Is democracy the worst form of government?

Democracy and its alternatives

Is democracy the worst form of government?
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Democracy over the centuries has had it's share of both admirers and critics yet a large majority of contemporary governments claim to be democratic in some aspect or another.

The democratic attributes and virtues of governments arguably vary a great deal yet there are sound reasons to contend that democracy is no worse a form of government than any of the alternatives. The arguments for, or even against the goodness of democracy in relation to other modes of government is set out in the following. It is worth noting as a starting point that democracy has, and indeed still means different things for different people in differing times, places and situations.

The notion of democracy, as is widely known has it's origins in Ancient Greece though only adult male citizens who met specific criteria were allowed to participate in the democratic process . Democratic processes were effectively only for rich men or landowners wherever it was practiced until the end of the 19th century. Even then extensions to the male franchise tended to be gradual such as the British reform acts. The nations that had early versions of emocratic forms of government were mainly European ones, most notably Great Britain and France after the revolution.

The nation that was established from the onset with democratic values in it's constitution, as well as being portrayed as highly desirable virtues was the United States. The Land of the Free in modern times presenting itself as a staunch advocate if not always a consistent supporter of liberal democracy. At that time there were absolute monarchies such as France, Prussia, and Russia where personal liberties were curtailed especially for the poor. In the 21st century monarchies are few in number, with most of these being constitutional ones except notably for Nepal and Saudi Arabia.

However liberal democracy, the most open of democratic forms has not always been as widespread as liberals would have liked, or that the more authoritarian regimes may have feared. It is widely assumed that democracy is going to be a consistently viable and possibly the least draconian form of government, at least when certain conditions are present. For instance, democracy needs favourable economic conditions to have better prospects of being established or maintained. Consider Europe in the Inter–War period, or Latin America in the wake of the oil crisis after the Arab- Israeli War of 1973. In both periods economic downturns assisted the overthrow of democracies. The prospects for democratic progress can rise and decline over the course of time, for example the ways the Second World War ended meant communism instead of liberal democracies in central and Eastern Europe. Conversely the events of 1989 demonstrated democracy in it's liberal form was preferable to the peoples' democracies that had lost their reason to continue in existence.

Democracy is the form of government, which is intended to give the people in any given state influence over how they are governed as a whole. Governments are selected by their people, and remain in office while ever a majority of the people continue to support them. Other types of government will claim to be the legitimate regime for their respective country. Furthermore claiming that they represent the will of their people in some form or another. The members of authoritarian regimes rule for their benefit yet still seek a semblance of legitimacy. When these regimes have lost power the aim of their members is to allow democracy upon the best possible terms for themselves, ideally without any recriminations for past repressive measures.

For several decades during the 20th century communism with it's peoples' democracies aimed to rival and either supplant liberal democracy as a form of government. Marx and Engels argued history was on the side of communism, which would ultimately establish the best form of government. It was Lenin that succeeded in bringing about a communist regime by revolutionary means in Russia. Whilst building their socialist utopia Lenin and then Stalin argued that people would have to live through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The communists gained countless recruits yet there were no other Marxist regimes outside the Soviet Union until the end of the Second World War.

The presence of the Soviet Army was the main catalyst for communist takeovers in Central and Eastern Europe, whilst in Asia communists gained control of China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. This spread of communism alarmed the United States and her Western allies, who attempted to protect capitalism if not always democracy. The return to poor relations between the Soviet Union and the United States contributed to the Cold War. Each side was certain that they stood for economic and political progress versus the worst known forms of economic system and government. Whilst the Soviet Union existed communism claimed it was a better system of government than in the capitalist dominated liberal democracies.

All that transformed drastically and with unexpected haste with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and also it's satellites throughout Central and Eastern Europe. That collapse left China as the world's most powerful communist state, a country that had embraced capitalism whilst keeping communist structures in government.

Another form of government is authoritarian regimes, which do not endorse communism. Such regimes have varied greatly in their nature as well as the policies that they pursue. Some of these regimes have aligned themselves as either capitalist or Marxist. Whilst others have ruled as nationalists or as defenders of their ethnicity or religion.

In some countries democracy was never seen as a practical form, or else civilian politicians were not particularly trusted with serving the national interest. For instance in Latin America and Asian states like Indonesia and Pakistan the armed forces regarded themselves as national guardians. Such regimes often tried to get aid from either the Soviets or the Americans during the Cold War, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, or the Assad family in Syria. The removal of such governments has tended to bring instability as opposed to stable democracies, even chaos as in Libya and the current civil war in Syria.

There are certainly alternative forms of government to democracy, yet on reflection these are worse generally for the people who are being governed. Whilst democracies in their liberal democracy guise might not be perfect they do at least allow those who vote a say in how, and by whom they are governed. Voters may not always think there is enough choice in how they vote, or that they are supporting the lesser of a variety of evils, there is at least the right to participate in open and fair elections. Whilst the other forms of government such as communist regimes or one party authoritarian states may hold elections these are not free nor fair and are highly unlikely to allow people to remove or replace their rulers. In theory, being able to describe a regime as democratic as opposed to authoritarian or a dictatorship as it provides higher levels of political legitimacy both domestically and internationally if these are believed. Living in a liberal democracy tends to give more freedom than living in one of the remaining communist states, under a military junta, an unconstitutional monarchy, or a theocratic state.


Eatwell R & Wright A, Contemporary Political Ideologies 2nd edition, Continuum Press, London

Ethier D (1990) Democratic Transitions and Consolidation in Southern Europe, Latin America and South-East Asia, MacMillan International Political Economy Series, London

Held D (1991) Political Theory Today, Polity Press, Cambridge

Hobsbawm E (1994) Age of Extremes The Short Twentieth Century 1914 – 1991, Michael Joseph, London

Judt T (2007) Postwar A History of Europe Since 1945, Pimlico, London

Skidmore T & Smith P H (1992) Modern Latin America 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford

Tansey S D (1995) Politics – The Basics, Routledge, London and New York

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