In modern democracies, public policy decisions are usually made by assemblies of elected representatives, such as national parliaments and regional and local councils. They have a mandate from being elected by the people and decide on taxes, public services and the like, until they put themselves before the people again in the next election.

Sometimes, however, issues are put directly to the people to be decided by a referendum in which all voters can participate. This may be laid down constitutionally, such as in Switzerland and for some matters in some American states and cities. Or referendums may be ad hoc in that an elected assembly chooses to put some matters directly to the people.

These are two methods for making policy decisions: by elected representatives or directly in a popular vote. Both are democratic. Is one method more democratic that the other?

In the pure theory of representative democracy, the people elect representatives for the purpose of making policies on their behalf. When the elected representatives meet in assembly, that assembly is the people and when the assembly makes decisions, it is the people deciding. Constitutional thinking in Britain has traditionally been more or less in this line, and the use of referendums is therefore a bit of an anomaly.

What counts in favour of the pure theory is that when elections work as they should, the people elect representatives who are the more competent to make policy decisions and it is therefore in their interest to leave it to their representatives to govern.

In Britain we see this theory at work in the question of the death penalty. A referendum might well go in favour of reintroducing the death penalty but it is accepted that it should be left to Parliament to decide on the matter.

What counts against the pure theory is that elections may work out so that the assembly is not representative of the people and may therefore be biased and make policies that do not reflect the popular will.

A referendum is obviously a democratic way of making a decision, but it is not necessarily an effective corrective against bias.

First, this is not generally the rationale for having referendums. Where the method of referendum is a constitutional provision, the logic is usually that this is a way of constraining elected representatives, for example from taxing the people too heavily. Ad hoc referendums may be called for a range or reasons, some of which may be all but democratic, for example a government seeking to subvert the will of its parliament.

Second, while elected assemblies may be unrepresentative, so too may referendums. Although all voters can participate, not all voters do. A referendum is like a big survey that may get it wrong if those who vote do not make up a representative sample of all voters. In fact, referendums are likely to be unrepresentative because of selective bias in the motivation to participate.

Third, a referendum may not be an effective way of expressing “the will of the people.” We might think that people always know what they want and prefer and that it is only a matter of asking them. But if we think “the will of the people” is what they would have wanted if they had the opportunity to be properly informed about the matter to hand and to deliberate carefully with each other about it, we might suspect that a referendum is too crude an instrument and too much at risk of populist manipulation. If so, we might, in the interest of “the will of the people” put more trust in the indirect method of decision-making by elected assembly. We might do that if we thought (1) that representatives are likely to be better informed than the average voter and (2) that decision-making in assembly is subject to more rigorous deliberation.

Referendums are appealing because people participate directly. They have the ability to lend legitimacy to big policy decisions, which counts in their favour. But democratically, like the alternative method of decision-making by elected assembly, they have both advantages and disadvantages. The referendum method, although democratic, is neither more nor less democratic than the alternative. A democracy with a reasonably well functioning national assembly has, for reasons of democracy, no need for referendums. There may be various reasons for calling a referendum, of which adding democratic quality is not one.


The question is not frivolous: could democracy come to an end in America? Before our eyes, we are seeing functioning democracies disintegrating in, for example, Turkey and Venezuela, and democracy failing to take hold in, for example, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, South Sudan and possible Tunisia where it for a while looked to be succeeding. “On more than seventy occasions [in the 20th Century] democracy collapsed and gave way to an authoritarian regime” (Robert A. Dahl: On Democracy, p. 145). Could it happen in America?

The question is being taken seriously. The most recent outgoing President, Barack Obama, in his final State of the Union Address, warned of “democracy grinding to a halt.”

It is being taken seriously by scholars. In a new book, How Democracies Fail, two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, find that democratic failure usually happens by gradual slide, rather than any sudden crash, under more or less cynical leaders who have come to power through elections. If elected leaders govern in disrespect of democratic principles, democracy is in danger. Danger comes from the top.

Leaders, they argue, are a danger to democracy if they have weak commitment to democratic rules, if they deny opponents legitimacy, if they tolerate violence, and if they show willingness to curb civil liberties or press freedom. These are the warning signs.

In the American case, they argue, no President except Richard Nixon has governed so as to ring even one of these warning bells. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is exercising presidential power in a way that meets all four warnings.

Other books coming out at about the same time add to the concern. David Frum, a Republican who worked for President George W. Bush, warns, in Trupocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, that Trump has brought “thuggery, crookedness and dictatorship into the very core of the American state, .. in a regime of deceit and brutishness.” In Fire and Fury, the journalist Michael Wolff draws an intimate portrait of a White House in the grip of ignorance, hatred and downright stupidity.

These books argue that the Trump presidency puts American democracy in danger. It might seem far fetched that a single president might put democracy in peril. The American Constitution, after all, is one of robust institutions that check each other and that has weathered many a previous storm.

But their warning is perhaps not as outlandish as one might first think, for two reasons. First, for all the checks and balances, the Presidency holds enormous powers. When an incumbent puts these powers into a relentless campaign of verbal and symbolic violence against anyone he sees to cross him, there is danger. Any semblance of speaking truth to power is now so costly that freedom of speech, and of the press, is curtailed.

Secondly, American democracy was on a path of decline before Mr. Trump became president. For my part, I warned of that decline in an op ed in the Washington Post already in 2014. President Obama issued his warning of democracy “grinding to a halt” a year before Trump was President and when no one through he wold be. My warning, and I think also that of Mr. Obama, was of a gradual weakening of the fabric of democracy. Mr. Obama spoke of a weaker democratic culture, of polarisation, mutual disrespect and an absence of trust and tolerance. My attention was on a weakening of the authority of Congress and of Congress’s ability to see itself and work as an institution, rather than just an arena of partisan battle.

The reason the warnings against the Trump presidency are valid is not simply that Mr. Trump is an unpalatable human being. They are valid for a particular combination of reasons that are coming together at this time:

  1. Trump is a man with undemocratic instincts and inclinations.
  2. He holds the enormous powers of the presidency and is showing ruthlessness in their use.
  3. This is against the backdrop of a political culture of divisiveness and distrust in which confidence in democracy and democratic values has been in decline.
  4. And against the backdrop of a Congress without authority. In the system of checks and balances, it is Congress that must check the President. So far, however, Congress has mainly given a brutish president free reins.


(This is the final post for now under the WHY DEMOCRACY heading. To friends who follow this blog: all good wishes for the holidays and the New Year.)

Ideally, democratic governance is fair and effective and conducive to equality and human dignity. In fact, however, real democracies are always imperfect and fall short of the blueprint of ideal democracy. There are degrees of democracy, and some democracies are not very democratic at all. Democratic governance may sometimes feel tyrannical – the tyranny of the majority is a real predicament – theoretical rights are not always fully operational, freedoms get curtailed and the rule of law manipulated, and there are many shortcomings in equality and citizenship. Democratic governance can be frustratingly ineffective, prosperity may not be advancing or poverty retracting. Democracy is not incompatible with international aggression, nor with domestic repression. It does not always present itself to citizens as a recipe for dignity.

The claim for democracy, however, is not perfection. It is more modest: democracy is likely to be the better form of rule for most people since it has a range of advantages over any attainable alternative.

The unavoidable imperfection of democracy is itself a core principle in democratic thinking. There is no such thing as the perfect or ideal democracy. Democratic forms and practices differ from country to country, depending on historical experiences and contemporary circumstances. Democracy is never finished but always in the making, and will so forever remain. There may be forms of democracy not yet invented. The vibrant democracy is not the finished one, but the one in which shortcomings are acknowledged and the imperative of continuous betterment and reform recognised.

Only dictatorships can aspire to perfection. The philosopher Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, argued that the idea of perfection is itself dictatorial, since the next logical step is then that ends justify means. Democracy is built on tolerance, of human differences and disagreements first of all. But also on the quirky shortcomings of the human animal and how we humans are honed from, in the words of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, “the crooked timber of humanity.” That which gives the spirit of democracy its majesty, is tolerance of the imperfect in the human condition.


People have different interests and different outlooks. Conflict and disagreement is the normal state of affairs in social life. Democracy is, among other things, a way of managing disagreement and forging cooperation out of conflict.

In autocratic systems, the social good is defined from above and people have a duty of obedience to the ways and means that are imposed upon them. Autocratic governance depends on a pretence of agreement and therefore the repression of disagreement.

Democratic governance is grounded in an acceptance of disagreement and an ideal of cooperation without repression. To get on in society, we need agreed upon goals and procedures on many matters, some of which are controversial, say the always contested business of taxation. There is no such thing as a public policy that is the preferred policy of everyone, and there is no such thing as a public policy that does not come with a cost to someone. In a democracy, ideally, everyone is entitled to state their views and to defend their interests vigorously. At some point, however, a shared position needs to be found somewhere in the landscape of disagreement. That can be done democratically, for example by voting in a national assembly, or in a general election or a referendum. Some citizens will unavoidably be disappointed in what becomes the shared position, since it will not be their preferred position. The ingenuity of democracy is that since everyone has had a say in the debate and procedure leading up to joint decisions, or the opportunity thereto, everyone should be able to accept the outcome, even when it is not their preferred outcome. The access to discussion and deliberation is conducive to willing collaboration.

When this works, on the one hand society is able to get on with it and move forward, and on the other hand no one has been trampled on and humiliated. Democracy, then, is a method for peaceful resolution of conflict and for collaboration with dignity.


Democratic countries do not fight wars against each other. This is true today, was true in all of the twentieth century, and was true in the nineteenth century in that countries with then democratic institutions and with a substantial part of the male population enfranchised, did not fight wars with each other. Hence, a more democratic world would promise to be also a more peaceful world.

The observation that countries in which governments are under some form of popular check are less likely to be warring, was first made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in a publication of 1795 entitled Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden). Here he not only proposed the equivalent of a UN Charter in which countries commit themselves to peaceful coexistence. He also recommended that countries should adopt republican constitutions since that would make them less prone to war.

The peaceful inclination in democratic governments is due partly to the distribution of power in the population. Since the glories of war accrue mainly to élites and the costs of war fall disproportionately on the populace, élites may incline to war where they are not answerable to the populace and be more constrained from war where they are under popular control. Other reasons may be a high level of trade between democratic countries, that democratic leaders and citizens learn the art of compromise, that they see people in other democratic countries as similar to themselves, and that their communality encourages a habit of peaceful negotiations and treaties.

Regrettably, democratic countries have not in the same way been able or willing to avoid war with non-democratic countries. They have fought wars of more or less defence against non-democratic aggressors, as in the Second World War, and then with uninhibited brutality. And they have fought wars of aggression in self-interest, as for example the many and violent colonial wars that for example Britain and France engaged in during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Democracy, then, is good for peace in the world – but does not guarantee peace.


In a democratic system, there is less risk than otherwise of citizens being left behind in poverty. There are two reasons.

First, your country is more likely to be prosperous, and with more prosperity there is likely to be less poverty.

Second, it is more likely that there are antipoverty policies in place. The reason for that is that even the poor have a share of power in the vote. Competing political parties or élites need the votes of the poor, as they need other votes, and must therefore to some degree satisfy the interests and demands of the poor and those in risk of poverty. If you have the vote, someone in government is likely to take an interest in you. If you do not have the vote, it is unlikely that anyone in government will speak for you. If you have the right to stand up for your interests, you are less in risk of your interests being disregarded.

One of the great movements in the twentieth century was the emergence of mature welfare states in most democratic countries. That followed on from democratisation in the first half of the century, with the extension of the vote first to all men and then to women. There is a causal link from political democratisation to the inclusive welfare states. To be sure, democratisation is not the full explanation. Other factors include economic crisis and precariousness, demographic fluctuations, the experience of the Second World War, and post-industrial economic restructuring. But democratisation is an essential contributing part of the explanation.


In today’s world, democracies are prosperous countries and prosperous countries are democracies. The established democratic countries of North America, Western Europe and Oceania are also the most democratic countries. In Europe, recent democratisation has been followed by increasing prosperity in Spain, Portugal, Greece and the countries of Central Europe. In Latin America, the democratic exceptions (until recently) of Costa Rica and Uruguay are also the region’s most prosperous countries. In Africa, Botswana is the most successful country both democratically and economically. In East Asia, it is the democratic countries of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan that have risen to the level of high-income countries.

The significant exception is India. Although economic growth is now very strong, India remains a democracy with widespread and oppressive poverty. It is a country that should have done better in prosperity. But within India, the rule still applies. Kerala is the leading state in both democracy and prosperity.

China is sometimes thought of as the great economic success story of our time. But except for the bigness of the economy, and its therefore clout in the world, China’s economic performance falls short of the standard in the region set by neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Are democratic countries prosperous because of democracy? We cannot say for certain, it could be the other way around. But there are good reasons to think that democracy is conducive to prosperity. In some cases, the sequence is in favour of this hypothesis. The new democracies in Europe have grown to prosperity after they became democracies. South Korea and Taiwan took off in development under autocratic regimes but went on to grow economically to the level of high-income after having transformed politically to democracy.

Some of the reasons we should expect democracy to encourage prosperity are the following: Citizens are more likely to feel secure under regimes of protection and predictability and therefore more confident in enterprise. They have free access to information and deliberation and are therefore better positioned to entrepreneurship. They are more likely to have the protection of safety nets to fall back on and therefore more able to take on economic risk. There is rule of law, including property and contract law, and therefore more security in enterprise and occupation and less susceptibility to corruption and gangster rule. Governance is more likely to be effective and therefore more likely to deliver infrastructural and other forms of support. Democratic polities co-exist with market economies and market economies have proved to be more efficient than command or monopolistic economies.

Autocracy with prosperity is not inconceivable. The Chinese party-state defends autocracy with the claim that it is delivering prosperity for the population. There has been impressive economic growth in recent decades. However, what has been delivered so far is elevation to a level of middle-income. The promise of prosperity depends on China escaping the middle-income trap, which is yet to be seen. Furthermore, the party-state promises people prosperity on the condition that they surrender their freedom. Only democracy holds up the audacious promise of both prosperity and freedom.