What Does “Being a Democracy” Mean, Anyway?

We tend to think of types of governments in stark terms. A democracy means a nation run by the consent of the governed, right? But how does that work in the real world?

David Frum had a column in The Atlantic recently wondering what the world might have been like had the Allies lost World War I. It’s less an interesting experiment in alternate history than another facile argument for further American intervention in the Middle East, but he does kind of stumble into an interesting question when he unpacks Woodrow Wilson’s claim that the “world must be made safe for democracy”:

Not ‘democratic’ – ‘safe for democracy.’ Wilson wasn’t promising to impose democracy on Imperial Germany. He was promising to defend democracy from Imperial Germany. The First World War had not begun as a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. Great Britain was not a democracy in August 1914. Tsarist Russia certainly was not. Ditto Japan, Italy, and Romania—all fought for the Entente, none had governments elected by more than a small fraction of the population. Even in France, the most democratic of the original Allies, elected leaders did not fully control the government (never mind that the Third Republic ruled over a vast colonial empire and denied the vote to women).

Of course, that description is equally true of the United States at the time, which disenfranchised most folks that were adult white men. Nonetheless, if someone’s voting on who runs the place, isn’t that democracy? It’s a far sight more democratic than a monarch who rules because God says so (or “some watery tart lobbed a sword at you”) or a dictator who holds power by sheer force. What’s the tipping point?

And if there is a tipping point, do any modern societies actually meet it? After all, “universal” suffrage isn’t truly universal. Most countries, at least, restrict the franchise to citizens and to those of a certain age. But the young and the alien (assume, for purposes of this argument, legal and fully documented) are subject to the authority of the government just as much as anybody else – does cutting them out of things make the system less “democratic?” What then of places where felons or the mentally infirm are banned from voting, sometimes for life?

Beyond those restrictions there’s the very real question of apathy. If, as Frum posits, most of our allies in World War I weren’t democracies because only a “small fraction” of the population could vote, what of when only a small fraction of eligible voters actually bother to participate? Only 58.2% of eligible voters cast ballots in the last US presidential election. Put another way, just over 129 million people cast votes – in a country with a population north of 320 million. When only 40% of the governed people vote, is that really a “democracy” under Frum’s test?

And that’s just the presidential election, which tends to attract higher turnouts. What percentage of the governed populace is actually voting in races further down the ballot? As a for instance, 453,659 West Virginians voted in the 2014 election that sent Shelly Moore Capito to the US Senate, out of a population of over 1.8 million. In other words, about a quarter of the state’s population voted in that election. Is that truly “democratic”?

Obviously, a lot of this is pure semantics and the political science equivalent of figuring out the right dance steps for angels on pin heads, but there’s more to it than that. We often do our worst when we’re motivated by the mythology we’ve built around ourselves. Confronting reality might make us think twice about going off half-cocked on various crusades.

In other words, if we’re going to lecture the rest of the world about the values of democracy, we better damned well make sure we’re practicing them ourselves.

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