Do Multiple Types of Democracy Exist?

Types of Democracy
A Landsgemeinde (in 2009) of the canton of Glarus, an example of direct democracy in Switzerland. Photo by Marc Schlumpf.

By Justin Kempf

Types of Democracy

Over the course of the American Midterms many Democrats including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Barak Obama have warned democracy is in danger. Their concerns imply the notion of a single recognizable form of democracy. However, most readers have likely come across many different types of democracy such as direct democracy, deliberative democracy, economic democracy, and even radical democracy. Still, most readers probably imagine the warning from the Democrats is about liberal democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy is widely viewed as a broad conception that can incorporate many of its other incarnations.

Nonetheless, some cast doubt on whether liberal democracy is the only form of democracy. Viktor Orbán famously champions what he describes as an illiberal democracy. Indeed, Fareed Zakaria long ago warned about the rise of illiberal democracy. He felt efforts to promote democracy focused solely on the mere presence of elections without much emphasis on human rights or the rule of law. The result was democracy without liberalism. Orbán, on the other hand, pretends to support human rights and the rule of law. At the same time, his administration has implemented reforms to the constitution, electoral law, and media regulation that challenge even the most minimalistic expectations for democracy.

Hungary is one of many countries that raise questions about the line between democracy and autocracy. Meanwhile, China challenges our most basic expectations for democracy entirely when they describe themselves as a “whole-process people’s democracy.” The concept emphasizes the importance of good governance that delivers for the needs and expectations of the people. Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders argue democracy is less about the political process than its outcomes. Vladimir Putin suggests something similar when he legitimizes his rule through his high approval ratings from the Russian people.

Uncomfortable Questions

While most people do not accept China or Russia as democracies, the idea of whole-process democracy raises some uncomfortable questions. For starters, Americans have long pointed to issues where large majorities support reform, but where Congress fails to act. Many view the failure of public policy to reflect public opinion as undemocratic. Indeed, it’s difficult to understand why democratic government cannot deliver policy reform when broad, bipartisan majorities exist. Moreover, it’s difficult to reconcile persistently low approval ratings for representative institutions like Congress when the people elect its members.

Meanwhile, autocratic governments have shown they can adopt popular policies. But Americans recognize something is lost when a dictator imposes a popular policy. They know it’s not democratic even though the outcome reflects popular opinion. At the same time, the (hypothetical) dictator provided an outcome democracies struggle to deliver. It’s an uncomfortable reminder that governance outcomes do matter. Still, it’s not all that matters.

Democracy also necessitates what I call inclusive participation. Elections are important, but they are just one channel for popular participation. Some theorists have questioned the role of elections as an appropriate institution for democratic participation. They champion sortition as a more democratic alternative. Sortition selects representatives through a lottery. It allows every day citizens to participate directly in government rather than just political elites. Indeed, imaginative reformers have already experimented with sortition in the United States, Europe, and many other countries. Still, no democracy has replaced elections with sortition as a method to select representatives for a major legislative body so far.

Achieving Democracy

Democracy comes in many different forms. Even liberal democracy gets subdivided into parliamentary and presidential democracies or representative and direct democracy. This leaves the impression that democracy lacks a single unifying idea. Indeed, efforts from China and Russia to describe themselves as democracies also raise some uncomfortable questions about our own understanding of democracy. For the record, I consider China neither Russia democratic. Still,  they raise arguments we cannot simply discount without serious reflection.

Part of the problem is no democratic government is a perfect democracy. It’s not just a failure of will either. Our idea of democracy includes many different values and priorities that create contradictions when put into practice. At the same time, democracies have become increasingly democratic over time. The United States thought of itself as a democracy before the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the direct election of Senators. Today we have higher expectations for democracy. The idea of democracy has not not necessarily changed. However, we are now better equipped to put those ideas into practice.

The hope is democratic governance will continue to find ways to better reflect the idea of democracy in the future. In this way, the different forms of democracy are more like experiments or attempts to resolve problems in the implementation of democratic ideas. In other words, even the most democratic governments may continue to democratize even further over time. In the meantime, we benefit from different types of democracy, because they allow us to think about democracy from a variety of angles and perspectives. Moreover, as we have learned more about democracy, the various types of democracy have only increased.

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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