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The concept of Democracy has been described as something difficult to categorize, which ultimately led to the concept of polyarchy as a way of standardizing what democracy is to measure and classify different countries as such. This essay will assess how Dahl’s (1973) definition led to a valid measure of democracy in countries. However, I will be arguing that, though this is one method of assessing democracy, moving away from the term ‘democracy’ as Dahl argues simply won’t and hasn’t happened. I will look at the terms of democracy more loosely, and I will also assess three different types of measurements that use Dhal’s concept of polyarchy, as well as identify issues with democracy and polyarchy in the world today.
Firstly, I will look at democracy as a concept more loosely. As seen in Clark, Golder, and Golder’s (2013) chapter in Principles of Comparative Politics, it is only when a major split between democracy and aristocracy in the age of revolution that representative democracy became synonymous with one another (Hanson 1989; Rosanvaloon 1995). Democracy then became what we widely regard it as today, as ‘the general will is the will of the people as a whole’ (Rousseau, 1762), bringing ‘the people’ central to democracy. In the modern age, as described in an article by Schmitter and Karl (1991), the most popular definition of democracy is equated with regular elections, that are fairly conducted and honestly counted. They also recognize how there are many different types of democracies, with diverse practices- these differences occur with different models of elections, participation, plurality, and different systems of checks and balances (Schmitter and Karl 1991). For example, both and USA are widely accepted as democracies in the modern world, but they both have two very different systems in place- the American system is centered around federalism, with each state consisting of very different sets of checks and balances, whereas the Prime Minister is subject to much more mutual checks and balances. However, this clearly shows that there are differences in democracy, that don’t necessarily make one more of a democracy than the other when looking at the outcomes. When looking at democracies, a central aspect of the definition is also ‘what democracy is not’ (Schmitter and Karl 1991). Central to this is that democracies may not actually appear more efficient in terms of their administration or governability. This again leads to the problems of classifying what a democracy is and is not if you cannot measure it by the outcomes of democratization you see.
This leads to Robert Dahl’s (1973) classification of democracy as polyarchy. The term was coined in his book Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, to introduce a minimalist view of democracy, defined by the levels of contestation and inclusion. Central to his ideas is that a substantive view of democracy regarding the outcomes they produce would be very difficult to do, so we should rather classify regimes only in relation to their institutions and procedures (Clark, Golder, and Golder 2013). For example, looking at the USA and examples again in a substantive view, it would be difficult to establish whether they are democratic or not by looking, for example, at the levels of economic equality- they both produce levels of equality in some manner but also levels of inequality, showing how this is merely a normative ideal of what people believe economic equality should look like. Instead, if we use Dahl’s concept of contestation, ‘the extent to which citizens are free to organize themselves into competing for blocks’ in politics and inclusion, ‘who gets to participate in the democratic parties’ (Clark, Golder, and Golder 2013), it gives a much clearer definition of democracy that can be seen in both the USA and (though this can still be contested, as I will explore further down in this essay). Dahl’s concept alone of polyarchy would be sound if he left it as such, just a concept of democracy, but he presented it as something to replace democracy, arguing democracy is a concept too far out of reach to achieve. There have also been criticisms of polyarchy presented by Bailey and Braybrook (2003) as being unrealistically optimistic about ‘the contributions to social life that unimpeded democracy can offer (Ceaser 1986)’, as well as his faith in the capacity of an ordinary person to govern themselves. Therefore, arguing polyarchy, no matter how idealistic democracy is, should replace democracy won’t do well, and hasn’t done well as democracy is still the core idea conceptualized today. Using Dahl’s concept as one way of measuring democracy would therefore be much more beneficial without his idea of replacing the concept.
We can see Dahl’s polyarchy as a measure of democracy in three different measures: Freedom House, Polity IV, and The Democracy-Dictatorship (DD) measure identified in Clark, Golder, and Golder’s (2013) chapter in Principles of Comparative Politics. Beginning with the DD measure, it argues democracies are ‘regimes in which governmental offices are filled because of contested election’; it focuses on Dahl’s element of contestation as it argues there must be an opposition who could take office, clearly showing a procedural view. In context, would be classified as a democracy as high levels of contestation occur, whereas China would not as there are very low levels of contestation. Polity IV focuses on both contestation and inclusion, focusing on competition, openness, and regulation within processes. Here, we can see Russia would be considered less democratic due to the censorship of media, as well as corruption behind the scenes. Freedom House looks at ‘freedom’ in the pretense of it being equal to democracy, looking at levels of political rights and civil rights, showing both inclusion and contestation. Regarding standardization, these attempts have been successful in being able to measure democracies, which opens the possibility of understanding the meaning (Collier and Levitsky 1997). However, researchers come up with new definitions of democracy all the time, in terms of their own research- instead of trying to find just one definition, it is more important to ‘clearly define and explicate the conception of democracy they are using’ (Collier and Levitsky 1997). This is seen even with the three measures mentioned above as they do have differences in classifying democracies, and Clark, Golder, and Golder (2013) also argue it will depend on the researcher’s question. So, in terms of Dhal’s polyarchy concept, he should identify this as his definition of democracy and leave it as such, rather than replace democracy, which is understood as an ‘overarching concept’ (Collier and Levitsky 1997).
The concept of democracy and polyarchy when used to define whether countries are democratic or non-democratic is still an issue, even with standardization and minimalization put into place to allow for a scientific process. For example, Mihai (2021) presents in her article that the ‘danger to democracy posed by entrenched social ignorance’- even within institutions and processes that Dahl says are central when looking at democracy, there are biases and a ‘skewed narrative’ (Mihai 2021); just looking at the basis of institutions and processes does not highlight this issue that could be affecting democracy. She uses the example of Brexit to portray this, as much social ignorance, for example, ideas about refugees and migrants, played a huge role in influencing how people voted. There were high levels of contestation- you could vote either Remain or Leave, both as viable options- and inclusion- citizens over a certain age were all able to vote. This idea of social ignorance is important in depicting what really goes on in so-called democracies as, Mihai (2021) argues ‘social ignorance covers structural and individual, self-governing processes of legitimizing a particular mystifying vision of the social world’. In addition, in some countries labeled as democratic with both high levels of contestation and inclusion, democratic backsliding occurs, with Bermeo (2016) arguing ‘contemporary forms of backsliding are especially vexing because they are legitimized by the very institution’s democracy promoters prioritize’. This again portrays the issues in using institutions and processes to measure if a country is democratic or not. For example, in the 2020 US Presidential election, Trump claimed he would not enable a peaceful transition of power if he lost, and claimed the election was unfair. In the end, Trump did leave office and there was a clear winner, and just by looking at the institutions, the USA remains a democracy. However, if the running president makes claims that he will not leave office if he is unsuccessful, does this make the country less democratic? It is clear to see that even in countries labeled as democracies using standardized measures, there is much more going on behind institutions that could be affecting the actual democracy of the country.
In conclusion, democratic countries have been and continue to be something difficult to measure, even with standardized methods of measurement. Dahl’s minimalized concept of polyarchy is an accepted measure that can be used as one way to assess whether a country is democratic, though not without its problems, as every method of measurement will have. However, it will not replace democracy as a concept, as there are too many elements to the concept of democracy that a minimalized definition cannot account for, even if we never reach a full definition of democracy
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