What If This is As Good As It Gets? Defective Democracy and the Comparative Democratic Ideal

Over the past two decades, third-wave- and post-third-wave democracies have found themselves facing difficult challenges of consolidation and democratic performance. It is common to hear analyses of Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, Ukraine (in the day), and many other recent democratizers that lament the poor quality of their democracy. Analysts point to rampant corruption, weak rule of law, unaccountable executives and judiciaries, unproductive legislatures, growing inequality, electoral violence, anti-democratic rhetoric, weak parties, and other factors that undermine democratic performance.

In Southeast Asia, where I have studied the collapse of Indonesia’s New Order and its ensuing transition to democracy, I cannot remember a time in which scholars were not raising serious questions about the quality Indonesian democracy. The term that sticks in my mind—dating to the mid-2000s—was “defective democracy“, used to describe not only Indonesia but also other recent democratizers like Thailand and the Philippines.

The idea here is that these are democracies with such glaring problems that it is inappropriate to speak of their democracy without qualifying it somehow. These are minimal or electoral democracies: elections happen, losers generally concede (at least eventually), and so forth. But they need some special designation or asterisk to mark them as different from some abstract concept of democracy.

These different ways of distinguishing among democratic regimes are not the same, but they have something in common: they all conceptualize democracy ordinally. Oligarchic democracy is less democratic than non-oligarchic democracy. Unconsolidated democracies are less democratic than consolidated ones. Regimes that score 80/100 on a participatory democracy index are less democratic than regimes that score 100/100 on that scale.*

By contrast, the difference between a parliamentary democracy like the UK and a presidential democracy like the US is not a difference in level of democracy, but rather a difference in kind of democracy (these regimes vary nominally, not ordinally). Presidential democracies are not less democratic than parliamentary democracies, even though there are good reasons to expect that they yield different kinds of politics.

If you think that countries can be more or less democratic in any of the senses describe above, then it would not be surprising to find that young democracies are not as democratic as older democracies. Democratic consolidation, if it exists, surely takes time. And when scholars of fragile or imperfect democracies like Indonesia observe that there are deep challenges to that country’s democracy, they often have in mind an implicit comparison between that country and some country without such problems: a consolidated democracy, probably decades or even centuries older. A country like Canada or Germany, or the UK or the US.

There is a lingering issue here, though. The issue is not just that the United States and other high-income democracies have lots of problems too (although they do, and that’s part of what I mean). It is that normative benchmark of unqualified, adjective-free democracy is the democracy of high-income industrial economies during the Cold War. This is not only exceptional in comparative terms. It is exceptional in historical terms for those very countries that it purports to describe.

Indonesia’s Awful Democrats

I was prompted to think this way by reading an interesting piece on counter-polarisation in contemporary Indonesian politics. The authors are my coauthors and friends, and I count them among the very best analysts of Indonesian politics anywhere in the world. They draw attention to an important development in recent years in Indonesian politics. For years, analysts have noticed an increasing trend of religious polarization, pitting Indonesia’s conservative Islamic forces against the multi-religious nationalists who have held power since democratization in 1999. At the same time, wealthy plutocrats, media moguls, and powerful ex-military figures have continued to play a central role in Indonesian politics. And electoral politics at the grass-roots is often clientelistic in nature, beset by money politics with few if any programmatic cleavages (aside from religion, it turns out) that differentiate parties from one another. The oligarchy thesis, as it is often termed, is probably the most common paradigm through which Western scholars analyze Indonesian politics.

The piece linked above notes that over the past two years, we have seen a rapprochement between president Joko Widodo and the politician he defeated twice in presidential elections, Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo is a disgraced former general with a stained human rights record whose father was a prominent economist and whose brother is a billionaire. Prabowo’s defeat was celebrated by every pro-democracy Indonesianist I know: another outstanding scholar titled his analysis of the 2014 election, the first in which Jokowi defeated Prabowo, “How Jokowi Won and Democracy Survived.”**

Prabowo ran in 2014 and 2019 on campaigns that rested on boatloads of family cash combined with strong support from Indonesia’s Islamist parties. Today, he is Jokowi’s defense minister.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons to lament the ability of people like Prabowo to hold office. But look at this quote:

While it is welcome that politicians have expressed concern about religious cleavages and shown a willingness to ease divisions in the name of national cohesion and protecting democracy, there are grounds for doubting that counter-polarisation is the real reason for many recent political manoeuvres. Prabowo readily used divisive appeals as a major part of his presidential campaign strategy in 2014 and 2019, and his main reason for now joining his former opponents is that he wants to rebrand himself as a unifying and statesman-like public figure for the 2024 election …. Finally, those parties that now find virtue in collaboration or coalition with former foes are motivated by a desire to maximise their negotiating positions in the run up to the next parliamentary and presidential elections. Putting together alternative tickets for the presidency reduces their risk of becoming peripheral players who have to accept what the largest parties dictate, rather than being able to protect their own interests.

One gets the distinct impression that there is something amiss when powerful elite interests moderate their illiberal positions in order to win elections. But how could it be otherwise? Is this not exactly what one hopes that democratic electoral incentives will do: force awful politicians to espouse moderate platforms in order to win elections? If they seek to balance their greed and avarice with their desire to implement policies that look more civil and inclusive than what they believe in their heart of hearts, is that not a sign of democracy working just as it is supposed to work?

My point here is certain to be misunderstood, so I will state it plainly: no democracy works by eliminating greedy people from positions of power, or by making violence, bigotry, and inequality impossible. That Indonesia’s democracy also does not work this way is not remarkable. As I have long maintained, democracy is not government by democrats. Rather, democrats (small-d) are what you call people who participate in democratic procedures and abide by their outcomes.

“As Good As It Gets”

This brings me back to the comparative perspective, and the benchmarks that American (and more generally, Western European/North Atlantic) comparative politics uses when evaluating democracy around the world. I think it is plain by now that most scholars and analysts of American politics have come to understand just how far from any normative benchmark of full, consolidated democracy American politics is right now. Look at the list of democratic defects I produced above: rampant corruption, weak rule of law, unaccountable executives and judiciaries, unproductive legislatures, growing inequality, electoral violence, anti-democratic rhetoric, weak parties. If those are the qualities of a defective democracy, the United States is a defective democracy.***

Scholars of comparative politics, on the other hand, have plenty of observations about the failings of American democracy. But what if, as Jack Nicholson once asked, this is as good as it gets?

If democracy’s best defense (PDF) is that it is an orderly compromise to allow for regular rotation of power without violence, why would we treat the fact that greedy people seek power—and make disingenuous promises to get it—any differently in Indonesia than in the United States? The interesting question is not how Indonesia falls short of the purported high-income ideal, but rather what made comparative politics so comfortable with the idea of democratic consolidation in the first place? Why would anyone ever believe that any political system is immune from greedy people who are willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get their way?

I conjecture that one important piece of the answer lies in the observation that comparative politics as we know it arose at a particular moment in North America and Western Europe. The existential threat of communism was so plain that internal conflict over democracy itself was suppressed. For a time after the fall of communism, the threat of terrorism functioned in much the same way. This enabled not only a kind of patriotic mythmaking that leads people to lionize the Founders, it also meant that for analytical purposes, questions of regime form did not really present themselves. It was possible, in other words, not to think about democratic backsliding in the high-income democracies because of external factors that made it irrelevant.

Now that it’s relevant again, it is incumbent on political scientists and others who think comparatively about democracy to realize that the challenges of young and old democracies are more similar than they appeared to our parents. We’ll do a better job benchmarking Indonesian democracy that way—and we will also do a better job conceptualizing American democracy too.


* To be precise, they are less democratic, when conceptualizing democracy in participatory terms.

** I have fond memories of a 2014 Prabowo rally that I attended.

*** Europeans can keep quiet about their own democratic quality. Failed Europeanists like me still know where to look to find the skeletons, and we have coauthors who know even more.