Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Procedural democracy

I noticed that over the past couple weeks quite a few people have been reading a teaching comparative post titled "Procedural democracy" from April 2008. As I look at that post, I'm reminded that it does illuminate important features of that thing we call democracy.

With upcoming elections in Nigeria and the UK, the ideas might be great ones to focus on for a discussion or two. The concept might also be the basis for a valuable practice FRQ.

I've noted a couple dead links from the original, but here's a rerun.

Procedural Democracy

There's a philosophical debate in the ethereal heights of political science about what is required to label a regime democratic. (You can easily buy research papers on this topic if you search the Internet, but that "wouldn't be the cowboy way.")

[And, it's not just at lofty academic levels that these ideas emerge.  Dan Larson and Andrew Conneen wrote in the blog they write for AP students. (The entry I linked to is no longer online and was meant for students of U.S. Government and Politics, but the idea of substantive democracy stands out. It begins, "Elections alone do not make a democracy.")]

The debaters sort of argue over whether democratic procedures or widely-beneficial policies are more important when evaluating the nature of a regime.

Robert Dahl, who has been around long enough that I read at least one of his books over 40 years ago, is one of the participants. The Sterling Professor emeritus of political science at Yale University, seems to be a neo-Madisonian (in the Federalist 10 sense).

He has argued that democracy is a Platonic ideal, that can never be fully realized. However, if a regime meets some basic procedural criteria, it will produce a political system in which elites will compete for political power and authority. He calls this kind of system a polyarchy. Most commonly, people refer to regimes like that as pluralistic. The competing self-interests in such a system, according to Dahl (and Madison), will produce government in the interests of the citizenry.

The criteria that Dahl describes are elected officials; free, fair, and frequent elections; freedom of expression; alternative sources of information; associational autonomy; and inclusive citizenship. (Democracy and Its Critics, 1998)

Others argue that procedures are not all that's necessary for a democratic regime. They argue that economic, cultural, historical, and ideological factors can prevent an apparently democratic procedure from being democratic. Those critics might ask whether the UK had a democratic regime before World War I when only men were allowed to vote. They might ask whether the poverty of Mexican peasants, which leads some of them to sell their votes for t-shirts or patches of paved roads near their homes, negates the legal procedures for elections there. What if a change in government, brought about by a free and fair election changes no laws or policies but only the people in power?

These critics want to emphasize the statutory and policy results of government when defining democratic regimes. Instead of a merely procedural democracy, they want to see substantive democracy.

Charles Tilly, the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, might represent the critics of the procedural definition of democracy.

In his book Democracy, he asks about a regime, "Does this regime promote human welfare, individual freedom, security, equity, social equality, public deliberation, and peaceful conflict resolution? If so, we might be inclined to call it democratic regardless of how its constitution reads."

Tilly recognizes limitations on his approach. He also wrote, "Two troubles follow immediately, however, from any such definitional strategy. First, how do we handle tradeoffs among these estimable principles? If a given regime is desperately poor but its citizens enjoy rough equality, should we think of it as more democratic than a fairly prosperous but fiercely unequal regime?"

TradingMarkets.com, a once online investment advice service, offered this bit of description of the democratic nature of Russia's regime (it's a little premature in announcing the end of Putin's presidency and a little loose with its definition of "socialist," but the unnamed writer is probably a stock analyst, not a political scientist): Kremlin Twist.

"By now, everyone knows that Mr. Vladimir Putin stepped down from the chief Kremlin seat, and in his place, sits Mr. Dmitry Medvedev - a 42-year-old lawyer. And what do you know Mr. Medvedev, Putin's protégé was handpicked by the former president to run in Russia's nearly unopposed election. Of course, he not only won but it was a landslide victory. Oh, and by the by, guess who the new prime minister, is? It's former president Mr. Vladimir Putin; so how is that, for a Kremlin twist?

"For the former Soviet, it is a perfect combo of 'Putin Power' and a case of dotting i's and crossing t's, after all, no one wants to be accused of or labelled in running a socialist tight ship, of one man, one power..."

So, we should ask our students to consider whether Russia's regime meets the criteria to be labeled a procedural democracy. Then we should ask them to consider whether it meets the criteria to be labeled a substantive democracy.

And, in AP courses, we should ask them to consider the same things about Iran, Mexico, China, Nigeria and the UK. We should ask them to compare the countries they are studying on procedural and substantive criteria and to compare them with themselves over time. Does Mexico have a more substantive democracy now than it did in the 20th century? Does the Russian regime meet more of the characteristics of a procedural democracy than it did in 1990?

Good things to think about as we lead our students through rehearsals of critical thinking and recall.

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At 10:59 AM, Blogger Ken Wedding said...

Thanks to Susan Stiller Morris for pointing this out.

Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy

A new study from Princeton spells bad news for American democracy—namely, that it no longer exists.

Asking "[w]ho really rules?" researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America's political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters...

The researches note that this is not a new development caused by, say, recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United or this month's ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC. As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse...


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