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Pros and Cons of Democracy

Since completing university, Paul has worked as a bookseller; librarian; and freelance writer. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida.

Winston Churchill is generally considered to be one of the greatest democratic wartime leaders of the 20th century.  Churchill was well aware of democracy's shortcomings but believed it to be the best political system. Read on for my pros and cons.

Winston Churchill is generally considered to be one of the greatest democratic wartime leaders of the 20th century. Churchill was well aware of democracy's shortcomings but believed it to be the best political system. Read on for my pros and cons.

A Flawed Form of Government

Winston Churchill famously once stated that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other systems that have been tried (or words to that effect).

For many in the Western World, it can often be taken for granted that a democratic system is superior to all others, but as Churchill implies, it can still have many flaws as a system.

The word "democracy" originates from an ancient Greek word that meant "rule of the people" and originally referred to the political system that existed in places like Athens in the 5th century BCE. Not everyone in ancient Greece was allowed to vote—slaves and women were excluded.

Modern democracy has its roots in 17th-century England and America, although there were still large segments of society who were not allowed to vote at that time. It wasn't until the 19th and 20th centuries that suffrage (the right to vote) began to expand to include virtually everyone.

In this article I look at the pros and cons of democracy, listing the relative advantages and disadvantages of such a system.

7 Pros of Democracy

  1. Democracy is fairer because it lets the people living in a country decide who is going to rule them. Other systems, such as absolute monarchs, military dictatorships, theocracies, etc. rely on a small clique or cabal of people, or an individual, or arbitrary methods such as hereditary birth for deciding who will rule, bypassing the wishes of the majority of the population.
  2. Voting is an excellent way to establish legitimacy for a leader or government in the modern world. This is because they can argue the right to be the leader on the grounds of being chosen by the people via an election. This promotes political stability.
  3. Democracy is an effective way to ensure a smooth transition when governments and leaders change. Where there is an absolute monarch or dictator, arguments can often develop as to who is the rightful successor, leading to political strife and even civil war in some cases.
  4. Democratic systems are good at ensuring openness and keeping a check on corruption. This is because rival political groups are constantly attempting to expose government mistakes and crimes. This level of accountability does not exist in most one-party/autocratic systems, where criticism of the government is often made very difficult.
  5. The democratic system can act as a safety valve for the discontented. Citizens know that they have a vote and that the leader/government may well change at the next election, so they are less likely to resort to rioting, general strikes, or violent rebellion.
  6. Democratic governments are less likely to go to war. This is because they generally need the will of the people behind them, whereas an autocrat can often take his/her country to war on a whim.
  7. Democracy encourages a sense of belonging for its citizens. They can participate fully in the political processes and feel a sense of ownership.

In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.

— Aristotle

9 Cons of Democracy

  1. There is a tendency towards short-termism. This is because leaders/governments are generally elected to serve over a specific length of time (typically around four or five years) and concerns over getting re-elected often mean that they often don’t look beyond the next election. Some social, environmental, and economic problems require much more long-term solutions, however.
  2. The tyranny of the majority is a constant threat to minority groups, as a leader or government may only serve the interests of the largest social groups and ignore, or even repress the rights of others.
  3. Some countries argue that their cultural history simply does not lend itself to democratic systems of government and that other forms of government work better. The Western concept has its roots in Ancient Greek and Roman European culture, and may not be suited to Eastern and African countries.
  4. Democracy can result in unwieldy coalitions, or endless squabbling and political deadlock. Other political systems can find it easier to proceed in a unified direction. It’s argued by some that ancient Rome achieved more under the autocratic Caesars than it did under democratic rule.
  5. A fully functioning democracy relies upon an educated and informed public. The political process can be manipulated and distorted by corporations, wealthy individuals, biased or poor-quality media, and special interest groups.
  6. Democracy panders too much to the needs of the individual and encourages people to vote selfishly, thinking purely in their own interests, rather than for what is best for the country as a whole.
  7. A conflict of interest can sometimes occur, where a politician or government has to decide between acting in the best interests of the country and increasing their chances of re-election. Often they will choose the latter.
  8. Elections take up a lot of time and vast amounts of money can be spent on them. It could be argued that all the millions spent on political adverts might be better spent on other, more beneficial things.
  9. The democratic process encourages politicians to make promises that they know they can’t keep, in order to be elected. This creates public cynicism and disillusionment in the long run.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

— Winston Churchill

4 Different Types of Democracy

Democracy can take more than one form. Below are 4 different types. Note that the four types are not necessarily exclusive and governmental systems can and do often combine elements of more than one.

  • Direct Democracy. People take a direct role in steering policies and decisions, usually through referenda, or even large public forums. This form was common in ancient Greek city-states, particularly Athens.
  • Representative Democracy. Also known as representative governments, or indirect democracy, this form functions through people voting for representatives, who then act on behalf of the group that elected them. Most modern democracies use some form of this type of democracy.
  • Constitutional Democracy. In this type, the will of the majority is limited by legal and institutional means. The purpose of this is to protect the rights of individuals and minority groups. This style is used in Japan, Germany, and the USA.
  • Monitory Democracy. This form developed following WWII. It received its name from Australian Professor John Keane and works through institutions being created that subject governments to checks and balances, in order to involve more citizens in the democratic process.
Downing Street has been the official home of the British Prime Minister for over 300 years. By tradition, the Prime Minister lives at number 10 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) lives next door at number 11.

Downing Street has been the official home of the British Prime Minister for over 300 years. By tradition, the Prime Minister lives at number 10 and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) lives next door at number 11.

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

Did You Know?

  • The world's oldest recognized democracy is the United States of America, which adopted the system of elected politicians after its birth in 1787.
  • Libya is the world's youngest democracy, becoming one after the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2012.
  • Out of the 193 countries that belong to the United Nations, 167 are democracies, which translates to 87%!
  • One-third of people in the world live in countries with an autocratic system of government, including the world's most populous country, China.
  • Other autocratic countries include North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Qatar.
Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were both democratically elected twice to the post of the president of the USA. Donald Trump is the current president of the USA after beating Hilary Clinton in 2016.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were both democratically elected twice to the post of the president of the USA. Donald Trump is the current president of the USA after beating Hilary Clinton in 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is democracy?

Answer: Democracy literally means government by the people. In practice, this usually means a system where elected representatives make the decisions.

© 2014 Paul Goodman