POLISCI 101: What is Democracy

Last edited: Dec 12th, 2020 IndoChina Timezone

This article is the first one in a series called “POLISCI 101” to help someone with a limited formal background in political science understand political theories such as political legitimacy or democratic consolidation and to encourage the need to put these political theories into practice by examining a Thai or US current event, statistic or ruling. The expected reading time of an article in this series should exceed the 5 minutes reading time suggested by Medium. The intention of the author is to encourage readers to learn more before actively protesting.

Note that the average time the author spends researching, reading, writing, and editing exceeds 3 hours.

Key Concepts: Definitions of Democracy, Types of Democracy — Electoral and Liberal, Political Culture — Democratic.

What is democracy and why many political scientists claim that democracy is the “best” form of government?

To be frank, there is no right nor short way to answer the previous question succinctly. One of the best “theoretical” denotations of democracy is:

Democracy is a system “for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Schumpeter, 1950: 269).

Winston Churchill, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II, claims the following quote to share that democracy is not “perfect”:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Winston Churchill in 1947).

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese politician and a recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, posits:

“Democracy is when the people keep a government in check.”

While completing many political science classes at Stanford, even I was not convinced that democracy was the “best” form of government (might have said this in person during my first conversation in 2013 to my ex polisci advisor, the biggest advocate of democracy) for Thailand and many Southeast Asian countries to reduce Gini index (income inequality), literacy rate, or even life expectancy.

Here are some of my formal writings and more quotes about definitions of democracy and theoretically why it is worth the struggle to fight for democracy no matter what the cost is.

Various terms such as electoral democracy and liberal democracy are coined to assess the quality of that system. Electoral democracy is established “if people can choose and replace the ruling body in regular, free, and fair elections” (Diamond, 2008: 22). Freedom House (a non-profit non-governmental organization about political freedom and human rights established since 1941) defines electoral democracy as one in which there are: (1) A competitive, multiparty system, (2) Universal adult suffrage for all citizens, (3) Regularly contested elections, and (4) Significant public access of major parties to the electorate through mass media and through campaigning. Nonetheless, it should be noted that electoral democracy is only the most basic requirement so almost all democracies in this world should be considered as electoral.

Liberal democracy, on the other hand, describes a high-quality democracy in which there are high degrees of participation, horizontal and vertical accountability, and civic political culture. That is, all liberal democracy is considered as electoral democracy but not vice versa. Participation is crucial to liberal democracy because citizens should participate not only by voting but also by actively participating in their respective civil society organizations and monitoring of official conduct.

If there is one takeaway from this article, it would be the following quote, the most succinct and perhaps effective summary of the components of civic political culture from Sidney Hook, a political philosopher in the twentieth century. (My recommendation is to reread this quote later since even the author learns something new rereading it four years later or to treat this quote the same way one might try to learn v = u + at or F = mg for the first time.)

“A positive requirement of a working democracy is an intelligent distrust of its leadership, a skepticism stubborn but not blind, of all demands for the enlargement of power, and an emphasis upon the critical method in every phase of social life” (Hook, 1940: 290).

The main takeaway is the implication of the words “distrust” and “skepticism”, which is important in any democratic political culture. The key components of a democratic political culture are: 1) active citizenship, 2) informed citizenship, 3) efficacy — the notion that one’s participation can have a positive impact and that every citizen should vote, and 4) tolerance of opposition views and parties, and of minorities.

This quote, therefore, highlights the last tenet of a democratic political culture: to avoid developing an overly deferential attitude towards authority and to have the right to “openly” criticize anyone or any system. Almond and Verba (1972) similarly highlight the need for a balance between deference and skepticism and the appropriate level of competition.

Nonetheless, in Thailand, we are not encouraged to discuss politics when outside and even “forbidden” to criticize or express skepticism openly. (The context is that Thailand is the one and only constitutional monarchy to have a lèse-majesté law or Section 112 of Thai Criminal code saying that it is illegal to mention the royal family in a negative light.) Hence, many political scientists gave a low score for the quality of governance in Thailand.

In the meantime, if you want to satisfy your thirst for more POLISCI content, feel free to skim this paper written by my former self that I really want to rewrite with the benefit of the hindsight published in 2016 Asian Barometer Conference Paper (Although I wrote more than 80% of it and did not create any of the diagrams, I was the third author of the paper because of bureaucratic reasons. Additionally, the paper was edited after I left so the latter half of the paper was not proofread by me.) and cited in publications by King Prajadhipok’s Institute (“ประชาธิปไตยไทยในทศวรรษใหม่” and “Looking forward at Thai Democracy”).

Also, please feel free to check out MOOC POLISCI courses by my ex poli sci advisor if you have a lot of time on your hand and want to educate yourself more formally.

Bibliography

Almond, G.A and Verba, S. (1972) The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Diamond, L. (2008) The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World. New York: Times /Henry Holt.

Hook, S. (1940) Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy. New York: Van Rees Press.

Schumpeter, J.A. (1950) Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper.

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Phatk

Stanford Data Science Researcher under Chuck Eesley. Passionate about EdTech, Poli Sci, and mentoring. See http://stanford.edu/~phatk