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Why Democracy is the Best We've Got

Mar 12, 2019

In response to the question "Is it important to live in a democracy?", the following essay was selected as a winner of Carnegie Council's international student essay content.

Although the ongoing debate over the viability and efficacy of living in a democracy underwent a temporary pause after the conclusion of the Cold War and accompanying democratic revolutions, the international rise of authoritarian regimes and simultaneous decline of freedom in the geopolitical sphere makes discussions of democratic ideals and realities increasingly topical.

Democracy is a system of government in which the citizens of a nation determine its policies through elected representatives, direct voting, or in most cases, a combination of the two. Furthermore, in democratic elections, voters must have the capacity to replace political parties and leaders based off popular support. Finally, a democracy must allow the majority of residents to participate in political processes and not exclude certain groups of people from the political sphere on the basis on race, gender, class or sexual orientation.

First and foremost, democracies are a crucial step in achieving equality for oppressed groups by giving people who would otherwise be excluded from politics the ability to vote for the policies and people that they believe in. When given the right to vote, marginalized groups are naturally more likely to support politicians who will work to end the oppressive policies that are prevalent throughout the world. Some argue that democracy alone is insufficient in the pursuit of equality because the majority faction will still overpower minority factions. While this may be true, the importance of democracy should be viewed through a lens of the possible alternatives; other systems of government, such as autocracies, theocracies and monarchies are comparatively worse for achieving equality because they exclusively allow one person or group of people to make decisions for an entire population. Only democracy allows all groups, regardless of race, gender identity, class or sexual orientation, to participate in politics.

Not only does democracy allow all people to have an equal voice, but it is also inherently an extremely flexible system, which allows for the government to adapt according to changing ideologies. Because elected representatives have an incentive to maintain their positions of power, they appeal to public opinion to remain popular. Although many people critique democratic politicians for their inauthenticity, politicians mirroring the beliefs of the people is actually positive because it ensures that that the majority of citizens' beliefs are reflected in national policies. Furthermore, it functions as a crucial check on people in positions of power because if they act in an unpopular or unethical way, they will likely be voted out of office.

Finally, living in a democracy is important because democracies are the most statistically significant factor in reducing inter and intra state conflict. Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute David Cortright and his colleagues conducted a study to determine the validity of democratic peace theory and examine how regime type relates to violence. They concluded that democracies are much less likely to both engage in war with other states and to participate in civil wars. This is likely because war, in any form, is politically unpopular as it costs human lives, which thus incentivizes democracies to avoid it at all costs. Civil wars in particular are unlikely in democracies because democratic governments function as a safety valve for discontent; while disaffected civilians living in democracies can express their grievances in the form of free speech or exercising their right to vote, citizens living in autocracies have no choice other than violence if they hope for governmental change because they lack political power. Cortright also cites Rudolph Rummel's book Death By Government, in which Rummel finds that autocratic regimes are three and a half times more likely to commit genocide than democratic regimes. Cortright suggests this is a result of the prevalence of exclusionary ideology that is reinforced by authoritarian regimes in comparison with democratic ones.

Some may argue that autocratic governments are preferable to democracies because they are more efficient. It is true that autocratic regimes are able to pass and implement policies in a more timely manner. However, the power of democracy lies in its ability to gradually change. Complex issues should not be swiftly and unilaterally decided by one ruler; they should be debated upon by large groups of people examining both sides of the issue until the majority is able to find a consensus.

Another common criticism of democracy that proponents of autocracies present is the lack of expertise of voters. While every voter is certainly not an expert on every topic, democracies encourage citizens to learn more about the world around them by creating a mutual responsibility between each voter and his or her nation, and by extension, his or her world. Democracies motivate voters to do research on important candidates and policies, whereas non-democratic governments foster political apathy because one's opinions have no impact on the world around them.

The 2018 Varieties of Democracy Report concludes that one third of the world's population lives in a country in which democracy is declining. Even more frighteningly, the Freedom House reports that the global freedom index decreased for the twelfth successive year. Editor Gideon Rose grimly wrote in the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, "Some say that global democracy is experiencing its worst setback since the 1930s and that it will continue to retreat unless rich countries find ways to reduce inequality and manage the information revolution. Those are the optimists. Pessimists fear the game is already over, that democratic dominance has ended for good."

I fall on the side of the optimists. In the face of the global decline of rule of law, freedom of the press, equal representation, separation of powers and freedom of speech, democracy will be resilient—but only if we fight for it. The time is now to advocate for a more democratic world, and many are taking up the cause. Countries such as Ethiopia are experiencing democratic reforms as the new prime minister has freed political prisoners and promised more fair elections. Even in democratic nations such as the United States, the effects of political movements such as the Women's March and March For Our Lives, which were only possible because of the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, are evident.

Although democracy is far from a perfect political system, it is undoubtedly an important tool in achieving equality, decreasing conflict, and increasing civic engagement, making it the best available system of government.

Alexandra Mork is a former winner of Carnegie Council's international student essay contest. In 2018, while a junior at Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles, Mork drafted the winning student essay titled, "Why Democracy is the Best We've Got." Mork is currently a student at Brown University where she serves as managing editor for the Brown Political Review.

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