Democracy Unveiled: Instrumental Value, Intrinsic Worth, and Operational Realities

Democracy Unveiled: Instrumental Value, Intrinsic Worth, and Operational Realities

By Amal Al Jallad; Image by The New Yorker.

By contrasting ideal democracies with realistic ones, I want to provide a mental framework for answering this question: what are the justifications – tangible and non-instrumental – for democracy?

  1. What is democracy?

Democracy is a system of government wherein the ultimate political authority lies with the people – at least, that is according to political science theory. The people practice this power either through direct participation or elected representation. The people, then, get to enjoy rights, protections, and freedoms. Beyond tangible benefits, such as accountability mechanisms and incentives to abide by the law, democracy allegedly holds intrinsic value in affording individuals the agency and sovereignty to participate in shaping the laws and rules that govern their lives. However, the prerequisites for a functioning democracy are oftentimes very demanding, and likely unachievable for many countries. This means that the way we dictate our lives is pretty much flawed. In essence, democracy represents an intricate interplay of theoretical ideas and practical complexities, requiring a nuanced understanding of its multifaceted nature.

  1. Significance of Democracy: Beyond Tangible Outcomes

Instrumental Value

The instrumental value of democracy lies in the sense that it is likely to produce better outcomes. This is because democracy presents us with methods of accountability. What this means is that, in a democracy, if an elected representative does not continue to serve in maximizing benefits and minimizing harm for the majority, there are methods to challenge authority, and vote to replace said representative.

In more authoritarian regimes, the people have little to no agency or sovereignty, meaning that regardless of their dissatisfaction with the system, laws, or representation, no change or reform is likely to occur because of the people’s disenfranchisement. Change may otherwise occur because an authoritarian leader wills it so, or because there has been a revolt or uprising, but orderly and regular changes to benefit the public are not a priority in an authoritarian system.

Another benefit of democracy is the provision of more incentives for people to abide by the law. There is a very human urge to rebel and go against a law that has been forced upon oneself. However, in a democracy, the people have a hand in choosing the law. When they follow the law, it is because they believe it is necessary to begin with – when they voted on it. There is value in a population choosing to follow the law out of conviction rather than fear of punishment.

There are other benefits of democracy in terms of transitions of government. Many argue that democracy facilitates orderly transitions of government and the emergence of new ideas without systemic ruptures. This means that power and policy can change and evolve to continue to represent the people adequately in accordance with changes in the status quo without there being destabilization due to the change in representatives and government.

However, in reality, it does not always work that way. This is especially true when we examine the events that took place on the 6th of January, 2021, known as the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Supporters of then-president Donald Trump gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest the Electoral College results of the 2020 presidential election, in which Joe Biden was declared the winner. The protesters marched to the U.S. capitol and breached its security, which resulted in a violent and chaotic breach of the building. Law enforcement clashed with the rioters, who vandalized offices and disrupted the joint session of Congress that was in the process of certifying the electoral votes. Lawmakers were evacuated or took shelter, and the certification process was temporarily halted. Many individuals died, including a Capitol Police officer, and more were injured. Law enforcement eventually regained control of the Capitol, and Congress reconvened later in the evening to complete the certification process. The point of this example is to show how, even in the United States, which is considered one of the most developed democracies in the world and a country that continues to preach its values, an orderly transition of government through voting was disrupted by violence.

While democracy aims to provide the benefit of orderly transitions of government, it is inherently flawed because of the factor of the significant minority. Although the majority of voters wanted a certain thing, there was still a significantly large minority of people who were dissatisfied and disenfranchised. While people get agency in a democracy, many people would still feel restricted when the majority vote does not match their interests. This becomes a major problem when, as was the case in the storming of the Capitol, the minority consists of a large, infuriated, group of people.

One can certainly imagine many systems of government, which, in some cases, could be better than democracy. Singapore, a quasi-democratic elite-controlled one-party government, has produced, for years, better results for the population than they would have gotten through a normal chaotic democratic system. Looking at the history of development since World War 2, one of the most commented-on features is that one of the most successful developmental models is a one-party democracy, in which there are some trappings of democratic institutions, but, nonetheless, there is a one-party which, absent an absolute crisis, is likely to win year after year. Statistically, that seems to be the most effective form of government, particularly in developing countries. Therefore, if the value or justification of democracy is, purely, that it produces better results, but there are real-life cases in which other forms of government produce better results, then is there any reason we should value democracy at all?

Beyond Tangible Outcomes

Much of the intrinsic value of democracy lies in its affirmation of agency for individuals to influence the governing rules that shape their lives. The system we live under defines every aspect of our lives and the lives of everyone we know and care about. At the end of the day, any form of government is just a handful of individuals using the threat of force to tell you what you can and cannot do. If people are going to believe that it’s any different than an armed group of thugs doing the same thing, it presumably has to do with the fact that we as a people are the ones choosing it under a democracy.

At its core, democracy is not merely a procedural mechanism for choosing leaders; it is a philosophy that acknowledges and emphasizes the fundamental right of the people to participate in decision-making processes and the shaping of the system they live under. This notion of agency means that every citizen has the right to express their preferences, values, traditions, and concerns regarding the laws and policies that impact their daily lives. Does this mean that democracy is valuable irrespective of results?

The kind of justification that often comes up in response to that is that it is important that you, as an individual, influence the rules that govern you, but you should be careful not to fall into the trap of placebo ideas that say, “the people are participating, or at least seeming to, so they feel fine.” There is some truth in that, especially given how democracies tend to operate, but there is more value in the idea that we can vote for our government.

The sovereignty and agency of the people are significant, but the difficulty there, though, is that an individual does not have real influence on their government on a statistical level. Individual experiences are often rendered irrelevant. We do not get to choose the government we live under; we are subjects, in even the most perfect democratic system, to what the majority wants. Therefore, the non-instrumental justification for democracy is not about an individual’s agency or their actual ability to choose the government they live under, it is about the ability of this collective called “The People” to make that choice. 

There is an inherent democratic assumption that says people are more likely on one level to work together because they view themselves as part of a project. But, those who want to be politicians are left in a gray area. Do they truly care about the objectives and aspirations of the people, or do they only care once every four or five years when it’s time for elections? A potential way for them to get more influence is by at least seeming to care, but there is still a lack of checks and balances to ensure real change and not mere window-dressing.

On the other hand, many would argue that democracy solves for itself. The claim is that, because different politicians are competing to garner a bigger coalition of voters, they will try to rush to address the concerns of the people. Therefore, they are unlikely to abandon these concerns, rendering the fact of whether or not they really care irrelevant. However, I would argue that this isn’t foolproof. On one hand, they may, in their competition, rush to appease the majority of the population, and completely overlook minorities – ethnic, racial, religious, or lower-class minorities may be denied the right to have their concerns addressed. On the other hand, they might practice window dressing, or simply timing their rare addressing of issues very well with election cycles. There are many ways that politicians can and do manipulate the system, meaning that argument on its own is not compelling enough.

However, in the case in which politicians are pushed by the nature of democracy to address the concerns of the people, that is a potential way in which an individual gets more influence, but it still doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of influence. It certainly isn’t influence over the macro-level policy which sometimes affects our lives – this isn’t to claim that micro-level policy doesn’t matter, most of all for it is where we have more influence.

It’s worth noting that there are even notions of democracy in states that aren’t necessarily considered democratic. In China, there still is competition between different members of the communist party. Although it may seem not democratic at all, they are still competing with each other for these local issues (micro-level policy), and there’s no need for a full-scale democracy for that. So, justifying the merits of democracy in a way that isn’t about producing results, is difficult. To a certain extent, we have one about the people, as a collective, having some ability to make a decision or influence decision-making overall.

This takes us back to another question: Why should we be bound to believe there is value in what other people in our community think? Why should we believe it is better to be subject to the wills of our community, or the majority within it, rather than a minority within the state? Note, crucially, that in this questioning of democracy and whether or not there are better alternatives, the comparative on the other side is not totalitarian, authoritarian regimes. Democracy is flawed, but most, if not all, people would agree it is better than dictatorship. A relevant quote here by Winston Churchill, portrays this nicely: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

  1. Operational Realities: Tyranny of the Majority and Placebo Effects

Many challenges come even with a “perfect” democracy. If each citizen has one vote, this should provide equality. But, in a state with a prominent ethnic majority, it is almost guaranteed that their vote will win out most of the time. This is fair on paper, but it isn’t in the way it translates in the real world. Especially in day-to-day issues, it is usually the minorities who have to live in ghettos and dangerous neighborhoods, fight against gentrification among many other issues, and struggle continuously for civil rights. If their cast votes cannot truly influence policy-making, at least not in the face of the overpowering majority vote, then they’re mere subjects under the system. That doesn’t seem very democratic.

There are so-called solutions to this that have been tried, such as having a separation between executive and legislative powers, different systems of weighted voting, and required quotas for a vote result to be counted. However, the truth of how these minorities continue to live – in usually bad conditions – is enough to attest to how successful these attempts have been.

Potentially, a coherent argument could be this: the best democratic systems are the ones in which a handful of individuals vote; the ones who are most educated, who have degrees, or who have a wide range of opinions. Some of them may even express other opinions because of some form of liberal guilt, and so it is certainly feasible to argue that we could make better decisions if we restrict a franchise and the kind of people making decisions. But that’s not very democratic, is it? In democracy, we believe there should be a reason for other opinions to be expressed, but why?

Perhaps it is the notion of equality. We believe that we must recognize that no individual, or group of individuals, knows what the best idea for an entire society is. Moreover, the notion of equality is the idea that there are going to be people who have different life experiences and positions, and who all have different notions as to what the ideal policies and forms of organization are. The notion of equality is just the one that people should be able to express those views, potentially gain some traction for them, and have the ability to convince others of said views. Without that, if there is only a small group perpetuating itself with the same ideas, we end up with a one or two-party system reiterating the same idea. Instead, equality is almost derivatively beneficial because that means the more ideas we get, the more likely we are to find more plausible ideas as to what the best for that society is.

Just as we care about the outcomes of democracy, we must also care about the fact that different ideas are expressed and can be voted on, involving different members of society in different positions being able to express those kinds of ideas. That may explain, not entirely why we find equality to be valuable, but from a democratic perspective, why equality is a precondition to having a functioning democratic system. We need different ideas, and you cannot vote in a democracy without the presentation of those ideas.

  1. Prerequisites and Complexities: Navigating Democracy’s Landscape

Freedom of Speech and Expression

It is certainly plausible that you can live in a system where you can say what you want, and probably no one hears you. You don’t get punished for it, but you do not have the means to amplify your voice. Is that enough for you to have free speech? To put it differently, when we think about free speech, we think about the ability to challenge one’s government and present different ideas. It is not merely about being able to speak up without getting persecuted, for that does not mean it is democratic in and of itself. People in Iran talk about the lipstick revolution against the status quo, which shows that women are still capable of challenging the government, but they can be particularly effective in the public realm, where they are heard, regardless of persecution.

There seems to be more than the notion that “democracy allows people to express themselves”. There seems to be an institutional question underlying this: what do we need for a democracy to exist and function? It seems to be a notion of freedom of expression beyond the idea of not being persecuted, but the idea of being heard and taken into account.

Balancing the Existence of Multiple Parties and Ideologies

We wouldn’t call a system democratic if we had one political party – the only one there is to vote for, so why are we even voting? If two political parties expressed, more or less, the same ideas with minor differences, and often that is what happens, we would end up with lots of parties moving towards the center with the same kind of policies – eg: taxing 40% or 50% – but would that be democratic? Maybe, instead of a multiparty criterion, the idea we need is that there aren’t significant enough barriers to entry for one to challenge the dominant political parties and ideas in claim. That, however, is an incredibly demanding claim. It may deny that the USA is even a democratic system; can you really challenge the control of the two political powers in the states? True, you can vote for one or the other, or theoretically form another party, but with the difficulty that comes with obtaining resources or media coverage, that seems to only be ideally true and is a very demanding concept of democracy.

But how else could we think about it? Certainly, we want there to be the possibility of new ideas emerging, and there have to be some barriers, but it is unrealistic to suggest that these ideas should be very easy to express. But how do we manage between extremes? It is irrational to suggest that parties should just be less centralist and hold extremist views, yet we lose a lot of democracy’s value if they move too close to the center that voting becomes futile. A very meticulous balance between those hypothetical options needs to be found and sustained for democracy to properly function. This is an overly demanding and borderline unrealistic prerequisite for democracy.

One Size Does Not Fit All

In the status quo, especially with the prominence of globalization, the “ideal” form of democracy is that of the West. Anything else is considered flawed, or not a democracy at all. This has even been weaponized by many Western countries to point at developing countries that don’t uphold Western democratic standards and say “Ah, that’s authoritarian! We have the right to intervene now.” This happened in many countries around the world, prominently in the Middle East, and in my experience in Syria. While some people may have been disenfranchised, it is a very demeaning claim from the West that these people are not capable of finding adequate forms of reparations on their own to create a better system. Was there really a need for America to interfere in Syria or was this a perpetuation of their ideals that these people are not capable on their own? I find myself agreeing with the latter, that the US, amongst others, weaponized that idea and the peoples’ disillusionment to create an anti-Syrian government narrative that has made the over a decade-long conflict so much more difficult than it needed to be.

This, in and of itself, is unfair and undemocratic. Different countries have different resources, majority and minority groups, ethnic and religious resources, and technological and institutional abilities. It is quite unrealistic to hold them all to the same standard in order to call a system democratic or not. It is crucial to recognize the huge middle ground that lies between an authoritarian and democratic system; it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

For democracies to truly flourish around the world, different governments need to recognize it and work through thought-out plans to establish the prerequisites for democracies in their different contexts through methods that are specifically designed to work for their specific and unique realities. This is highly demanding and highly unlikely. It requires international cooperation, first – not to be confused with intervention. There is a need for countries to cooperate and allow each other the space, resources, and security to make that process feasible. Second, it requires existent regimes to choose to step down and offer the people the choice to change things about the government or replace it altogether. This seems highly unlikely.

  1. Conclusions

In examining the dimensions of democracy, from fundamental theories to operational challenges and complexities, nuanced perspectives begin to emerge. We move away from generalizations and closer to core problems and solutions. The storming of the U.S. Capitol in 2021 underscored the fragility of even ‘well-established democracies’ such as the one in the States. This raised the question of whether or not the system can truly accommodate dissent and ensure the representation of significant minority groups.

Operational hurdles, such as the tyranny of the majority and potential political posturing, reveal inherent vulnerabilities and cycles the system can fall into due to its frameworks. There is a delicate equilibrium between equality and decision-making that needs to be found, and more often than not, it isn’t found, amplifying the perpetual tension within democratic ideals.

I’d conclude with a critical claim: rather than a definitive judgment on the merits of democracy, this examination calls for ongoing reflection and adaptability. Future research must delve into innovative solutions, considering hybrid systems and context-specific approaches. The evolution of democracy lies not within flawless ideals but in its capacity to change and solve for itself through the diverse collective of “The People”.

  1. References

Churchill, W. (1947). Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947.

Sartori, G. (1987). The Theory of democracy revisited. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.

Dahl, R. A. (1971). Polyarchy: Participation and opposition. Yale University Press

Huntington, S. P. (1991). The third wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century. University of Oklahoma Press.

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