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Misunderstanding Democracy

Misunderstanding Democracy

Since the Great Recession, there have been a series of government legitimacy crises and a growing sense of urgency has risen with regards to the health of democracy worldwide. Feeble, failing, falling – the euphemisms of its demise are endless.  In the heart of Europe and the United States, recent electoral choices have expressed a wide embrace of illiberal values, increased support for authoritarianism, and a general erosion of democratic institutions. The geopolitical environment has further heightened the feeling that democracy has somehow failed. Yet, democracy is not, as many assume, failing – it is at work.

Time and again, cross-national surveys on the topic of democracy show widespread support for this system of government, even in places where the regime structure does not match the confines of a liberal democracy. Strongmen in Russia, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere recurrently propagate the idea that they are the product of democracy and not their own machinations. By redefining what democracy means, they poison its westernized conception and suggest their rule as legitimate [1]. Yet, the question remains: why do non-democracies want to be viewed as democratic? It is partly a result of optics. Leaders want to be seen as legitimate, and democratic practice is seen as guaranteeing that in the eyes of the world. As a result, the concept itself has become inflated enough to be thought of as a panacea, creating a system designed to panic anytime a democracy suffers a bruise, scratch, or punch.  Though, even compounded with anti-democratic developments, which have been widely experienced, they do not yet signal a fall of democracy; polities may fail, but the global proportion of democracies remains at or near an all-time high according to major classification systems [2]. Democracy is resilient. 

However, studies on the aforementioned surveys show a discrepancy in the global conceptualization of democratic ideals and values. Seeking to explain increased support for democracy in autocracies, Kirsch and Welzel observed an emergence in support for authoritarian notions of democracy (AND), which express democracy as unaccountable guardianship, and are unequivocally opposed to its traditional characterization [3]. Previously interpreted as evidence to the strength and morality of democratic support, this type of democratic support actually shows support for autocratic regimes, endorsements of which reject liberal notions of democracy (LND). This raises the question: does the world really want democracy? 

Kirsch and Welzel argue yes, LNDs are alive and well but are predominantly found in polities with strong emancipative values (EV). Such values originate in Kant’s humanistic universalism that defines human empowerment as based off a utility ladder of freedoms that emphasizes freedom of choice, equality of opportunities, and the emancipation of people to freely pursue specific values of our choosing [4]. This concept of self-authorisation is diametrically opposed to authoritarianism as the prevalence of emancipative values encourages the pursuit of social justice and a rejection of indoctrination. Consequently, polities with strong EVs have a higher support for liberal values and less, if any, support for authoritarianism. The conflation of ANDs with LNDs thus leads to confusions about what democracy is and often leads to the misclassification of autocratic models as democratic. This creates doubts over global surveys of democracy as well as the apparent support and legitimacy attributed to democratic practice. 

Democratic legitimacy tends to be measured on dimensions of quality of governance, welfare gains, and liberal rights – perceptions of a decline in any would thus result in decreased legitimacy. Humans undoubtedly have different value-perspectives and democracy is no exception; what I may strongly value, you may not, but they, nonetheless, affect our decisions. It is clear the western democratic system has not equally benefited all and resulted in a global response that might suggest that the promotion, protection, and defence of democracy and liberal values may have reached its boiling point.  Indeed, emancipatory values, while strongly correlated with liberal tenets, are rooted in defiance as indoctrination negates freedom. Why should an individual remain within a system that is no longer working for them? 

It is important to understand that this apparent decline in democracy is the result of democracy at work. If emancipatory values are connected to liberal notions of democracy, the choice to break the status quo and seek out a new system is undoubtedly democratic. Democracy is important because it tolerates a variety of values beneath its umbrella, which allows for civil liberties and individual freedom. The paradox of freedom, however, lies in that to sustain it you must not allow unfreedom, which seems to have come as part of the international system-breaking bundle. Inflated notions lead to defeatist rhetoric, and democracy has been given so much importance that we no longer seem to know what it needs. Revisiting democracy and thinking critically about how to sustain the qualities that make for positive governance will allow for prosperity and the value-tolerance we hope to instill across the world. We are not observing the fall of democracy, we are observing manifestation of choice, of desire, of emancipation. After all, democracy infers having options.


[1] Helen Kirsch, Christian Welzel; Democracy Misunderstood: Authoritarian Notions of Democracy around the Globe, Social Forceshttps://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soy114

[2] Daniel Treisman, “Is democracy really in danger? The picture is not as dire as you think”, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/19/is-democracy-really-in-danger-the-picture-is-not-as-dire-as-you-think/

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising,(New York: Cambridge University Press)

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