Attempts to “create” democracy and beyond

by UETANI Naokatsu

Political campaigning in a rural area (Indonesia)

Political campaigning in a rural area

There is a general tendency to assume that "democracy" refers to a fairly static concept and, by corollary, that "democratization" represents the process of approaching this "democracy." Taking this into consideration, when explaining democratization, it is first necessary to answer the question, "what is democracy?"

From the time of the ancient Greeks to present day, the concept of "democracy" has been presented in a variety of forms, evoking a multitude of emotional responses ranging from fear or adoration to envy. However, particularly in the context of modern political science, there is a desire to be able to evaluate democracy as a political phenomenon occurring in a specific social group, be that a nation state or (local) community, as objectively and as scientifically as possible, ultimately enabling researchers to make cross-group comparisons. The concept of democracy, thus, has also come to be defined with this goal in mind.

Among the various proposed definitions of democracy, perhaps the most refined and widely-disseminated conceptualization of democracy is that presented by Robert A. Dahl. First, Dahl limits the scope of his concept of "democracy" to a description of the "the fundamental principle of a political regime ." According to him, the degree of democracy is formally defined based on two measurable factors: namely, the degree of citizen participation in the political process (political equality) and the degree of acceptance of public contestation (political freedom). Emphasis is placed on "free and fair elections " as one opportunity in which the various civil liberties and political rights (freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of the press, suffrage, eligibility for candidacy, etc.), which represent components of the two above-mentioned factors are tested. In addition, the manner in which elections are held contributes to the overall evaluation of whether a given regime is democratic or not.

If we accept this, or similar, definition of democracy (we call this "procedural democracy"), then, the goal of "democratization" is the establishment of free and fair elections, and "democratization" can be considered the process by which the civil liberties and political rights necessary to achieve this goal are realized and maintained.

The "crafting" of democracy

Now, let’s us discuss the reason (why) and the process (how) by which democratization is achieved.

In the past, when the emphasis of discussion was conditions required for establishment of a "democratic society," rather than "democracy," it was believed that the necessary conditions included such things as the existence of a sizeable middle class with a certain amount of wealth and education as well as a civil and political culture characterized by tolerance and moderation.

Following this reasoning, "democratization" means that a given society has achieved these conditions. If this is the case, then, only certain societies that have experienced the economic and social structure transformation known as modernization and have achieved a certain degree of wealth (i.e., developed nations) have the opportunity to become democratized.

However, the "wave of democratization" which swept the globe in the middle of the 1970s (S. Huntington) forced a drastic revision of this traditional view of "democratization." In some countries where it was believed that "conditions" for democratization did not exist, for example in many developing countries, not only civil liberties and political rights, which had been prohibited or restricted, were gradually permitted, but also free and fair elections became a goal. That is, this wave of democratization changed the perception of "democracy" as "state of society" that is achievable only by countries that have historically developed certain conditions but rather that it is an artificial "institution" created by people.

Furthermore, the successive, unexpected democratization of countries around the world also had an impact on the field of modern political science. Since then, in addition to "study of the causes of democratization (why?)," practical/strategic issues related to the "democratization process (how?)" have been come under the purview of the field. For example, the joint research of G. O’Donnell and P. Schmitter introduced a new area of study called "Transitology" that emphasizes the strategic interactions among political actors involved with democratization, providing a framework in which to analyze the relatively quick transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes. This line of research is further developed in "Consolidology," which address questions of how societies that have experienced "democracy" in the form free elections, then, work to consolidate this institution.

Beyond "procedural democracy"

In this way, the "wave of democratization" in the latter half of the 20th century brought about discussions in which many developing countries, at least with respect to political regimes and structures, were on comparable footing with the industrialized countries. The starting point for such comparison can be said to be the concept of "procedurally defined" democracy and the corresponding concept of democratization.

However, it is important to remember that, if we define "politics" as "decisions that impact all members of a given social group," the democracy and democratization discussed above, which are related to "how things are decided" and are embodied in "elections," can be distilled simply to the process of "choosing of those who decide."

Although it may go without saying, rapid technological advances and specialization of information result in an increasingly complex society in which, within the political domain, it is necessary to be able to deal rapidly and effectively with an enormous number of policy proposals covering a wide range of policy areas. In this situation, there is ample opportunity for bureaucrats, technocrats, and special interest groups (lobbyists) to play a significant role in the political process, creating the possibility of putting the political domain outside of the reach even of the representatives elected by the public, to say nothing of being out of reach of individual citizens who are supposed to be the main political actors.

In other words, if we consider the countless possibilities in a diverse society of what decisions are made (political issues), how these are made (radical, gradual, high-handed, coordinated, compromising, confrontational, binary, etc.), and the manner of involvement (direct or indirect), "democracy" or "democratization," which tends to be reduced simply to "elections," captures only one of the many important political aspects of a society.