Presidents for Life and the Problem of Democracy | Professor Sarah Burns

Democracy is not enough.

What does it mean to have a “real” democracy?

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez received the overwhelming majority of votes (sort of legitimately) and then changed the rules so he could stay on as president for life and appoint his successor.

But, technically, Venezuela is a democracy.

In Russia, even term limits did little to diminish Vladimir Putin’s power during the four years that he passed the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev. He exploited the ambiguity in the constitution to stay on as prime minister during that time and sought reelection in 2012 — over huge protests decrying the corrupt electoral process.

But, technically, Russia is still a democracy.

We often associate democracy with rights protections, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the power of the people to elect their representatives (who handle the rest). It may be surprising to hear that only the last is technically part of democracy, while the other crucial elements of a free society are part of something more specific: a liberal democracy.

Democracy itself is merely a power structure: the people have some form of participation, end of story.

So despite the myriad of problems in regimes like Venezuela’s and Russia’s — poverty, unrest, food shortages, and a volatile economy, to name a few — they are democracies.

Protests alone won’t solve the problem.

Creating a democracy is actually fairly easy. You need a group of people in a society willing to forcefully assert their political rights, few elites to run the place, and some voting booths.

We see and have seen countless revolutions started with the hope of achieving democratic ends. Keeping it, however, is the real trick.

The Arab Spring started out with grand ambitions, the people shouting “bring down the regime” in a unified voice of opposition to the sclerotic governments all over the Middle East and North Africa. As Robert Gates notes in his autobiography, however, “the history of revolutions is not a happy one. Most often repressive authoritarian governments are swept out, and power ends up in the hands not of moderate reformers but of better-organized and far more ruthless extremists.”

And we saw that play out in all but a few countries. The military now runs Egypt. Libya, Iraq, and Syria all suffer through civil wars and unstable governments. And in many countries, the leaders used excessive force, hoping to punish those who threaten their rule — and providing a chilling example to any future dissenters.

Democracy itself is an incredibly unstable system of government. It is subject to the whims and caprices of the people, who often ask for and sometimes demand changes that fundamentally undermine the system.

Liberal institutions can protect us.

This is why many countries seek to create or maintain liberal democracies. The liberal element contains all of the important protections we tend to associate with the power structure called democracy. That’s where we get the separation of powers, the economic rights, and most importantly the rule of law.

How do these work? The separation of powers provides each of the different branches of government with a certain amount of independence. Undermining this independence is part of maintaining an illiberal democracy. In Egypt, the military has passed laws that diminish or destroy rights. According to Human Rights Watch, “These laws have, among other things, effectively banned protests, legalized emergency police powers, and expanded military court jurisdiction over civilians, leading to the imprisonment of thousands of people.” In Russia, politicians avoid accountability by relying on the corrupt judiciary to prosecute journalists who dare to question government policy.

Then there is the rule of law. The most fundamental element of any free regime is the requirement that the government provide clear laws that apply to everyone — including those in government. While it does not stop all abuses, it does provide an avenue for redressing abuses. While it does not protect every individual equally, it establishes the firm commitment to this ideal.

It is these elements that provide liberal countries with the assurance that their governments will always work for them and when they (inevitably) fall short, there are ways to call the politicians to account.

But liberal institutions are not enough.

Importantly, the rule of law relies on everyone knowing the law and everyone abiding by those laws. And this is one of the fragile elements of a liberal system.

Constitutions merely provide the outline or framework for how the people who run the government should interact and what should happen if they encroach on other branches. It outlines how the people should hold the government accountable and what they can do if the government fails them. There is not an automatic enforcement mechanism for liberal democracy.

For example, the Russian constitution guarantees a free press, and yet many journalists wind up in jail or worse when they question the government.

A liberal democracy is not a machine that will run itself: it is run by people. The people in government have to act in the way delineated in the Constitution, and the citizens have to hold them accountable. Without the people to enforce the rules created by the Constitution, it is nothing more than words on a page.

So if we want to create and preserve societies that are stable and free — if we want to protect ourselves from strongmen like those that afflict Russia or Egypt — we need everyday citizens to understand and defend the liberal ideal.


Article by Sarah Burns, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Originally published at www.learnliberty.org.