The Democracy System Is Still Working


By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College

When the Cold War ended in 1989, everyone thought that democracy had won. With the final victory of democracy over dictatorship, the ideological battles of the past would now give way to a new, globalized world of mutual cooperation, trade, freedom, and prosperity. But that’s not how it turned out. So, what went wrong?

USA and USSR flags; concept of Cold War
Despite what everyone thought after the Cold War ended, democracy hadn’t won. (Image: Zapomicron/Shutterstock)

The Rivalry that Didn’t End

The end of the Cold War didn’t mean an end to international rivalry. In a way, the number of conflicts around the world increased as the one big fault line between the US and the Soviet Union gave way to localized ethnic and religious conflicts all over the world. 

The former Yugoslavia was torn apart by a particularly brutal civil war in 1992 and ’93. And in 1994, the East African country of Rwanda experienced a genocide that killed half a million people in the space of a couple months. Then, on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington drew the United States into a number of festering conflicts around the world.

These crises demonstrated that history didn’t end with the Cold War. Finally, the US-led war on terror raised the specter of terrorism more globally. Dictatorships like China and Russia could now justify just about anything by referring to it as a fight against terrorism, no matter how real or imagined the threat actually was. Together, these developments demonstrated that predictions of post-Cold War democracy, peace and prosperity were too optimistic.

The Dark Side of Economic Growth

Growing pile of coins to show concept of economic growth
The end of the Cold War was accompanied by economic development. (Image: GOLFX/Shutterstock)

Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War did usher in a period of sustained economic growth. Trade flourished, technology got better, and a lot of countries got richer.

But there was a dark side to this, too. Industrialized countries increasingly outsourced much of their labor to the developing world, where wages and working conditions were often poor. Greater automation also made a lot of jobs obsolete. Unemployment was low, but wages stagnated.

As a result, the new prosperity wasn’t evenly distributed. Yes, whole countries got wealthier, but the differences between the rich and poor continued to grow. These economic developments also played an important role in ending the post-Cold War dominance of democracy.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Democracy Is Not Dead

Before we write democracy’s obituary, I’d like to play devil’s advocate and consider a provocative thesis. What if I told you that the democracy system wasn’t broken, and that it’s working just fine? On the face of it, that might sound crazy. But consider this:

The US presidential transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden might have been unusual, but in the end, the former president did leave office. For all the discredited charges of electoral fraud—and notwithstanding the turmoil—America’s institutions held. The democratic transfer of power went through, just like it always has.

And in some ways, civic engagement is stronger than it’s ever been. The 2020 election had one of the highest voter turnout rates in the past century, and that was in the middle of a pandemic! We clearly aren’t living through an era of political apathy.

Even the radicalism of some members of Congress can be seen as evidence that the system is working. If ordinary citizens have become more polarized and more extreme, wouldn’t we expect their elected representatives to do the same? Wouldn’t it be a failure of representative democracy if our leaders didn’t reflect the radicalism of the people who elected them?

Yes, Representative So-and-So is a radical, and this senator is a racist. And obviously, I don’t like that. But society has radicals and racists in it, and democracy says that, like it or not, they get representation too.

The Rights of the Minority

Concept of one person among many people
The dilemma that all democracies struggle with is the matter of individual rights. (Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Finally, and most importantly, we have to consider the ways in which political paralysis is part of the plan. American democracy, and democracies all over the world, struggle with an inescapable dilemma: While the majority should get its way, individual rights still matter, including the rights of the minority.

How do we make sure that the majority won’t use its power to oppress a minority—and to do so with the full weight and legitimacy of the state behind it?

This dilemma was a central concern of the founders of American democracy. The many checks and balances of the American system are intended to prevent a tyranny of the majority. And so, yes, the checks do stifle majority rule. The balances do prevent the majority from always getting its way. They cause gridlock, and they slow down the decision-making process.

But that’s what they were designed to do. They were based on the idea that if the government can’t do very much, it also can’t do very much harm. In other words, the paralysis—frustrating though it may be—is purposeful. It’s proof that the system is working.

Aristotle said humans are “a political animal”. We form communities where individual and collective benefits are often in conflict. Politics is our attempt to maximize the benefits—and minimize the dangers—of living communally.

Common Questions about the Democracy System

Q: Was the end of the Cold War the beginning of democracy?

For many reasons, the end of the Cold War wasn’t the beginning of democracy and prosperity. First, the number of ethnic and religious conflicts increased, and civil wars and terrorist attacks caused horror and genocide in some countries. Finally, the wars against terrorists caused the specter of terrorism to be raised around the world.

Q: Why did the post-Cold War dominance of democracy end?

The end of the Cold War had a bright side in which trade, technology, and the economy got better. But as the post-Cold War era revealed, the wealth and prosperity weren’t evenly distributed between all countries, and the difference between the poor and the rich kept growing. These played a role in ending the dominance of democracy.

Q: What is the dilemma that all democracies struggle with?

The most important dilemma that all democracies around the world struggle with are related to minority rights. Democracies should be able to control the tyranny of the majority with checks and balances. Checks stifle the majority rules, and the balances prevent the majority from always getting their way. Although these two cause political paralysis, they’re also purposeful.

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