy is inapplicable to modern conditions. Modern political societies are large societies, and the greater the number of the people involved, the less their participation can be effective and meaningful. Furthermore, the modern nationwide state confronts us with spatial or extensional impossibility, for real self-government cannot occur among absentees; it requires a demos to be present in person on the spot. Finally, it should not escape our attention that the “directness” of a democracy is strictly related to political primitivism: the government of all in turn is, in effect, the counterpart of a low degree of distinctiveness, explicitness, and specialization of the political functions.

It would seem that we are confronted with a paradox. To the Greeks democracy, literally understood, was a possible form of government. To us, instead, literal democracy is an impossible form of government. The query is: Why did we reinstate—after two thousand years of oblivion and disrepute—a term whose original and literal meaning calls for a blatant impossibility?

It does not suffice to reply that we give the Greek term a different meaning. Names are important in themselves, and the fact is that all over the world the common man of the twentieth century understands the word democracy very much in the same way as did the citizen of ancient Athens: its utterance elicits similar behavior, similar expectations, and similar demands. Nor can the issue be evaded simply by saying that the choice of the term democracy was unfortunate. For the word has gained acceptance not despite but because of its Utopian bent. It is not a coincidence that while the Greeks coined the term democracy to describe a possible form of government, we have revived a term that prescribes an impossible form. In the modern world, then, “democracy” is first and foremost a normative word: it does not describe a thing, it prescribes an ideal.

The ideal

Westerners have lived under democratic systems long enough to have reached the phase of democratic disillusionment. They are therefore likely to underestimate the impact of ideals and especially the force of the democratic “illusion”—no matter under which apocalyptic banner—in the rest of the world. Westerners are thus inclined to miss the peculiar temper of modern politics and—ironically enough—the fundamental change that Western rationalism has brought about in man’s attitude toward history.

Until the Enlightenment political forms were not conceived as future-oriented paradigms; for the paradigm was in the past, in a lost paradise, or in a state of nature. For millennia political theorists have been concerned with what could be. But from the French Revolution onward we have become concerned with what should be. Classical liberalism still belonged to an age of reasonableness in which men were content with regulating the tide; democracy, socialism, and communism were born, instead, out of a Promethean attitude, out of the ambition to swim against the tide. The difference between the names liberalism and democracy is hardly descriptive; it is normative. The latter label has absorbed the former one in large part because “democracy” has a Utopian potential that “liberalism” lacks [seeLiberalism].

In fact, by any other criterion the term liberalism would have been a more advantageous choice. It was not associated with a memorable failure, an experiment that had rapidly degenerated into both sectional government—the “rule of the poor against the rich,” as Aristotle realistically put it—and “mobocracy,” a lawless rule of the mob. Moreover, the term liberalism pointed to the very crowning of the long-sought ideal of a mixed and balanced form of government. Thus the current success of the name democracy draws on the same reason that accounts for its previous abandonment, namely, that “democracy” points to an extreme ideal—no less extreme qua ideal than “communism,” and so much so that in a purely normative context the two ideals can ultimately be joined.

This is not to say, of course, that “democracy” was deliberately reinstated because modern man has fallen into a Utopian mood. The adoption of the name democracy was also a response to the entry into politics of ever-growing masses. The small literate elites of former times could well dispense with miranda and credenda, to use Charles Merriam’s terms; but the more politics opens up to comparatively illiterate masses, the more miranda and credenda are needed to feed them no less than to mobilize and to manipulate them.

In a historical purview, then, it is the ought, the deontology of democracy, that comes to the fore. And a historical approach also helps to place the various forms of democratic normativism in perspective.

During the nineteenth century, the term democracy was mainly used in progressive circles as an oppositional ideal. As Louis Hartz points out, the image of democracy depicted by its early advocates was basically the negation of what they wanted to destroy (Chambers & Salisbury [1960] 1962, p. 27). Democracy so conceived is simply the reverse of absolutism, a polemical notion whose function is to oppose, not to propose. The utterance of “democracy” is a way of saying no to inequality, injustice, and coercion. But once the enemy is defeated the problem becomes to specify what ought to be, that is, to identify equality, justice, and freedom in a positive fashion. Faced with this problem democratic normativism splits: it can either adapt itself to the real world or consolidate itself into a future-oriented perfectionism.

Realistic normativism follows from awareness of the “opposite principle” (Herz 1951, pp. 168–189), or of the principle of the “opposite danger” (Sartori [1962] 1965, pp. 63–67). Its proponents realize that as an ideal is converted into reality, it must be continuously adjusted as it approaches fulfillment. Therefore, the more an actual democracy is maximized, the more its deontology must be minimized. If within an established democracy the democratic ought is maintained in its extreme form, it militates against the very system it has produced, that is, it produces “opposite” results.

Utopian normativism, on the other hand, maintains an oppositional attitude within an existing democracy. It refuses to admit that ideals have a countervailing function and will not allow the ideal to fade in victory. The normative attitude is to maximize ideals in their purity, in anticipation of a future in which the ought will finally overcome the is.

Theoretically, one can easily dismiss both oppositional and Utopian normativism. But the fact remains that we live in a time of explosion of expectations and in which the high tide of democratic perfectionism has yet to come in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We are thus faced with an apparently insoluble dilemma. In order to make democracy succeed in the real world we have adopted a realistic normativism; but a realistic image of democracy, and often a disillusioned one, can hardly compete on a world-wide scale against the appeal of Utopia. A realistic normativism loses the dimension of the future, and this suggests that Western democracies may well lose control over the explosive potentialities of the democratic ideal.

The reality

The ought and the is of democracy are inextricably intertwined. A democracy exists only insofar as its ideals and values bring it into being. Therefore, to deal separately with the norms and the facts is an analytical device. It is a necessary device, however, for while the name democracy is fitting for prescriptive purposes, it can be very misleading for descriptive purposes. Only in the Greek world did the name and the thing coincide. In our world the descriptive meaning of “democracy” cannot be explained and derived from its literal meaning.

When we come to the how of democracy, a democratic polity is usually identified by the manner of selection of its leaders and by the fact (which is also a corollary) that their power is checked and restrained. As Schumpeter puts it, in a democracy “the role of the people is to produce a government,” and therefore “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” ([1942] 1962, p. 269). The emphasis here is definitely procedural. It is also procedural in all the definitions concerned with majority rule and minority rights [seeMajority rule]. On the other hand, when we deal with the institutional arrangements and agencies of “constitutional democracy” the emphasis tends to be structural. But in many cases the structural and procedural focuses are so tightly interlinked that we may well speak of a combined “structural–procedural” definition.

A neat distinction may be made instead between structural–procedural democracy, on the one hand, and the behavioral definition of democracy on the other. In this latter focus a democracy is identified by the activity of its leaders rather than by the manner of their selection. And the contention may follow that whenever one finds a “rule for the people” one finds a democracy.

No one denies that governing for the people is the very purpose of a democratic government; for nobody affirms that democratic structures and procedures are an end in themselves. The question is whether political altruism should be left to the gods or whether it should be secured precisely by structural and procedural means. Furthermore, the way in which the rulers happen to rule does not suffice to qualify a political system. A benevolent despotism remains a despotism no matter how benevolently the despot happens to behave. By the same token, ruling for the people is “demophily,” not democracy. For democracy is not merely a manner of governing; it is a form of government, a political system.

The distinguishing mark of “real” democracy—i.e., of democracy in the real world—is provided, then, by the means that are conducive to the end of governing for the people. The step from demophily to democracy is indeed a long step. It occurs after endless deceptions and failures, and it occurs only when leaders are forced to respond to the people by means of structural and procedural safeguards [seeRepresentation, article onrepresentational systems].

The standards

In order to define democracy as a type of political system it is essential to ascertain what democracy is not. This in turn presupposes clarification of the standards of democracy. For, depending on the standards, a political system may or may not be considered a democracy. Indeed, different standards have to be used, for democracy is not a static entity: democracy in the nineteenth century cannot be assessed like democracy in the twentieth, and a developed democracy is different from a developing democracy. The problem then is to make coherent use of the pertinent standard.

With reference to the developed and successful democracies of the Anglo–American or Scandinavian type, the standards are high. Here “democracy” denotes more than political machinery; it also denotes a way of living, a “social democracy.” In particular, these democracies have gone a long way toward the maximization of equality—equality of status, of opportunity, and of starting points. We may thus speak of “full” or advanced democracy to denote the maximum current achievement of democracy in the real world. In this sense, then, democracy is a polar type, just as totalitarianism is the polar extreme of dictatorship.

In areas in which democracy has never been stable or effective—including a number of European countries—the standard is considerably lower. In this instance a polity qualifies as a democracy because of its machinery rather than its achievement and is more of a political arrangement than a state of the society. This more limited political character is revealed by the fact that emphasis is laid less on equality and more on liberty—as is only natural, for liberty has a procedural priority over equality. The test is provided by free elections, a competitive party system, and a representational system of government. It would be unfair to require a more exacting standard; for only the successful functioning of the machinery over time allows democracy to strike roots in the society. Aside from the United States, hardly any country was a full democracy before World War I, not even Great Britain; and even currently the existence of constitutional government, as opposed to arbitrary government, still represents the highest performance of democracy in most of the world. It is fair to say, therefore, that the standard provided by a constitutional government that secures political freedom, personal security, and impartial justice is the average standard, i.e., that this is what democracy “normally” means.

Up to this point we are able to specify what democracy is: the border between a democratic and a nondemocratic political system is still definite. But no sooner do we apply the word democracy to most of the Third World, and in particular to the so-called developing nations, than the standard becomes so low that one may well wonder whether the word democracy is still appropriate. At this point we speak of democracy simply to indicate that a given political system is not an overt dictatorship, that is, a dictatorship that allows no freedom, no opposition, and no independence to the courts. Some scholars are inclined to go even further. Shils speaks of “tutelary democracy” ([1959–1960] 1962, pp. 60–68), thereby implying that the standard can be reduced to the sole condition that the ruling elite earnestly profess democratic beliefs and pursue the goal of future establishment of some kind of democratic structure.

From the point of view of the classification of political systems it appears that the category of “initial” democracy cannot be stretched to include tutelary democracy. For promises are not deeds, and an authoritarian method of achieving democracy has to surmount the additional difficulty that the means shape the ends. A tutelary democracy may be even less than a mere “behavioral” democracy; it is only a possible future, only a futuristic democracy. Yet, the notion of tutelary democracy has its merits. For one thing, to profess democratic ideals is better than nothing at all; that is, the notion has the merit of singling out the importance of a belief system, in contrast to the somewhat deterministic and mechanical view that democracy follows from a set of socioeconomic conditions. In the second place, to raise the problem of democracy in the context of formless or transitional societies has the virtue of stimulating our imagination.

The question arises: When we speak of Western experience, is the key term “Western” or “experience”? In other words, can there be a non-Western path to democracy? But it would be premature to venture into these speculations without first discussing the conditions of democracy.

The conditions

Conditions are usually divided into necessary and/or sufficient. But we really know so little about the conditions of democracy that in most cases the best we can do is speak of facilitating conditions.

Economic development. Recently the trend has been to relate the conditions of democracy to a given stage of socioeconomic development. For example, Lipset argues that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.” If the hypothesis is tested by the usual indexes of economic development, one finds that the average wealth, degree of industrialization and urbanization, and level of education is indeed much higher for the more democratic countries (Lipset 1960, pp. 45–76; Almond & Coleman 1960, pp. 538–544).

It has been pointed out, however, that if we look at specific cases rather than at over-all averages the correlation between democracy and economic development is weak, and that between the great extremes of wealth and sheer poverty is a large no man’s land where apparently any political system can exist (Eckstein 1961, pp. 38–40). Moreover, a correlation is not a causal link. And even assuming that some sort of causal link does exist between welfare and democracy, we may still wonder whether a country became democratic because it was prosperous, or prosperous because it was democratic. If we abide by the low standard of initial democracy, then England surely became a democracy, i.e., a constitutional government, before the advent of industrialization, prosperity, and literacy. On the other hand, if we judge by the advanced type, it is fairly obvious that there can be no equalization of wealth until a people becomes wealthy. It would seem, therefore, that economic growth is a condition for the growth of democracy —not for its establishment [seeEconomic growth, article onnoneconomic aspects].

Two more specific caveats are also in order. First, much of the available evidence is statistically biased, in the sense that our findings are narrowly confined to the variables that are susceptible to quantification, and measurability is not a criterion of relevance. In this respect the objection could be that indexes of economic development correlate meaningfully only with the temperature of politics. Granted that prosperity is likely to moderate the tensions of the class struggle and the intensity of ideology, “cool” politics facilitates any regime, and therefore prosperity may help to stabilize a dictatorship as much as a democracy.

The second caution is that much of the available statistical evidence is gathered under categories that hopelessly lack discrimination. For instance, a strong positive correlation has been found between stable democracy and degree of literacy (with the perplexing exceptions of Germany and France), and it is often argued that the most important single factor in promoting democracy is the degree of education. In itself, however, literacy is only exposure to communications; and this implies that literacy can be conducive to mass manipulation no less than to individual self-realization. It appears, therefore, that our faith in education rests on the hidden premise that what we really mean is “liberal education,” the kind that inculcates, among other things, liberal and democratic values. The problem is, then, whether a merely technological literacy, or a type of education that inculcates illiberal values, may not promote autocracy. And the statistical figures collected under the literacy category do not make the discrimination that we need most [seeModernization].

Intermediate structures. The foregoing reservations remind us of the view held by Tocqueville (1856), followed by Durkheim and recently restated, for example, by Kornhauser, that democracy presupposes the backbone of an “intermediate structure” of independent groups and voluntary associations (1959, pp. 76–90). Unquestionably, the support of a vital and active “infrastructure” of self-governing organisms and institutions is of great help. One may say that political macrodemocracy is safer and more authentic the more it reflects and presupposes an “infrademocracy.” Once again, however, one should be wary of considering this a necessary condition for any stage of democracy. The necessary condition (though in no way a sufficient one) should be stated in broader and less exacting terms, for example, by pointing to the fact that no modern democracy has yet succeeded until the development of a middle class bridges the gap between the populace and the state.

Leadership. Furthermore, the fact that we have developed a keen interest in the socioeconomic preconditions of democracy should not lead us to underplay the strictly political conditions of democracy—as Aron has recently underlined (Aron et al. 1960). Since the current emphasis on the prepolitical requisites of democracy is partly due to a research bias (because of research facilities and the greater facility of the research), it is all the more necessary to stress the importance of leadership. Leadership is a disturbing variable in two senses: it disturbs the social scientist because of its “subjective” elusiveness, and it has a disturbing effect on the “objective” data. On the first count the social scientist should eliminate it; but on the second count he cannot. Prolonged effectiveness gives legitimacy to a political system, whereas in a modernizing society no legitimacy can withstand prolonged ineffectiveness (Lipset 1960, pp. 77–90). The effectiveness of democracy depends first and foremost on the efficiency and skill of its leadership. This becomes even truer the less favorable the objective conditions [seeLeadership].

All in all, the conditions of democracy are still largely unknown. On the one hand, whenever our hypotheses can be tested empirically—as in the case of indexes of economic growth—the findings are somewhat circular, for we are told that the kind of soil that favors democracy is the soil that has been cultivated best. On the other hand, when we come to examine the specifically political conditions of democracy, our assumptions remain poorly verified. Although this follows from the intrinsic difficulties of the domain of politics, we surely could do better by formulating our queries with more precision.

Clearly the conditions of advanced democracy are not those of initial democracy, and the problem of implementing a political democracy is different from the problem of planting it. For instance, an open class system, an equalitarian value system, and an industrial society are necessary conditions neither for the take-off into democracy nor for normal democracy; in fact, these so-called conditions presuppose the successful performance of normal democracy and can be viewed, therefore, as consequences rather than antecedents. The rewarding query is, then, “which are the conditions for each standard?” and, conversely, “which level of democratization canned be attained under given conditions?”

The point is not simply that there is no one factor crucially associated with the success of democracy; the point is also that the cluster of factors has a historical dimension, in the sense that all the relevant factors have to be considered in a sequence, with reference to their order of succession, their tempo, and their timing. It would seem, in fact, that “objective” factors are less important in initiating a democracy than (1) the will of an efficient and capable leadership, and (2) regulation of the flow of demands in such a way that the political system can process it without getting overloaded. For what throws a political system off balance—and particularly a democracy—is a sudden im-balance between an outburst of expectations and the capacity for meeting them.

Prospects and alternatives

The ways of history are not infinite, but they are varied. And the prospects for democracy in most of the world are related to the search for new solutions or, better said, to the search for adaptations and substitutions. If the question is whether there are “alternative forms of democracy,” the reply can only be that this kind of new solution has not been discovered. But if the question is whether there are alternative ways of achieving democracy more quickly, this is surely pertinent and vital. In fact, the problem of the developing countries is to catch up, a matter of speed and short cuts. And there is no better evidence that economizing is possible and that elimination of steps is feasible than the evidence provided by the Western experience itself.

Let it be recalled that for a long time constitutional lawyers believed that bicameralism was an essential safety, and yet there are unicameral systems that do just as well. Likewise, we often claim that rotation in office is part and parcel of democracy; but there are political systems in which one predominant party competitively gains and keeps an absolute majority, thereby providing an instance of democracy without governmental turnover. In a similar vein we tend to think that the interplay between majority and opposition is the keystone of a democratic system, and only recently have we started to realize that the argument does not apply to any kind of opposition—indeed, the institutionalization of the opposition may not improve things at all, and an irresponsible and purely demagogic opposition is likely to wreck any democracy. This does not imply that there can be a democracy where dissent and contestation are impeded; it does suggest, however, that whenever the stakes are too high to allow a peaceful transmission of power to the opposer, we should explore the possibility of subsidiary forms and mechanisms of contest.

Finally, most people equate democracy with universal suffrage; and it is surprising how little attention is being paid to the tempo and sequence that enable a political system to process the entry into politics of hitherto excluded and far-removed masses, that is, to cope with the so-called crisis of participation. And this in spite of the evidence that a sudden, massive enfranchisement is either a sham or is likely to shatter any developing democracy. Universal suffrage, in fact, seems to be the one taboo that we are not prepared to break—again a confirmation of the extent to which we are fascinated by the word at the expense of the substance. To be sure, “people” means “all the people,” and therefore in a literal sense there is no democracy until “everybody” is given the power to vote. But in our macrodemocracies the power of each amounts to a powerless fraction of power; and therefore the substance of the matter no longer is that everybody should be equally entitled to self-government (by virtue of his vote), but that as many people as possible should not be misgoverned. Thus, as long as free elections do occur, the size of the electorate matters far less than the essential goal, namely, the establishment of a political system that makes a government responsive and accountable.

The foregoing considerations are meant only to suggest that we need to cross-examine our dogmas and to acquire a fresh vision. In matters of polity building, genuine invention is very rare and very slow, and the successful innovations have usually been accidental. Before speculating about “new solutions” we should reduce to a minimum the requirements of the solutions that have been tested. Democracy, as Woodrow Wilson said, is the most difficult form of government. We cannot hope, therefore, to export the “complete” Western type. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the new states and developing nations cannot pretend to start from the level of achievement at which the Western democracies have arrived. In fact, no democracy would ever have materialized if it had set for itself the advanced goals that a number of modernizing states currently claim to be pursuing. In a world-wide perspective, the problem is to minimize arbitrary and tyrannical rule and to maximize a pattern of civility rooted in respect and justice for each man—in short, to achieve a humane polity. Undue haste and overly ambitious goals are likely to lead to opposite results.

Giovanni Sartori

[See alsoConsensus; Constitutions and constitutionalism; Delegation of powers; Elections; Liberalism; Parties, political; Representation. Other relevant material may be found inDictatorship; Political theory; Power.]


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Aron, Raymond 1965 Démocratic et totalitarisme. Paris: Gallimard.

Aron, Raymond et al. 1960 La démocratic à l’épreuve du XX siècle. Paris: Calmann-Lèvy.

Bryce, James (1888) 1909 The American Commonwealth. 3d ed., 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1959 by Putnam.

Bryce, James 1921 Modern Democracies. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan.

Chambers, William N.; and Salisbury, Robert H. (editors) (1960) 1962 Democracy Today: Problems and Prospects. 2d ed. New York: Collier. → See especially Eric A. Havelock’s article.

Clegg, Hugh A. 1960 A New Approach to Industrial Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Constant de Rebecque, Henri Benjamin 1819 De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes. Volume 4, part 1, page 238 in Henri Benjamin Constant de Rebecque, Collection complète des ouvrages publiés sur le gouvernement représentatif et la constitution actuelle de la France. Paris: Plancher.

Dahl, Robert A. (1956)1963 A Preface to Democratic Theory. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Democracy in the New States: Rhodes Seminar Papers. 1959 New Delhi: Congress for Cultural Freedom, Office for Asian Affairs.

Downs, Anthony 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper.

Eckstein, Harry 1961 A Theory of Stable Democracy. Center of International Studies Research Monograph No. 10. Princeton Univ., Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Frankel, Charles 1962 The Democratic Prospect. New York: Harper.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1937)1950 Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America. Rev. ed. Boston: Ginn. → First published as Constitutional Government and Politics: Nature and Development.

Fustel de Coulanges, Numa Denis (1864) 1956 The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. → First published in French.

Hartz, Louis (1960) 1962 Democracy: Image and Reality. Pages 13–29 in William N. Chambers and Robert H. Salisbury (editors), Democracy Today: Problems and Prospects. 2d ed. New York: Collier.

Havelock, Eric A. (1957) 1964 The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Hermens, Ferdinand A. 1958 The Representative Republic. Univ. of Notre Dame (Ind.) Press.

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Webb, Sidney; and Webb, Beatrice (1897) 1920 Industrial Democracy. New ed., 2 vols. London and New York: Longmans.


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Modern democracy is the outgrowth of many ancient theories and more recent practices. In its ancient form, characterized by direct participation of all citizens in legislation, it is found in some of the Swiss cantons and in New England town meetings. In its modern form as a representative system, it is not more than a century and a half old. Many of the theories underlying democracy have been used in other times and under other systems in which democracy itself has been rejected; but as both the political responsibility of men and the vital functions of government have increased, the demand for governmental responsibility to the popular will has been irresistible. Faith in majority rule under a regime of universal suffrage has spread throughout the Western world since the English revolutions of the 17th century. Whatever religious practices may have been, religious thought has supplied many of the fundamental principles upon which the democratic order is built: the dignity of man, the equality of men in the sight of God, the responsibility of man for his acts, the rights of the human person; all of these have been fundamental in the long struggle for popular government. Pius XII went so far as to say, "If, then, we consider the extent and nature of the sacrifices demanded of all citizens, especially in our day when the activity of the state is so vast and decisive, the democratic form of government appears to many as a postulate of nature imposed by reason itself" [Benignitas et humanitas ; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 37 (1945) 13].

Democracy has come to prevail not alone because of the inadequacies of alternatives, but also through the ever-expanding numbers of educated citizens and the facilities offered by modern communications. Although these causes have also served the interests of totalitarianism, it is certain that without them the democratic order could not flourish. Medieval men knew and espoused most of the theories on which democratic polity is built, but they lacked an educated electorate and the material means of making the theories effective.

Greek Beginnings. The development of democratic theory involves the whole history of political philosophy; and without some understanding of that development, the theory of democracy can be only partially comprehended. "As for democracy," said the brilliant but traitorous Alcibiades, toward the end of the Peloponnesian War, "why should we discuss acknowledged madness?" He was expressing a point of view that Plato (c. 427347 b.c.) must have held. According to Plato, under a democratic regime insolence is termed breeding; anarchy, liberty; waste, magnificence; and impudence, courage:

The teacher in such case fears and fawns upon the pupils and the pupils pay no heed to the teacher or to their overseers either. And in general the young ape their elders and vie with them in speech and action, while the old, accommodating themselves to the young, are full of pleasantry and graciousness, imitating the young for fear they may be thought disagreeable and authoritative.Without experience of it no one would believe how much freer the very beasts subject to men are in such a city than elsewhere. The dogs literally verify the adage and "like their mistresses become." And likewise the horses and asses are wont to hold on their way with the utmost freedom and dignity, bumping into everyone who meets them and who does not step aside. And so all things everywhere are just bursting with the spirit of liberty. And do you note that the sum totalof all these items when footed up is that they render the souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it? For you are aware that they finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them. This, then, my friend is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows. [Republic 563.]

Although for Plato democracy ranked next to the lowest political phenomenon (tyranny), for Pericles (d. 429 b.c.) it was the best of all forms. According to Thucydides, Pericles gave, in the famous funeral oration, the reverse point of view on democracy when he said:

We live under a form of government which does not emulate the institutions of our neighbours; on the contrary, we are ourselves a model which some follow, rather than the imitators of other peoples. It is true that our government is called a democracy, because its administration is in the hands, not of the few, but of the many; yet while as regards the law all men are on an equality for the settlement of their private disputes, as regards the value set on them it is as each man is in any way distinguished that he is preferred to public honours, not because he belongs to a particular class, but because of personal merits; nor, again, on the ground of poverty is a man barred from a public career by obscurity of rank if he but has it in him to do the state a service. And not only in our public life are we liberal, but also as regards our freedom from suspicion of one another in the pursuits of every-day life; for we do not feel resentment at our neighbour if he does as he likes, nor yet do we put on sour looks which, though harmless, are painful to behold. But while we thus avoid giving offence in our private intercourse, in our public life we are restrained from lawlessness chiefly through reverent fear for we render obedience to those in authority and to the laws, and especially to those laws which are ordained for the succour of the oppressed and those which, though unwritten, bring upon the transgressor a disgrace which all men recognize. [Thucy. 2.37.]

Classification of Governments. To Plato is owed the classic threefold division of constitutions: monarchy, a rule of one in accordance with law; aristocracy, a rule of a few in accordance with law; polity, a rule of the many in accordance with law. The opposite forms are tyranny, the lawless rule of one; oligarchy, the lawless rule of a few; democracy, the lawless rule of the many. Plato departed from this order, however, in his description of the degeneration of forms of government. His ideal best is an aristocracy, a rule by philosophers in

which justice is the aim of the rulers. This form degenerates into a timocracy, a rule of a few with honor and glory being the motivating principle. The next stage is oligarchy, in which money and material wealth determine the goal of the rulers. This is followed by democracy, where no one standard guides either the rulers or society. Out of this develops the arbitrary rule of one man, tyranny. Thus each form of government has a guiding principle, and each in departing from that principle degenerates into a lower form. It seems that to the Greeks, with their cyclical idea of history, no form of government could be lasting, and change lurked behind every political institution. Each form contained the seed of its own destruction.

Aristotle (384322 b.c.) appears less dogmatic than either Plato or Pericles. Though asserting that monarchy is ideally the best form of government, he believed that a mixture of the three possible forms is best practically, i.e., a combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy; and he even granted that the people as a whole possess a political wisdom in judging their rulers that may not be lightly put aside. His preference was for a middle-class class polity uncontrolled by forces of great wealth or military power.

Greek Practice. To all Greeks democracy meant a form of direct government and control by free citizens, obviously excluding foreigners and slaves. Thus the Greek citizen took part in the deliberations of the assembly and activities of the courts, and much of his time was taken up by these. Plato's attitude toward the democratic order may be explained by his feeling that the misfortunes of Athens in the Peloponnesian War were due largely to the absence of strong leadership and the mistakes of popular direction in the area of military requirements. Added to this, the condemnation of his mentor, socrates (c. 470399 b.c.), by one of the popular courts caused him to have little faith in the judgments of the populace. Democracy in Athens suffered as much from the loss of prestige resulting from its humiliating defeat at the hands of oligarchic Sparta as it did from the internal weaknesses of its system of government.

From Greek times until the present era, Pericles had far less influence in shaping the reputation of democracy than Plato and the cautious Aristotle. Democracy was commonly regarded as rule by the mob, or the least worthy and the least prepared for sober rule. Even when, in succeeding centuries, democracy was seriously advocated as a partial element in a stable regime, it was understood that democracy would be checked by monarchical and aristocratic forms. Thus the ideal regime that Polybius recognized in the Roman Republic was composed of the monarchical element (two consuls), the aristocratic (the Senate), and the democratic (the assembly of the plebeians). The prevalence of any one form meant the early destruction of the regime. So monarchy degenerated into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and democracy into irresponsible mob rule.

Roman Theory. The Romans devoted themselves more to jurisprudence than to philosophy, either pure or practical, and contented themselves with liberal borrowing from the Greeks. Their forms of government were largely ad hoc arrangements that met special situations as they arose. Political structures that no longer served a purpose very often continued to exist theoretically although effective power no longer inhered in them. The political history of Rome suggests gradual development rather than periodic wholesale renovations. Yet the legal basis of these forms remained.

Even under the most tyrannical emperors the theory in law remained that ultimate power inhered in the populace. At some time, in some form, the power of the emperors was conferred by the Senate and the people. This was historically true, whatever the existing situation, and despite the inadequate way in which power was conferred. However dimly realized at times, the Roman maxim "Salus populi, suprema lex" (the welfare of the people is the supreme law) remained firmly set in Roman law. The standards carried into battle with SPQR ("Senatus populusque Romanus") emblazoned on them meant that even conquest had popular approval. Even the phrase frequently quoted in later centuries in defense of absolute royal power has reference to a popular grant: "quod principi placuit, legis habet vigorem: cum lege regia, quae de eius imperio lata est, populus ei, et in eum, omne imperium suum et potestatem concedat" (the ordinance of the prince hath also the force of a law; for the people, by the lex regia, make a concession to him of their whole powerDig. 1.2.6).

Although it is not to be assumed that in strict practice democratic procedure in the modern sense operated at all times in the making of law, the theory always held in Rome that in some manner law emanated from the people or with their approval. Whether enunciated by Gaius ("law is what the people orders") or by cicero ("power is in the people") or by justinian, it is always accepted that the people are the source of law. Accepted by authorities in the Middle Ages, this principle has come to form a basic standard of the democratic order in modern times. It forms a fundamental part of constitutionalism restrictive of arbitrary governmental action for all time.

Medieval Developments. The Middle Ages provided many of the theories on which later defenders of democracy built their philosophy. Theories of individual rights, political and juridical; theories of limited executive power; theories of representative government; and theories of constitutional government developed during this period. Absence of institutional arrangements and sanctions prevented a full realization of the theories in universal practice. Few questioned the doctrine, inherited from Roman law, that law and governmental power stem from the people. How to apply this theory, and who were the people, were questions on which the medievals found no uniform agreement.

Influence of the Church. The recurring crises between the Church and the political order tended in the main to restrict governmental operation. Earlier medieval theories held that the political order was a device for the restriction of evil and a retribution for man's sins. As contrasted with the Church, it was not a holy order. Some went so far as to call political power an invention of the devil. The tendency was to restrict political operation and particularly the power of kings. At the same time the necessity of curbing the disorders of the time called forth other theories that, referring to certain scriptural passages, required the recognition of the king as worthy of respect and obedience. Passages from St. Paul were most frequently used: "he who resists the authority, resists the ordinance of God" (Rom 13.2). Kings were referred to as God's vicars and as holding a "priestly office." Contemporary paintings of Charlemagne showed him clothed in priestly vestments.

From the earliest period of the Middle Ages, however, the king was held to be bound by his coronation oath, by custom, by Scripture, and by the natural law. No king was absolute, and no responsible teaching of the Middle Ages held him to be so. Violation by a king of any of the rules that bound him placed him in the position of an outlaw against whom penalties both of excommunication by the Church and of rebellion by his subjects might be used. The general lack of institutions (outside of the Church) for judging the king's conduct left open to the king's opponents no course other than military action.

Feudal System. From feudalism the idea of a contractual relationship between king and subject arose. Under this complicated system of interrelationships, kings were generally bound in some form of service to overlords or other monarchs or popes. The feudal world was one of contractual agreements. Under these circumstances, the theory of agreement by contract readily entered the realm of political theory.

Rise of Representative Government. From a principle of Roman private law medieval thinkers drew a theory of responsible government that in future years was to play a large part in struggles against absolutism: "quod omnes tanget debet ab omnibus approbari" (what touches all should be approved by allCorpus iuris civilis, Codex Iustinianus, ed. P. Krueger 5.59.5). In no sense was this applied in the broad meaning that the phrase might imply. Nevertheless, the constant use of the phrase and its actual application in the religious orders gave the theory a lasting prominence and importance in the development of representative government. Because of this principle, Henry III of England in 1254 could "cause to come before the King's Council two good and discreet Knights of the Shire, whom the men of the country shall have chosen for this purpose instead of all and each of them, to consider along with the Knights of other shires what aid they will grant to the King." While such assemblies were meeting in England to form the first Parliaments, similar assemblies were meeting in Spain and France. The feudal system itself strengthened the representative idea in that overlords in council represented their tenants to such a degree that unanimity was required in some cases in the proceedings of such assemblies. This was especially the case when one lord might represent such military power that he could not be controlled by a majority vote.

The class structure of medieval society prevented any overall egalitarian idea of representation. According to the medieval notion, not only quantity, but also quality, formed the basis of representation. Even marsilius of padua (c. 12901343)erroneously held by some to be the forerunner of modern democracyheld to the notion of a representation of "the wiser and better part," a phrase common in the Middle Ages. A man's equality consisted in his equality with his peers by birth and status. A knight was not equal to a prince; nor could he be judged by a prince. Early, however, in England the interests of the nobility came to diverge to such a degree from those of people of lower status that two groups of representatives came to form two separate houses in the Parliament. By the 16th and 17th centuries the expanding economy of Europe and the rise of a new merchant class gave the lower house a power first equal to and then greater than that of the house representative of the peer-age.

Contribution of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. thomas aquinas (c. 122574) has frequently been interpreted as a partisan of popular government. A thorough examination of his writings, however, fails to show that he was much in advance of his time in propounding theories basic to democratic thinking. Much is made of his use of a quotation from St. Augustine (Lib. arb. 1.6) in one paragraph of the Summa: "If a people have a sense of moderation and responsibility, and are most careful guardians of the common weal, it is right to enact a law allowing such a people to choose their own magistrates for the government of the commonwealth. But if, as time goes on, the same people become so corrupt as to sell their votes, and entrust government to scoundrels and criminals, then the right of selecting their public officials is rightly forfeit to such a people, and the choice devolves to a few good men" (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 97). He even discusses, without in any sense condemning, the three classical forms of constitutionsmonarchy, aristocracy, and democracyand a regime composed of the three. His preference throughout, however, is for "pure monarchy"the beneficent rule of one man holding absolute power, who holds himself bound by natural, divine, and customary laws. If he holds with most medievals that the king is in some way the choice of the people, this in no way signifies popular election, even though he prefers elective monarchy to hereditary monarchy. So in De regimine principuum he remarks that "the common natural rule is by one" (1.2). St. Thomas shows no preference for self-government. His conception of a ruler is one of great power. He does consider that a ruler might be checked by public authority in unusual cases, if, obviously, such an authority exists; however, he does not look upon this as a case likely to arise. If, unhappily, an unjust tyrant rules, the sinfulness of the people has brought this about. Tyrannicide is not permissible.

If one contribution to later democratic thought is provided in St. Thomas, it is in his discussion of law, particularly in his consideration of natural law as an unwritten check on all human action, whether public or private. Natural reason supplies the end and goal of the political order, which is the common good toward which men are directed by the natural law. Following Aristotle, St. Thomas asserts that the political order is a good (not a necessary evil or primarily a divine remedy for sin) and that it has a positive end of protection of citizens and the promotion of their welfare. The natural-law theory not only provides the ends and limits of government, but gives the basis for the obligations and rights of the people that come to form a part of the democratic theory of later years.

Early Modern Developments. The renaissance and the Protestant reformation had varying effects on the relation of the individual to governing authorities. For the most part, the Renaissance with its secular leanings gave little heed to the restriction on rulership provided by divine law, and its general disregard of the philosophical found no bar to tyranny in natural law. The general attitude of Renaissance man was one of lack of concern for things either religious or political. He desired a regime of peace, no matter how absolute, that afforded opportunity to pursue the new learning. So far as politics was concerned, the grandeur of imperial Rome was his ideal. The Renaissance world has its typical representative in Niccolò machiavelli (14691527). A pure pragmatist in advancing the test of workability as the standard for judging all institutions, he nevertheless in the Discourses shows a distinct preference for a republic as against a princedom. Freedom of discussion, freedom of choosing officials by the people, and freedom for wide participation of the citizenry in affairs of state are characteristics of a republic, which is the reward of a brave, patriotic, and self-sacrificing people. The ancient republic of Rome is the ideal, but most people are not worthy of it.

Opposition to Absolutism. The immediate effect of the Reformation, despite the emphasis of the reformers on religious individualism, was to strengthen the power of kings in both Catholic and Protestant lands and to give emphasis to the Roman concept that the monarch is outside the law (legibus solutus ). The period of absolutism gave rise to a whole literature challenging the concept of absolute rulership. The challenge arose mainly from an attempt on the part of rulers to impose their religious views on dissenting groups. Foremost among the critics of absolute kingly power were the Calvinists and the Jesuits. The older idea of government as a contract between ruler and people had a rebirth and was used as an argument against arbitrary divine-right rule. Disregard of divine or natural law on the part of the ruler gave a right to withdrawal of obedience on the part of subjects and might justify rebellion and overthrow of a regime. Recourse was had to the older concept of power arising in the people. Among the Catholic controversialists, St. Robert bellarmine (15421621) asserted that power comes from God to the people who in turn may set up any kind of lawful regime that serves the purpose of the common good. Among the religious opponents of kingly power, however, there was no defense of religious toleration.

Religious Toleration. Toleration appeared more frequently as a thesis defended among secular writers such as Jean Bodin (153096), who, though asserting the rights of monarchs and their limitations, lays down the rule that religious uniformity is desirable, but that if the attempt to enforce it endangers the foundations of the political order, then toleration of religious dissent is to be preferred.

Social Contract Theories. The social contract theory itself played an ever-increasing role in the defense of limited government. In one case, however, it was used by Thomas hobbes (15881679) in his Leviathan to strengthen a defense of royal absolutism. It was significant in the theories of the American colonists in defense of their own revolution against the English Crown. In the case of the Americans, the theory was taken from John locke (16321704), who in his Two Treatises on Government made use of the theory to defend limited monarchy. In brief, his theory of contract held that in the condition before the existence of civil society, man living in a state of nature had certain natural rights (life, liberty, and property) that were not conferred by government, but protected by government when political society came into being. The main purpose of government was the protection of rights, a protection guaranteed by contract between governors and governed. American revolutionists seeking justification for their revolt from the mother country found itoutside the British constitution itselfin Locke's theory of natural rights. Locke, however, was no defender of republican or democratic regimes; his ideal state was a middle-class constitutional monarchy of property holders. However, his theory of popular change of government, peaceful or revolutionary, came to be firmly established as part of the democratic philosophy of government.

Classical Republicans. Previous to Locke, in the 17th century a group of theorists defending the Puritan Revolution in England and the overthrow of the monarchy had written works that profoundly influenced the American revolutionists. This group, sometimes referred to as the Classical Republicans, defended not only revolutionary change, but also the substitution of republican government for monarchy. The best-known among them are John milton (160874), James Harrington (161177), and Algernon Sidney (162283). Their theories were based on the historical experience of republican Rome and the Republic of Venice. In addition, they made free use of Machiavelli's theory of republican government as constituting the best form of political regime. Before their time, the term republic was used to designate any type of regime; it simply meant a commonwealth, whether monarchical or non-monarchical. Plato's Republic described an aristocracy as an ideal form, but it also included variations from the ideal. In the 16th century, Bodin's Six Books of the Republic advocated consititutional monarchy as the best form of republic. The Classical Republicans, however, made a distinct differentiation between a regime, constitutional or otherwise, ruled by a lifelong monarch and a regime with an elective executive head, which to them was known as a republic. This differentiation has come down to contemporary times. The founders of the American Republic generally thought of a republic in these terms, the influence of Harrington being especially great among them, and they held the age-long prejudices against democracies, used in the sense of direct rule by the populace.

American Views. In the Federalist Papers (No. 10) James Madison wrote:

It may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A republic, by which Imean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The Classical Republicans of England and their followers in America thought in terms of a suffrage restricted by property qualifications, since ownership of property in some way represented civic virtue, and also in terms of representation of property holders similarly restricted by property qualifications. Even while the authors of the Constitution of the United States deliberated, there were stirrings among the populace for a broader suffrage base, and the term democracy was beginning to lose its tarnished reputation. Vermont came into the Union in 1791 without property restrictions, and Delaware gave the ballot to all white men who paid taxes. During George Washington's administration, the country was shaken by news of the French Revolution, and the agricultural forces of the American frontier, heavily in debt to the powers of the East, were demanding greater political control of their government. In the cities along the Atlantic seaboard, mass meetings of workingmen demanded a vote in government. President Washington was warning that "the tumultous populace of large cities are ever to be dreaded." Even Thomas Jefferson referred to "the mobs of great cities" as "sores" on the body politic (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 19). Jefferson thought that any orderly government of large cities was impossible. With the pressure for a universal manhood suffrage, the term democracy found more frequent usage as applied to the operation of government in America. This was particularly so with the sweep of the Jacksonian movement through the country. Thus in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville adopted The American Democracy as the title of his classic work on politics and society in the United States. The party of Jefferson took the name of the Democratic-Republican party, but by the Jacksonian period it had become the Democratic party. As the suffrage base was broadened, the term democracy came to be the usual designation for the form of government that existed in the United States.

Principle of Representation. In the thinking of the people of the time, the chief touchstone of a democracy was representative government. Not only was great faith placed in representative assemblies, but in the elective process itself more and more names of administrative and executive offices found their places on the ballot. Faith in the legislative process was accompanied by a fear of executive power, so that mayors and governors found themselves surrounded by innumerable checks in the exercise of their functions. In Europe, too, political reform emphasized the importance of suffrage for the agricultural and laboring classes, and more favorable representation of these groups. Influenced by the theories of the French Revolution, a strong emphasis on egalitarianism characterized all the democratic movements. Tocqueville feared that there was a tendency to overemphasize this in the America of the 1830s. It would have been difficult, however, in the America of that day, with its strong frontier attitudes, to find or defend any class divisions in society.

Democratic Ideology. Democracy both in the United States and abroad ceased to have either the form or the reputation that had characterized it in preceding centuries. It became the aim of all political reform both in the United States and in the Western world. The principal test of democracy came to be universal manhood suffrage and equal representation for all classes in the legislature. Basic to all theoretical defenses of democracy were the ancient theories of political power emanating from the people, the medieval doctrine of "what touches all must be approved by all," the limitation of political power by unchanging laws of God and of nature, the determination of consent by majority, and the inherent worth of the individual soul derived from the ancient Judeo-Christian heritage. Some saw democracy as inevitable in a world built upon these principles.

Both in the United States and in England democratic movements had a strong evangelistic religious impetus. Although in America church attendance and adherence to religious groups fell to a low level during and immediately after the Revolution, a strong revivalist movement in the early 19th century brought religion to the forefront in American society. Religious groups, such as the Baptists and the Methodists, and a variety of splinter Protestant groups that followed the democratic form in the management of their churches combined their religious and egalitarian principles in advocating ever-increasing popular control. The same influences were at work in England, where the backbone of the democratic movement was found in the members of the so-called Free Churches. Much of the evangelistic fervor that spurred on the Jacksonians in the United States and the Chartists in England came from this source. On the Continent of Europe democratic movements had been influenced to a large degree by the theories of the French Revolution and were most frequently secular in tone and often inspired by anti-religious aims.

Growth of Executive Power. By mid-19th century faith in legislative bodies as representing the ideals and aspirations of the people suffered a reverse with the awareness that legislators were corrupted and election practices were a scandal. The belief came to be held that executives armed with proper authority, far from being a danger to the democratic form, constituted effective agents of the people's will. One governor or one president, it was recognized, more often represented the will of the electorate than scores of legislators, whether in a state capital or in Washington. Throughout the whole Western world the move toward concentration of greater powers in the hands of executives finds firm support even today among the most liberal defenders of democracy. The flexible provisions of the United States Constitution have lent themselves to an interpretation consistent with this demand for executive power and responsibility, particularly under strong presidents.

Economic Democracy. Out of the Renaissance and Reformation periods there had developed a strong theory of individualism that affected religious, political, and economic life. The theory that man's unaided reason or divine illumination could lead him to his proper endand in the political and economic spheres, to the best life for societycaptured the minds of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. This blind faith in the infallible instinct of man in following his own interests was highlighted by a disregard of societal or communal obligations. If a man starved or failed in any sense, he had himself to blame, for within him existed all the necessary physical strength or natural reason for success. In the political sphere, governments were necessary, but necessary evils, for protection of life and limb alone. Leaders of democratic movements sought first the suffrage for the middle-and lower-middle-class groups, and then for the larger masses of the laboring people. It should be remembered that the early exponents of democracy had little faith in the masses and sought only a bourgeois commonwealth. By reason of their own theory of man's rational nature, however, they had to face the necessity of extending the rights of citizens to an ever-increasing number of people.

The older theory of natural law with its emphasis on rights as proceeding from obligations had, following the theories of Locke and Hobbes, become largely a theory of rights alone. This attitude characterized particularly the economic life of the rapidly expanding industrial society. In exploitation not only of natural resources, but of men, the economically successful interpreted the doctrine of natural rights as complete, unhindered freedom in the pursuit of wealth. The great economic advance of the Western world was paid for in a frightening wastage of health and lives.

Pragmatic Trends. In recognition of a prevailing economic anarchy, there arose not only a demand for a greater voice of the working class in government, but also a demand for governmental regulation of economic activity. The use of the natural-rights doctrine in defense of economic exploitation gave place in democratic demands to a doctrine of social rights. The obviously just reminder that society too had rights was accompanied by the more dangerous doctrine that society, through organized government, conferred rights. The feeling existed that since the bulk of the male population controlled the action of government through suffrage and representation, fear of an overpowering or tyrannical political order was baseless. The amazing advances of science and the scientific method had the effect of reducing philosophy to a crude pragmatism that saw in immediate effects the justification of public activity. The cure for the ills of democracy was, it was claimed, more democracy. Speculative philosophy and theoretical justification of the system itself found little support among the intellectual leaders of the new industrial era. Use of a corrupted natural-rights doctrine in defense of the glaring evils of the industrial revolution had discredited philosophy itself.

Marxism. In the 19th and early 20th centuries certain schools of thought pointed out the weakness in political democracy and turned their attention to the operation of the economic system itself. The followers of Karl marx (181883) based much of their philosophy on an ancient theory. Plato, Aristotle, and medieval and later theorists had pointed to the corrupting influences on stable forms of government of great accumulations of wealth in private hands. Machiavelli had written that under a good form of government, only the government should be rich. Plato would have had his rulers divested of all wealth, and the possessor of wealth debarred from active citizenship. Aristotle desired a middle-class regime with a wide dispersion of wealth. That the owners of vast economic power could control the possession of political power was not an original discovery of Marx. Nevertheless, Marxist thought turned in the direction of economic democracy as opposed to political democracy. The thoroughgoing Marxist renounced politics, warned against suffrage and reforms in representation, and condemned socialist participation in any government existing side by side with the capitalistic order. He believed that all political forms existing under capitalism were mere shams and agencies of exploitation by the owners of the means of production. Only where the workers owned and governed the means of production would genuineor economicdemocracy prevail.

Divergent Theories. Other schools of thought had turned their attentions in the same direction. Some, such as syndicalism and anarchism, advocated violent revolution for the purpose of setting up self-governing federations of industrial groups. Others, such as guild socialism and various schools of political pluralism, advocated guild associations of workers and employers with special parliaments representing trades and professions; but these were to be accomplished by peaceful means. Support for corporativist and pluralist ideas was found in the encyclicals of leo xiii, pius xi, and pius xii. Unlike Fascism, which looked upon the state as the creator of economic associations, the encyclicals emphasized the necessity of the free formation of guilds, with the state as the general overseer of guild obligations and rights.

New Problems. The Marxist still considers the true socialist regime a democracy, and the term has been freely appropriated by Communist regimes. The challenges offered by the emphasis on economic democracy, the catastrophic effects of the world Depression of the early 1930s, and the rise of totalitarian regimes of the right and left, offering both "security" and "freedom," caused the leaders of established democracies to reevaluate democracy in both its forms and its effects. The older democracies of the West had successfully withstood the assaults of the turbulent 20th century, but something more than a pragmatic defense of the system was called for. The Fascist and the National Socialist revolutions had themselves been called the pragmatic revolt in politics. Their leaders claimed that they offered new systems that "worked," whereas the democracies had failed in practice. More attention to an underlying philosophy of democracy was called for.

More serious attention, too, had to be given to the practical questions of the role of government, the practice of planning, the existence of poverty and slums, the problems of health and old age, the injustice of racial discrimination, the causes and cures of fluctuations in the economic order, and, after World War II, the adequate popular control of the vast scientific discoveries that spelled life or annihilation for large masses of people. A great number of new nations, only recently freed from colonial control, came into existence, each looking for the freedom that democracy promised, but lacking both economic resources and generations of politically educated populations on which to build stable governments. These people desired democracy, but held in low esteem its association with the capitalistic order, under which they believed they had until recently been exploited. Communism, because of its declared enmity to capitalism and its influence on economic democracy, seemingly held out greater promise to these people than did the established democracies. Some leaders of the Western world have advocated the use of the term welfare democracy and a playing down of the capitalist element in democracies of the past and present, in order to guard these new nations from Communist inroads. It is argued that, because of the complexity of modern economic life and the need for immediate relief from poverty, the individualism that in the span of centuries brought the Western world to its material eminence may not be counted on to solve the urgent problems of the new nations. Greater need, therefore, calls for more socialized forms of economic life.

A Catholic Appraisal. Recognized today as essential elements in democracy are universal adult suffrage; representation in a legislative body of a fair proportion of the electorate; decision by majority vote of the electorate in determination of major questions of policy; equality before the law; equality of opportunity; freedom of speech, press, and assembly; freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment; freedom in the exercise of religion; and the largest possible exercise of individual activity consonant with social requirements. Catholic defenders of the democratic order point out that although by natural or divine law there is no one required form of government for all times and places, democracy best meets the requirements of the modern age and best fulfills the underlying principles inherent in Catholic teaching.

Catholic teaching incorporates certain basic principles underlying political relationships. Among these are: recognition of the political order as natural and necessary (not only a necessary evil); the common good as the end of that order; and the recognition of the dignity of the individual person, with respect for his rights and obligations as man and citizen. Defenders of the democratic system point out that since it is a form of government requiring the assumption by the citizen of the most important public decisions, it is therefore a system that has led to the steady broadening of educational opportunities for all. They would insist that the practice of the political art makes possible, although not inevitable, political maturity and political virtue. In no other form is the medieval principle that what touches all must be approved by all better realized.

The Catholic political theorist, however, would reject the purely relativistic theory held by some modern apologists for democracy that no natural-law standards exist to guide both the government and the governed or that decision by popular vote constitutes a guarantee of moral rectitude. Yet in the field of politics, the determination of right and wrong is rarely as clear as the distinction between true and false in mathematics or metaphysics. Government involves the application of objective principles to practical situations, and prudence plays the leading role. It is therefore essential that full discussion and deliberation, which democracy allows for, should precede all decisions. Defenders of democracy are aware that it has not yet realized its full promise and that the complexities of modern life place before it awe-inspiring problems to which answers must be given. Democracy is not a thing of perfection; but, to paraphrase a statement of Sir Winston Churchill, the alternatives to it are too horrible to contemplate.

See Also: government; state, the.

Bibliography: y. simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago 1951). j. maritain, Man and the State (Chicago 1951); The Rights of Man and Natural Law, tr. d. c. anson (New York 1943); Reflections on America (New York 1958). h. a. rommen, The State in Catholic Thought (St. Louis 1945). c. h. mcilwain, Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern (rev. ed. Ithaca, New York 1958). h. laski, The American Democracy (New York 1948). w. lippmann, Essays in the Public Philosophy (Boston 1955). j. messner, Social Ethics, tr. j. j. doherty (new ed. St. Louis 1964). c. v. shields, Democracy and Catholicism in America (New York 1958). j. h. hallowell, The Moral Foundation of Democracy (Chicago 1954). m. p. fogarty, Christian Democracy in Western Europe, 18201953 (Notre Dame, Indiana 1957). a. c. de tocqueville, Democracy in America, tr. h. reeve, 4 v. (London 183540); ed. p. bradley, 2 v. (New York 1960). t. e. utley and j. s. maclure, Documents of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge, England 1957), pt. 1. c. e. merriam, The New Democracy and the New Despotism (New York 1939). j. s. mill, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, ed. r. b. mc callum (Oxford 1946). o. f. von gierke, The Development of Political Theory (New York 1939) pt. 2. e. lewis, Medieval Political Ideas, 2 v. (New York 1954), v.1.

[j. g. kerwin]


views updated Jun 11 2018


DEMOCRACY. A literal translation of the Greek dēmokratia, democracy means rule of the people, or government by the people. It was understood by the ancients as the direct participation of the citizen body in the government of the political community. The political and social institutions that originally gave rise to democracy both as a form of government and as a tool of political analysis soon died out, but democracy as an idea or an ideal persisted in various permutations through the survival or recovery of classical political thought.


In the classical and conventional typology of constitutions or forms of government, as in Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) and Thomas Aquinas (12251274), democracy is viewed as an unlawful or unjust form of rule. There are three legitimate forms of rule: monarchy, aristocracy, and politythe rule of one, the few, or the many in the public interest. The corresponding illegitimate forms are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracythe rule of one, the few, or the many in their own interest. Thus, democracy originally was understood as government conducted in the interest of the poor rather than in the public interest. Democracy did not shed these negative class incrustations until late in the nineteenth century, when it came increasingly to be equated with representative and liberal (constitutional) government.

The feudal and monarchical structures of the medieval West reinforced this tradition. Yet three major historical movements signaled the disintegration of the traditional order, and spawned new political ideas that, although not in themselves democratic, led to the rise of democracy. The first are the Renaissance, the Protestant (especially Puritan) Reformation, and the Enlightenment; the latter are republicanism and social contract theory.


The rise of the Italian city-states brought a radical change in political practice and political theory. Popular political institutions emerged, and government by the people was shown to be possible and desirable. These city-states, and the political thought they produced, contributed significantly to the history of modern democratic thought and practice. A renewal of interest in ancient history and culture, especially in historians such as Polybius (c. 200c. 118 b.c.e.), Sallust (c. 8635 or 34 b.c.e.), and Tacitus (c. 56c. 120 C.E.), combined with the political experience of the Italian city-republics, produced a political literature focused on the problems of popular government, and on its relation to liberty and equality. For the first time since the ancients, arguments in favor of popular rule were articulated. Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) is the culmination of this tradition. His thought links popular government, political liberty, and civic and political equality with the socioeconomic health and military strength of the body politic. Government by the people is deemed necessary to the pursuit of the public interest, and the other governmental forms are therefore seen as inferior. Machiavelli is thus a watershed in the history of democratic theory and practice. As such, his thought was mined by subsequent thinkers such as James Harrington (16111677), Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu (16891755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778).

New attitudes. The waning of the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, the dissolution of feudal ties, and the disintegration of a unified religious view, along with profound economic change and painful social dislocations, led to new attitudes, both in the way people perceived themselves and in the way they saw politics and society. The increase in knowledge and wealth, and the spread of literacy and printing, contributed to rapid political and social transformation. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution signaled the rise and growing importance of these new attitudes. The execution and deposition of kings exploded the traditional belief in the passive acceptance of political power, showing that the basis for that power is human will and action. Major political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), Hugo Grotius (15831645), Samuel von Pufendorf (16321694), and John Locke (16321704) responded to these economic, political, and intellectual changes by redefining and redirecting traditional ideas of natural law, human nature, and government. Hobbes in particular, with his absolute individualism and radical skepticism, expresses the breakdown of traditional forms of community and legitimate government, and their reconstitution by human reason and will.

Contemporary with Hobbes and with the Puritan revolution there developed in Britain a pamphlet literature in which some authors articulated definite arguments for democratic ideas. Chief among these were the Levellers, whose leader, John Lilburne (c. 16141657), located sovereignty in the common people as represented in Parliament. The Levellers developed the first truly modern conception of democratic government, proposing such ideas as universal manhood suffrage, equal representation of electoral districts, equality under law, freedom of expression, and biannual election of Parliaments. English republicanism, as enunciated by James Harrington, John Milton (16081674), and Algernon Sidney (16221683), also looked to the sovereignty of the people to ensure the public interest. Although not strictly democratic, it was concerned with electoral and political devices that later democrats addressed.

Dutch republicanism contributed significant strands to democratic thought and practice. Weaving together ancient Roman historians, Italian republicanism (especially Machiavelli), and the work of René Descartes (15961650) and Hobbes, thinkers such as Pieter de la Court (c. 16181685) and his brother Johan (also Jan) de la Court (16221660), Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and Pufendorf elaborated a theory of the state in which the individual interests and passions of both ruler and people would be subordinated to the common good. Spinoza and the de la Courts believed that a (more or less) democratic system would enable individuals to obey the will of the government and at the same time obey their own will, which in a democratic system is an element of the government's will. Spinoza, especially, thought that of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, the last was the most natural as well as the most rational.

English political thought, whether republican or contractualist, was much more concerned with individual rights than with the rights of the sovereign. Even Hobbes, who obligated the individual to obey an absolute sovereign, nevertheless recognized the absolute and sovereign rights of the individual in the natural state. It was John Locke, though, who integrated the rights of the individual in civil society with the power of the sovereign. His notion of government as a popular trust placed supreme power with a legislature representative of the people, who never alienated their right to change the constitution. Natural right, contract, and political obligation were important ideas; yet they were not necessarily democratic. Most early modern thinkers defined the notion of the people quite narrowly. But they did offer a defense of legislative supremacy, mixed government, and constitutionalism against the traditional and paternalistic claims of absolute monarchy.

In France, Montesquieu combined English ideas of mixed government and parliamentary rights with republican and Machiavellian ideas of the balanced constitution to criticize the despotic tendencies of the French monarchy. The classical sixfold classification of governments he reduced to three: despotism, monarchy, and republic. The latter, in a manner reminiscent of Florentine republican ideas, he further subdivided into aristocratic and democratic. Montesquieu's theory of despotism and his doctrine of the separation of powers were important influences on liberal constitutionalism and on the theory of limited government, but his preferences for limited monarchy and aristocratic government made his ideas undemocratic.


The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human rationality and the efficacy of scientific inquiry, and with its belief in the human capacity for growth (or what Condorcet and Rousseau call "perfectibility"), undermined the religious, cultural, and customary underpinnings of the social and political order. Voltaire (16941778) and Denis Diderot (17131784) in France, like David Hume (17111776) and Jeremy Bentham (17481832) in Britain, explored the human and temporal bases of governmental power. The freedom of thought and expression so necessary for cultural, scientific, and moral development was intimately interwoven with political and civil liberties. In France especially these ideas constituted a thoroughgoing critique of church and state. These thinkers prepared the ground for democracy's future emergence as an actual system of government.

It was Rousseau, product and critic of the Enlightenment, who took the disparate ideas of both the ancients and the moderns (Plato and Aristotle, Roman writers, Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu) and made a truly original contribution to democratic theory. Rousseau's thought weds the ancients' concern with the primacy of political activity to the moderns' emphasis on political sociology. Humanity is defined by its capacity for liberty, and liberty means to be the author of one's actions. Thus, in Rousseau, liberty and equality presuppose each other, such that the people, when they come together as the sovereign body, look to the general and common interest of the community. The people acting together as equals in the pursuit of the public good generate the general will. Liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty are embodied in the citizen body as it makes laws for itself through the general will. By returning to the ancient polis, in which the public sphere is the realm of liberty, and in which equal citizens form an indivisible community, Rousseau formulated a novel theory of democracy.

Early modern Europe, from the Renaissance through the Reformation to the Enlightenment, was a transitional stage characterized by political, social, and intellectual/cultural transformation. It established the conditions that would, with the American and the French Revolutions, make possible the birth of the modern. It germinated and brought together ways of thinking and acting that would later form modern democracy. Ideas such as legislative supremacy, representation, constitutionalism, majority rule, and liberty and equality as indefeasible political rights were elaborated during this critical stage of European history. As a result, the basis of political legitimacy was radically transformed: all political power must issue, or appear to issue, from the people.

See also Condorcet, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Enlightenment ; Grotius, Hugo ; Harrington, James ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Liberty ; Locke, John ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Milton, John ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Natural Law ; Reformation, Protestant ; Renaissance ; Representative Institutions ; Republicanism ; Revolutions, Age of ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Spinoza, Baruch ; Voltaire .


Bock, Gisela, Quentin Skinner, and Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. Provides interesting and informative essays on Machiavelli, his forerunners and contemporaries, and on his influence on English and Dutch republicanism.

Burns, James Henderson, ed. The Cambridge History of Political Thought, 14501700. Cambridge, U.K., 1991. A comprehensive history on all aspects of political thought.

Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, 1989. An analysis of democratic thought and practice.

Dunn, John, ed. Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 B . C .to A . D . 1993. Oxford, 1992. A number of theorists such as Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and David Wootton offer interesting analyses of democracy from the ancient Athenians to the present.

Graubard, Stephen R. "Democracy." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York, 1973. A good survey and discussion of democratic thought and practice since classical antiquity.

Hazard, Paul. European Thought in the Eighteenth Century: From Montesquieu to Lessing. Translated by J. Lewis May. London, 1954. Translation of Pensée européenne au XVIIIème siècle. A good discussion of Enlightenment thought.

Pagden, Anthony, ed. The Languages of Political Theory in Early-Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1987. A series of essays on the political and intellectual changes in early modern Europe.

Riley, Patrick, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. Number of essays on various aspects of Rousseau's thought.

Sartori, Giovanni. The Theory of Democracy Revisited. Chatham, N.J., 1987. Provides both an analytical and historical discussion of various theories of democracy.

Skinner, Quentin. The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Vol. 1, The Renaissance, and Vol. 2, The Age of Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., 1978.

Benedetto Fontana


views updated May 21 2018


Democracy is one of the most important subjects in the social sciences. From the work of de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century through the work of the best contemporary scholars, democracy has been studied closely and debated widely (Tocqueville 1969). Democracy has drawn this attention primarily because, in spite of the fact that it is quite rare historically, it has come to have enormous legitimacy in the eyes of many individuals worldwide. This has not always been the case. Democracy has been severely criticized by those on both the political right and left. But few scholars today question whether democracy is a social good.

Democracy is also important because many historically undemocratic countries have adopted it as a system of government. Many such changes have occurred only in the years since the Cold War (Huntington 1991). By 1994, over half the countries in the world had some form of democratic governance, a doubling of the number of nation-states so organized within 25 years (Lipset 1994).

At the core of most discussions of democracy is a common understanding that democracy is a method of governance or decision making for organizations or societies in which the members of that organization or society participate, directly or indirectly, in the decision making of that group. Further, members affect decision making to such an extent that they can be thought of as actually governing that organization or society. In short, democracy is a system of governance in which members control group decision making.

Not all considerations on democracy have shared this understanding. For example, those working in the Marxist tradition saw any state, democratic or not, as the expression of a class struggle. As such, any state was inherently undemocratic, absent the creation of a classless, communist, and hence truly democratic, society (Held 1995). Subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its affiliated states, and the full exposure of the failures of those regimes, such an extreme view has been almost entirely rejected.

The common understanding of democracy as participation by members or citizens in the decision making of an organization or society still leaves considerable room for dispute. Two issues are central: First, who are, or should be, considered members of the society? Second, what does, or should, constitute a minimum level of control over decision making by members for a system to be thought of as democratic? In short, how much participation is necessary for a system to be democratic? These questions are not simply matters of empirical observation of the world, but also matters for moral and political philosophy.

Three additional factors add to the difficulty of approaching democracy as a field of sociological research. First, analysts of democracy all too often use different definitions of democracy, or fail to define democracy clearly. Democratic systems of governance can be characterized by many attributes—frequency of member participation, the form of member participation, and so forth. Establishing whether a particular system of governance is democratic, involves making decisions about which attributes are essential to a democratic system. Where there is no specific definition of democracy or where definitions conflict, evaluating research on democracy can be tasking (Macpherson 1972).

A second factor increasing the difficulty of this subject matter is that democracy is a system of governance found in many different kinds of collectivities, including states, formal organizations, and informal groups. It is thus necessary to be cautious in applying models, findings, and relationships across different types of collectivities. When general propositions about democracy are advanced, it is important to evaluate those propositions at multiple levels of analysis.

A third difficulty is that social scientists are interested in democracy not just for its own sake, but also because it is thought to be associated with other critical issues. Many important questions involve considerations of democracy: What is the effect of democracy on the success of organizations and nation-states? Does democracy promote individual liberty? What is the effect of democracy on income inequality and social stratification? What is the relationship between democracy and civil society? Can market economies prosper in the absence of democracy? All these and more force sociologists to consider the consequences, as well as the causes, of democracy.

While the difficulties of studying democracy are daunting, much significant work has been done in this field. Democracy has been studied as an outcome and as a cause, and has been studied at both the level of the nation-state, and at the level of the organization.

To begin with, there is work in the sociology of democracy on the question of who is or should be members or citizens of a democratic polity. Most systems commonly thought to be democratic have throughout history excluded some portion of those subject to the will of the democracy from participation in the decision-making process. Such exclusion has occurred on the basis of race, sex, income, relationship to property, criminal status, mental health, religion, age, and other characteristics. While use of many of these categories as a justification for excluding individuals from participation has declined in recent times, others remain, and there is continuing disagreement about the moral and political bases for excluding or including specific groups or categories of individuals. Migrant workers in Western Europe, for example, are subject to the action of the state on a long-term basis and yet remain excluded from full political participation in those states (Brubaker 1989). At the level of the organization, there are individuals affected by the decisions of the organization who may have little or no say in the decisions that affect them. These can include individuals both outside the organization ("stakeholders") and inside the organization. Regarding affected individuals outside the organization, there are occasional movements to increase the power of stakeholders over the decisions of the organization (Nader, Green, and Seligman 1976). While unsuccessful at a general level, there has been a shift toward permitting stakeholders increased access to legal redress, for example, in class action lawsuits and in environmental litigation. And regarding those within the organization, one way to understand the management trends toward "total quality management," participatory management, and economic democracy is that they are attempts to increase democratic participation of workers in decisions that affect them (Jarley, Fiorito, and Delaney 1997).

Sociologists have often focused on the forms of influence and participation that individuals have in decision making. Representative democracy is that form of governance in which members of the organization or polity exercise their control over the organization through the regular election of members of a decision-making body. It is traditional to view representative democracies as democratic because they provide for the expression of interests through the election of representatives. For example, in the United States, citizens directly elect senators and representatives to the U.S. Congress, which in turn makes political decisions about the actions of the federal government. Theorists since the Enlightenment have argued that representative democracy is an appropriate means for conveying participation in decision making in large-size organizations, where individuals are thought not to be able to participate in all decisions (Hobbes 1968; Locke 1980; Mill 1962; Rousseau 1977).

But this view has been attacked by numerous critics, many of them sociologists. One of the most scathing criticisms, building on work by Mosca, is the analysis of democracy by Michels (Mosca 1939). Michels's argument is that in any large organization (and, by extension, in any nation-state), a democratic system of governance inevitably leads to the rise of an oligarchy, and worse, to an oligarchy whose leaders have interests that differ from those of the ordinary members or citizens (Michels 1949). Why is this inevitable? In every instance of large democratic organization, Michels argues, oligarchy arises as a result of the organization's requirement for experienced, skilled leaders. Experience in leadership, however, tends to give leaders access to key organizational resources, such as mailing lists, publicity, and greater experience, that are significant resources that the leadership can use to return themselves to office year after year. And as leaders remain in office over an extended time, their interests and attitudes are likely to diverge from those of members. The divergence of interests is a result of the changed work and social experiences that accrue to leaders. Hence Michels, while arguing that formal organization is necessary for social life, and especially for politics, also believes that democracy in such organizations is essentially impossible.

Michels's analysis has been taken very seriously in the social sciences, and there is some supporting evidence for his propositions. Weber described, and Heclo and Wilson separately concede, that there is a tendency for the civil service and bureaucracy to become unresponsive to the wishes of the people, as their experiences and needs differ from the people (Heclo 1977; Weber 1978; Wilson 1989). Lincoln and Zeitz have shown that as unions tend to get more professional, there is less member participation in decision making (Lincoln and Zeitz 1980). And for both unions and social movement organizations, Michels's critique is taken so seriously as to generate sometimes drastic proposals for counteracting the oligarchical tendencies in these organizations (Kochan 1980). Piven and Cloward argue that reform movements of the poor should waste few resources on creating long-lasting organizations, but should instead create massive and disruptive protests (Piven and Cloward 1977).

However, Michels is not without his critics. Nyden argues that democratic unions are possible (Nyden 1985). Weber himself, who was Michels's teacher, was critical of his conclusions. Michels overstated the case, Weber argued, because he insisted on relying upon too pure or strict a definition of democracy. Having started with such an idealistic vision of democracy, Michels was bound to find that reality comes up short (Scaff 1981).

That too pure a definition of democracy can lead to a misplaced understanding of how democracy works, and a failure to appreciate its achievements, is the key assumption behind the most significant defense of democracy in the 1950s and 1960s—the pluralist account of democracy. Dahl's account defends democracy by admitting its weakness: voting in elections is not a terribly effective system for ensuring that the will of the people will be carried out. Instead, Dahl focuses attention on whether non-electoral forms of influence can yield democratic decision making in keeping with the wishes and interests of the public. Interest groups thus become not the bane, but the hope of democracy. Through lobbying in all its forms, interest groups are able to exert power and influence over decision making beyond elections; if they do this, then the system, with all its flaws, can be considered democratic (Dahl 1961).

A problem with the pluralist view is that not all groups in society may be able effectively to form interest groups to pursue their goals. Olson, in an early effort in what is now known as rational choice theory, argued that individuals must be assumed to be rational, and that rational individuals will not contribute to the formation of interest groups when they will obtain the benefits achieved by the interest group anyway. This is the free rider or collective action problem: if an interest group lobbies for clean air, and a person cannot be denied clean air because he or she does not belong to the interest group, why should that person contribute to the group? Only those interest groups with a particularly small constituency or those interest groups who are able to use "special" incentives—those available only to members of the group—to attract contributors will be able to form to lobby to advance their interests. Groups representing weak and powerless individuals may be unable to supply such special incentives (Olson 1971).

Olson's pessimism about the chances for the disadvantaged to gain a voice in decision making has been the focus of much attention. Oliver and Marwell suggest that social movements are more likely to be formed as interest groups grow in size (Oliver and Marwell 1988). Knoke argues that the use of selective incentives may attract apathetic members, whereas a focus on the goal of lobbying may attract highly active members, thereby creating more effective organizations (Knoke 1988). Clemens points out that as interest groups come into existence, they are themselves models or templates for others to imitate. Those templates will then increase the likelihood of the formation of more interest groups (Clemens 1997). These criticisms of Olson's analysis of the collective action problem may actually serve to strengthen the pluralist account of democracy.

Yet many sociologists remain deeply critical of the pluralist account. Domhoff argues that pluralism is flawed not because the collective action problem retards the capacity of the disadvantaged to organize. Rather, pluralism is flawed because in the United States, and in other industrialized democracies, there is a governing class (Domhoff 1998). This governing class is composed of elites from business, the social upper class, and those in charge of organizations, both within and outside government, that are powerfully involved in the formation of public policy. While Domhoff admits that there is some conflict within these groups, he views them as cohesive in their opposition to the interests of the poor and the working class. Through their control of important organizations, through the strength of their social ties, and through the use of agenda-setting, the governing class achieves enormous power. And, Domhoff argues, the governing class is able to use that power consistently to defeat the interests of the majority.

Other critics of the pluralist account have drawn attention to the relationship between social class and voting. For some years, it appeared that class-based voting in the United States appeared to be declining (Clark, Lipset, and Rempel 1993; Manza, Hout, and Brooks 1995). Yet some scholars believe that class remained a significant factor in voting behavior (Burnham 1981). Piven and Cloward argued that the pluralist account failed because there was a systematic pattern to who voted and who did not. Because the poor and the working classes disproportionately failed to vote in elections, they were inadequately represented in the competition between interests; hence the poor were excluded from the pluralist democracy (Piven and Cloward 1988). It has been shown that class remains a powerful determinant of how people vote, even if the working class no longer votes for the Democratic party in the United States with as great a frequency as it did in the years immediately after WWII (Hout, Brooks, and Manza 1995).

Researchers in the 1970s and 1980s criticized pluralism for adopting a definition of democracy that was too satisfied with the status quo of only limited participation in decision making. These participatory democratic theories emphasized that as members participate in decision making, they learn more about the criteria that need to be used in effective decision making and become better at making decisions. But members also, it was argued, become better at evaluating the choice of candidates where representatives must be elected. Accordingly, empirical researchers began to investigate the causes and consequences of increased participation in decision making (Finley 1973; Pateman 1970).

In keeping with this view, researchers increasingly moved to consider cases of participation throughout society (Alford and Friedland 1975). Participation in decision making in unions, community organizations, municipalities, and protest groups has been analyzed and touted (Gans 1989; Cole 1975). In organization theory, research on different forms of worker participation in organizational decision making has gained increasing prominence. Total quality management, participatory management, and worker control all have been studied closely, not just for improvement in productivity and quality, but also for democracy. Much of this research emphasizes how democracy is consistent with both effectiveness and the improvement of the condition of workers (Jarley, Fiorito, and Delaney 1997). Some have even come to see the spread of democratic management as inevitable, although this is almost certainly exaggerated (Collins 1997). Yet many have worked to show that democratic systems of management are more broadly possible than has been thought, although the conditions under which such systems of decision making can be created and maintained remain under debate (Burawoy 1982; Kanter 1983).

Renewed definitions of democracy beg a central question in democratic research: Where do democracies come from? The question has been most closely studied for nation-states. Lipset identifies a set of central conditions that are associated with the rise of democracy in nation-states. The presence of a market economy appears to be a necessary, although not a sufficient, condition for democracy. A minimum level of economic development is associated with democracy, although a key debate is the extent to which development leads to democracy (Bollen and Jackman 1995; Muller 1995). Also associated with democracy is a political culture in which the tolerance for the rights of others is recognized. Finally, countries with Protestant religious traditions have been more likely to be democratic, though the significance of that effect may be fading in the recent transition to democracy (Lipset 1994).

One of the most significant contributions to the account of the origins of democracy is that by Moore (Moore 1966). His analysis, standing in contrast to a Marxist emphasis on the role of the working class as a force in history, identified the relationship between peasant and lord prior to capitalism as the critical factor in determining whether a society became democratic or autocratic. In countries such as China, France, Japan, or Germany, repressive control over peasants by a dominant class led either to revolution or to continued autocracy. In China, revolution led to Communist autocracy; in France, because of the existence of a commercial class, revolution led, through fits and starts, to democracy. In Japan and Germany, the failure or absence of revolution led to continued dominance of repressive classes, leading to the rise of fascist regimes. Moore argued that in a country such as England, however, the greater status of labor, coupled with the nobility's increasing dependence on market-based agriculture, led to an eventual democratic solution to social conflict.

Moore's work has provoked considerable criticism and extension (Ross et al. 1998). Downing has shown conclusively that the nature of military conflicts affects the success of democracy in a country. How a nation fights its wars, and how often it must fight, is critically determinative of the need for repression in the mobilization of men and weapons to fight. England's peculiar move toward democracy is thus critically dependent on its position as an island nation, free from the necessity to fight long-term, massive land wars on the continent of Europe, and the necessity to maintain a state and military administrative structure capable of that task (Downing 1992). Friedman has shown that former British colonies tend to be democratic, whereas countries ruled by Leninist parties tend to remain autocratic (Friedman 1998).

Students of social movements have tended to argue that social movements are significant sources of democracy (Giugni, McAdam, and Tilly 1998). There is evidence that social movements can push the transition to democracy faster (Hipsher 1998; Sandoval 1998). Certainly this is consistent with Tilly's theoretical model of democratization, in which he argues that social conflict, as embodied in social movements, and where mediated by third parties, can lead to the creation of rights essential for democracy (Tilly 1998). But surely the effects of social movements on democracy are contingent on many factors, and sociologists must be careful not to assume that the outcome of social protest will be democratization (Melucci and Lyyra 1998). Clearly this has not always been the case.

The sources of democracy in organizations is an understudied area. Two findings are worth noting. Knoke has argued that in the present-day United States, a minimum level of democratic procedure is just a part of the institutional building blocks from which organizations are constructed; in short, organizations such as unions may have democratic procedures simply because everybody expects them to have those procedures (Knoke 1990). And, returning to the tension between democracy and effectiveness identified by Michels, Jarley has found that the causes of democratic procedures in unions are independent of those which drive bureaucratization (Jarley, Fiorito, and Delaney 1997). Yet much more systematic work needs to be done in this area.

The other side of the coin in the study of democracy is the question of the relationship between democracy and other core subjects of sociological interest. The relationship between democracy and equality is a central issue and has been a focus of research since de Tocqueville (Tocqueville 1969). In recent years, research has centered around this specific question: Does democracy promote or retard income inequality in nation-states? There is some evidence that democracy does not increase inequality, at least directly, and it might lead to increased equality (Bollen and Jackman 1985; Muller 1988).

Another question is whether democracies can be effective. The central issue, echoing Michels, is whether or not organizations, such as unions or parties or, for that matter, businesses, can be successful in competitive environments against organizations that are autocratically run. The evidence is conflicting. Some argue that democracy and effectiveness are in conflict in the context of unions (Lipset, Trow, and Coleman 1959; Piven and Cloward 1977). Others argue that democracy leads to effectiveness in achieving goals (Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin 1994). As yet, there seems to be no definitive answer, and the issue certainly merits more research.

Finally, the subject of democracy has been intimately tied in the 1990s to two related subjects.

The first is the subject of globalization. As the world has become more closely connected, as communications technologies radically change again, and as the world economy has grown larger, some have raised questions about the implications of this trend for democracy. Held, for example, has argued that decisions that affect citizens are increasingly being made at a level beyond that of the nation-state; in supra-national organizations and in the international economy. As a consequence of this globalization, the extent of democratic control over decisions is seen to have weakened (Held 1995). Others have criticized this argument, and the subject is still very much subject to research and debate (Hirst and Thompson 1996).

The second related subject is civil society. A focus of scholarly attention in part because of the demands for it from those who have emerged from socialist rule, civil society is commonly conceived as space for associational activity between the state and the individual (Gellner 1994). Many now see organizations and associations, independent of the state, as crucial to democracy, constituting a critical element of democratic society (Streeck and Schmitter 1985). Certainly, they are not the same: as Hall puts it, "Democracy can be decidedly uncivil" (Hall 1995). But democracy depends on civil society (Somers 1993). This view echoes Tocqueville's assertion that the knowledge of how to combine is fundamental to democracy (Tocqueville 1969). Already attracting significant attention, much room remains to answer questions about the relationship between civil society and democracy.

In conclusion, it is well to remember that there are many forms of democracy: those with weaker or stronger civil liberties; those with weaker or stronger civil societies; those with weaker or stronger tolerance for diversity. Nor can it be assumed that these different forms are internally consistent: the rights of the community to choose what it wishes to be, and the rights of the individual to live as he or she wishes, are not easily reconciled.

It is also well to remember that democracy is not inevitable (Berger 1992). Neither, we should also recall, is democracy a simple outcome that, once achieved, is a permanent condition (Friedman 1998). Democracy can be strengthened; democracy can be weakened. And it can, as it has in the past, disappear. While democracy is today in the ascendant, the lessons of the French Revolution and of Weimar Germany should not be forgotten; although in both instances democracy was regained, it was not regained quickly or without cost. And in Germany, as in Japan, democracy was not regained from within, but imposed from without. History should teach us that we still have much to learn about democracy.

(see also: Capitalism, Development, Inequality, Civil Society, Individualism in Less Developed Countries, Political Sociology, Rational Choice Theory.)


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Stepan-Norris, Judith, and Maurice Zeitlin 1994 "Union Democracy, Radical Leadership, and the Hegemony of Capital." American Sociological Review 1995:829–850.

Streeck, Wolfgang, and Philippe C. Schmitter 1985 "Community, Market, State—and Associations? The Prospective Contribution of Interest Governance to Social Order." In Wolfgang Streeck and Philippe C. Schmitter, eds., Private Interest Government 1–29. London: Sage Publications.

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Andrew L. Creighton


views updated Jun 11 2018


In the October 1837 inaugural issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, an antebellum journal dedicated to strengthening democracy in politics and literature, the editor John O'Sullivan (1813–1895) expressed the democratic thrust of the era when he announced that "all history has to be re-written; political science and the whole scope of all moral truth have to be considered and illustrated in the light of the democratic principle" (p. 14). In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the "democratic principle" was defined by a resurgence of interest in the promises of the Declaration of Independence as the foundational statement of American freedom, liberty, and equality. The Democratic Review, as it was more commonly called, saw the creation of a national literature as the most "potent influence" (p. 14) in reviving the principles of democracy and in advancing America as a nation that might realize the "glorious destiny of its future" (p. 13).

As suggested in O'Sullivan's first editorial, 1837 is a signal year in the rhetoric of American nationalism, during which a renewed interest in revitalizing American culture was displayed by a literature infused with democracy. This is also the year of Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) "American Scholar" address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard, in which he denounces European literary tradition in favor of a sense of newness and youth in American books. Emerson asks young scholars to take up the project of renewing American democracy by creating a literature that breaks with "the courtly muses of Europe" and moves away from antiquated political and social thought. For Emerson, seizing the freedom to "speak our own minds" means that "a nation of men [sic] will for the first time exist" in American letters and culture (pp. 104–105).

Orations on American patriotism in the antebellum era, such as one delivered at Brown University in 1840 by Thomas Kennicutt, a popular New England lecturer, displayed this Emersonian insistence that it was the "duty of literary men of our country" to revive the "democratic principle in civil society" (Kennicutt, p. 5). Writers of the early and mid-nineteenth century were thus charged with the responsibility of promoting a political and cultural revolution through the creation of a literature that would best express the spirit of a young America destined to spread democracy throughout the world.


Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), who served two terms as the seventh U.S. president from 1828 to 1836, was significant in defining the terms of democracy in the early nineteenth century. Jackson and his followers portrayed the Democratic Party and its policies as progressive and egalitarian in contrast to what they characterized as the antidemocratic aristocracy of the Whigs. In his claims to represent the American electorate and to advance democracy, Jackson embodied this democratic impulse, declaring himself a man of the people. For Jackson, the "people" were not rising capitalists, leaders of business and industry, or entrepreneurs; instead, Jackson understood "the people" to be mechanics, laborers, and farmers. Under Jackson, the concept of a popular or majority rule took hold; Democrats denounced elitism and aristocratic pretensions, heralding instead the rights of the citizenry, insisting that the will of the people be represented by their elected leaders. By most historical accounts, Jackson is seen as largely responsible for effecting this political and cultural transformation of the United States from a republic, governed by an elect few, to a democracy. Jackson persuaded Americans that sovereign power resided in them—that they would control the governing process by deciding questions of constitutionality, law, and representation through the ballot box.

Many writers, philosophers, and activists were also convinced by Jackson's rhetoric of democracy, believing that more concern for the rights of common individuals would yield a more inclusive political and cultural environment receptive to the ideals of a younger generation of Americans. Emerson, for example, calls for young scholars to transform themselves into "Man Thinking," "free even to the definition of freedom" (p. 97). For Emerson, this movement toward self-rule, wherein individuals treat each other as "sovereign state[s]," reflects the embodiment of "an analogous political movement," the impulse in Jacksonian democracy in which "new importance [is] given to the single person" (p. 103). The political and intellectual trend that Emerson recognizes was animated by a group of literary critics in New York who aligned themselves with the more liberal faction of the Democratic Party. This group of critics and writers became known as Young America, and the earliest members included the prominent New York City activists and editors Cornelius Mathews, Evert Augustus Duyckinck, William A. Jones, and the Democratic Review editor John O'Sullivan.

At the intersection of political sentiments and the production of literature in antebellum America, the Democratic Review had two primary aims: to give liberal intellectuals a voice to effect political and social change and to promote a democratic American literature that would better represent the interests of the proletariat. Young Americans, encouraged by O'Sullivan to muse overtly on the connections between art and liberty, were attempting to realize the promises of social equality, interpreting democracy as a harmonization of the actual condition of individuals in society with their acknowledged rights as citizens. In an 1842 article in the Democratic Review, "Democracy and Literature," O'Sullivan makes clear his intention to publish work in favor of literary democratic freedom: "Literature is not only the natural ally of freedom, political or religious; but also affords the firmest bulwark . . . to protect the interests of freedom" (p. 196). Through the Democratic Review, O'Sullivan was attempting to create a community of revolutionary intellectuals, like Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892), as literary agents for social change.


During his tenure at the Democratic Review from its inception in 1837 until Evert Duyckinck (1816–1878) took over the magazine in 1846, O'Sullivan published the bulk of Hawthorne's stories, housed Whitman's earliest major publications, included many of James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) writings, provided an outlet for abolitionist writers Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), and even published work by Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), although the latter frequently voiced his critique of the Democratic Party. Having just published his Twice-Told Tales, 1837 is a watershed year for Hawthorne as well, as he begins to publish most of his work in the Democratic Review, including the short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and nearly all the stories later collected in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Hawthorne was particularly influential in inspiring other writers to join the cause of Young America's democratic revolution, most notably a young Herman Melville (1819–1891), who praised Hawthorne's Mosses as the greatest work of fiction by an American in his 1850 tribute "Hawthorne and His Mosses," which appeared in the Literary World.

The influence of Young America and the milieu of the Democratic Review can be seen in some of Hawthorne's better-known novels, such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom-House," Hawthorne's description of himself as a "Locofoco Surveyor" suggests his sympathies with the Jacksonian faction of the Democratic Party in his use of the term "locofoco," derived from the name of the matches used to relight the 1835 meeting of New York Democrats after dissenters turned off the lamps. Salem Whigs later accused Hawthorne of locofoco activity and released him from his governmental post, resulting in Hawthorne's sense of alienation as suggested in his declaration, at the end of the "The Custom-House," of himself as a "citizen of somewhere else" (p. 157). Similarly, in The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne expresses a distrust of the influences of the past that closely echoes Emerson's ideas about the need to move beyond the authority of an older period. Through Holgrave, a character who symbolizes the reformist tendency of the era, Hawthorne articulates the Emersonian imperative for society to reject "Dead Men's forms and creeds" in order for a younger generation to have a "proper influence on our own world" (pp. 509, 510). In Holgrave, Hawthorne presents an archetype of the ideals and vision of a Young America struggling to redefine the promises of democracy.

The Democratic Review also provided an early forum for Whitman's writing in the 1840s and 1850s; Whitman seemed to inherently understand O'Sullivan's push for a literary democracy as seen in his insistence that a nation's literature must emanate from its political beliefs and practices. Whitman reiterated the platform of Young America almost to the letter, calling for the younger generation to usurp the old in order to revive American democracy. In addition to his pieces in the Democratic Review, Whitman's musings on democracy were printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a journal already enjoying a strong standing among newspapers in New York and throughout the country when Whitman took over as editor in 1846. In an editorial this same year, "Perpetuity of the Democratic Spirit," (Gathering of the Forces 1:6–9) Whitman speaks as the voice of the people seeking to regenerate the democracy envisioned by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and his contemporaries: "We stand here the inheritors of their principles and opposed to the same foe—the foe of equal rights. Democracy must conquer again as it did then—and more certainly than it did then" (p. 9). As seen in these editorials, and throughout his poetry, Whitman's understanding of democracy takes on religious significance as a sense of faith that transcends and endures despite political movements and systems; for Whitman, the "true Democratic spirit is endued [sic] with immortal life and strength" (p. 7).

Whitman's 1855 preface to his collection of poems Leaves of Grass highlights his Jacksonian understanding of the importance of "the common people" and their "deathless attachment to freedom" in defining the true "genius of the United States" (p. 450). As seen in the poem's tributes to ordinary people and objects, Leaves of Grass displays Whitman's vision of a democratic art form that fused the desire for political democracy with an egalitarian concern for the experiences of everyday people. In Leaves, Whitman also declared independence from traditional poetic forms and subjects, pioneering a free verse style that rejected conventional patterns of rhyme and meter. Although his mixture of the sacred and the profane in Leaves distanced and offended many nineteenth-century readers, poets and critics have since noted the importance of Whitman's unconventional style in exhibiting Emerson's call for literary independence. For Whitman, the poet was the voice of this patriotism, incarnating the people and their quest for liberty, thus embodying the Young American movement for the "transcendant [sic] and new" (Leaves, p. 452). Whitman's poet is one of the masses, a "bard . . . commensurate with a people" (p. 450), serving their interests by being the "voice and exposition" of their quest for political liberty (p. 459). Just as Emerson's "American Scholar" address influenced a new generation of Americans to be forward-looking in developing a literature to express the democratic spirit of the nation, Whitman's 1855 preface to Leaves served as a manifesto for a new American poetry that would supplant outdated traditions.

Whitman's optimistic view of democratic transcendence resonates with the democratic vision of John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote for the Democratic Review a decade earlier. The journal published a significant amount of Whittier's work, including the poem "Democracy," first published in the Review in 1841 and later collected in Lays of My Home, and Other Poems in 1843). Whittier's abolitionist, anticapitalist, and pro-labor beliefs can be seen in his vision of a democracy that sees with an "impartial eye" through which "fade the lines of caste and birth!" Whittier's democratic vision unites the "groaning multitudes of earth" who under its benevolent eye become "equal in their suffering." Democracy for Whittier has a transformative effect, erasing class and racial boundaries so that there are no divisions between "prince or peas-ant—slave or lord—/ Pale priest, or swarthy artisan." Democracy's eye sees beyond what Whittier refers to as "all disguise, form, place or name" and instead "lookest on the man within" (p. 63). As demonstrated in this poem and throughout his active political and literary life, Whittier's understanding of the necessity for a democracy that represents people of all social strata provides another response to Emerson's plea that American writers embrace the everyday experiences of commonplace people. Whittier's optimistic rejuvenation of democracy, however, recognizes the existence of vast social inequalities that were plaguing the United States and threatening its cohesion.


The 1840s and 1850s witnessed significant political and cultural changes concurrent with the Young American call for equality, as seen in the strengthening of reform movements that focused on denouncing materialism and organizing efforts to correct social and economic abuses. This reformist impulse in American culture and literature, however, raised debates about the meaning of liberty and freedom in a democratic society. Many reformers believed that Jacksonian policies and practices excluded women, African Americans, and Native Americans from the democratic vision of Young America.

The late Jacksonian era is characterized by the expansion of the United States both domestically—nearly a doubling of its spatial domain—and abroad, as America pursued territorial and economic advantages in places like Hawaii, Cuba, and China. This expansionism fulfilled the dream of Jacksonian Democrats, embodied in the concept of Manifest Destiny. John O'Sullivan first coined the infamous phrase in his article "Annexation" in the Democratic Review in July/August 1845. For O'Sullivan and other Jacksonian democrats, the acquisition of land was crucial for the success of a new and distinctly American political and economic system. Writers of this era espoused a belief in Manifest Destiny as part of the democratic mission of Americanism; Whitman, for example, argues for the importance of the West as a site for democracy in his 1847 article "Where the Great Stretch of Power Must be Wielded." Whitman expresses the sentiment of the era when he claims that the West—"the boundless democratic free West!"—represents the future of American progress and liberty (Gathering, p. 25). Jacksonian Democrats believed that territorial expansion would foster harmonious relations by uniting people across geographical boundaries; expansionism, in this sense, would bring about the spread of democracy.

Many scholars have noted that Jacksonian expansionism displays antiabolitionist tendencies and racial fears that fueled the acquisition and conquest of lands. As early as Jackson's first term in the 1820s, the issues of slavery and of Indian removal animated questions about American democracy. Outspoken critiques of America's mobile quest for democracy can be seen throughout the literature of the mid-century. For example, John Rollin Ridge's 1854 novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit demonstrates Ridge's firsthand understanding of Jacksonian Indian removal. Ridge's Cherokee family fought with arms and in the courts against such policies before ultimately signing treaties that led to their eventual removal on the Trail of Tears, which claimed the lives of more than four thousand Cherokees on their trek westward. Ridge's novel represents an important response to the colonization impulse frequently overlooked in studies of the literary democracy of Young America. Women writers such as Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872), Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), among many others, also fictionalized their experiences of exclusion from the promises of democratic equality. They were influenced in part by the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Organized by the abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), and other Quaker women, the Seneca Falls Convention called for social and civic equality between women and men. Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments remains a significant document of the rights of women; modeled after the Declaration of Independence, this pivotal piece of literature from the convention lists the injustices done to women by men, much as the earlier Declaration listed the grievances of the colonists against British rule. The resolutions adopted at the convention included a call for suffrage, which would enable women to secure for themselves the promises of democracy.

One of the fewer than fifty men present at Seneca Falls was the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). Douglass wrote and spoke widely on the topic of equality for African Americans in the 1850s and 1860s, depicting the vast inequalities between blacks and whites in the United States as bringing about the degeneration of America's proclaimed national values and ideals. In one such speech, delivered in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852, Douglass characterizes America as a young nation at the "beginning of [a] national career." He invokes the rhetoric of Young America to argue for a resurgence in the democratic ideals upon which the nation was founded—democratic ideals that might ultimately "be shrouded in gloom" if the enslavement of blacks continued ("Oration," pp. 4–5). Douglass also invokes the language of the Declaration of Independence as a reminder of the democratic principles of the nation's founding, encouraging white Americans to "stand by those principles," which he describes as the "ringbolt to the chain of your nation's destiny" (p. 9). The fundamental question Douglass asks of his white audience is: "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?" (p. 14). In so asking, Douglass makes clear the disparity between whites and blacks, brought about largely because of American slavery. In this speech, he ultimately rejects the Fourth of July as "yours not mine," declaring the memorial a hypocrisy on the democratic principles of liberty and equality (p. 15). Throughout his life and career, Douglass insisted that the emancipation from slavery was fundamental to the full realization of American democracy; anything less, for Douglass, was a mockery of America's discourse on equal rights. He was ambivalent, though, on the speediest means to achieving this democracy, initially imploring African American men to enlist during the Civil War, for example, yet later withdrawing his support of enlistment because he believed black men were not being recognized as soldiers equal to whites. This sense of ambivalence about the promises of democracy can be seen in the literature of a second-generation Young American, Herman Melville, whose novel MobyDick (1851) displays both assenting and antagonistic responses to Young America's democratic nationalism.


Literary democracy underwent another shift in the 1840s when Evert Duyckinck became the literary editor of the Democratic Review. Duyckinck had a conspicuous part in this second wave of Youn Americanism, heralding a series published through Wiley and Putnam, a prominent New York publishing house where he was also an editor, called the Library of American Books. In this series, Duyckinck attempted to realize his democratic literary vision, publishing a wide range of affordable paperback editions of works by popular and lesser known writers including Hawthorne, Whittier, the early feminist writer Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), and Caroline Matilda Kirkland (1801–1864), who wrote about the American West. This series was important for the advancement of Duyckinck's populist ideology and the democratization of literature because it encouraged the publication of first-rate books at affordable prices in order to reach the widest possible audience.

In Duyckinck, Melville found a Young American role model and encouragement for the unrefined writing of his early novels, Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Mardi (1849). Although Duyckinck hailed the latter, in particular, as purely original, he found Melville's vision in Moby-Dick too far beyond the pale of his own democratic idealism to accept, instead issuing an aggressive and devastating review of the novel in the Literary World in 1852. Moby-Dick suggests the influence of Duyckinck's Young American teachings on Melville's nationalism. This is particularly evident at the end of chapter 26 ("Knights and Squires"), which has been read as Melville's defense of Jacksonian democracy. Echoing the work of Emerson and Whitman, Melville lauds the laboring class as infused with a "democratic dignity" and appeals to a "democratic God"—the "centre and circumference of all democracy"—as the bearer of the "Spirit of Equality" (pp. 126–127). However, Moby-Dick also reflects Melville's pessimism and cynicism about American politics and culture, as suggested in the chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale." This chapter ends with Melville's musing on the "centre and circumference" of democracy, symbolized here in the white whale, as duplicitous, perhaps merely one of the "subtile deceits" lacking in real substance (p. 212).

In prophesying the unfulfilled promises of democracy, Moby-Dick suggests Melville's awareness of the racial and imperialist rhetoric underscoring the era's democratic proclamations. Melville was writing the final drafts of Moby-Dick in 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Law extended the rights of white slave owners by requiring citizens to assist in the return of fugitive slaves. Read in this context, the novel suggests that Melville's democracy requires a dismantling of racist institutions and laws—a point of view not held by more moderate Young Americans. Melville's critique of Young America's softening ideology can be seen more overtly in the "Young America in Literature" chapter of his next novel, Pierre (1852), which barely disguises Melville's dislike of the fickle editorial world represented by Duyckinck. Although it disturbed Melville's contemporaries, Moby-Dick nonetheless confirmed Young America's belief that literature needed to have democracy at its core.


Reconstruction policies after the Civil War suggest a failure to achieve democratic equality; the 1860s and 1870s, for example, saw the veto of bills that would have granted greater freedom and equality to African Americans, and despite laws against segregation and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed enfranchisement of African Americans, racial discrimination was still widespread, economic advancement for blacks still limited, and the struggle for female suffrage unresolved. In Democratic Vistas (1871), his indictment of American materialism, Whitman diagnoses the problems plaguing America as stemming from a hypocrisy at the core of its nationalism and once again calls for "a new founded literature" to breathe a "recuperative" breath into "these lamentable conditions" (Leaves, p. 477). The older Whitman held onto his vision of political and literary democracy, pleading for a nationalism that would "prove itself beyond cavil" and grow out of a "great original literature . . . to become the justification and reliance . . . of American democracy" (pp. 470–471). As suggested in Whitman's musings on America's new vistas, although Young American politics receded, the cultural impact of democracy continued to be a pervasive influence on the creation of a national literature—a literature of hope and independence.

See alsoDemocracy in America;Individualism and Community; Reform; Utopian Communities; Young America


Primary Works

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, An American Slave. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Douglass, Frederick. "Oration Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester." Rochester, N.Y.: Lee, Mann and Co, 1852.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." 1837. In Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Collected Novels: Fanshawe, TheScarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Kennicutt, Thomas. "Oration Delivered before the Society of United Brothers at Brown University in 1840." Providence, R.I.: Knowles and Vose Printers, 1840.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Melville, Herman. Shorter Works. New York: Literary Classics, 1984.

Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention of 1848. New York: R. J. Johnston, 1870.

The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 1, no. 1 (October 1837).

The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 11, no. 50 (August 1842).

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920.

Whitman, Walt. I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. Selected and edited by Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose. 1855. Edited by Lawrence Buell. New York: Modern Library, 1981.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. Lays of My Home, and Other Poems. Boston: W. D. Ticknor, 1843.

Secondary Works

Budick, Emily Miller. Nineteenth-Century AmericanRomance: Genre and the Construction of Democratic Culture. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Burstein, Andrew. Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution ofAmerica's Romantic Self-Image. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.

Dimock, Wai-Chee. Empire for Liberty: Melville and thePoetics of Individualism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Fredricks, Nancy. Melville's Art of Democracy. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Herbert, T. Walker, Jr. Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Hietala, Thomas R. Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Karcher, Carolyn L. Shadow Over the Promised Land:Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville's America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Matthiessen, F. O. The American Renaissance: Art andExpression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. 1941. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Powell, Timothy B. Ruthless Democracy: A MulticulturalInterpretation of the American Renaissance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course ofAmerican Democracy, 1833–1845. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: TheSubversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian. 1975. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1991.

Rogin, Michael Paul. Subversive Genealogy: The Politics and Art of Herman Melville. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Satz, Ronald N. American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

Stafford, John. The Literary Criticism of "Young America":A Study in the Relationship of Politics and Literature, 1837–1850. New York: Russell and Russell, 1952.

Widmer, Edward L. Young America: The Flowering ofDemocracy in New York City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Julie Prebel


views updated May 14 2018






Democracy is a concept that means different things to different people. For some it is a political system that ensures political equality and self-rule. To others, it is a system that allows the presence of equal opportunities and rights. The two different conceptualizations of democracy are based on the experiences of the two major democratic experiments that the world has seen so far: democracies in classical Greece and modern nation-states. The classical model of democracy draws its inspiration from the democratic experiments of ancient Greek city-states. In such an arrangement, citizens were both the rulers and the ruled; political sovereignty and power rested with the people. Each individual citizen had a right and an obligation to serve in administrative duties. Citizens were politically active. Women, slaves, and immigrants were, however, excluded from political participation. The small size of the cities allowed citizens to meet face to face and make direct deliberations and decisions on various issues.

There are at least two problems with the classical democratic arrangement: first, it is applicable more to small city-states than to modern nation-states. Face-to-face political participation and deliberations are easier to conduct in small communities. Modern democracies are established in much larger nation-states, making a representative form of government a necessity. Second, the conditions under which political equality is possible are not spelled out; it is simply asserted as a self-evident truth. There is no strong consensus among citizens and scholars in such an assertion. Indeed, some argue that individual liberty, which is promoted in modern democracies, makes some form of inequality inevitable.

Although there is no consensus, many scholars would agree that democracy in modern nation-states means the presence of political rights and civil liberties. Political rights include the right to vote, the right to run for office, and the presence of fair and free electoral competition; civil liberties include the presence of due process, freedom of speech and assembly, and equality before the law. Democracy, however, even as a procedural concept, is much more than the mere occurrence of elections and liberties. For instance, the presence of a majoritarian decision-making or voting mechanism, often overlooked and taken for granted, is an essential procedure in the democratic process. Elected and, in some cases, appointed representatives and officials utilize the simple majority rule as a minimum requirement for the passage of laws, judicial decisions, and administrative policies; a majority voting system is commonly used to resolve major issues, including difficult and divisive ones, by legislation or judicial interpretation. Thus, democracy may be defined as the presence of fair and free elections, civil liberties, and a majoritarian decision-making procedure. Nevertheless, not all scholars would agree with such a procedural definition. For instance, it does not fully account for the variation in the distribution of political power or influence among citizens. In other words, why is it that some citizens can exert more influence on political leaders than do others? Why do some individuals have a better chance of becoming a president or a member of parliament than others do?


Compared to other older forms of political systems, such as autocracy, modern democracy is a relatively new phenomenon. James Bryce (1921) noted that in the early nineteenth century only Switzerland had a working democracy in Europe. Great Britain had greater freedom than any other nation on the European continent, but its government was still oligarchic. By 1921, however, Bryce observed that almost all the monarchies of Europe had become democracies. He counted twenty new democratic countries in the Western Hemisphere, and five more among the British colonies. The political evolution toward a free society heralded the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government (p. 4). Outside Europe, the United States, which is considered as the oldest democracy, had ratified its constitution in 1789. Thus, it is fair to assume that modern democracy is perhaps a consequence of the modern period, mainly of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.

The initial quality of democracy in countries such as Great Britain, Sweden, and the United States was, however, low by todays standards. More often than not, those who had property voted. Mass democracy was possible only after the spread of mass literacy and the spread of wealth to a significant number of individuals. In other words, the conditions under which democracy has arisen would, among other things, seem to be an increased level of education and economic development. Seymour M. Lipset (1959), following Aristotle, argues that socioeconomic development leads to educated citizenry and a large middle class. An educated citizenry and a large middle class seem to be the social foundations of modern democracy. Despite the presence of counterfindings, empirical studies support Lipsets argument. Socioeconomic development, however, may not be the only factor that accounts for the presence of democracy. The political process, particularly political leadership, and external factors are two other possible variables.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century the United States was not, for instance, a developed country. In the absence of a developed economy the framers of the U.S. Constitution were able to establish a political system that would become one of the most stable democracies in the world. To be sure, the architects of the U.S. Constitution, such as James Madison, were themselves influenced by the evolution of European political thought and by the level of education they had received. Still, not all leaders in all countries attempted to establish a freer system of governance at the time. This was a choice made by the framers. Thus, it is fair to contend that the framers of the U.S. Constitution have contributed to the emergence and development of democracy in the United States.

Democracy, once emerged in countries such as the United States, has found its way to other parts of the world. For instance, one of the legacies of European colonialism was the spread of modern democratic institutions in some of the former colonies. Former British colonies like India, Botswana, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago have maintained democratic rule since independence. Given that not all former British colonies have maintained democracy, however, it was perhaps a mixture of this legacy and a democratically predisposed indigenous leadership that have helped maintain democratic rule in these countries. Leaders like Seretse Khama (1921-1980) of Botswana and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) of India were predisposed to democracy.


Democracy is a complex political system. It requires give-and-take compromises when issues are debated and decisions are made. Political leaders and their constituents must consistently, and often painfully, compromise their political and economic interests with others. A decision by one branch of government is often checked and balanced by the others. Officials private and public lives are often scrutinized by the media. Despite the foregoing inconveniences, democracy is perhaps the only known political system that can provide individuals with the right to be treated equally before the law, the right to vote, and the right to own personal property. Other autocratic systems, such as monarchy, theocracy, and communism, have not adequately done so in the past and are not logically expected to do so in the future.

Democracy has, however, its variants, the most important ones being liberal democracy and social democracy. Although these variants adhere to the fundamental principles of democracy, including the presence of fair and free elections and civil liberties, they seem to have distinct socioeconomic principles. While liberal democracy stresses the importance of individuals as the deciding force of their own economic opportunities, social democracy seems to emphasize the role of the public in promoting social equity. More specifically, liberal democracy is grounded on the principle that individuals must, with little or no societal and government encroachments, be free to possess personal property and pursue their own economic interests. While such a system may bring affluence to most of the people, some individuals will probably become less successful or remain poor. By contrast, social democracy assumes that the market economic system cannot by itself evenly promote the economic interests of every individual; hence, society and government are expected to contribute to the socioeconomic well-being and advancement of the poor. The United States and Sweden may be considered as examples of the former and the latter, respectively. Such differences in economic policy cannot be exaggerated, however. In practice, even liberal democracies attempt to support the poorer segment of society and the variation in the level of such a support between the two variants seems to be only a matter of degree. Indeed, global economic competition and electoral politics seem to have tempered the different approach that the two variants of democracy have followed. Relatively higher taxation policies, as seen in social democracies, will quite likely hamper the competitiveness of corporations. Similarly, liberal democracies may have to increase their support to the poor because not doing so will probably not be favored by most people. A convergence of the two variants is apt to be inevitable.


Once countries transition to democratic rule, the next logical step is to stabilize such a system. Again, the stability of the new democracies seems to rest, among other things, on continuous socioeconomic development. The case of African countries right after independence suggests that poor or immature democracies are likely to be unstable and will probably revert to authoritarian systems. Nevertheless, the cases of India and Botswana suggest that poor democracies can become stable if they have good leadership and promote socioeconomic development. While continuous socioeconomic development may promote social mobility and affluence, good leadership tends to serve as an arbitrator for the presence of fair distribution of societal interests. By far, the most important role of democratic governments for promoting democracy has been public expenditures and investments in education, particularly in the education of impoverished children. Thus, the political process, including good political leadership and interest group politics, and continuous economic development continue to be two of the most important factors for the consolidation of democracy. But is the democratic process static or dynamic?

One can consider the cases of Sweden and Mali, for instance. While the former has been democratic since the early twentieth century, the latter has been so only since the 1990s. Can one logically assume that these two countries have an equal level of democracy? According to major democracy indices such as the Freedom House and Polity IV, the answer is, more or less, yes. Still, older democracies, particularly those in industrial countries, tend to have a higher quality of democracy than younger ones. While the basic attributes of democracy, such as fair and free electoral competition, civil liberties, and a majoritar-ian decision-making procedure, may be more or less present in both cases, the distribution of power among citizens in the two societies is quite different. Citizens in the older industrial democracies are more affluent and highly educated; as a result, they may have a greater chance of running for and winning elections for public offices and influencing public policies. Income and education resources would lead to political influence. If the income among citizens is unequal, how can they be politically equal? And because higher levels of affluence and educational achievement are a function of time, it follows that the diffusion of power or a higher level of democracy is likely to be dynamic.

Thus, the effect of socioeconomic development (and good leadership) after the transition to democracy may not merely be to maintain democracy but also to keep it evolving. Nevertheless, some scholars consider political systems as autonomous and static; that is, political systems are either autocracies or democracies. Others contend that political systems may be defined as trichotomous. These latter scholars can see at least a classification of political systems as autocracies, semi- or transitional democracies, and established democracies. A third group of scholars posit that democracy is a continuous concept. When scholars argue that democracy is continuous, they usually and mainly refer to the political process that occurs between autocratic rule and democratic transition. Dahl (1971) suggests that democratic development could go beyond the autocracy-democratic transition continuum and argues that current democracies or polyarchies are only an approximation of the ideal democracy. The main reason that no perfect democracy exists, according to Dahl, is the presence of income inequality. Thus, to speed up the establishment of a more equal democratic system, Dahl (1985) prescribes for the replacement of the current private enterprise economy by a system that allows employee-ownership of firms. He seems to imply that some form of political agreement and action would bring about political equality. Dahls position, however, seems to clash with individuals right to own private property. Indeed, the failures of ancient Greek democracies and twentieth-century communism can be partly explained by the absence of, or impediment to, economic liberty in these systems. The two forms of political systems maintained that true democracy could be achieved by forceful redistribution of property. What followed in these systems was political instability and economic inefficiency, leading to the demise of both political experiments. If democracy ensures economic and political freedoms and if such a process is also dynamic, it follows that the concept of democracy has to be defined accordingly.

Gizachew Tiruneh (2004) posits that the distribution of power among individuals must be considered when one rates or defines democracies. He contends that the procedural attributes of democracy, such as electoral competition, civil liberties, and a majoritarian decision-making procedure, are fundamental but once achieved they cannot be adequately used to differentiate the level of democracy among democracies. Power differences, according to Tiruneh, stem from differences in the level of income and rationality among individuals. And because individual achievement and competition are protected rights in democracies, some individuals are likely to become more successful than others. The more income an individual has, the more influence or political power he or she will possess. Assuming that the distribution of income itself is dynamic (being propelled by socioeconomic development), the diffusion of power or the level of democracy will quite likely increase over time. However, because not all individuals will have the same level of income and rationality, perfect political equality may not necessarily be achieved.

Thus, perfect political equality may, similar to the perfect competition argument in economics, be considered as a political ideal on which modern democracies may be judged. Rather than considering democracy as two separate phenomena, a political ideal and a political system, one may consider it as a single, open-ended (perhaps an infinite) process. A more achievable and optimal level of democracy, according to Tiruneh, occurs when the distribution of power, including income and rationality, among citizens takes the shape of a normal or bell curve. Modern industrial democracies have, in contrast, a skewed distribution of power (and income and rationality), where the mean or average citizen lies to right of center. In other words, the distribution of power, income, and rationality in modern democracies are skewed toward the upper classes. As the level of democracy increases over time, however, the mean citizen would gravitate to the center of the normal curve (where the preponderant majority or the middle class is located), and it would have the most decisive voice and power in democratic politics. Whereas those individuals to the right of the mean will in theory have more power than those to the left of the mean, and it is likely that most leaders may come out of the former group, the political agendas and policies of leaders will probably be dictated by the preferences of the mean citizen. The normal or bell-curve distribution of power would represent a democratic system the quality or degree of which is apt to be optimal. In sum, Tiruneh defines democracy as a political procedure that allows the presence of political rights, civil liberties, and a majoritarian decision-making or voting mechanism, and which permits the continuous achievement of a more equal distribution of political power (2004, p. 473). He terms such a state of political evolution as normal democracy.

However, some scholars disagree with some aspects of Tirunehs theory of democracy. For instance, they may contend that democracies, after transition, will remain stabilized; that is, democracies after transition will not continuously evolve. Others may, on philosophical or moral grounds, contend that, regardless of levels of income and rationality, citizens ought to possess an equal distribution of power. It is not clear, however, whether such possible contentions will successfully undermine Tirunehs thesis. What is clear is that until most or all scholars agree on a more acceptable definition of democracy, an understanding of the concept will remain incomplete.

SEE ALSO Authority; Citizenship; Democracy, Christian; Democracy, Consociational; Democracy, Indices of; Democracy, Racial; Democracy, Representative and Participatory; Elections; Parties, Political; Voting Patterns


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Gizachew Tiruneh

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