The importance of democracy

Why is democracy important to the world and how does it help maintain a just and free society?

Explainer Updated 21 December 2022 Published 14 April 2021 6 minute READ

Importance of democracy

To explain the importance of democracy some fundamental questions need to be answered: What exactly is meant when people say ‘democracy’? Why is it assumed democracy should be the preferred form of government in the world? How does it compare to other models for political organization? And why is there such a widespread perception that democracy is under threat?

What is the importance of democracy?

When talking about the importance of democracy it is important to define it accurately. Democracy is popular sovereignty – in Abraham Lincoln’s words, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. At its heart is the concept of the population choosing a government through regular, free, and fair elections.

Democracy is popular sovereignty – in Abraham Lincoln’s words, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.

In Europe and the English-speaking world it is often assumed democracy naturally takes the form of liberal democracy – popular sovereignty but limited by a constitution which guarantees individual freedoms (such as speech) and rights (such as to a fair trial). Crucially these essential freedoms are not subject to a democratic vote.

In fact, democracy does not necessarily have to be liberal. Certain nations today have illiberal democracies where voting continues but liberal characteristics, such as an independent judiciary and free press, have been compromised.

Defenders of liberal democracy say this actually makes these societies inherently undemocratic, as stripping away liberal guarantees leads to intimidation and coercion by the state, undermining elections.

The guarantees of liberal democracy are intended to ensure no ethnic, geographic, class, or business interest dominates or exploits others to an unreasonable degree, and that there is fair and universal consent gained for government policies.

Arguably the importance of liberal democracy is two-fold: no other system of government guarantees the right to free expression of political preference; and no other system promotes progress through peaceful competition between different interests and ideas.

Why do we need democracy?

This question is being asked a lot more as democracy is threatened by various forces around the world. Some question the value of the popular vote when it leads to seismic shifts such as Brexit, and the election of demagogues who threaten liberal values.

Even the American system, for a long time the exemplar of democratic freedoms, seems so polarized that it is in danger of becoming impotent, its ability to endure technological, demographic, and cultural change in doubt.

Meanwhile, over the last 30-50 years, a more technocratic, uniform form of politics has taken hold in the European Union (EU), where democracy is arguably less responsive to citizens and large elements of the population feel excluded from the process of government.

More recently, non-democratic, authoritarian governments such as China have been praised for enduring the COVID-19 pandemic better than democracies, because they are better able to compel specific behaviour from citizens without concern for individual liberties, or dissent from a free press.

All this may question the need for democracy. But most authoritarian systems are hampered by structural weaknesses: large, disenfranchised minority groups foster a sense of injustice; reliance on ‘strongmen’ figures makes the transfer of power potentially violent; and vested interests are protected from popular demands for change.

Why democracy is the best form of government

Liberal democracy, in theory at least, provides a mechanism for some form of rule by proportionate representation, with citizens empowered to bring about change through participation and persuade the powerful to act for the greater good.

The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.

John Dewey

But democracy is a process, not a state. Countries such as the UK and the US were not true democracies until relatively recently. Britain’s franchise was gradually extended from 1830 and it was only in 1918 that women were given the right to vote. In the US it was not until 1965 that African-Americans in its southern states gained a guaranteed right to vote.

Democracy has endured in part due to its ability to accommodate change from below through expansion of voting rights, and greater protection of civil liberties.

By contrast authoritarianism is, by its nature, centralized and limiting of free thought and expression. It can accomplish rapid change, but only ordained from above.

Perhaps what has been witnessed in democracies since 2016 signals a need for further renewal and evolution of democratic systems. Because the more averse to change democracies become, the more likely it is they will wither.

The importance of democracy in the world

Democracy has played a vital role in the story of civilization, helping transform the world from power structures of monarchy, empire, and conquest into popular rule, self-determination, and peaceful co-existence.

Content contd.

A direct form of democracy was initially practiced in ancient Greece, but there were many slaves in that society, and hardly anyone was a citizen and able to participate. Democracy then vanished until its re-emergence as ‘representative democracy’ in the late 18th century. Since then it has been generally understood that modern human history follows a trend towards greater democracy, with some scholars describing the phenomenon taking place in three waves.

The first wave, between the late 18th century and 1918, saw the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, the gradual emergence of democracy in Britain, Bolivarian revolutions establishing democracies in South America, and the break-up of German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires after World War 1 into democratic republics.

The second wave, between 1945 and 1960, saw the reorganization of the defeated axis powers Germany, Italy, and Japan into strong democracies, and decolonization unfolding across the world, creating independent and largely democratic nations.

The third wave from 1975 to 1991, saw the end of dictatorships in Portugal, Spain, and Brazil, democratic transitions in Taiwan and South Korea, and the eventual collapse of the USSR, creating free, democratic, Eastern European states.

But since 1991, by contrast, there has been what Larry Diamond calls a ‘democratic recession’, as ex-Warsaw Pact nations, such as Russia, Hungary and others have slid back into authoritarianism.

Importance of democracy in Africa

The number of African countries that have adopted democratic systems of government has grown since decolonisation, the collapse of communism and the ending of a number of civil wars.

Some countries, such as Ghana, are seen as resilient democracies, while for others the democratic transition is more fragile – after months of pro-democracy protests in 2019 in Sudan, a civilian-led transitional government is now paving the way for democracy after decades of military rule.

African states and societies are grappling with the dual complex challenges of democratizing and developing their economies – in the context of the most diverse continent in the world with some of its least developed countries.

So progress towards democratic consolidation is not linear and is threatened by populism, authoritarian leaders and divided societies. The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to authoritarian opportunism but in 2019 Freedom House had already noted steep declines in freedoms in 22 African countries, especially in West Africa.  

Some argue that development and poverty reduction should be prioritized over democracy. However, demand for democracy and political freedoms in Africa remains high, if often disappointed, as Afrobarometer data show.

Positive changes to bring about or protect democracy in Malawi and Sudan for example, have been led by young people, women and increasingly well-established civil society groups and journalists.

Over 60% of the continent’s population is under the age of 25, so demand for political freedoms as well as accountable governance for inclusive economic growth is likely to only grow.  

Why is democracy important for development?

Thinkers such as Amartya Sen argue democratic values are essential to successful development, pointing out no substantial famine has ever occurred in an independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. He cites the example of India, where the last famine in 1943 took place under British colonial rule.

This perception of a link between democracy and development has ebbed and flowed over the last century, as communism rose and fell and the economic balance of the world shifted from West to East.

In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s communism seemed capable of lifting millions of people out of poverty while building vast new industries, winning wars, and delivering cutting edge science. But towards the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had stagnated and communism seemed doomed to stifle innovation and growth.

The idea that democracy and economic success go together has been thrown into doubt by the success of China’s authoritarian capitalism, known as the ‘Beijing consensus’, which has developed a way to attain both military and economic superpower status, while restricting individual freedoms at home.

The jury is still out on how China’s story will develop. Only fifty years ago the country was in a state of near civil war during the cultural revolution. The more important question is whether other nations will strengthen or weaken their democracies in response.

Importance of democracy in a free and just society

Historically, many thinkers argued democracy can only be detrimental to a free and just society, characterizing rule by the majority as inherently unstable, irrational, and a threat to private property.

The rich shall pay all the taxes, and the poor shall make all the laws.

Lord Salisbury criticising democracy in 1860

Plato’s Republic rejects democracy and instead proposes the idea of rule by ‘philosopher kings’. Tocqueville and others warned of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ democracy might bring.

The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were acutely aware of this perceived threat and designed the constitution and electoral college to constrain popularly elected leaders with the liberal rights guaranteed by the constitution.

Recent events have led some commentators to conclude that the system is broken. But when we question its merits and seek out its flaws, we should be acutely aware that we live in societies that permit us to criticise, and that this is in itself a crucial right. We should also question what our alternatives would be.

We might imagine the landscape in an authoritarian or dictatorship state: would we expect to receive a fairer trial? To find more balanced information on the internet? To see minority rights more protected? Would a settlement of World War Two imposed by fascist victors, rather than democracies, have created a more just and free peace?

It is most likely that democracy needs to be further deepened, by reinvigorating the rights and guarantees enshrined in liberal democracy, and making it more responsive and accountable however we can. Looking at the alternatives it is fair to conclude that people living in democracies have no alternative.