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Chapter Review

  • Defining Democracy
    • Democracy, and more specifically liberal democracy, is political power exercised either directly or indirectly through participation (such as voting and elections), competition (such as between political parties), and liberty (such as freedom of expression or freedom of speech).
    • Liberal democracy does not require a country with a liberal ideology or a liberal economic system. For example, social democracies or countries with mercantilist economic systems may have liberal democratic institutions.
  • Origins of Democracy
    • The early Greek political system of direct democracy provided democracy’s foundation of political participation. The Roman Empire emphasized republicanism and separation of powers—representation of the public through elected officials and power sharing between institutions—which would lay the foundation for indirect democracy, the most prevalent form of democracy in the modern age.
    • In thirteenth-century England, the Magna Carta provided a basis for a legislature and asserted that all freemen should enjoy due process before the law, setting the stage for the idea of liberty.
  • Contemporary Democratization
    • Modernization theory argues that as societies become more socially and economically sophisticated they have a desire for more control over the state, leading to democracy.
    • Alternatively, some scholars have argued that the concentration of power and wealth in a relatively few elites may be a barrier to political change, and that societies with more evenly distributed power and wealth may lead to greater democracy.
    • A flourishing civil society—clubs, organizations, and social connections that exist outside the state—may help foster democracy.
    • International pressure, through direct involvement of foreign governments or though international trade and cultural sharing, may encourage democratization.
    • Finally, some argue that a desire for democracy exists in a country’s political culture, though many scholars are critical of this view.
  • Institutions of the Democratic State
    • Liberal democratic institutions vary dramatically across countries, but we do see some common combinations.
    • The executive carries out the laws and policies of the state. The executive has two key roles: head of state (representing the people nationally and internationally) and head of government (running the state and implementing policies). In some countries one person assumes each role, while in others one person handles both.
    • Legislatures are in charge of writing and passing laws in a democracy. Countries have bicameral or unicameral systems—legislatures with two branches or one. This is often related to federalism, as federal states typically rely on an upper house to represent local interests.
    • In a democracy, the institution that interprets laws and lays out the rules of politics is the judiciary. Most democracies have a constitutional court that ensures that laws are compatible with the constitution, though these courts may differ in their powers of judicial review.
  • Models of Democracy: Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semipresidential Systems
    • Parliamentary systems are found in the majority of democracies around the world.  They display two key elements: 1) prime ministers and their cabinets come out of the legislature; and 2) the legislature elects and removes (when they hold a vote of no confidence) the prime minister from office. In presidential systems, the people elect the president directly and the president is usually both the head of state and the head of government. In this system, the president can choose the cabinet, which may be made up of people from within and outside the legislature. There are greater checks and balances in a presidential system than in a parliamentary system.
    • In a semipresidential system, the executive is separate from the legislature, but executive powers are shared between the president and prime minister. This system has become more widespread in the last fifty years but is less prevalent than parliamentary or presidential systems.
  • Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semipresidential Systems: Benefits and Drawbacks
    • Some people argue that in parliamentary systems, the close relationship between the legislature and the executive in a parliamentary system leads to greater efficiency. However, critics point out that this may result in a loss of public oversight over elected officials.
    • In presidential systems, the public gets to directly select their executive, but the stronger checks and balances between the executive and legislature in a presidential system can make passing legislation more difficult. Presidencies are “zero-sum” offices where power is not shared; even if a president loses the confidence of the public, he or she cannot be replaced except through new elections.
    • In semipresidential systems, conflicts can arise between presidents and prime ministers, and power can become overly concentrated in the executive. In some cases, it has become a platform from which democracy has been dismantled.
  • Political Parties
    • Political parties are a necessary part of democratic governance. They help organize political debate, making it easier for governments to enact policy agendas and for people to evaluate politicians’ performance and candidates’ promises.
    • The number and diversity of parties vary widely between countries.
  • Electoral Systems
    • How votes are cast, counted, and translated into legislative seats is an important component of how political power is allocated in a democracy.
    • All democracies divide their populations into a number of electoral boundaries or constituencies that are allocated a certain number of legislative seats, though the size of this constituency varies widely. Liberal democracies tend to use one of two electoral systems: single-member district (SMD) or proportional representation (PR).
    • In an SMD system, each constituency is allocated one seat in the legislature and the candidate or party who wins the most votes (or a majority of votes, depending on the system) in that district wins the seat. Variants of SMD systems include first past the post or plurality systems and majority (also known as run-off) systems. Due to their winner-take-all nature, SMD systems tend to favor large parties and marginalize or eliminate small parties. In addition, because voters are choosing one candidate to represent their district, national politics may become driven by local interests.
    • PR systems use multimember districts (MMDs), and seats in the legislature are allocated according to the proportion of votes the party receives, though the size of each district may vary greatly from on PR system to the next. PR makes it easier for smaller parties gain representation (fewer votes are wasted because seats are given to a party based on the number of votes they received whether they win or not). Also, party discipline and ideology may be more pronounced in a PR system.
    • Some countries use a mixed electoral system of PR (people vote for a party) and SMD (people also vote for an individual candidate) to try to balance the benefits and tradeoffs of these two systems.
  • Referendum and Initiative
    • In some democracies, policy can be set through elections by the use of the referendum (where a policy is placed on the ballot and voted on by the people) and initiative (where people gather signatures in order to place a policy on the ballot for a vote). While this expands the participation in the policy process, some argue that voters are not equipped to decide on complex public policies.
  • Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
    • Civil rights refers to the promotion of equality; civil liberties refers to the promotion of freedom. Together, these often include the right to practice religion, to speak freely, and to equal treatment under the law, among other rights.
    • Democracies around the world vary in the number and types of rights emphasized in their constitutions. Some of rights rest in the individuals, such as the freedom of speech, while other countries place the state as the defender and creator of these rights, such as the right to education.  Liberty is therefore not simply the absence of controls over our scope of action but also something that must be created, institutionalized, and defended.