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.

The Tragedy of Democratic Politics

A propos of nothing in particular, here are some thoughts about why democracy is better than any alternative. 

Political philosophers have asked which is the best form of government for millennia. There are perhaps as many answers as there are people who have asked this question, but we can think of two general ways that people go about answering it. One is to start with a set of values (divine right, some scripture, popular sovereignty, etc.) and figure out which kind of government best embodies that. If you think that a government should be whatever it is that the first born male heir to the current leader does, then that is your answer. If you believe that the most important thing is that all adults elect representatives, then that is your answer. Or, you might believe that a collection of property-owning white men, most of them deists, wrote a divinely inspired instruction sheet.* Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter what this government does, it matters that it has been composed or structured a certain way.

Another set of answers to this question start with a set of desired outcomes (stability, equality, peace, majority domination, minority rights, etc.) and then to figure out what kind of system of politics delivers that outcome. So you might say, “I don’t really care what the government structure is, I favor whichever one is best able to do what the majority wants.” Or, “the best government is the one that consistently delivers increasing material prosperity.” Or something like “I want the government that ensures that policy X is never implemented.”

Roughly, the difference between the two is the distinction between deontological and consequentialist approaches to normative ethics. Either you reason based on the procedures, or the outcomes. And yes, we actually care about both.** But politics is about choice under constraints, and so we press ahead.

Here is my core argument: as an empirical matter, almost everyone is a consequentialist. More to the point, almost everyone is a consequentialist when it comes to thinking about what sort of political system they wish to live under. They are pleased with that system when it renders outcomes that they like, and they are opposed to that system when it renders outcomes that they don’t like. Deontological arguments for democracy are the domain of ideal democratic theory and faculty meetings, and that’s it. These arguments are sometimes intellectually interesting, but they are politically irrelevant—their actual political function is to serve as ammunition for people who object to an outcome by objecting to the procedures that got us there.

How do I know that everyone is a consequentialist? Because I live and breath and notice the world around me.*** People switch back and forth in their evaluation of what is the best type of political system based on the identity of the government in charge, and their system-favoring preferences are contingent on the outcomes that they think the system gives them. I recently demonstrated by studying the anticipated legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election in the United States, finding people clearly evaluate the legitimacy of a democratic election based on who wins and who doesn’t. And, indeed, a large minority of Americans supported the overthrow of the American government because they didn’t like the policies of the person elected to be president.

(My non-U.S. readers may pause here to titter about how the American views all of politics through his own country’s ongoing political crisis. And then they should get serious, because there is nothing at all particular to the United States in what I write here.)

It’s hard to be a consequentialist about democracy. Democratic procedures don’t seem to have any special qualities that render better outcomes. Reviewing this point, Przeworski 1999 shows, very convincingly, that democracy does not do things like make better decisions or identify communal preferences. And yet, he also delivers a strong defense of democracy, which is that democracy is a routinized procedure to peacefully orchestrate changes in who holds political authority. 

My thinking builds from there. Let us abstract away from the details of a particular democratic regime (presidential versus parliamentary system, unitary or federal, single or multimember districts, two parties or may parties, term limits for the High Court) and focus on the core essence of democracy. Basically, here is the question: do you wish to have either

  1. a system in which your opponent can mobilize to seize power through an election and pass laws that you hate, but then you get the chance to mobilize to seize power yourself later and change them back, or,
  2. some other system?

If that other system does not allow your opponent to mobilize to seize power through elections and pass laws that you hate on the condition that you can try to do the same, then it’s not a democracy.****

Wouldn’t you prefer system in which your opponent can never threaten the policy issues that you care about? This seems attractive! Especially for a consequentialist. But it is actually the strongest possible argument in favor of democracy. Why? Because other people are motivated consequentialists, just like you are.

If you built a regime that did not allow your opponent the chance to pass laws that they hate, it would be a regime in which your opponents were guaranteed to detest their government. Think about it: you, too, would detest any government that never gave you a chance to win elections and pass laws about issues that you care about. A regime in which some large fraction of the population hates the government is not likely to be very stable.

How might you avoid the destabilizing consequences of a political regime that does not allow its opponents to pass laws that they favor? There aren’t a lot of options:

  1. Maybe let’s rule it out by assumption. Perhaps your government is so popular and wise that no one opposes it. 
  2. Or, a different way of avoiding the problem by defining it away. Perhaps your government is so effective that it can convince everyone to change their minds, to believe what you happen to believe. 
  3. Or, perhaps you decide that you do not care what your opponents think.

No one really believes in options 1 or 2 is realistic, but option 3 does seem nice—and feasible, at first glance. I don’t really care how much American bigots or misogynists hate my favored policies, for example. Why build a political system that allows them to have a voice? 

The answer is, once again, because they are consequentialists who care about politics too. If your political opponents have their own sincerely held political opinions, and they have numbers, then the only choices are to allow them to compete in the political arena or to forbid them from doing so. Forbidding them from participating in politics leaves them with precisely no reason to support that system. Why would they? And would they not fight to overturn the political system that you happen to favor?

There may be people who hold views that are so awful that they cannot be allowed to participate in politics. There are boundaries here: I am not advocating that we need to have democracy so that the Nazis can participate. I am saying, however, that if you wish to exclude the Nazis from politics once and for all, then you have to hope that they are small in numbers and loosely motivated, or you have to be prepared to repress them and deny them political voice.

The tragedy of democratic politics is that every single possible alternative to democracy—the system that says, allow your opponents to try to win elections and pass laws that you hate—requires someone to restrict the rights of some group of people. The only reason you would possibly favor an alternative to democracy would be if you were certain that you were going to be on the side of the ones in charge.***** If you are not, that alternative to democracy is intolerable. You would fight against that system.

Three final observations that follow from my discussion above: 

  1. Ask yourself the following. How long is the longest you have ever gone without having a deep disagreement with your country’s ruling government? With that in mind, assuming that you knew that your side would hold power under some non-democratic political system, how long would you imagine that you would unconditionally favor your own ruling government? Reason from there if you’d like to have a government that forbids people from trying to mobilize to overturn laws that they hate. 
  2. The democratic political scenario I laid out does not seem very attractive: two opposing sides that fundamentally disagree about a policy issue, and policies switch back and forth with each election. One hopes that this kind of interaction, repeated over time, leads to a kind of moderation towards the middle, as the opponents habituate themselves to one another and realize that a compromise is better. This is how Dankwart Rustow thought about democratic consolidation.******
  3. Democracy really does require a possibility that your opponent can win and set policies. That’s really the basic feature, and the rest is just an elaboration of that main requirement. Those who hold power would do well to remember that their opponents will seek to achieve their policy aims either through the democratic process, or around it. Those who do not like current policies should remember that the threat of extra-democratic sanction is a useful way to press your interests; their opponents, after all, have been doing the same for years.


* This is what Arizona’s Rusty Bowers sincerely believes

** Jason Brennan, for example, believes that most people are Stupid Idiots, so they should not participate in elections, and we should be led by Excellent People who will use their superior reason to make good choices. To show you why consequentialism really is the only way that people think about the value of democracy, remember that he also calls himself a libertarian. 

*** Survey research is almost entirely uninformative on this question. You learn nothing about support for democracy from survey questions about people’s support for democracy. (You might learn other things, like what kind of survey respondent they are.)

**** A lot of constitutional politics (anywhere around the world, not just in the U.S.) is about writing rules about what kinds of laws can be passed, and how. Or who can be elected, and how. It is a complete and utter fantasy to believe that those rules stand above politics in any way, and anyone who actually believes that should be embarrassed. That argument that constitutions set bounds for politics is, instead, a socially useful and (ideally) politically stabilizing communal fiction. It is also conservative, in the Burkean sense. That’s the point. 

***** This point has a risk-averse, Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” flavor to it. This is a good starting point to criticize my defense of democracy. 

****** I am probably personally responsible for the Rustovian turn comparative and American politics. He understood, in a way that few political scientists did at the time (and most Americanists still don’t get), that the essential requirement for democracy was common acceptance of the national political community. I noticed that Rustow’s point gives us the vocabulary to describe why bigotry and xenophobia are not just morally abhorrent, they are threats to democracy itself. Melvin Rogers wrote a Twitter thread that I really enjoyed on this point; lots of people working in Black political thought knew this long before Rustow did (and certainly before I did). I now believe that Rustow’s analysis is missing something about what is needed for the emergent norms to be system-preserving (that’s is, democratic) rather than system-undermining (anti-democratic). Ken Roberts has written about this, although his analysis is not yet public.