Chapter 10: A Theoretical Framework for Evaluating Democratization


Western ideas about democracy in the Pacific world, and particularly American ideas, are tainted by ethnocentrism and an unwillingness to confront the real history of East-West relations. But even so, real democracy is an ethical value of universal validity. The conclusion that flows from these two premises is that democratic theory must be reinterpeted in light of realities in the Pacific world.

II. Negative Criteria of Democratization: Defining Democracy by its Major Enemies

One approach to conceptualizing democracy is in terms of its opponents--democrats are those who fight against the major anti-democratic forces in society. There are many anti-democratic elements found to differing degrees in various Pacific societies, particularly 1) militarism, 2) a privileged elite, 3) patriarchy, and 4) foreign powers seeking hegemony. In real political struggles in East Asian society, democracy is often defined as opposition to patently anti-democratic political elements. Thus in a nation governed by a military dictatorship, the democratic forces are widely defined as those struggling against the military regime. In a regime where few hold wealth, privilege, and power, the democratic elements are often taken as those opposing the oligarchy. In a society in which high ranking individuals, especially high ranking older males, expect unquestioning deference and obedience from those they regard as their social inferiors, those who campaign against patriarchy are seen as the democratic forces. In a nation under the domination of foreign powers the democratic struggle is generally seen as the anti-colonial struggle. In a nation dependent on a foreign power economically or reeling under the impact of foreign culture and ideology, the democratic forces are often defined as those opposing the hegemonic power.

Defining democracy in terms of opposition to anti-democratic forces can be useful, especially in the practical exigencies of day to day political conflict. But simple resistance to an anti-democratic regime does not ensure that opposition forces are truly democratic. The forces opposing dictatorial regimes need postive ideas about what to do "after the revolution," of how to proceed if and when the dominant anti-democratic are defeated. Defining democracy in terms of its enemies gives only limited insight into what constitutes a truly democratic polity or how to construct a democratic polity.


III. The Minimal Criteria of Western Liberal Democracy

With the global wave of democratic regimes emerging in the last decade, the interest of political scientists in democratization has surged. This is an promising trend, but the way democracy has been conceptualized in the recent plethora of studies is not so encouraging. Recent political studies have tended to define democracy almost exclusively as the existence of contested mass elections and civil liberties. This is what I will call the "minimalist" conception of democracy.


There are several reasons why political scientists have adopted a very minimalist conception of what democracy means. One is very pragmatic. Quasi-scientific political research relies heavily on quantitative and qualitative measurement. It needs to define key concepts so that they can be "operationalized," that is, clearly classified and measured. The very frequency and regularity of mass elections makes them a relatively easy thing to measure, although the degree to which they are truly freely contested is often more ambiguous. The quality of civil liberties is more difficult to measure with numbers, but specific political agreements or acts which open up repressive regimes often mark a relatively clear dividing line between periods of few civil liberties and periods of greater civil liberties. Many political scientists have frankly conceded that they have used a mininal concept of democracy because the frequency of elections and the existence of civil liberties are relatively easy to measure. Contemporary studies of democracy are too often driven by the desire for clear measurements rather than fundamental theoretical issues.

Another reason why recent political studies have not had a theoretically rich concept of democracy is that most of them have been focused on the transition to democracy rather than the problems of democratic governance. This is not surprising. One of the most important historical events of the last decade has been the astonishing number of newly minted democracies. Political scientists can legimitately separate the process of transition to democracy from the practice of democratic government in order to carve out manageable research projects. But again, political scientists should be on guard against simplifying the concept of democracy just to make their work less difficult.

Currently the interest of political scientists has been engaged in the process of transition from dictatorial to nominally democratic regimes. One might expect that as over the years these new democracies face the challenges of actually governing and others regress to dictatorships again, more political scientists will become interested in the broader issues of what makes a nation truly democratic.

Karl makes a revealing case for a minimalist conception of democracy. She argues that few, if any, existing polities could meet the idealistic standards set by those who advocate demanding conceptions of democracy such as Athenian or social democratic models. Therefore she argues that a minimalist conception of democracy should be adopted so that some existing polities can clearly be classified as full and complete democracies in contrast to non-democratic polities. But why is it necessary to separate the democratic sheep from the non-democratic goats so absolutely? Isn't it true that most polities have some democratic elements and some non-democratic elements? Can't democracy be thought of as a critical concept which demands all polities rise to a higher level? Underlying this argument for a minimalist conception of democracy is a desire to put western polities on a higher level than non-western polities.

Probably the most important reason why recent political studies have adopted a minimalist concept of democracy is ideological. To most American political scientists, free elections and civil liberties are pretty much all there is to democracy. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, the ideological triumph of American style liberal democracy has been loudly trumpeted. One observer has even proclaimed "the end of history" in which the liberal democratic system reigns unchallenged (Fukuyama). Political scientists are not immune to this ideological triumphalism, in fact, they are major purveyors of this perspective.

On one level the argument for a minimalist conception of democracy can be partially accepted. Few would argue with the proposition that openly contested mass elections or guarantees of civil liberties are an important part of what it means to be a democracy. The key point is that these elements alone do not exhaustively define a democratic polity. The minimalist conception of democracy identifies important factors in defining democracy, but it is not enough. The picture is much more complex than that.

Table 1



Minimal Criteria

Contested Mass Elections

Political Freedom or Negative Human Rights

limited government

plural civil society


Other Essential Criteria



respect for the self-rule of other peoples

Civil Peace and Social Cohesion

A Tamed Military

Ethnic and Social Representation

Positive Human Rights

The Status of Women and Minorities

A Democratic Ethos

The Critical Criterion

Extensive and Intensive Political Participation

IV. Other Essential Criteria of Democratization

This study will suggest eight additional criteria for evaluating democracy that can be more generally applied to both western and non-western societies--Self-Determination, Civil Peace and Social Harmony, Taming the Military, A Democratic Ethos, Ethnic and Social Representativeness, Positive Human Rights, the Status of Women, and Extensive and Intensive Political Participation.


Self-determination is the most elemental aspect of popular self-government yet it is the principle most often violated by European and American interaction with Asian peoples. Rule by foreigners is a basic contradiction to self-rule. Self-determination is primarily a political concept, but it also has its economic and cultural dimensions. Self-determination is attentuated and can even be eclipsed if too many decisions that shape people's lives are made outside a country.

The reciprocal to the principle that self-determination is fundamental to a democratic polity is that a polity that does not respect the self-determination of other polities cannot be a complete democracy. A colonial or hegemonic power cannot be a complete democracy. No matter how much internal democracy a nation practices, its democratic obligations reach beyond its borders. In the global village, respect for the democratic rights of other nation's citizens is as important as respect for the democratic rights of your own people.

Civil Peace and Social Harmony

A democratic society requires a certain civil peace as a precondition for other democratic values. A flourishing, pluralistic civil society is not possible in a polity undergoing actual or virtual civil war. Free expression, respect for human rights, open contesting of elections, open political participation, etc. are not possible when people are killing each other contesting for control of the state or even the existence of the nation or if a history of civil conflict raises a serious threat that the expression of political opposition may lead to violent conflict.

Some kind of political community of mutual respect must exist before democracy is possible. Democracy is based on notions of individual rights, but individual rights must be balanced with the need for community and social harmony. There cannot be human rights without some social order. There can be no individual human rights if there is not also respect for others' rights. Rights imply some degree of responsibility, restraint, and regard for others and the community at large.

Classical Confucian doctrine and recent western communitarian theories of democracy converge in emphasizing the importance of social harmony for good government. Harmonious ordering of social relationships is the essence of Confucianism. The rise of communitarian theories of democracy represents renewed recognition by western thinkers that individual pursuit of self interest must be enlightened by appreciation of the need for a just and stable community which makes individual self actualization possible. A balance must be struck between possessive individualism and respect for the needs of others and the larger community to create a social environment in which individual rights can be realized. When individuals and interest groups maximize only narrow self interest and lose respect for the "rules of the game" everyone's rights are jeapordized. Narrowly selfish individualism and contentious interest group pluralism undermines truly "civil" society.

Of course, the concept of social harmony can be misused to suppress the free expression of ideas and political opposition that is essential for democracy. Many East Asian government and parties have repressed social and political dissidents under the guise of protecting social harmony. But it is not the concept of social harmony that is anti-democratic, it is political repression of dissidence or difference justified in the name of social harmony that is anti-democratic. "Law and order" has provided a similar ideological legitimation for suppression of dissidents in the U.S. Respect for the law and some degree of order are necessary in a democracy. Few would argue with the basic principle of respect for the law. It is the misuse of law and order arguments for repressive purposes which is anti-democratic. In the same way, it is the misuse of social harmony arguments for repressive purpose which is anti-democratic, not the basic premise that some degree of civil peace and social harmony is necessary for democracy to flourish.

A Tamed Military

Today in most East Asian polities, as well as many polities around the world, the greatest internal institutional threat to popular rule comes not from communist parties, or any other civilian political force, but from a politicized military. Virtually every East Asian nation has experienced military rule sometime in recent generations. Some are still suffering from military dictatorships.

Naked military dictatorship is rare today, although it can still be found in places like Burma. Most military governments today prefer to clothe themselves in the facade of civilian rule. The generals still run Indonesia and Thailand, although civilian institutions hold formal power. Even in countries where military governments have been deposed by popular movements, the generals are largely unchallenged in their own domain and lie waiting in the wings if civilian governments fail. In countries like the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan, the ghost of military rule has not been fully exorcised.

Military rule is fundamentally undemocratic. At the most elemental level, militaries run on the giving and taking of orders and absolute obedience, while democracies require self expression and questioning of authority. Military governments demand loyalty to individual leaders and give special rewards and punishments based on the quality of obedience while democratic government requires rule of law and equal treatment under the law. In actual political practice East Asian military regimes have repressed popular political movements, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered dissidents, and sought to de-politicize society so that they can rule unchallenged. A notable exception to this characterization is the Chinese Red Army during the Cultural Revolution, but that too is hardly a model of democratic virtue.

Ethnic and Social Representation

Ethnic and social representation is another basic criteria of democracy. Both the classical Greek and the early modern European republicans asserted the right of all the people to rule against monarchical and aristocratic claims that only one man or only a few had the right to rule. Today there are few absolute kings or aristocracies that claim exclusive right to rule. However in many societies, including many nominal democracies, the vast majority or large minorities are effectively excluded from governmental councils. An oligarchy of the wealthy or an elective system effectively restricted to members of one party or a few key families are as much violations of democratic principle as a hereditary aristocracy. Exclusion of women or ethnic minorities (or majorities) from government councils is also a violation of the ethnic and social representation principle of democracy. The iron law of oligarchy may dictate that only an elite can actually conduct a government, but the degree to which the political elite draws from and is representative of the social base of the nation is a key factor in evaluating the degree of democracy.

Positive Human Rights

Probably the most contentious issue of democracy in Asia is human rights. A certain degree of freedom of expression and freedom of action is necessary for a people to be truly free and self-governing. But a certain degree of equality in distribution of basic goods is also necessary if the people are to have any true freedom of action and expression. A starving peasant or a homeless urban squatter cannot be a real democratic citizen. The American conception of human rights puts all the emphasis on negative rights--freedom from government interference in all spheres of activity. But the UN Declaration of Human Rights puts equal emphasis on positive rights--rights to food, shelter, education, and a fair share of the economic pie. Both positive and negative human rights need to be part of any complete concept of democracy, and it must be recognized that in many cases these two concepts of rights come into conflict. The concept of positive rights needs to be used carefully--many brutal dictatorships have misused the concept of positive rights to try to justify their abuses on the grounds that they were putting food on the table of the poor. But the American conception of purely negative human rights has also done great harm to the development of true democracy in the Pacific world.

The Status of Women and Minorities

The status of women in Pacific societies can be subsumed under the issues of ethnic and social representation and human rights, but deserves treatment in its own right. Confucianism treats women as grown children and patriarchal practices in many Asian societies effectively exclude all but a handful of women from serious participation in public life. Yet the American situation of nominal equality which in practice leaves women with the double burdens of work and family management, often without the support of men or extended families, is in a significant number of cases a regression rather than an advance in the position of women.

The economic and social status of ethnic minorities is another key element of democratization. When a dominant ethnic group monopolizes crucial political and/or economic resources, ethnic minorities can be denied any effective voice in government. Just as a slave cannot be free and a society that allows slavery cannot be a full democracy, a hungry landless peasant or an urban squatter cannot be free and a society that consigns ethnic minorities to such conditions cannot be a democracy.

A Democratic Ethos

A Democratic Ethos is also fundamental to real democracy. Many of the outward forms of democratic government can be met, and yet a country cannot be a real democracy unless it has a some degree of democratic political culture. In the U.S. the democratic ethos takes the form of a certain degree of egalitarianism,. The belief that all people are created equal is of course tempered by recognition and acceptance of social inequality, but this basic egalitarianism has a real effect on social and political relations. In Japan there is no such egalitarianian ideal, but there are the principles of harmony and teamwork which require that even subordinates be consulted and participate at least psychologicallly in key decisions in corporate and public life. A nation's democratic ethos may take different forms, but real democracy requires some belief that the opinions of the people be respected.

The Critical Criterion: Intensive and Extensive Participation

Chapter One argued that any serious theory of democracy has to confront two disturbing realities: 1) direct rule by the people is impossible in modern society and 2) systems of representative democracy are universally characterized by elite dominance rather than popular rule. It argued that critical in any democracy is the ability of popular movements to contest elite rule. Democracy must be a critical concept which challenges the legitimacy of elite rule and favors the will and the interests of the mass of people when it conflicts with elite desires and interests.

Popular movements capable of expressing the will of the people and challenging elite rule can only arise through extensive and intensive political participation. A robust democracy manifests not only by formal political and civil liberties but by active use of those rights by large numbers of citizens. A healthy democracy is characterized not only by a set of psychological attitudes and beliefs about democracy but also by citizens who act on their beliefs by participating in social and political movements.

Authoritarian dictatorships are characterized not only by suppression of political opponents, but by a broader attempt to de-politicize the mass of people and de-mobilize political organizations which pose actual or potential threats to their control. The reverse is also true. Real democracies broaden and deepen the range of government, economic, and social activities subject to public participation and democratic accountability. In real democracies, the people are mobilized to challenge elite rule when it conflicts with popular desires and interests.


V. Trade-offs Between Democratic Values

It is clear that no existing polity scores high on all these criteria of democracy. Some would say that because no real polity can meet all these standards that these criteria are too idealistic and should be rejected or at least scaled back. But democracy is best thought of as a critical concept that calls into question the politics of all nations, not a legitimating concept that establishes the unquestioned superiority of one set of nations over others. All democracies are incomplete.

Yet these criteria do allow certain distinctions. Some polities fall far short on virtually every one of these criteria. Some polities are clearly not democratic in any meaningful way, even taking into account different conceptions of democracy and different standards for judging democratization. A critical theory of democracy is capable of distinguishing dictatorship from democracy, even if it is also critical of incomplete democracies that proclaim their exclusive democratic virtue.

Some students of comparative politics may argue that such an extensive theory of democracy makes their task of empirically studying real polities inordinately difficult if not impossible. But it is not the job of democratic theory to make the task of empirical research easy. It is the job of democratic theorists to articulate the different ways of thinking about democracy and to reveal the ideological bias of those that seek to cage the idea of democracy so that it can be more easily dissected.

One reason why no polity can meet all the above criteria is that in many cases these values conflict. It must be recognized that there are often trade-offs between the different criteria of democracy.

For example, positive human rights can conflict in some ways with negative human rights. In order to ensure universal rights to economic subsistence, governments must tax, spend, and often regulate economic activity. Taxes must be taken from private individuals or businesses and activist government regulation does not allow private individuals or coporations always to dispose of their property exactly as they see fit. There is some trade-off between individual rights to economic subsistence and individual rights to private property, or more precisely between the rights of the have-nots and the rights of the haves.

In some cases, the results of contested elections may run contrary to the principle of ethnic and social representation. Political parties based on ethnic majorities can sweep to massive electoral victories based on appeals to ethnic pride and then deny minorities basic human rights and access to government decisionmaking bodies. This is particularly true when gerrymandering, control of media, and political manipulation of electoral processes bias election results, but it may even occur when the elections are nominally fair. The control of key economic, media, and political resources by prominent families may lead to freely elected legislatures that resemble plutocracies more than a representative sample of the people. Contested mass elections are basic components of democracy, but so is the principle of ethnic and social representation within government councils. Under certain conditions, these principles come into conflict and trade-offs must be made.


many supposed trade-offs false

but some trade-offs are real

The liberal democratic solution to such trade-offs is to place the minimal criteria of democracy above other criteria. Generally, when negative human rights come in conflict with electoral results liberal democrats favor negative human rights over electoral processes. But the liberal democratic approach to conflicts between democratic values vitiates the spirit of democracy. In elite dominated polities, all too often negative human rights are most effectively used by elites to pursue their private interests over and above the public interest. This is particularly true when there is little mass participation in politics, few guarantees of positive human rights, bureaucracies dominated by males from privileged backgrounds, and/or a lack of a democratic ethos to encourage ordinary people to express their viewpoints and constrain elite exploitation of their political and economic advantages.

If democracy is to have any meaning, democratic governments must favor the needs and interests of ordinary people over those of the elite. Liberal democracy, confined to minimalist conceptions of democracy, is bound to favor elites over ordinary people. That is wy the other criteria of democracy are essential, and why mass pollitical participation is the single most critical criterion of democracy. Without these, the voice of the people is drowned out by the loudspeakers of the elite.


In recent decades many Pacific nations have undergone political transitions in which they have adopted the nominal forms of democracy. Yet the question remains whether these emerging regimes are completely democratic. A more subtle concept of democracy is needed to evaluate these new regimes and compare them in a non-ethnocentric way with western democracies.


Is communitarian demo a contradiction in terms