The Paradox of Modern Democracy


By Ethan HollanderWabash College

Modern democracy can be thought of as a solution to one of the fundamental problems in comparative politics: Government can’t govern unless it has the power to force us to do things. But once we give it that power, how do we turn back around and force the government to rule in our interests?

Illustration of the people of Athens hearing someone speak in the center
Unlike countries with modern democracy, the system of government in Athens didn’t allow women to vote. (Image: vkilikov/Shutterstock)

Defining Modern Democracy

Democracy solves that problem by making leaders accountable to the people they govern. At least, that’s the theory. If leaders owe their positions of power to the people’s approval, then they’re forced to rule in our interests. If they don’t, they’re liable to lose their jobs.

That’s how we get the notion that democracy is government “by the people” and “for the people”, which has been a fundamental part of the definition of democracy since Abraham Lincoln put it that way.

In practice, defining democracy is a little more slippery. The accountability of leadership is clearly part of any reasonable definition. But the full list of characteristics necessary to call a regime democratic is longer and subject to considerable debate.

Origin in Athens

The word democracy—and the concept itself—originated in ancient Greece, in the city of Athens. The word demos means “people”. Kratos means “strength” or “rule”. And so, democracy means “rule of the people”.

And in ancient times, democracy really did mean “rule of the people” because the people of Athens ruled directly. When public decisions were made, everyone in the city would go down to the amphitheater and debate the issue, and ultimately vote on it.

Of course, “everybody” didn’t quite mean everybody. Children didn’t vote; neither did slaves or women. And you had to be a citizen. Foreigners couldn’t vote, either. Ultimately, the franchise was restricted enough that only about a third of the city’s population could vote at any given time.

Limited though it was, this is still one of the earliest examples we have of a large society (and ancient Athens probably had about 30,000 adult male citizens) where so many ordinary people had a real say in collective decision-making.

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

Liberal Rights in a Democracy

Today, most of us live in much larger societies where direct democracy would be difficult or impossible. So, we do things indirectly instead: We elect representatives who then make decisions on our behalf.

One important characteristic of democracy is liberal rights (the right to free speech, a free press, and so on). But it’s that characteristic of democracy, liberal rights, that turns out to be the most contentious. And that’s because, even though everyone would agree that democracy needs participation and competition, reasonable people disagree about how essential rights are to the equation.

For example, how do we describe a democratically elected government that then uses its mandate to restrict liberal rights? What if a leader wins free and fair elections but then uses that position of power to impose censorship, truncate civil liberties, or persecute an ethnic minority?

And what if that leader—all the while—remains popular, or even gets reelected, because of those very actions?

Illiberal Democracies

The political commentator Fareed Zakaria labels countries like these as illiberal democracies. He’s referring to the fact that they follow democratic procedures (they come to power through elections), but the policies they enact violate rights and freedoms that we usually associate with democracy: things like the right to free speech or the right to protest, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, and equal treatment under the law.

Image of Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin is the head of a democratic government yet a completely illiberal one. (Image: Domain)

On the one hand, if the majority speaks, and if the majority of people—through their vote—say that these values aren’t important to them, well, that’s the will of the people (whether I agree with them or not). On the other hand, it’s fair to ask what the word democracy even means—or what free and fair elections would look like—in a country where free speech and a free press aren’t permitted or where one group or another is persecuted or systematically excluded from equal protection.

Majority Wins

These things aren’t democratic in one sense of the word. But if that’s what the majority wants, what else is it? This isn’t just a theoretical question. A lot of the world’s most brutal dictatorships—now and historically—are illiberal democracies. Vladimir Putin has systematically dismantled what existed of Russian democracy: He jails dissidents, persecutes ethnic Chechens, and kills journalists. And yet he’s remained immensely popular.

Countries like Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and Brazil have all elected (and sometimes reelected) leaders whose policies are more reminiscent of fascist dictatorships than democracy. And we sometimes forget that even the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s came to power through free and fair elections.

“Protecting” People

And, as an added twist, we should remember that illiberal democracies often voice their actions in the language of democracy itself. Adolf Hitler wasn’t violating the rights of the German people; he was “protecting” them from communism and foreign domination. And even when he invaded other countries, he often justified his actions by claiming that he was protecting the ethnic Germans who lived there.

More recently, Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia were justified on the same basis. And dictators from Cuba to Congo have long claimed that they were the true democrats, patriotically defending their own people from imperialist domination.

Democracy Paradox

Paradoxically, it’s often the majority that gets to decide what gets called democratic and what doesn’t. And that’s why a lot of the world’s so-called democracies are democracies in name alone. Ultimately, the central paradox of democratic rule is the potential for tyranny of the majority. How do you enable majority rule but also protect minority interests at the same time? How can you protect minority rights when the majority is hell-bent on destroying them?

These aren’t questions with simple answers. There’s no magic number of rights that makes a country democratic, and there’s no way out of the paradox that a government with the power to protect us also has the power to abuse us. But as democracy comes under siege around the world, those who threaten it are likely to cloak their attacks in the language of democracy itself. And that means that definitions of democracy are likely to be as contested as the nature of government itself.

Common Questions about Modern Democracy

Q: What does the word “democracy” mean?

In ancient Greece, “demos” meant people, while “kratos” meant strength or rule. Though the democracy practiced in ancient Greece is different from modern democracy, it is where the concept originated.

Q: Who had the right to vote in Athens’ democracy?

Unlike what we expect of modern democracy, many groups didn’t have the right to vote in Athens. Women, slaves, and non-citizens, like foreigners, were not allowed to vote alongside children.

Q: What is an “illiberal democracy”?

An illiberal democracy refers to a democracy that follows democratic procedures, but policies are enacted that violate rights associated with democracy, such as free speech and free press. Modern democracy includes examples of this, such as Russia.

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