The many versions of democracy

 The Anglosphere and the Campaign for Ineffective Democracy

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Anglosphere claims to be waging a global campaign “for democracy”.  Which is always taken to mean “Representative Democracy in a Parliamentary System with multiple competitive parties and media lightly regulated and independent of the state”.

No attention is paid to alternative systems, popular autocracies, one-party states, or states like Singapore where multiple competitive parties exist, but one party has an overwhelming majority.  When the long dominance of the Liberal-Democratic party in Japan ended, the Western media viewed this as A Good Thing, even though Japan since then has worked rather worse than before.  Likewise the ending of the peculiar and corrupt Italian system centred on the Christian Democrats, even though this led to the much worse dominance of Berlusconi.

Systems of one-party or autocratic rule are condemned as the antithesis of democracy, even though it might be noted that the majority of the population actually approve of it.  The Anglosphere view seems to be that no one has the right to make choices like that.

The belief in the inherent virtues of Representative Democracy in a Parliamentary System with multiple competitive parties is strong enough that the West has in some cases pushed it against its own interests.  It should have been obvious that if this system were applied to Iraq after Saddam, the newly created parties would separately compete for the Kurdish, Sunni and Shia vote, with Religious Shia likely to be the single biggest force.  Yet that let it go ahead and Iraq is vastly more sectarian than it was under Saddam.  The same in Egypt: it should have been obvious that honest multi-party elections would give power to either the Muslim Brotherhood or to harder-line Islamists.  But the Western media ignored warnings from several different sources at the time of the Arab Spring, and then expressed utter astonishment when exactly this happened.[A]

Multi-party democracy is declared best for everyone.  But in practice (though this is nowadays covered up), the Anglosphere also has a long history of organising coups against governments it dislikes.  Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain and the USA encouraged and sometimes organised military coups against mildly racial governments in the Third World, and even in parts of Europe.  The West effectively endorsed the Greek military junta of 1967–74.  They intimidated the Italian Christian Democrats to prevent them including the Italian Communists in any coalition.  And it’s possible that kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro was organised by Western secret services to sabotage the prospect of an Historic Compromise between the Christian Democrats and Communists.  (It’s also entirely possible that the Red Brigades were dumb enough and vain enough to sabotage the prospects of the left without being paid for it: there are many other such instances and large numbers of pointlessly negative and destructive individuals on the Hard Left.)

It’s also notable that Iran is viewed with deep hostility, even though it does hold regular contested elections which make a difference to policy, and in which rivals have so far handed over power quite smoothly.

Quite apart from the West refusing to tolerate the “wrong” outcome, the problem with a system of multiple competitive parties is that it depends on a shared understanding of how the political system should work.  In a lot of newly created states there was no continuous political tradition and it had to be invented from scratch.  And there were lots of coups and many separatist movements, which contributed to the violence.

Multi-party systems work when the opposition behaves moderately in the hope of being back in power soon, and a defeated party can step down from government in the expectation that the new government will respect their rights and not prevent them from returning to government in the foreseeable future.  What can easily happen instead is a series of short-lived parties making unrealistic promises and then using their time in office to loot, assuming that they will get no second chance.  Mostly they plan to ship their wealth overseas, mostly to those convenient Numbered Bank Accounts that the Swiss provide.  This is vastly more destructive than corruption by members of a relatively stable elite who keep their money at home and who also believe in the long-term welfare of the society.

This “patriotic corruption” was the actual situation in Britain during the key Georgian years of the Industrial Revolution, commonly dated as 1760 to 1820, or perhaps 1840.  And some would say it began rather earlier, but it’s not disputed that it occurred in the era of “patriotic corruption” and largely before the clean-up of the Victorian era.  Likewise in the USA, the society became industrialised in its notorious “Gilded Age”.  After World War Two, there was quite a lot of corruption in the new fast-changing USA, including the alarming Military-Industrial Complex.  But economically was brilliant, and similar success was combined with blatant corruption in both Italy and Japan.  There’s reason to believe that things were just as bad in France, but France under de Gaulle managed to turn itself round and catch up with Britain, having been visibly poorer in the 1950s.

China, Brazil, South Africa and the Republic of India are current examples of “patriotic corruption”.  China, lacking any of the checks and balances that the West recommends as cures, has delivered much the fastest growth and the greatest increase in the living standards of ordinary people.  (None of them are shining examples of social justice, all have too much inequality, but by all social and economic tests one would have to rate China as decidedly the least bad.)

Multi-party systems don’t usually fix “patriotic corruption”, though they may destroy the system’s effectiveness and re-create the corruption while destroying the patriotic element.  Or be ineffective even when honest and well-intentions.

Worse things happen with competitive political parties in countries with many different ethnic groups.  Electoral politics directly generated the split between what were originally West and East Pakistan, now Pakistan and Bangladesh.  The basic problem was that West Pakistan was in charge but an East Pakistan party won the election, and attempts to compromise failed and led to civil war.  Civil war was also generated in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) by one set of parties working on Sinhalese resentment of the more privileged Tamil minority, while another set of parties worked on Tamil desire to have either autonomy or independence.  A similar process broke up Czechoslovakia, where there were separate parties for Czechs and Slovaks and a peaceful and agreed separation happened when Czechs voted Centre-Right while Slovaks voted Centre-Left.  This was helped by the fact that both were fast-tracked for membership in the European Union, meaning that the separation was not all that decisive.

A similar process might have allowed Former Yugoslavia to peacefully evolve into several small states within the European Union.  Instead the European Union with US support chose to back the Croats and blame the Serbs for everything.  Chose to ignore the fact that vast numbers of Serbs were being asked to accept governments based on a rival nationalism: nationalities that had been entirely willing allies of Nazi Germany in World War Two.  This was a result of a complex set of bargains made within the European Union after the Soviet collapse. Germany chose to back its old friends the Croats, attached to German interests for centuries. Britain under Thatcher chose to rat on Britain’s old ally Serbia, the defence of whom had been the official cause of World War One, and who had provided most of the non-Communist resistance to the Nazis in World War Two.  The best defence one can make of Thatcher is that she was genuinely ignorant of the likely result of her actions.  But politicians are not supposed to act from ignorance: they should either know or leave the matter to someone who knows.

But one doesn’t need to look so far away for an example of two sets of rival political parties looking for votes from two rival nationalities.  This has been the situation in Northern Ireland from its creation, and remains the case after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which Thatcher ratted on the Ulster Protestants.  She seems to have swallowed a promise that this would allow the nice moderate SDLP to win Roman Catholic votes at the expense of the IRA: the very opposite as happened.

Someone who tried arguing for the unusual merits of Representative Democracy as distinct from other systems of democracy would find themselves on weak ground.  Much easier to say “democracy” when you actually mean “Representative Democracy in a Parliamentary System with multiple competitive parties and media lightly regulated and independent of the state”.  It’s phoney, but it tends to pass unchallenged.


We owe the word “democracy” to the Greeks, but they meant something very different by the term.  Greek city-states had retained or perhaps revived the ancient notion of a Tribal Assembly, while also being literate enough to write about it.[B]  The approximate meaning is “the people rule”: but note that “the people” meant “all citizens”, with non-citizens automatically excluded.  Women were not citizens, though those women who were the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of citizens had special status and protection.

This ancient system was also based on regular meetings of the entire citizenry, what we now call “Direct Democracy”.  These were people who knew each other, whose whole lives were spent in each other’s company.  Which didn’t mean they always got along, bitter factionalism did happen.  But it must have helped.

The idea of Representative Democracy was alien to Greek thinking.  It wasn’t they they’d never thought of it.  The various leagues formed among city-states sometimes had chosen representatives.  All of the democratic state had elected officials, but their were mostly strong limits to their powers.  Similar limits also applied to the later Italian City-States.  In both Classical Athens and the Venetian Republic (and presumably other places) there were systems of careful randomisation that would choose someone from a large number of suitable individuals, and thwart any intent to select one particular person the majority wished to choose.  (See Demarchy, in the Appendix below.)

The Roman Republic had a quasi-representative system in the Senate, which was composed mostly of individuals who’d been elected as magistrates.  Of course the Republic was never a democracy, having a voting system for magistrates that was heavily weighted towards the richer citizens.  Also Senators had a job for life, and had to be quite rich to qualify.  It was however an efficient system of government in the early and middle years of the Republic.  Its power was balanced against that of several different sorts of popular assembly, and the official formula for state authority was SPQR, the Senate and People of Rome.[C]

The Senate had the advantage of lots of experienced men, and a check on the power of the elected Consuls.  It worked quite well when there was broad consensus on how the state should be governed.  Was doomed when the Senate became systematically at odds with the will of the majority of citizens, as expressed in Rome’s various “Popular Assemblies”.[D]  But the general population lacked the coherence to govern directly, so in practice they rallied round various charismatic leaders, mostly successful generals.  Julius Caesar was transitional, loved by the people and murdered by Senators, but founding the first line of Emperors through his distant relative and adopted son Octavian, later known as Augustus.  The Emperors were generally more popular than the Senators, but in practice it was the loyalty of the army that was decisive.

The decay of the Roman Republic is often treated as some sort of unique anomaly.  But taking a wider view, the various democratic or part-democratic Republics of the ancient world had a way of collapsing into some sort of monarchy or autocratic rule.  It was all too easy for the checks and balances in a Republic to produce weak and ineffective government.

Today’s successful and long-lasting systems of Representative Democracy come overwhelmingly from states and societies that were Representative or Parliamentary before they were Democratic.  Parliaments spread widely in mediaeval Europe, and normally included the “Commons”, which actually meant a rich minority within the society.  Normally there were property qualifications for voters, and since MPs got no salary it was only open to those who got a sufficient income from property without the need to work.

These traditions in turn rested on older European notions of a tribal assembly and even the election of kings.  There was also the whole classical tradition of Greece and Rome, showing that such systems were possible.  And the Christian Church had a continuing tradition monks and nuns electing their own superior when the old one died, and a selected group of electors choosing bishops.  This was only suppressed during the European Reformation, with most Protestant bishops appointed by their monarch and Catholic clerical officials appointed by the Pope, though normally with the agreement of the monarch.

Trying to start a Representative Democracy from scratch usually fails.  The USA might appear to be an exception: a constitution was adopted from scratch and was highly successful.  But each of the original thirteen states had possessed its own system of Representative Government – George Washington spent many years in the House of Burgesses of Virginia, and other states had a version of direct democracy with Town Meetings.  And of course they looked to a British government in which the dominant power was the House of Commons.  Their initial demand was the right to elect their own MPs to the Westminster Parliament. Westminster showed one of the weaknesses typical of Representative Assemblies: it has the atmosphere of a privileged club and a feeling that outsiders had no right to a say.  The election of MPs from British North America would have been perfectly feasible in an era when General Elections mostly occurred as a series of local contests extending over several weeks.  And once at Westminster, the MPs from the different colonies would have been likely to form different ties, probably with the South joining the Tories and New England the Whigs, with the middling colonies undecided.  But when forced to fight or obey, the British North Americans chose to fight and then opted for independence.  Still, the Constitution wasn’t hugely different from the British model, just with the hereditary element removed and various existing practices enshrined in a written Constitution.

The newly independent USA was also not a democracy, even in the limited sense of giving the vote to all white adult males.  The dominant element from in the early days were the Federalists: George Washington was broadly a Federalist, though outside the formal party structure which was organised during his presidency.  His successor was a Federalist, but in 1800 they lost both the Presidency and both houses of Congress to the Democratic-Republican Party.

Democracy in Europe was mostly limited by property qualifications in the 19th century.  Up until the 1832 reform, the British House of Commons was under the effective control of a couple of hundred rich families.  A few seats had a large electorate, but many were functionally in the gift of some aristocrat.  Only in 1884 was voting extended to a majority of adult males in the British Isles.  Just as important was the introduction of the Secret Ballot in 1872 – before that electors had to vote publicly and were open to pressure, particularly tenant farmers considering voting against their landlord.

The 1874 General Election was the first to use the Secret Ballot.  It saw the Home Rule party in Ireland come from nothing to win 60 seats.  Also considerable losses for the Liberal Party in rural areas of Britain where the landlords were Liberals but the population preferred the Tories.

Property qualifications in British elections lasted until the Reform Act of 1918, which also gave the vote to women over 30.  Arguably this was when Britain itself became a democracy, albeit with unfair treatment for women.  But you could argue it several ways, and many people felt that adult males were not “citizens” unless they had some sort of property.

The 1911 edition of the much-respected Encyclopaedia Britannica (available on-line at [] takes a view of democracy that would be off the scale by modern standards.  It says:

“Moderate democracies have adopted a low property qualification, while extreme democracy is based on the extension of citizenship to all adult persons with or without distinction of sex.” [E]

Note also that the Westminster Parliament ruled the entire British Empire, at that time about a fifth of the world’s population.  White settlers in that Empire mostly had their own regional electoral bodies, which had considerable powers.  The non-white majority had either no elections or a powerless assembly that could be ignored by the Westminster-appointed Governors, as was the case in the Indian Subcontinent.

Meantime a different concept of Democracy was around.  Even when a majority had the vote, it was often found that the wishes of the majority were not implemented.  And there were at least two other meanings of democracy in common use:

  1. a) Social Mobility, people gaining power and position on the basis of ability rather than social connections.
  2. b) Control over their own lives for ordinary people, those without any unusual ability or social connections.


The nature of democracy has been an issue since the French Revolution.  An interesting account of this is found in the 1966 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“The term democracy is used is several different senses.

“(1) In its original meaning, it is a form of government where the right to make political decisions is exercised directly by the whole body of citizens, acting under procedures of majority rule.  This is usually known as direct democracy.

“(2) It is a form of government where the citizens exercise the same right not in person but through representatives chosen by and responsible to them. This is known as representative democracy.

“(3) It is a form of government, usually a representative democracy, where the powers of the majority are exercised within a framework of constitutional restraints designed to guarantee the minority in the enjoyment of certain individual or collective rights, such as freedom of speech and religion.  This is known as liberal or constitutional democracy.

“(4) Finally, the word democratic is often used to characterize and political or social system which, regardless of whether or not the form of government is democratic in any of the first three senses, tends to minimise social and economic differences, especially differences arising out of the unequal distribution of private property.  This is known as social or economic democracy.

“To avoid misunderstandings, these various uses of the term should be carefully distinguished” [F]

The USA is seen as the starting point for modern democracy, but not an automatic consequence.  Though it was referred to a “democratic revolution” by its critics in Britain – see the letters of Adam Smith, for instance – leaders like George Washington did not see it so:

“The first major experiment in constitutional democracy was inaugurated as a consequence of the American Revolution, although this was not the primary purpose of the revolutionary movement.  The grievances which led the colonies to separate from the home country were essentially the same as those which had led to the break between king and parliament in 17th-century England…

“The constitution which emerged from these deliberations was a compromise between democratic and antidemocratic ideals.  Although the states were left free in general to be as democratic as they liked, their capacity to interfere with property rights was restructured by giving a number of important economic powers to the federal government…

“Of the two parties which first competed for the favour of the American electorate, the Democratic Republicans …  soon won the upper hand.  The Federalists … who continued to reflect the predominantly antidemocratic mood of the Constitutional Convention, had many able leaders and a number of powerful theorists, but their fear and suspicion of the people as ‘a great beast’ proved uncongenial to the American public…

“By the middle of the 19th century, the outcome of the American Revolution had been to create the first successful example of modern constitutional democracy.  It is true that slavery still existed, and that the rise of the Negro to a position of full equality was destined to be a slow and painful process extending far into the future.  At this time women’s suffrage, too, was practically unknown.  With these exceptions, however, the battle for political equality had already been won.  By 1845 adult male suffrage was the rule in all but one of the states, which did not abandon property qualifications until 11 years later.  There was also a strong atmosphere of social equality which gave American life a quite distinctive flavour.” [G]

At a time when the new USA was still dominated by Federalist ideas, something much more radical happened in Europe:

“The second great landmark in the history of modern democracy was the French Revolution.  Unlike its American counterpart, this was not a movement based on an established constitutional tradition… little remained of the mediaeval parliamentary tradition and few of the revolutionists had any interest in reviving it…

“The political instability of the movement was reflected in the rapid succession of regimes which followed from 1789 to 1804…  All during this period the revolutionists acknowledged the people in theory as the true source of legitimate authority, and even the empire was confirmed by a plebiscite based on universal male suffrage.  But although everyone spoke in the name of the people, it was impossible to reach any lasting agreement on concrete political institutions through which the people might be allowed to speak for themselves.

“The French Revolution had a curiously mixed effect on the development of modern democracy.  It was successful in undermining the traditions of the ancient regime and in fostering the idea of a society based on liberty, fraternity and equality…  But by associating this idea with the practices of Jacobin and Napoleonic dictatorship, the movement also served to inhibit the growth of democratic institutions…  Most revolutionists believed that legal and social equality was an end which justified the use of any political means, and this idea was one of the most powerful and persistent legacies of the French Revolution…

“At the time of the French revolution, the British constitution was still the oligarchic system established by the revolution of 1688.  But the British constitutional tradition … proved to be strong and flexible enough to adapt itself to democratic pressures without loss of continuity.  The United States, staring from its own version of that tradition, had already shown how much could be done to develop it in a democratic direction, and in the course of the 19th century the British did likewise.”[H]

As I said earlier, the British ruling class managed to keep much of its continuity while extending the vote to most Britons.  And managed to keep most of them voting for the parties of the ruling class.  Meantime France had proved chronically unstable and prone to civil war, and unable to meet the needs of ordinary people despite giving the vote to all adult males in 1875.  (No women till 1944, and the colonies treated unfairly.)  So Lenin had good grounds for viewing Representative Democracy as a failure and going for the spontaneous emergence of a different sort of democracy with the Soviets.

How this might have worked out without foreign intervention and a vicious civil war is something we can only speculate about.  Under the pressure of actual events, Lenin’s Bolshevik Party took absolute power within the remainder of Lenin’s lifetime.  All functional opposition was suppressed.  The Bolsheviks quite possibly did have majority support: they definitely did have a mass following and dominated the cities.  But Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders decided to establish an authoritarian system that didn’t give the population a chance to say “no”.  Still, it was in principle supposed to be the people’s choice:

“Although the U.S.S.R. did not aspire to be a liberal state, it laid great emphasis on what it claimed was it popular and democratic character…

“The theoretical origins of this new conception of democracy go back to the period of the French Revolution, and the ideas of economic democracy which emerged as a minor but persistent phase of the revolutionary movement…

“The result was the creation of a new type of political regime, one best described as totalitarian democracy.”[I]

In my view, “totalitarian” is a rather meaningless phrase used to describe some (but not all) of the political regimes that seek the level of ideological and social control that has been normal for most of history.  Modern liberalism has been the grand exception, loosening controls in the hope that nothing too bad would happen.  But also its starting-point in Britain was not at all tolerant when it needed to fight for survival.  Functional liberalism in Britain begins with Oliver Cromwell, with the 18th century Whig party descending fairly directly from surviving Cromwellian elements who tried to exclude James the 2nd & 7th from the English and Scottish thrones.  The very name “Whig” came from the Whiggamores, Scottish Puritan extremists.  Later liberals had to be more tolerant when it came to the viewpoint of other Britons – though generally not Irish and definitely not unfamiliar foreign nations.  Liberal ideologist John Locke was an investor in the Atlantic Slave Trade and it was liberal free-traders who cheered on the British Empire in its Opium Wars against China.  Apostle-of-liberty John Stewart Mill also approved of the use of opium to break open the Chinese Empire, and was happy to spend most of his working life in the London offices of the East India Company without saying anything at all about the pervasive racism that excluded the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent from equality in their own land, regardless of how well they might assimilate British values.

British liberalism changed the world, which would be unrecognisably different without out it, and would probably not have evolved modern democracy.  But British liberalism also wrecked its own conditions of existence by failing to stop the Great War some time in early 1915, when it should have been obvious that it would not be won cheaply.  This was the context in which wider liberal ideas became discredited: every participating state apart from Tsarist Russia had an elected Parliament and a press that was free to criticise the idea of war, at least before it started.

This was the context in which Lenin decided to grab power with the support of a determined minority.  He could reasonably have said that he would deliver what the majority had asked for – there was a clear majority for the various socialist parties.

The short-lived liberal republic that existed between the overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik Revolution failed to deliver anything that the majority of the people actually wanted.  The abolition of the monarchy cut them off from loyalist and traditionalist feeling and laid them open to a military coup, which was attempted by General Lavr Kornilov.  But they also alienated moderate reformers by failing to meet the demand for “bread, peace and land” which the Bolsheviks raised.

The short-lived liberal republic in Russia would probably have been short-lived even if Lenin hadn’t overthrown it.  When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, almost every other newly created Representative Democracy in Eastern Europe had already collapsed. Czechoslovakia was the main exception, and Britain chose to abandon it and instead start the war in defence of Poland. Poland had ceased to be a Representative Democracy in 1926, though the autocratic rule of Piłsudski probably did have majority support.

In the former Tsarist Empire, the Russian Constituent Assembly election of November 1917 showed a massive majority in favour of some sort of socialism.  Only 24% voted for the Bolsheviks, but another 40% voted for the Social Revolutionaries.  Less than 5% votes for the Constitutional Democratic Party (“Kadets”), the main non-socialist party.

Lenin was already in power when the Constituent Assembly met, and chose to close it down.  He had a partial justification in as much as the Social Revolutionaries split, with the Left Social Revolutionaries in coalition with the Bolsheviks until the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  They later tried overthrowing the Bolsheviks, and were suppressed.  Some Social Revolutionaries worked with the White forces in the Russian Civil War, until Admiral Kolchak expelled them in November 1918.

Lenin was almost certainly right in thinking that Representative Democracy had no future in Russia as it then was.  Parliamentary bodies allow for the peaceful resolution of mild power-struggles: they cannot act decisively in a major crisis or war.

Experienced parliamentarians can handle this.  When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he was distrusted by the Labour Party and was deeply unpopular with a majority of Tory MPs.  But they had enough self-discipline to shut up and see what he could do, and this made all the difference.  That’s what you get from centuries of parliamentary government: the thing that is usually absent when a collection of individuals of different and frequently antagonistic origins get elected to a Parliament without social roots.  The relative success of Representative Democracy in the Republic of India owes a lot to the Congress Party dominating for the first few critical years, and Nehru dominating Congress.

My view of Representative Democracy is that where it works, it is fine.  Introducing it as a curb within a flourishing existing political system is risky, and the actual benefits are doubtful.  And expecting it to reliably deliver what the majority want is unrealistic and contradicted by actual experience.  At best, it can allow radical demands to be met without revolution and the consequent painful loss of political continuity and legitimacy.

A p p e n d i x

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911 edition). [J]

DEMOCRACY (… from .. the people, i.e. the commons … rule), in political science, that form of government in which the people rules itself, either directly, as in the small city-states of Greece, or through representatives. According to Aristotle, democracy is the perverted form of the third form of government, which he called … ‘polity’ or ‘constitutional government,’ the rule of the majority of the free and equal citizens, as opposed to monarchy and aristocracy, the rule respectively of an individual and of a minority consisting of the best citizens (see Government and Aristocracy). Aristotle’s restriction of ‘democracy’ to bad popular government, i.e. mob-rule, or, as it has sometimes been called, ‘ochlocracy’ (… mob), was due to the fact that the Athenian democracy had in his day degenerated far below the ideals of the 5th century, when it reached its zenith under Pericles. Since Aristotle’s day the word has resumed its natural meaning, but democracy in modern times is a very different thing from what it was in its best days in Greece and Rome. The Greek states were what are known as ‘city-states,’ the characteristic of which was that all the citizens could assemble together in the city at regular intervals for legislative and other purposes… Direct democracy is impossible except in small states. In the second place the qualification for citizenship was rigorous; thus Pericles restricted citizenship to those who were the sons of an Athenian father, himself a citizen, and an Athenian mother … This system excluded not only all the slaves, who were more numerous than the free population, but also resident aliens, subject allies, and those Athenians whose descent did not satisfy this criterion … The Athenian democracy, which was typical in ancient Greece, was a highly exclusive form of government.

With the growth of empire and nation states this narrow parochial type of democracy became impossible. The population became too large and the distance too great for regular assemblies of qualified citizens. The rigid distinction of citizens and non-citizens was progressively more difficult to maintain, and new criteria of citizenship came into force. The first difficulty has been met by various forms of representative government. The second problem has been solved in various ways in different countries; moderate democracies have adopted a low property qualification, while extreme democracy is based on the extension of citizenship to all adult persons with or without distinction of sex. The essence of modern representative government is that the people does not govern itself, but periodically elects those who shall govern on its behalf (see Government; Representation).

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2005

Democracy (Greek, demos, the people; kratein, to rule), political system in which the people of a country rule through any form of government they choose to establish. In modern democracies, supreme authority is exercised for the most part by representatives elected by popular suffrage. The representatives may be supplanted by the electorate according to the legal procedures of recall and referendum, and they are, at least in principle, responsible to the electorate. In many democracies, both the executive head of government and the legislature are elected. In typical constitutional monarchies such as Great Britain and Norway, only the legislators are elected, and from their ranks a Cabinet and a prime minister are chosen.

Although often used interchangeably, the terms democracy and republic are not synonymous. Both systems delegate the power to govern to their elected representatives. In a republic, however, these officials are expected to act on their own best judgement of the needs and interests of the country. The officials in a democracy more generally and directly reflect the known or ascertained views of their constituents, sometimes subordinating their own judgement.

Oxford English Dictionary (CD, version 4.0)

1) Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In mod. use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege…

2) That class of the people which has no hereditary or special rank or privilege; the common people (in reference to their political power).

Wikipedia (as at 17th October 2013) – Democracy

Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally—either directly or through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination…

In virtually all democratic governments throughout ancient and modern history, democratic citizenship consisted of an elite class until full enfranchisement was won for all adult citizens in most modern democracies through the suffrage movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wikipedia (as at 17th October 2013) – Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism, i.e. protecting the rights of minorities and, especially, the individual. It is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons. To define the system in practice, liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either formally written or uncodified, to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract. After a period of sustained expansion throughout the 20th century, liberal democracy became the predominant political system in the world.

A liberal democracy may take various constitutional forms: it may be a constitutional republic, such as France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, or the United States, or a constitutional monarchy, such as Japan, Spain, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom. It may have a presidential system (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the United States), a semi-presidential system (France and Taiwan), or a parliamentary system (Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Poland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom).

Wikipedia (as at 24th October 2013) – Demarchy

Demarchy (or lottocracy) is a form of government in which the state is governed by randomly selected decision makers who have been selected by sortition (lot) from a broadly inclusive pool of eligible citizens…

The Athenian democracy made much use of sortition, with nearly all government offices filled by lottery (of full citizens) rather than by election. Candidates were almost always male, Greek, educated citizens holding a minimum of wealth and status…

The Venetian Republic was well known for the demarchical aspects of its long standing and stable government. While other Maritime Republics withered under the strain of factionalism, Venice was renowned for its unity under the Doge. This unity allowed Venice to prosper as an economic city state superpower for several centuries while other nations came and went.



[A] I predicted this in my Newsnotes just after the event, suggesting that the Westernising or liberal protestors would have been much wiser to seek a compromise with Mubarak.

[B] And the luck to have cultural heirs who copied those writings, none of which survive in the original.

[C] In Latin, Senatus Populusque Romanus

[D] There were several, with different powers and voting patterns.

[E] Entry for “Democracy” for the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica

[F] Entry for “Democracy” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition.  I have turned the five points into paragraphs for greater clarity.

[G] Entry for “Democracy” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition.

[H] Entry for “Democracy” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition.

[I] Entry for “Democracy” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition.  None of the text I quoted survives in the current CD edition, which I found fairly useless on the topic.

(Someone looking for a research topic could try looking in more detail at how the Britannica’s viewpoint changed across the years.)

[J] []

This article first appeared in 2013 in issue 14 of the magazine Problems.

2 thoughts on “The many versions of democracy

  1. Democracies on Earth:
    1917: Less Than 12
    2003: Well Over 120
    –James R. Woolsey

    If you look at the world a little over 85 years ago, in the spring of 1917 when this country entered World War I, there were at most about a dozen existing democracies: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, Switzerland, a few countries in Northern Europe (and almost all of those were only democracies for the male half of their populations). It was a world of empires, of kingdoms, of colonies, and of various types of authoritarian regimes.

    Today, 120 out of the 192 countries in the world, are democracies.

    In the 20th century, The United States of America “imposed” democracy on exactly three nations, all opponents in astonishingly bloody wars. The vast majority of these nations, over 100 of them, have become democracies by the will of their people. That is an amazing change, literally an order of magnitude change, within the lifetime of many individuals now living.

    Needless to say, we, the USA, have had a lot to do with it. We helped win World War I. Along with Britain, we prevailed in World War II; and we prevailed in the Cold War, which some also call: World War III.

    The democratic world is divided between free nations like the United States, and democracies like Russia, which are partly free. But still, there are 120 countries with parliamentary institutions, contested elections and some elements, at least, of the rule of law. No dramatic systemic political change like this has ever happened in world history.

    Along the way, a lot of people said, very cynically, “The Germans will never be able to run a democracy; the Japanese will never be able to run a democracy; the Russians will never be able to run a democracy; no nation with a Chinese culture is going to be able to run a democracy.” Today, the “forced” democracies of Germany, Japan and Italy are thriving. It will be the same with Iraq.

    It took some help, but the Germans and the Japanese and now, even the Russians, the Taiwanese, and many other nations and cultures have figured it out.

    In spite of vast cultural differences, people with backgrounds very different from the Anglo-Saxon world of Westminster and the founding fathers of the United States are on their way to democracy.

    In the Muslim world, the 22 Arab states have no democracies. Some reasonably well governed states are moderating and changing, such as Bahrain and Qatar. But still, there no democracies among them. There are another 16 Muslim-predominant non-Arab states. Half of these are democracies, including some of the poorest countries in the world: Bangladesh, & Mali. Well over 100 million Muslims live in a democracy in India. Outside of one province, they are generally at peace with their Hindu neighbors.

    The problem is not Islam. There is a special situation in the Middle East attributable to historical and cultural factors. Outside of Israel and Turkey, the Middle East essentially consists of no democracies. It has, rather, two types of governments: pathological predators and vulnerable autocrats. This is a bad mix. Five of those states: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya sponsor and assist terrorism in one way or another; and all five are working on weapons of mass destruction.

    The Middle East thus presents a serious and massive complex of problems: all financed by the revenues of two-thirds of the world’s oil. I don’t believe this terror war is going to go away until we change the face of the Middle East the way we have changed the face of Europe.

    I say to the terrorists and the pathological predators such as Saddam Hussein, as well as to the autocrats, the Mubaraks, and the Saudi Royal family:
    You must realize that now, for the fourth time in 100 years, America has been awakened and our country is on the march. We didn’t choose this fight, but we’re in it to win it.
    There is only one way to win. It’s the way we won World War I: fighting for Wilson’s 14 points. It’s the way we won World War II: fighting for Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter. It’s the way we won World War III: fighting for the noble ideas most eloquently expressed at the beginning by President Truman and by President Reagan at it’s end.

    These were not wars between countries or civilizations. Our alliance won these wars because we made on thing clear: It was not “us” against “them.” These were wars of freedom against tyranny.

    We have to convince the good people of the Middle East that we are on their side. This will be difficult. It will take time. For some countries the development of lasting democracy will take many years.


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