Democracy in Theory and in Practice

In search of an effective model of people’s power. A Russian perspective

A Russian Voice – Lev Voronkov: Democracy in theory and in practice. In search of an effective model of people’s power

In the modern lexicon of supporters of the liberal ideology, the word “democracy” means a certain positive phenomenon, to the triumph of which humanity must certainly strive in all spheres of public life. They declared despotism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, totalitarianism and other similar negative things as the antipodes of this phenomenon.

Many politicians in Western countries are now inclined to assert that the central place in world politics and international relations is occupied not by a system of relations between sovereign states, based on universally recognized norms of international law, but by the struggle of democratic political regimes against authoritarian ones, which should be conducted in accordance with “the rules” established by them. The list and content of such rules are not available; for some reason they are kept secret. But one thing is clear, namely that they have little in common with generally recognized norms of international law.

The content of “democracy” has key importance since it is considered to be an indisputable universal humanitarian value to which a wide range of vital, positive social functions are attributed. However, with the definition of democracy, not everything turns out to be unambiguous. “Once upon a time,” says John Dunn, professor of political theory at King’s College, Cambridge, “democracy was a specific form of political structure. Today, the clarity and certainty of this designation are lost” [3:12,19, 21]. Let’s try to understand this more thoroughly.

In search of a definition of democracy

In 1910, the Encyclopedia Britannica claimed that democracy in political science is «that form of government in which the people rules itself, either directly, as in the small city-states of Greece, or through representatives.” “The essence of modern representative government,” its authors concluded, “is that the people do not govern itself, but periodically elect those who shall govern on its behalf” [28:1-2].

The classics of Marxism-Leninism designated universal suffrage as a form of domination of the propertied class. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, published in 1950, characterized democracy as one of the forms of the state: “The class in whose hands the state power is,” the publication said, “determines the nature of the corresponding democracy.” Slaveholding, feudal and bourgeois democracies stood out. The dictatorship of the proletariat was called a democracy of a “new, highest type” for the whole people in connection with the liquidation of the exploiting classes in the country and the establishment of socialist property [2: 658-659].

The Great Russian Encyclopedia characterizes democracy as a political system “in which the people is recognized as a source of power, citizens have equal political rights and freedoms that allow them to participate in the management of public affairs directly or through their representatives and political decisions are made in accordance with the will of the majority” [7].

The term “democracy” is used to characterize the functional principles of organizations and institutions (intra-party, industrial democracy). Democratic political regimes differ in the form of government (presidential, parliamentary, mixed), the type of administrative-territorial structure (unitary states, federations, confederations), the degree of centralization of power and other characteristics. Distinctions are made between types of democracy (direct, plebiscite, representative). Supporters of “elite democracy” believe that “the institutions of liberal democracy do not prevent the preservation of the elitist nature of political power,” in which the main role is played by competing elites and the participation in politics of the bulk of citizens is limited to periodically held elections [8: 62].

– very free elections…

Experts defending the theories of “pluralistic democracy” focus on the competition of various political forces (parties, political organizations, pressure groups, and social movements). Proponents of the theories of “democracy of participation” advocate the expansion of direct participation of citizens in the management of a state. The theorists of “deliberative” democracy believe that the degree of democracy of the system is directly proportional to the number of public discussions on actual issues that ensure the democratic nature of decision-making [7].

In the theories, democracy is also characterized as the power of the people, as the power of the majority with due consideration for the opinion of the minority, as a political regime in which the people or their majority serves as a source and carrier of state power, as a synonym for good governance, as an opportunity for everyone to freely participate in the direct management of their state, society and personal destiny.

In 2021, US President Joseph Biden stated that democracy is the best way to ensure the development of society, that “democracy is action” and “inaction is not an option” and that it needs to be protected and strengthened [1]. What exactly needs to be protected from what and what is to be strengthened, the American president did not specify. The call to strengthen and update something that does not have a clearly defined framework and more or less clear content seems rather strange. If we keep in mind the understanding of democracy as an expression of the will of the majority, such public statements appear to be meaningless rhetoric.

With a wide variety of complementary characteristics of democracy, their core remains that, under a democratic order, the content of politics and decisions taken in the state is determined by the demands and sentiments of the majority of the citizenry and are expressed at democratic elections procedures.

Questions about the current democracy

Many critics of democracy believe that the majority of citizens have neither sufficient knowledge nor skills of state activities, nor high morals, and therefore only a minority of the most worthy and competent citizens can successfully manage the state. Elite theorists have come to the conclusion that democracy is undesirable and impossible since “in any society, political power is inevitably concentrated in the hands of an elite that is better organized, has moral and intellectual superiority over other citizens and is able to effectively use its resources to preserve power.” [7]

The great Russian writer F. M. Dostoevsky considered universal, equal voting “the most ridiculous invention of the XIX century.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn argued that the principle of universal and equal voting with extreme inequality of individuals, their abilities, their contribution to public life, different ages, life experiences and degrees of rootedness in this area and in this country is the triumph of meaningless quantity over meaningful quality [18].

Richard Dawkins, an outstanding modern biologist, said after the Brexit referendum that the vast majority of Britons should not have voted in the referendum because they did not have the necessary knowledge in the field of economics and politics. “You might as well organize a national plebiscite to decide whether Einstein’s calculations are correct, or allow passengers to vote on which lane the pilot should land the plane,” he said [20: 70-71].

Friedrich August von Hayek, a representative of the Austrian school of neoliberalism, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, believed that a democratic state, understood as the power of the majority, guarantees social justice, thereby disrupting the natural course of market development and undermining individualism. Therefore, he opposed unrestricted democracy, considering it “no better than any tyranny” [19:157].

British professor John Dunn emphasizes that democracy is, first of all, a formula that allows one to imagine subordination to power and to the will of others without sacrificing one’s personal dignity or jeopardizing individual and family interests (3: 27).

Holding elections in a representative democracy allows the true source of state power – the people – to carry out a symbolic transfer of the right to express its will to a relatively narrow circle of elected representatives, who turn into real carriers of both legislative and executive power in the state for the entire period of their legislature. The fuller the scope of the powers conferred on elected deputies by law, the fewer opportunities there are for the majority of voters to actually participate in the management of the state, society and personal destiny and ensure that political decisions are made in accordance with their will.

In the House of Commons of the British Parliament, for example, there is a doctrine of independence of a deputy from voters, since s/he allegedly represents the whole nation, and not individual groups of voters. S/he does not have any responsibilities towards voters, does not have to report to them and cannot be recalled.

In the overwhelming majority of states deputies do not have any requirements for the mandatory execution of the will of voters. In this way liberal democracy provides an opportunity to separate the symbolic source of state power from its real bearer, performing the function of a first-level political filter.

The “samples” of British democracy demonstrated to the world during the leapfrog of the country’s chief executive since 2016: from David Cameron to Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, Elizabeth Truss to Rishi Sunak, committed mainly by influential figures of the ruling Conservative party without participation of voters, serve as a vivid illustration of the differences between the declared democratic values and real political practice of the British liberal democracy.

And no one in their right mind could come to the conclusion that the United States is ruled by its people, but a significant majority of those who somehow govern this country have been able to do so with the kind consent of this people (3: 83).

Public policy issues for the coming years are not put to the vote during the elections. To claim that voters express their will in relation to the future policy of the state is as ridiculous as to build the current state policy based on the statements of the famous predictors of the future of Cassandra, Nostradamus, Messing or Vanga.

Candidates in elections, in an effort to attract votes, are often forced to make unfulfilled or harmful commitments, as a result of which democracy degenerates into “populism”. Attempts to be guided in state policy by momentary moods of the majority of the population, who for the most part do not have a deep understanding of the strategic priorities of domestic and foreign policy, international relations, priority areas for the development of science and technology, the tasks of the state demographic, resource, educational, environmental, migration, infrastructure policy and other specific areas, are suicidal. As a rule, the ideas at the centre of election campaigns and the subsequent real policy of the executive have usually little in common.

As a result, as Samuel Huntington wrote in his book “The Third Wave”, governments created as a result of elections may be ineffective, corrupt, short-sighted and irresponsible; they may be guided by special interests and be unable to pursue policies that the public good requires. Such qualities may make such governments undesirable, but they do not make them undemocratic [12:62]. It is not possible to consider the activities of such governments as the realization of the will of the majority of citizens.

In the overwhelming number of countries, the authorities are not very concerned about the fact that the results of voting are determined by the majority of citizens: only in 22 countries of the world does legislation stipulate the mandatory participation of citizens in voting, and only 11 states apply it in practice. Usually, the legislation stipulates the minimum percentage of voters who took part in the voting to recognize the elections as held. With the highest voter turnout, a maximum of 70-80% of citizens take part in the elections. Even if in these cases the majority of citizens who took part in the vote cast votes for the candidates, it is extremely rare that their number is more than half of the total number of all voters.

What Gandhi had to say…

Thus, the main function of democratic elections is not so much the precise determination of the verdict of the majority of voters, as the very conduct of elections and the public legitimization of the resulting system of state power. At the same time, the number of votes cast for their winners is of secondary importance and can vary widely.

In a normal situation, the election of deputies can take place by the votes of 25, 30, 40 or % of the total number of voters. In 2012, 43.51% of registered voters took part in the referendum in Croatia on joining the European Union. Although the majority of votes (66.27%) were given in support of this step, however, this step, which is crucial for the fate of the country, was actually approved by only about a third of the country’s citizens.

The transformation of the actual minority of votes cast in the elections into a virtual majority is especially evident in the creation of coalition governments, during which political entities that received an insignificant number of votes in the elections can acquire a disproportionately strong influence on government policy, clearly distorting the will of the majority of voters.

Any citizen in a democratic state theoretically has the right to vote and be elected. The most important feature of the existing systems of democratic elections is the participation in them only of registered political entities authorized to nominate parliamentary candidates and provide them with political, financial and propaganda support. These structures serve as second-level political filters that ensure that future deputies follow the policies of the political associations that nominated them and perform the functions of an insurance sertificate that protects power structures from non-systemic candidates entering them. As a rule, members or supporters of political parties are admitted to participate in elections from among persons professionally engaged in political activities and members of the ruling elite of this state get into the number of deputies. Independent or self-nominated candidates deprived of their support have no practical opportunities to be elected.

Means of influencing the public mood of citizens during election campaigns are of great importance, in particular, policy in the field of mass communications and information. Legislative consolidation of freedom of speech and the press seem to be guaranteed for all citizens, but the ability to really influence public sentiment requires ownership of the media and control over the content of published materials, which turns media owners into an essential element of ensuring the power of the ruling elite of society.

During the presidential campaign in the United States, the political opponents of the acting president deprived him of the right to use the social network Twitter. Within the framework of this network, there was a secret group that monitored certain topics in the interests of the Democratic Party. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that his network restricted access to materials that reported on the corruption of Joe Biden and his son [17: 55].

In real social life, there is a carefully camouflaged paradox: the protection of power and ensuring the interests of the ruling elite of society, representing a clear minority of citizens, is justified as the implementation of the will of majority of citizens through democratic elections, that is, as the triumph of democracy, and political and state systems seeking to protect and satisfy the socio-economic and other interests of the genuine majority of citizens are declared authoritarian, despotic, having no right to exist and are subject to replacement by “democratic” ones.

In this regard, the well-known Russian scientist S. Karaganov asks a logical question whether democracy is really the crown of political development if it acts only as one of the instruments of governance of societies by the ruling oligarchies. “But if this is just a tool,” he said, “maybe we should stop pretending that we are striving for democracy? And to say directly that we want a society of personal freedom, prosperity for the majority, security and greatness for the country?” [4]. The head of the Constitutional Court of Russia, Valery Zorkin, found it necessary to emphasize that “the model of liberal representative democracy … is clearly no longer coping with modern challenges” [5:5]. In this regard, he called for the search for a more effective model of people’s rule, and not for orientation to Western models.

Modern trends in the development of liberal democracy

Although the real reason for the ability of highly developed Western states to provide a relatively high level of well-being of the population was their access to cheap natural and human resources of former colonies and dependent territories, this was presented in public propaganda as a result of the existence of liberal democratic regimes in them.

As stated by F. Fukuyama, from the beginning of the 1970s to the first decade of the XXI century, allegedly due to the increase in the number of democracies in the world from 35 to more than 110, world production of goods and services has increased fourfold, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has decreased from 42% of the world population in 1993 to 18 percent in 2008 year [24].

According to the prominent American statesman S. Talbott, in 1974 less than 30% of the world’s countries could be classified as democratic, and in 1996 their share reached 61% and 54% of the world’s population lived in them [27: 48,50]. Mark Blyth, a columnist for Foreign Affairs magazine, believes that it was democracy that made it possible to tame markets, establish restrictive financial rules and expand social security systems [22].

Such causal relationships, however, do not stand up to contact with reality.

Countries classified as liberal democracies, for example, India, can not always boast of a high standard of living and the absence of poverty. And such richest countries of the world as Qatar, UAE, Singapore, Brunei, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are not counted among the liberal democracies.

By the end of 1979, after the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on granting independence to colonial countries and peoples, the number of UN members increased by 102 states and reached 153 countries instead of 51 at the time of the UN’s creation in 1945 [11: 91-92]. Most of the newly independent states simply inherited the political systems of the former metropolises. There are no merits of liberal democracy in that.

Thanks to the efforts made by developing countries to implement the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, their economies began to grow faster than the economies of developed countries [13:116-117,129]. Over the years of the implementation of the UN-approved Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Program (SDGs), the average income of 50 percent of the poorest people in the world has almost doubled, the number of those who live on less than $ 1.90 a day – the threshold of “extreme poverty” – has decreased to about 700 million. The global maternal and infant mortality rate has halved. Almost all children have access to primary education. HIV mortality/AIDS has been declining since the beginning of the millennium [21]. There is no connection between these processes and the procedures for holding democratic elections.

In 1980, per capita income at purchasing power parity in France, Germany and the USA was 20-30 times higher than in China and India, by 2014 the gap had narrowed for India to 6-10 times, for China to 3-4 times. At that time, the US economy exceeded China’s by more than 10 times, China’s GNP was only 8% of the American one. In 2014, the Chinese economy exceeded the US economy by purchasing power parity, the French economy by four times, India’s GNP reached 40% of the American, Brazil – almost 20%. China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico exceeded the indicators of the fourth European economy – Italy, and Egypt, Pakistan and Thailand – the indicators of the Netherlands.

In 1990, the countries classified by Freedom House as “authoritarian” accounted for 12% of world income, currently they are responsible for 33% [26]. Of the 15 countries with the highest per capita income, almost two-thirds of the states, according to the classification of the liberal democrats, are «undemocratic».

Hundreds of millions of people living in conditions of so-called “authoritarianism” offer their citizens a standard of living that increasingly rivals the level of the richest countries in the West. American political scientist D. Simes, referring to the «enlightened authoritarianism» of Singaporean Lee Kuan Yew, who helped millions of people get out of poverty and ensure racial and social harmony in the country, considers it not obvious that democracy surpasses “respectable” authoritarian states [15].

In the global well-being index, compiled by Credit Suisse Bank, China’s indicator surpassed the average European level. It took the first place in terms of the growth rate of well-being: from 2000 to 2021, it increased eight times [16:48].

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands stated that society no longer has the resources to maintain a “welfare state”, it should be replaced by a “state of participation” in which each person is responsible for his own financial security [9: 45]. According to the American E. Warren, democracy is on the defensive at home and abroad, in connection with which it requires an economic policy that benefits all Americans, not just a small elite [29].

American experts have come to the logical conclusion that it is impossible to make reasonable predictions about the future of liberal democracy without thinking about the consequences of reducing the relative economic influence of the democratic alliance. The path to prosperity, they believe, no longer lies exclusively through liberal democracy and the affirmation of its values. The number of liberal democracies in the world, according to the observations of American experts, has begun to retreat in almost all regions of the world [24].

Many major international indicators of “democracy” demonstrate the serious decline of the United States: the Economist intelligence unit downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy” in 2017, the European International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified the United States as a “retreating democracy”, Freedom House currently assessed the democratic quality of the United States on a par with Romania and Croatia, an independent group of international observers, The Electoral Integrity Project, based on the analysis of elections held in different countries from 2012 to 2014, attributed the United States to the group of countries with moderately fair elections, which were inferior in this indicator to Mongolia, Rwanda and South Africa. As a result, R. Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated that “from 20% to 40% of Americans would like to have a strong leader who is not obliged to follow democratic rules” [25].

Vice-President of the Carnegie Endowment T. Carothers, assessing American democracy, pointed to the inability of the main political parties of the United States to work productively together, the control of elites over legislative processes, the lack of confidence in the legislature, the growing number of populists in the country playing on intolerant views of the population, the lack of transparency in the financing of election campaigns, problems with registration voting participants, low voter turnout, numerous offenses committed by law enforcement agencies during the elections. Many Americans are already ready to admit, concluded T. Carothers, that the image of the United States as a model of an effective democratic system is very outdated, the imperfection of the US political system casts doubt on efforts to promote democratic principles in other states [23].

Liberal democracies, “authoritarianism,” and people’s power

The idea of supporting democracy abroad originated in the USA in 1980-1990. In his speech at Georgetown University, US President Bill Clinton argued that countries that choose their leaders can become reliable partners in trade and diplomacy and threaten the world less than countries with other forms of government. He has made democracy support a priority of the administration’s diplomacy in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. The State Department, the Agency for International Development and the US National Endowment for Democracy participated in financing democracy support programs in other countries.

In 2000, at the suggestion of the United States, the international organization “Community of Democracies” was established in Warsaw to strengthen democratic norms and institutions around the world through the joint efforts of governments, civil society and the private sector. In 2012, at the initiative of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, T. Jagland, the World Forum for Democracy was founded, which has been meeting annually in Strasbourg since then. In September 2022, the head of the European Commission announced the EU’s intention to present a Pact for the Protection of Democracy in order to protect member countries from foreign influence and disinformation. She did not specify how to solve these problems with the help of periodically held elections.

In December 2021, US President Joe Biden organized the World Summit of Democracies, to which representatives of more than 100 countries were invited [10]. At the summit, the White House announced the launch of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which included support for independent media, physical and judicial protection of journalists, the fight against corruption, the promotion of technologies necessary for the development of democracy, the protection of free and fair elections, support for women and LGBT communities. The measures proposed by him did not affect any of the problems of American democracy listed by T. Carothers. The reasons why these issues are linked to determining the will of the majority of voters in the elections have not been clarified.

The US President announced his intention to allocate $424 million to protect press freedom, fight corruption and support free elections around the world. The US State Department has been asked to create a Global Anti-Corruption Consortium. It is planned to allocate $33.5 million and $5 million, respectively, to support women and LGBT communities. Another $55 million is planned to be spent on helping countries carry out democratic reforms. Thus, the United States, according to Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation K.I.Kosachev, is actually creating a “fund for interference in internal affairs” of states disloyal to the West [6].

Naturally, special attention in the proposed measures is paid to ensure the ability of the mass media to exert a decisive influence on the mass mood of voters in a spirit pleasing to the ruling elite. The issues of monopolization of the media and the formation of an ideological “mainstream” using methods of hidden political censorship, in particular, external review of political science scientific articles, remained outside the scope of the problems that concern supporters of liberal democracy.

And what about Russia?

The search for an effective model of democracy for Russia, obviously must focus on the completeness of the powers transferred by voters to their representatives and the right to nominate candidates for subsequent elections. The formation of a system of genuine democracy in the country could be facilitated by granting the right of legislative initiatives on certain issues not only to deputies of representative authorities, but also to such influential non-profit organizations as public chambers of various levels, Popular Front organizations, trade unions, creative and amateur associations, research institutions. This could be facilitated by periodic reporting of deputies to voters on the implementation of their instructions and pre-election commitments, the right of voters to recall their representatives ahead of time.

Effective people’s power should ensure broad involvement of citizens both in the process of daily management of public affairs at various levels, and in the realization of their socio-economic, political, humanitarian, cultural and other rights and freedoms. This could be facilitated by holding referendums on topical issues of the life of the state and regions, expanding the powers of regional legislative bodies in regulating the life of the population, and providing financial support to civil society organizations in regulating volunteer and amateur activities.

– is point 7 where Western democracy is today?

As part of efforts to create an effective system of people’s power, it is necessary to expand beyond political parties the circle of non-governmental organizations and movements authorized to nominate candidates for deputies at various levels, provide them with political support and assist in the election campaign.

The most important prerequisite for the active and interested participation of citizens of the country in the governance of Russia as a social state is the orientation of state policy to ensure the diverse interests, rights and freedoms of the vast majority of its population, as well as the maintenance of state structures and institutions that monitor compliance with the laws and rules of cohabitation of all citizens of the country. It is necessary to develop right in this direction theoretical research and practical recommendations of Russian scientists concerning the system of people’s power and the creation of conditions for reliable legitimization of the state authorities formed in this way.

As part of efforts to create an effective system of people’s power, it is necessary to expand beyond political parties the circle of non-governmental organizations and movements authorized to nominate candidates for deputies at various levels, provide them with political support and assist in the election campaign.

The most important prerequisite for the active and interested participation of citizens of the country in the governance of Russia as a social state is the orientation of state policy to ensure the diverse interests, rights and freedoms of the vast majority of its population, as well as the maintenance of state structures and institutions that monitor compliance with the laws and rules of cohabitation of all citizens of the country.

It is necessary to develop and promote theoretical research and practical recommendations of Russian scientists concerning the system of people’s power and the creation of conditions for the reliable legitimization of the state authorities formed in this way. ((1. Without Russia: The strange meaning of Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” is explained (in Russian). (Accessed on 25.12 2022)

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  • First published at TFF.
  • Lev Voronkov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor of the Department of Integration Processes at MGIMO University of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Since 1970, after completing his studies at MGIMO, he worked for almost two decades at the leading Soviet think tank research centre – the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the USSR Academy of Sciences. From 1988 to 2001, he was the director of the International Institute for Peace in Vienna. Lev Voronkov is also a friend of the TFF founders, well-acquainted with Nordic affairs in general and the peace research environment of the 1980s and onwards. He contributed to Radmila Nakarada & Jan Oberg (eds), Surviving Together. The Olof Palme Lectures on Common Security 1988 from LUPRI, the Lund University Peace Research Institute, Dartmouth Publishing, London 1989, with a chapter on the Soviet perspective on the concept and policies of common security. Read other articles by Lev.