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By R.J. Rummel

The process through which a political system becomes democratic. This raises three questions: what is the meaning of democracy that is the result of this process? What is the process that achieves this end. And how is this end to be evaluated?

Democracy may be defined by its inherent nature and by its empirical conditions. As to its nature, Aristotle defined democracy as rule by the people (Greek demokratia: demos, people + -kratia, -cracy), and this idea that in some way the people govern themselves is still the core meaning of democracy. But around this idea several related themes have developed that are now thought integral to what democracy means. One is that the people govern themselves by regular elections through which their highest leaders are periodically determined (representative democracy) or policies governing them are chosen (direct democracy).

A second is that the right to vote includes virtually all adults. This is an entirely modern addition. Not so long ago governments were called democratic that excluded from the franchise all slaves, women, and free males that did not meet certain property or literacy requirements. Now it is considered perverse to call democratic any country so restricting the franchise, as for example, the South Africa apartheid regime that limited voting to minority whites.

A third is the acceptance of certain so-called democratic rights, particularly the right to vote, the right to have one's vote count equally, the right to run for the highest office, and the right to organize political groups or parties.

And finally, there is above the state a law to which all authorities adhere, that provides the framework for democratic rule, and that protects democratic rights. Democracy, therefore, now generally means that a people rule themselves through periodic elections of their highest leaders in which nearly all adults can participate, for which offices they are eligible, and under the rule of law.

In addition to this basic meaning, there is wide agreement on the empirical conditions that either give substance to what democracy means or must be present for democracy to exist. One is that the newspapers and other communication media are free to criticize government policies and leaders. A second is that there is open competition allowed for political office, which usually is translated to mean that there is more than one political party competing for power. A third is that there be a popularly and regularly elected legislature and head of government. Moreover, it is now deemed necessary that election ballots be cast secretly, but that debate and voting by democratically elected representatives be public. Then there is also the widely accepted belief that democracies cannot coexist with lack of religious freedom and the right to hold and express unpopular ideas. Finally, for there to be a rule of law there must be fundamental documents which structure the government, elaborate the reciprocal rights and duties of government and the people, and which all governing officials and their policies must obey. This is a constitution, either in the form of a single document as for the United States, or a set of documents, statutes, and signed agreements, as for Great Britain.

These are the generally accepted conditions of democracy. Among some democratic theorists and activists, however, it is also believed that democracy is inconsistent with a command economy, or that there must be guarantees of minority rights, or that government must be limited. Some also insist that democracy can only exist when the people also have economic power. But these and other such elaborations are really defining types of democracies (such as democratic socialist or democratic individualist) rather than the basic ideal or its conditions.

How is the ideal to be achieved? There appears to be no one process of democratization. What agreement there is on how best to achieve a stable democracy favors slow incremental development. Great Britain is, of course, the example of the gradual change over centuries from absolute monarchy to one of the world's most enduring democracies. However, such an incremental process seems neither necessary nor sufficient for democracy nor for its stability. Great Britain is an example of a bottom-up process, where the non-governing elite or lower classes made incessant demands for an extension of rights and voting power that, by government concession after concession, chipped away at ruling authority. Not all such democratization is so gradual, and indeed many appear revolutionary. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1912, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 that preceded the Bolshevik coup are examples, only the first of which established a long lasting democracy.

The process of democratization may also be carried out by the governing elite themselves, as has often happened in South America, and indeed, one will find authoritarian leaders that claim their rule is required to create the conditions for democracy. However, this top-down process has more often ended in an unstable democracy, unless it has been responsive to revolutionary pressure and prodemocratic violence from those below.

Democracy may also be created and mid-wifed by foreign powers. This is how the democracies of Japan and West Germany were created. After the Second World War the United States occupied Japan and with the help of democratic minded Japanese intellectuals and politicians reconstructed the Japanese government, wrote the so-called MacArthur Constitution, and carried out social reforms, such as land reform, that would strengthen democracy. This top-down, foreign imposed democratization produced a democracy stable enough to see in 1993 one of the longest lasting and most powerful governing parties among democracies thrown out of power by the Japanese people. Similarly, the new post-war democratic West German government, erected with the help and under the watchful eyes of Great Britain, France, and the United States, has been stable and effective. Notably, it managed to accommodate both dramatic enlargement and economic strain as it absorbed the former East Germany into a single German state in 1990.

Colonization, especially by Great Britain, has provided an incubation period for democracy in a number of countries, which with independence became full fledged and stable democracies. Canada, New Zealand, and Australia are good examples. India is also an example, although its democracy has come under severe stain, and its survival is all the more remarkable given regional, religious, linguistic, and ethnic centrifugal forces.

Rather than define a process of democratization, many have tried to define the empirical conditions necessary for the creation and success of democracy. In some of this work there tends to be confusion between the conditions of democracy itself, such as a free press and political parties, and that of successful democratization. If we understand the latter to mean those conditions that facilitate the creation of democracy and its stability, confusion can be avoided. In these terms most stress the importance of economic development to democratization, with the concomitant high levels of literacy and education, and modern communications. It is believed that democracy requires an aware and relatively educated electorate, and that moreover, where poverty and inequality is as severe as it is in the least economically developed nations, democracy cannot take root.

But also there is the role of culture. Many democratic theorists now accept that democracy requires a political culture of negotiation, compromise, accommodation, and a willingness to lose. Where this culture is absent, democracy, even if created through revolution by the people themselves, cannot succeed. However, as one considers such democracies as Japan, France, Germany, or India, their pre-democratic cultures were most conducive to authoritarian rule of some kind. It is only with the development of democracy that their political cultures gradually became democratic. Whether political democracy or democratic culture came first is clearly a chicken and egg question, but whether it comes before or after democracy is created, it is widely recognized as essential to democratic stability.

Other conditions have been proposed, such as the importance of a vigorous, bourgeois middle class, or the necessity for a depoliticized military.

Finally there is the question of why one should want democratization? One argument is that people are all in nature equal, that it is a natural right that people govern themselves, that they be free in a democratic sense. Since each person is an individual with free will and is equal in this sense to any other individual, the only system of natural governance is one in which all individuals collectively rule themselves.

Another argument is that democracy is the social contract to which people in a state of nature would agree collectively had they no foreknowledge as to how they would personally benefit (as in gaining or losing property).

Of all arguments for democracy, however, the most popular are the utilitarian ones. Democracy creates the greatest happiness of the greatest number; it promotes economic and personal development; public policy is most effective because of its incremental nature and the feedback of democratic elections; people are freer and minorities better protected; equality is promoted and enhanced; it enables gradual and incremental revolutionary change.

But especially important here is the argument that democracy institutionalizes a means of nonviolent conflict resolution- - -the willingness to negotiate, compromise, and debate, rather than fight. Moreover, the ballot rather than the bullet is the very democratic ideal of voting to resolve differences and choose leaders. It is what we mean by democracy.

Empirical research supports this argument. Especially well established is the finding that democracies do not make war on each other. Moreover, the more democracy the less likely violent rebellion, revolution, civil war, bloody riots, anti-government terrorism, and such. Finally, democratic leaders generally do not kill their own people through genocide, massacres, extra-judicial executions, and other forms of mass murder. 


* From the pre-publisher edited manuscript of R.J. Rummel, "Democratization," In William Vogele and Roger Powers, PROTEST, POWER, AND CHANGE: AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NONVIOLENCE ACTION FROM ACT-UP TO WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE, Hamden, CT: Garland Publishing, 1996.


Dahl, Robert A. A PREFACE TO DEMOCRATIC THEORY. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Diamond, Larry, Juan J. Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds. DEMOCRACY IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. Vol. 1- -4. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1988- -1989.

Held, David. MODELS OF DEMOCRACY. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987.

Holden, Barry. THE NATURE OF DEMOCRACY. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Huntington, Samuel. THE THIRD WAVE. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Linz, Juan J. and Alfred Stepan, eds. THE BREAKDOWN OF DEMOCRATIC REGIMES: CRISIS, BREAKDOWN AND REEQUILIBRIUM. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978.

O'Donnell, Guillermo, and Philippe C. Schmitter. TRANSITIONS FROM AUTHORITARIAN RULE: TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS ABOUT UNCERTAIN DEMOCRACIES. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986.

O'Donnell, Guillermo, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. TRANSITIONS FROM AUTHORITARIAN RULE: COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Rummel, R.J. DEATH BY GOVERNMENT New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

Russett, Bruce. GRASPING THE DEMOCRATIC PEACE: PRINCIPLES FOR A POST-COLD WAR WORLD. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.


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