Democracy and democracy-support: a new era

Milja Kurki Christopher Hobson
20 March 2009

Democracy's ascendant position in world politics has in recent years been brought into question. The triumphant proclamations of the "end of history" after 1989 - the victory of the liberal-democratic form of governance over all others - now appear more the expression of a brief interlude in which liberal democracy faced no major challengers. Christopher Hobson is a postdoctoral fellow, and Milja Kurki the principal investigator, in the Political Economies of Democratisation project, funded by the European Research Council under the European Community's seventh framework programme (2007-13) - project no. 202596.

This project - based at the department of international politics, Aberystwyth University - aims to investigate the conceptual underpinnings of democracy promotion. It specifically explores the scope that exists for pluralising the politico-economic models of democracy that democracy promoters work with. The views expressed here remain those of the authors.

It may be premature to say that democracy is in trouble. But the evident rise of rival models, and the stalling or even reversal of democratic progress in many countries, pose difficult questions to analysts. Among the most important concerns the fate of the project of democracy-support which has been such a prominent feature of the post-cold-war decades. After all, if democracy itself is facing a rougher global landscape, the rethinking of what it means to "support" or "promote" or "assist" it becomes essential.

The contributions to the openDemocracy/International IDEA debate on this theme have so far been marked by a mix of optimism, caution, and realism. In this article, we consider the future of democracy-support in light of the problems of democracy, and suggest that a fruit of this approach might be an expanded understanding of both.

Democracy beleaguered

The "end of the end of history" has many architects. Today, several states (an increasingly assertive Russia and China in particular) embody alternative political models that have come to challenge any notion of liberal-democratic hegemony; others (such as Venezuela and Iran) experiment with forms of rule that too take them further away from its orbit. These models and forms face many problems of their own, but they may not be quite as unattractive - either to the people of these countries or to many observers around the world - as lingering triumphalists in the west might assume.

There is a also a growing sense in many countries that began a transition from authoritarianism after 1989 that the democratic promise has not been fulfilled. The perceived failure of democratic governments to reduce poverty, inequality and economic hardship - factors that will greatly increase during the unfolding global recession - can contribute to the feeling that democracy is not the best way to guarantee material security and social stability.

The problems extend too to the established democratic states, where there is widespread popular alienation from the political class and system. There too millions of citizens face pressing economic concerns, which can lead to more fundamental disaffection with what democratic politics seems to offer. The existence of growing numbers of migrants in these states, who lack citizenship and thus the most basic democratic right of all, is only one of many issues that bear on the health of democracy in what are often considered its heartlands.

In addition, the way that the foreign policy of the United States under George W Bush made democracy-promotion appear the instrument of a hegemonic militaristic ambition - with hugely destructive consequences in Iraq - had a number of other ill-effects: it reflected very badly on the nature of decision-making and the democratic process in the homeland (something true of Britain and Australia too), it damaged or at least compromised the notion of democracy-promotion, and it created a difficult legacy for any successor project.

It is true that there are counter-trends to such developments. The election of Barack Obama in the United States represents one, especially in the civic mobilisation that surrounded the campaign. There also continue to be outstanding and less-heralded examples of democracy in action across the world, including (for example) peaceful transitions of power in the Maldives and El Salvador

It is important, then, not to replace the linear, progressivist view of democracy's inevitable advance with one where it is seen as everywhere in retreat. Yet the challenges to democracy briefly outlined above cannot be wished away. Indeed, so grave are they that respected analysts have even been led to question whether (Colin Crouch) the world may be coming to inhabit a "post-democratic" order; and even (Sheldon S Wolin) if it may be appropriate to describe the United States as an "inverted totalitarian" system.

If, then, it is a good moment to reassess the nature of democracy-support - as Vidar Helgesen rightly proposes - there must also be a clear and honest recognition of the very serious and widespread challenges that democracy now faces. To put the same point another way, the health of democracy-support must be measured according to the "democracy" as well as the "support" dimension of this pairing.

There has been a tendency to focus the work of democracy-support in very practical ways: toolkits, implementation, strategy and policy. This was and remains essential; but there is also a need to reflect on the underpinnings of these practices in how democracy itself is understood in this new, testing global environment.

Democracy scrutinised

A way to approach this theme is by recalling the philosopher WB Gallie's notion that democracy is an "essentially contested concept". By this he meant that dispute over what democracy is is fundamental to the very nature of the idea. Indeed, the contest over the meaning and understanding that people attach to democracy long preceded the present age.

In a book entitled The Meaning of Democracy, published in 1920, Ivor Brown expressed his frustration about this lack of agreement: "It really does not help us much to talk of ‘making the world safe for democracy', when what A calls democracy, B calls plutocracy, and what C calls democracy, D calls anarchy, Bolshevism, and the end of all things."

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy(CSID)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

The sentiment seems to leap across the decades. Indeed, if anything the challenges posed by democracy's "contestability" are even greater today. For example, in a world where power and its agents are even better attuned to the possibility of controlling and deceiving publics - and have vastly more technological and media resources to try to do so - it has become harder to distinguish between genuine democracy-support projects and ones that use the language of democracy for ulterior purposes (and perhaps from those that lie somewhere in between).

This ongoing argument over democracy carries the implication that promoting or supporting democracy always and unavoidably entails prioritising a certain understanding of it. In itself this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it helps to be aware of it and be clear about what kind of democracy is being advanced.

This is where philosophy and geopolitics collide: for (whether the result of carelessness, evasion or conviction) the version of democracy its promoters have understood themselves to be advocating is a very specific one: liberal democracy - and more often than not, a version of this model that is assumed "imaginatively" to be best represented by the United States.  

The dominance of a liberal-democratic conception with an American accent is reflected in the overwhelming predominance of United States institutions, academics, journals - and ideas - in the democracy-support "industry". Again, this is not in itself a problem: all discourses of democracy are grounded in specific social-political contexts and  power-relations. But the current circumstances of the kind described above - authoritarian challenges, stalled democratic transitions, discontent with democracy, deep and growing economic problems - suggest that an expanded understanding of democracy might be a route towards a healthy redefinition of democracy-support.

After all, many other democratic forms that have been proposed, practiced and reflected on across democracy's long and tumultuous history. David Held has demonstrated that there are multiple "models of democracy", of which liberal democracy is only one. Among them are direct forms (as found in classical Athens); socialist and council-communist (such as during the Spanish revolution); participatory models; deliberative democracy (inspired by the influential work of Jürgen Habermas); transnational and cosmopolitan visions that seek to transcend the nation-state (Daniel Archibugi); and experiments in ecological democracy.

It is also true that there are varieties of liberal democracy itself: there is a wide gap between (for example) primarily libertarian-individualistic visions and welfare-communitarian ones.  

True, to list some of the "models of democracy" that have existed throughout history or which people today are trying to make work leaves open the question of which are viable in modern, complex societies. The dominance of the liberal-democratic model (usually the libertarian-individualistic variant) among prevailing experiences and conceptions of democracy makes it hard to answer. But three points can be made.

First, even if liberal democracy is the best or most appropriate form - both to champion at home and to support abroad - then this should be the result of conscious choice; in the process, to explore other options might be beneficial, both in helping to reach a more considered judgment about liberal democracy (and the kind of liberal democracy that is most suitable) and in removing cultural blinkers that may block perceptions of other forms of democratic practice that do not fit within the liberal framework. For example, Larbi Sadiki has argued that a tendency to view democracy through an exclusively western lens has inhibited the recognition of Arab-Islamic democratic tradition and values which may be of use in establishing democracy. 

Second, the rising problems facing liberal-democratic states and models may make it worthwhile - perhaps essential - to consider democratic alternatives. The acute issues of global warming and ecological degradation illustrate this. It is becoming clear that existing liberal-democratic structures are confined by their nation-state structures and interests, and thus ill-equipped to take necessary actions to stop the world slide towards environmental oblivion. The short-term cycles of electoral politics clash with the long-term thinking and policy needed to resolve the problems.

The fact that many of the countries most threatened by environmental problems are not established liberal democracies could mean, for example, that exploring green-democratic alternatives may become a necessity in the very near future (the new democracy of the Maldives may become a pioneer in this respect). 

Third, the components of these different forms of democracy are not necessarily incompatible - and some could be incorporated into a refashioned liberal-democratic offering. For example, in 2004 the government of British Columbia formed a "citizens' assembly" of 160 near-randomly selected citizens to consider the province's electoral system and redesign it if necessary. Here is an instructive case of incorporating deliberative ideas about democracy within a liberal-democratic framework. This is not to advocate a simplistic "mix and match" approach, but to suggest that a creative inclusion of new elements from different sources could contribute to democracy's rethinking from within.

Democracy rethought

There are four ways in which a rethinking and expanding of democracy in light of the above considerations could contribute to a revised democracy-support project.

The first is normative. For most people, at the heart of democracy is toleration of difference combined with an openness to listen to a plurality of voices and opinions. This makes it more than a little strange that there is so little debate over what democracy can and should mean in relation to democracy-support. The logic here is that democracy-support itself needs to be "democratised" - in part by engaging in continuing dialogue, interaction and learning between communities moving to democracy and those seeking to support these processes.

The second is theoretical. If the liberal-democratic model which has prevailed in democracy support is only one form amongst many, and if there is a considerable variety of different conceptions of democracy, then it is worthwhile engaging with the others - if only to come to a fuller appreciation of what not to do.

The third is political. Thomas Carothers has noted that the George W Bush administration - by framing its actions and policies in the language of democracy yet failing to live up to the responsibility this entails - has done great harm to the larger democracy-promotion agenda. What Carothers calls the "decontaminating" of democracy-support might be advanced by engaging in debate over what democracy means and explicitly considering models that are distinct from those found in the United States (in reality or in the "ideal"). This could in time help to change the language and discourse of democracy-promotion, away from the self-serving and instrumental character it has often taken.

The fourth is practical. The existence of current debate about democracy-promotion indicates that the subject is in flux. The acknowledged problems - many of them set out in early contributions to the openDemocracy/International IDEA debate - suggest that merely to tinker around the edges and try to work out better methods of implementation and delivery may not be enough.

Rein Müllerson's excellent contribution, for example, shows how worthwhile it is to step back and reconsider many of the basic questions and assumptions that underpin the topic. An important dimension of this is to think about using other models (or aspects of other models). Since many of the countries now seeking to democratise are doing so in conditions very different to those in which most established democracies did, it may be that other variations of democracy turn out to be more appropriate. The current global economic recession might, for example, lead to the elaboration of a "social-democratic model" of democracy-support that could address growing concerns with economic, social, gender and environmental rights - one that might have more purchase on evolving realities than the strongly liberal model rooted in United States experience.

The extraordinary phase of convulsive change in the world in 2008-09 - economic, geopolitical, technological, intellectual - is throwing many certainties overboard. Democracy may be far from this unkind fate, but it is under pressure from outside and within. This can be an opportunity to reflect anew on its own diverse meanings and capacities: what democracy is, can and should be. This may become an unsettling challenge, in that it could lead to self-critical questioning of the notion that liberal democracy is the best model and the one on which democracy-support projects should naturally be grounded. But the times themselves are unsettling. Democracy - and democracy-support - must be confident enough to face complex and difficult truths; in order, perhaps, to emerge stronger as a result.


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