What is the Democracy Paradox?

Democracy Paradox

The Democracy Paradox is a wide ranging theory of democracy. Every week I write a new part as I work through the different components of democratic theory. This is the first part of the first chapter called “Democracy Defined.”

Brief Account of Venezuela

Unlike many of the democracies in Latin America, Venezuela’s democracy extends back before the third wave of democratization. It had over forty years of uninterrupted free and fair elections  before Venezuelans elected Hugo Chávez President. Moreover, it consistently confirmed strong support for democracy. So, it came as a surprise when Venezuelans overwhelmingly supported Chávez for President. 

Chávez campaigned on a far left platform. He described himself as a Bolivarian Socialist. After he came to power, he established strong relationships with Marxist governments such as Cuba and Nicaragua. His rise reflected more than just dissatisfaction with the distribution of wealth in the country. His movement reflected a deep sense of polarization within society. 

It is important to recognize Chávez was not a danger to Venezuelan democracy because he represented a radical left-wing politics. Rather Chávez demonstrated an ambivalence toward democratic governance when he planned a coup attempt in 1992. He was imprisoned but later freed by Presidential pardon. Regardless, the autocratic tendencies of Hugo Chávez came as no surprise to Venezuelan voters. They elected him anyway. 

Over the next twenty years Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have worn away at the foundations of democratic governance in Venezuela. The strong popular support of Chávez disguised how far Venezuelan democracy had eroded. But the unpopularity of Maduro has demonstrated the will of the people no longer has any authority. Maduro won reelection in 2018 with 67% of the vote despite widespread discontent. Nations around the world have called the election neither free nor fair. 

Polarization and Executive Subversion

Milan Svolik describes Venezuela as one of many examples of executive subversion. Over the past fifteen years democracy has decline around the world, but over the same period military coups have declined as well. It appears democracy has entered a period of self immolation where its wounds are largely self-inflicted. Its elected leaders are now the greatest source of its decline. 

Executive subversion is not new. Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency for two years in India where she claimed dictatorial powers. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori dissolved the legislature and the courts in 1992 and assumed the powers of both branches. Latin America has a name for this type of extraconstitutional executive takeover. They call it an autogolpe or a self-coup. 

Regardless, Svolik found support for democracy was not inconsistent with support for undemocratic leaders. His research found a polarized electorate more susceptible to support for undemocratic candidates. The farther voters shifted to political extremes, the more they valued ideological affinity over democratic ideals. In other words, voters can stomach undemocratic behavior so long as it works in their favor. Svolik shows why voters will support candidates who pose a threat to democracy, but he does not question whether these voters really support democracy or merely offer it lip service. 

Support for Democracy

The World Values Survey is one of many efforts designed to assess public support for democratic governance. Most respondents will say democracy is the best form of government. But some will show cracks in their support when questions ask about their support for nondemocratic forms of government like support for a strong leader without constraints or military government. The term democracy may have different meanings for different people. 

Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa found a decline in support for democratic governance in their analysis of the World Values Survey. Ronald Inglehart and others have disputed the analysis, but the findings of Mounk and Foa force us to consider whether democracy has lost support in recent years. The elections of far right politicians in the United States, Brazil, and Eastern Europe are a sign of strong support for candidates who challenge democratic norms if not democratic institutions. But it remains unclear whether their support is a sign of ambivalence toward democracy or simply an ideological commitment. 

Nonetheless, it is possible polarization sows the seeds of hostility toward democracy. Svolik maintains the natural assumption of widespread support for democracy. But polarization creates a desire to keep the opposition out of power. Severe polarization raises the stakes in a democracy where political power has greater consequences. The desire to lock in gains makes efforts to undermine democracy more appealing. Republican voters in the United States support stricter rules for voting in part because they recognize it stacks the deck in their favor. Many Republicans wanted officeholders to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. While many made unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, most did not seem willing to concede the election no matter how much evidence was presented to counter their claims. 

Support for Authoritarianism

A recent paper from Mollie Cohen, Amy Erica Smith, Mason Moseley, and Matthew Layton notes democracies traditionally face the challenge to retain the support of those who lose elections. Republican government has always depended on the existence of a loyal opposition. Yet, recent elections have shown illiberal candidates have brought about a gap in support for democracy among those who support the winning candidates. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States have shown their supporters show no increase in their support for democracy despite their success in democratic elections. 

Democracy activists largely assume authoritarian leaders hold onto power in spite of the people. The natural assumption is popular leaders have no reason to fear free and fair elections. Only leaders who are vulnerable to defeat in an election will rig elections. But some authoritarian leaders hold onto high public approval ratings. Timothy Frye, Scott Gehlbach, Kyle Marquart, and Ora John Reuter found Putin’s 80% favorability ratings were genuine. Of course, Russia takes steps to ensure no genuine political opposition exists to challenge his government. It is likely his approval would not remain so high if a genuine opposition was allowed to mobilize support against his regime. Nonetheless, it’s also possible the Russian people prefer a politics free of the severe polarization present in American politics. 

Democracy Paradox Introduced

Let me be clear that I have a strong normative bias in favor of democracy. My goal is to offer a theory for democratic governance that answers many of its challenges. Nonetheless, it is important to clearly understand the challenges democracy faces. And among the most relevant arises from the people themselves. This is the democracy paradox. Democracy is described as the government of the people. In other words, democracy depends on the people. But what happens when the people are a threat to democratic governance? Can democracy exist in opposition to the people?

Autocratic rule is portrayed as a singular leader who rules in opposition to the will of the people. But no ruler governs alone. Every leader cultivates support. China has found strong support among the business community against Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Bryn Rosenfeld found the state dependent middle class is antagonistic to democratization from her research in post-soviet states. The military or the security state is often a source of support for authoritarian governments. But all of these groups have clear motivations for their support for authoritarian government. Most theorists assume people prefer democracy so long as their personal interests do not interfere. 

A Thought Experiment

John Rawls developed an interesting thought experiment in his classic work A Theory of Justice. He imagined a community developing a form of government. A veil of ignorance kept their positions in society hidden. Nobody knew whether they’d be rich or poor. Rawls assumed this uncertainty would nudge them toward a farer distribution of income and wealth. In this thought experiment, Rawls does not consider whether society forms a democracy or some authoritarian state. But his later work suggests he expects they establish a liberal democracy. Indeed, nobody knows whether they are destined to rule or be ruled so a liberal democracy is the natural assumption. But would they construct a democracy? Democracy demands a lot from ordinary citizens. Maybe they’d prefer a technocratic government. Maybe they’d embrace something less liberal and more populist. 

The Democracy Paradox gives people the ultimate decision for democracy. Do people really want democracy? Imagine this is the question up for a vote. Nobody has preconceived biases based on political parties. Polarization does not yet exist. Rather people simply decide whether they will embrace democracy or settle for something else. How do people decide? We expect democracy will win. But does it? More importantly, what does it mean if it does not. Was the decision democratic if the result was an end of democracy? Can people simply abandon democracy? The democracy paradox uses democracy to undermine itself. It’s a useful thought exercise because democracy ultimately depends on the commitment of its citizens. 

Democracy Paradox Emphasizes Citizens

It is easy to give democracy away. Everyday citizens make a choice to renew democracy. But it only takes one moment to toss it all away. When the people no longer support democratic government, it has no hope for survival. Autocrats may covet the support of their people, but Machiavelli made clear that their fear is a suitable substitute. So while democracy is defined by an important choice, authoritarianism is defined by the lack of any choice. Of course, that is not to say people cannot win back their liberty, but it’s preferred by all to simply hold onto it. 

The democracy paradox is an unforgiving doctrine because it does not absolve the people from blame for democratic breakdowns. Theorists claim democracy is a government of the people, but they blame elites for its challenges. The people have the ultimate responsibility in any democracy. So long as elites hold the primary responsibility, the people are not in charge. 

Of course, it is unrealistic to blame every single person in a country for the breakdown of a democracy. Some citizens will work hard to preserve democratic norms and the constitution. Nonetheless, no leader works alone. Others work alongside him. But more importantly many are complicit in their silence. For some their silence is out of fear, but others nod their heads in silent approval. Nixon referred to a silent majority. It is difficult absent elections to know how people really feel. And even then elections offer limited information, because many competing motivations compel each individual vote. 

Final Thoughts

Repression is rarely delivered equally. It is often targeted towards groups the regime believes represent a threat. Hosni Mubarek targeted the Muslim Brotherhood for decades before the Arab Spring removed him from power. In contrast, Mubarek legitimized other forms of opposition. Elizabeth Nugent has shown how the targeted repression in Egypt exacerbated political polarization among opposition groups during the brief window of democratization. In the end, widespread protests permitted the military to take back power and elevate Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to the Presidency. 

My aim is not to blame the victims of repression for their suffering. Nobody deserves the wrath of an autocratic leader especially when their only crimes are their beliefs. Nonetheless, democracy is fragile. It is easily broken. Its health depends on the people. It is hard to govern a democracy. It is too easy to let it slip away. Its success depends on the commitment of its citizens to remain vigilant and engaged. They must select leaders committed to their constitution and challenge them when they fail to respect their commitments. Every democracy is built upon a paradox The democratic process gives an awesome power to the people. They have the power to renew democracy or undermine it. 

Democracy Paradox A Few Sources

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Elizabeth Nugent on Polarization, Democratization and the Arab Spring

Bryn Rosenfeld on Middle Class Support for Dictators in Autocratic Regimes

More Episodes from the Podcast

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