Part I: Democratic Theory and Political Development in East Asia

Chapter 3: The Contradictions of Western Liberal Democracy

I. Democracy, Liberalism, and Political Elites

II. Athenian Democracy and the Democratic Ideal

III. The Rise of Modern Liberalism and Republicanism

IV. The Rise of Modern Democratic Sentiments and the Struggle over Universal Voting Rights

V. Democratic Theory and the Problem of Political Elites

VI. Athenian Direct Democracy and Modern Democracy

VII. Contemporary Theory of Liberal Democracy and Political Elites

VIII. Critical Theories of Democracy

Participatory Democracy

Social Democracy

IX. The Individual and the Community

X. National Democracy, Imperialism, Hegemony, and the International System


I. Democracy, Liberalism, Capitalism, and Political Elites

Democracy is widely accepted as an overarching political ideal in the West, and is increasingly gaining similar acceptance in the rest of the world. Yet most people are vague about what democracy actually is. If you asked the man on the street what democracy is you might get several different responses, which would reflect different and even conflicting ideas about what constitutes a real democracy. Some might say a democratic system is one that has elections. Others might say that democracy protects individual rights. Another response might be that a democratic government takes good care of its citizens. Still others might say that a democratic government reflects the will of the people.

Democracy is truly a protean concept, hard to pin down in one or two simple notions. But much of the lack of clarity about democracy stems from contradictory notions that have huddled under the rubric of democracy. Modern democratic theory is a synthesis of many ideas, drawing particularly from two strands of thought--liberalism and popular, direct, or participatory democracy. Hence the term "liberal democracy" which is used by political scientists to describe the form of democracy prevalent in western polities and gaining adherents throughout the world.

But "liberal democracy" is an uneasy amalgamation of different political theories with different social and political origins. The term liberalism comes from the root word liberty. Liberalism itself has different variations of meaning reflecting different political philosophies. Liberalism has been used to describe a wide variety of political and economic philosophies ranging from those of free market economists like Adam Smith through those of advocates of activist government like Senator Kennedy. At the risk of confusing some Americans, many of whom have come to define liberalism as the activist government philosophy of Senator Kennedy, liberalism will be used in this book in its classic sense, as the philosophy that places the highest value on individual freedom, especially the freedom of individuals from economic and social restraints of government.

Classical liberalism emerged in the early modern world as the philosophy of the new middle classes who chafed under the restrictions of the feudalism and sought greater liberty to pursue their economic and social goals outside the constraints of the feudal order. Classical liberalism was the political expression of the Enlightenment philosophy that freed the medieval world from the received wisdom of the past. Commentators ranging from diehard reactionaries through neo-Marxists, including many liberals themselves, have seen liberalism as the philosophy of the capitalist class, as the political expression of the bourgoisie who battled for freedom from the feudal order of Europe and once triumphant in Europe extended their economic and political system around the world.

Democracatic philosophy, on the other hand, is both older and newer than liberalism. The western idea of democracy began with the ancient Greeks, especially the Athenians. Unlike most ancient societies, Athens was ruled not by a political class, but by a popular assembly in which all citizens had equal voice and standing. Athenian democracy eventually died out, but there was a revival of democratic theory in 19th and 20th century as common people sought a voice in voice in modern government and an extension of the freedoms won by the bourgesoisie to the ordinary people.

Modern, western political systems represent a synthesis of liberalism and popular democracy, a compromise between the bourgesois emphasis on individual liberty and ordinary people's desire for mass, popular control of government. These two elements of western political systems exist in a kind of dynamic tension. Liberal democratic western governments take different form based on different resolutions of the conflict between these their liberal and their democratic elements.

Western governments simultaneously affirm both the idea of popular sovereignty, that the people should rule themselves, and the idea that the state should be subservient to the needs of capitalism. Western governments simultaneously preach popular sovereignty and in practice accept elite domination of the political system. Western governments simultaneously proclaim national self determination and demand the subordination of the nation state to needs of the global capitalist system.




The survey of western democratic thought which follows touches lightly on several issues that have been treated in greater depth, detail, and sensitivity by many other scholars. The goal here is just to highlight a few key points in the evolution of western democratic theory, point to some enduring dilemmas democratic theory faces, and make some rough distinctions between different kinds of democratic theory. My purpose is not to exhaustively examine all aspects of these issues, but to prepare the way for more thorough investigation of the theory and practice of government in East Asia and the Pacific.

This chapter begins by examining the origins of western democratic theory in classical Athenian democracy and modern liberalism. It then explores the paradox of elite domination of democratic polities and the attempts of liberal theories of democracy to justify elite domination. It then takes up alternative theories of democracy which challenge elite domination, such as social democracy, participatory democracy, and communitarian democracy. It concludes with some observations on self determination, imperialism, militarization, and democratic theory.

The prevailing western theory of democracy has two basic roots, ancient Athenian democracy and modern liberalism; hence the widely used if sometimes confusing term "liberal democracy."


II. Athenian Democracy and the Democratic Ideal

Among western political scientists the origins of democracy are usually traced back to the ancient Greeks, particularly the Athenians. In fact the word democracy is of Greek origin, meaning "rule by the people" (craxis=rule, demos=people). The political system of Athens in the years xxx-xxx has been widely upheld by western democratic theorists as the ideal toward which contemporary democracies should strive.

Athenian democracy was based on direct popular decision making. (Wolin, Ober) Government decisions were made in public assemblies in which all male citizens could attend, speak, and vote. Most public officials were chosen at random, by lot, so that every male citizen had a roughly equal chance at holding public office.

Athenian direct democracy was not perfect. Most of the population, women and slaves, were excluded from the assembly and office holding. Many of the decision made by the popular assembly were unwise and often violated modern norms of civil liberties. But Athenian democracy extended citizen participation in government decision making more widely than any political system in antiquity.

The Athenians believed that broad participation was crucial to the health of the political system. Only through broad popular participation could government decisions reflect the will of the people. Probably even more important to the Athenians, political participation created dedicated and wise citizens. Participation in the public assembly and the holding of government office drew ordinary people into contact with each other, expanded the horizons and experiences of individuals, and created bonds of solidarity that served the community well.

III. The Rise of Modern Liberalism and Republicanism

Athenian democracy died out over two thousand years ago. For almost two millenia there were few other cases of popular government. There were some republics which approximated some of the practices of Athenian democracy. The early Roman republic before the rise of the empire and medieval Italian city states are the most frequently cited in the literature.

Modern theory of self government only emerges as a significant political force in the late 18th century with the American and French revolutions. Popular rule in France was soon reversed by Napoleon and his successors, although the struggle for self rule continued in France and the ideals of the French revolution slowly spread throughout Europe.

more on France, England, Europe?

But it was in the United States that self rule in a large country first survived and American thinkers have played a leading role in defining the theory of popular government ever since. The small settlements of the early American colonists were on a similar scale as the Athenian city-state or even smaller. Colonial town meetings were much like the Athenian popular assembly in which the colonists, essentially cut off from London, made the fundamental decisions that shaped their lives. So United States makes an excellent case for studying the roots of both republican liberalism and modern democratic theory.

While some of the early colonists made a conscious identification of local self government with Athenian democracy, others held what they regarded as the intemperance of Athenian democracy as a negative example to be avoided. The conflict between democrats and republicans was most vivid when the US constitution was being created, when the new nation had to face the problems not only of local self government, but of devising political principles for governing and building a continental nation. The writers of the American constitution, were republicans, not democrats. In fact, they hoped the political institutions they designed would be able to avoid what they regarded as the excesses of democracy (Levin).

Early American republicans and democrats did have some things in common. Both shared an abhorrence of hereditary aristocracy and absolutist monarchism. American republicans celebrated freedom, or liberty, as their highest value. Republican liberalism resisted aristocratic privilege and sought freedom from the restraints characteristic of the European feudal order.

Republican liberalism was in many ways a bourgesois philosophy, an expression of the longings of the merchant and middle classes who chafed under taxation and restrictions on economic activity and free trade. Republican liberalism sought to check the power of the state, especially the ability to control economic activity. Conversely, it sought to free the power of property, or what today we would call capital. It was not just an attempt to eliminate the vestiges of feudal aristocracy, but in addition to establish a new political elite, and to assure that that elite was bourgesois.

Two issues of the American revolution stand out as expressing its bourgesois nature--taxes and free trade. The most enduring slogan of the American revolution was "No taxation without representation." The American colonists felt too much was expropriated from them to serve the government in far off London, in which they did not even have an official voice in Parliament. Moreover, the revolutionaries thought that the American economy was distorted by an excessive orientation toward exports to England, and especially by prohibitions on trade with other European powers.

But early American republican liberals were no friends of democracy. The convention which wrote the US constitution and the struggle over its ratification can be seen as a contest between republican elitism and more populist democratic forces which was won convincingly by the republican liberals. Republican theory distrusted the mass of people as ignorant, uncultivated, irrational, prone to violence, deficient in moral character, covetous of the wealth and property of their betters, and lacking in commitment to the economic and political system. In defending the proposed American constitution in Federalist Paper #10 James Madison expressed the prevailing view

democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and

contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal

security or the rights of property; and have in general been

as short in their lives as they have been violent in their


Early American republican theorists believed in popular sovereignty, or, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." But to republican theorists the dangers of direct democracy had to be checked by representative government based on limited franchise and a constitution which limited and fragmented the power of government.

Madison, commenting on the difference between a democracy and a republic, noted that a republic delegates government to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.

The effect of (this) difference refine and enlarge

the public views, by passing them through the medium of a

chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the

true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and

love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to

temporary or partial considerations.

Madison also advocated dispersing power through many government departments, what has come to be called the theory of "checks and balances." Government must be obliged to control itself.

The interior structure of the government (must be so

contrived) as that its several constituent parts may,

by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping

each other in their proper places.


IV. The Rise of Modern Democratic Sentiments and the Struggle over Universal Voting Rights


The early American political system had an inherent contradiction. Its basic legitimation was popular sovereignty, rule by the people. Yet it restricted voting rights to a small number of property owners. The vast majority of citizens who were originally excluded from the political process longed for the benefits that political participation offered.

This contradiction between theory and practice led to a series of struggles in the 19th and early 20th century to extend the franchise as those excluded from the system sought voting rights. Political elites resisted demands for popular democracy. An early member of the New York Supreme Court who opposed extending voting rights more widely captured the essence of elite feeling when he argued that popular democracy inherently produces "corruption, injustice, violence, and tyranny."

Progressively over 19th and early 20th century the idea of universal voting rights and popular democracy gained ground over republican elitism. Property qualifications were dropped in most states in the early 19th century. The rights of African-Americans were theoretically stated in the post civil war amendments to the Constitution. The passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution in 1920 guaranteed women the right to vote. Finally, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which enforced the rights granted to African-American and other ethnic minorities, the democratic principle of universal suffrage triumphed over republican elitism. A similar struggle went on in England and other European countries, which although it moved more slowly, eventually led to the same outcome of universal suffrage.

The rhetoric of the suffrage struggles of the early American republic slowly transformed the idea of democracy from a political epithet into a political virtue. The U.S. constitution had been a triumph of liberal republicanism over popular democracy. The theory of representative democracy which emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries marked some gains of popular democracy against liberal elitism. However, it is important to recognize that even as elites made concessions to popular demands for participation, they maintained control of the political system.



V. Democratic Theory and the Problem of Political Elites


We will return to the discussion of the origins of democratic theory later in this chapter, but first we should examine more closely the central paradox of modern democratic polities--elite control of systems designed to express popular will. The contradiction between popular soveignty and elite dominance can be seen as rooted in the different origins of contemporary democratic theory.

In the 18th and 19th centuries popular democracy was a radical new concept. However, by the late 20th century many nations have had a century or more of experience with democratic or quasi-democratic institutions. In the actual practice of democracy one can see the key role played by political elites. Some democratic theorists celebrate the role of political elites as guardians of the treasured principles of democracy. But it is clear that elite dominance of electoral and governmental institutions can vitiate or even negate the democratic expression of the will of the people.

In practical political reality, elites who command positions of wealth and privilege run the governments and economies of representative democracies while the mass of citizens are largely political spectators. Democratic theory demands that ordinary citizens have an interest in public life, the information to make informed decisions about public issues, and an inclination to develop the capacities to effectively and knowledgeably participate in public life. Empirical studies have shown that, in contrast to political elites, most ordinary citizen in contemporary liberal democracies does not meet these criteria. Electoral systems translate economic and social inequality into political inequality, leaving government for all practical purposes in the hands of the few, not the people.

The mechanisms by which elites dominate representative democracies are so pervasive it is impossible to enumerate them here. A few salient examples should suffice to establish the point.

Most contemporary representative democracies have capitalist economies. In a capitalist economy the distribution of income and particularly the distribution of wealth is massively unequal. A small minority consisting of perhaps one or two percent of the population controls most of the wealth and hence most of the economic resources. And in a capitalist society everyone knows that "money talks." In both crude and subtle ways money buys political influence. In one of the cruder instances, politicians, requiring the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars of contributions necessary to conduct a successful campaign for elective office, run begging to wealthy patrons, promising to take care of their needs and wants in return for cash. The money of corporations and wealthy individuals buys influence over politicians when legislation is formulated. Money buys access to the media to shape not only consumers but also voters preferences. Money buys "hired guns" from the halls of legislatures to the halls of academia who "ride shotgun" over the interests of corporations and the wealthy. In a capitalist democracy it sometimes seems if the ruling principle is not "one person, one vote" but instead "one dollar, one vote."

In the "information age" information is also power. But again, the information important to political decisions is not randomly distributed throughout the society but concentrated in a few hands. Nuclear power industry executives have detailed knowledge of radiation leakages and improprieties in storage of nuclear waste, but the ordinary citizen is usually in the dark. Owners and managers of transnational corporations have the data to calculate the profitability of plant closings, but laid-off workers and devastated communities cannot construct persuasive arguments to keep factories open because they cannot get access to such data. Media conglomerates with vast global business interests to protect largely decide what is news, what information the public needs to know. In western democracies there are public disclosure laws and decentralized media such as the internet or local newpapers. But the information crucial to public policy is often held by a small number of elite players who use it for their strategic interests.

There are also more subtle bases of elite power. Political elites generally move in the same social circles. They live together in expensive neighborhoods, go to the same elite schools, golf at the same country clubs, and often belong to the same voluntary organizations. Because of their similar social background and interests, they tend to share similar points of view on public issues. Such informal but very real interconnections between political elites are termed elite networks. Elite networks play a crucial role in recruiting candidates for public office. Elite networks play a leading role in defining what social problems reach the public agenda, what approaches are taken to policy problems, and the formulation of specific policy alternatives.

In short, elites have political power. Many of them are in a position to exploit that power for personal or corporate gain. More importantly, elites tend to identify more with each other than with the ordinary citizen. Electoral and representative processes are more often systems to articulate the interests of power to the people than to speak the will of the people to power. In a capitalistic system, with vast inequalities in the distribution of wealth, information, and power, the voice of the people is too often drowned out by the voice of wealth and privilege.

Elite theories of democracy are based not only on the obvious power of political elites, but also on the very real incapacity of most members of contemporary liberal democracies to perform as active, informed citizens as demanded by the democratic ideal. Numerous empirical studies have shown that the ordinary person in contemporary liberal democracies is a far cry from the Athenian model of the energetic, concerned, knowledgeable democratic citizen. Apathy, cynicism, distrust, and dislike of the political process are rampant in liberal democracies today. While most citizens follow the TV news, many choose not even to vote, much less engage in more time consuming, intellectually demanding forms of active political participation.

Twentieth century political theory has had to face the reality that even in elective democracies political elites rule. Before the twentieth century there were few large scale representative democracies and thus little chance to observe such how such systems actually operated. But with the expansion of the number of electoral democracies in the 20th century, political scientists have had many chances to see how theory differed from practice. After studying the internal operations of the German Social Democratic Party, Robert Michels promulgated the "iron law of oligarchy," asserting the ubiquity of elite dominance in the modern world, even within a political party dedicated to working class solidarity and social democratic ideals. Michels concluded that "whoever says organization says oligarchy."

To recognize elite dominance of democratic polities is not to argue that elite control is complete. Theorists of liberal democracy put great emphasis on conflicts between elites with different social origins and different economic interests. Certainly elites in democratic societies are not monolithic and do have serious differences of opinions and interests, although they also share much in common simply because they share the same privilege status relative to ordinary citizens.

More importantly, democratic freedoms allow mass movements which express popular demands to arise and influence the political system. The struggle for universal voting rights described earlier in this chapter was an example of how mass movements expressing popular demands were able to broaden democratic rights and participation to the ordinary citizen. The contemporary welfare state is another example of how ordinary citizens can use their democratic rights to force government to respond to their needs.

Democratic polities are dynamic systems. There are strong tendencies toward elite control of democratic systems, but there are important countervailing tendencies for mass movements to arise which express popular demands and even challenge elite dominance. Understanding this dynamic tension between elite dominace and popular movements is crucial to understanding modern democratic polities. The historical struggles between elitism and popular government continue today in new form. On the theoretical level this struggle can be seen in the conflict of different theories of democracy which have opposing perspectives on the problem of political elites in a democracy.

VI. Athenian Direct Democracy and Modern Democracy


Now the existence of elite power can be reconciled with democratic theory, but not easily. Elite rule basically contradicts rule by the people. This is why the classical ideal of Athenian direct democracy is still important millenia after its practice has vanished from the planet. That is why study of the origins of both classical and modern democracy are important. When one contrasts the practices of Athenian direct democracy with contemporary democratic systems, one can see just how different they are, and how far contemporary notions of democracy have strayed from the idea of popular self government.

The epitome of the Athenian democratic ideal was direct citizen participation in political decision making. The key mechanisms of direct democracy were public assemblies open to all citizens which made the crucial political decisions and rotation of public office among all citizens. Modern representative democracy delegates the authority to make political decisions to a handful of elected representatives and an army of permanent officials. The ordinary citizen usually only participates in government through the very indirect means of casting a ballot. In Athenian democracy government offices were held by ordinary citizens who rotated in and out of office through a random system of drawing lots. Thus, direct expression of popular will was replaced with the indirect and intermittent process of elections.

Representative democracy replaced direct popular governance with trusteeship of a political elite only indirectly guided by popular will. At the same time 19th century political theory revived the idea of democracy, the political compromises which produced the theory of representative democracy vitiated the impact of popular sovereignty.

In many ways representative democracy is simply the recognition of reality.

what was true in 19th century even more true today

Athens was a small city-state with a population small enough that a meeting of a majority of citizens could be held in one place. Modern democracies have populations ranging from a few million to the nearly one billion people of India. Compared to modern nations, Athens was a relatively simple society in a relatively simple international political and economic environment. Contemporary governments face a complex array of problems--international currency exchange, social welfare expenditures, scientific and technological innovation, arms control, global environmental pollution, to name just a few, that would overwhelm the agenda of any one decision making body. Advances in travel and communications mean that modern governments often must make decisions much more quickly than a public assembly could ever hope to achieve. Rational, consistent, and just implementation of programs affecting millions of people require permanent expert officials and articulated bureaucratic structures.

Of course, it has also been argued that representative democracy tempers volatile popular opinion with the wisdom of a political elite more knowledgeable of political and international reality. Popular majorities of the moment are not necessarily aware of the long term view necessary to keep the system functioning effectively and democratically.

Athenian direct democracy may be romanticized by political theorists who gloss over the holding of slaves, the exclusion of women, Athens' imperial foreign policy, and the vast inequalities of Athenian society. Even in its time, Athenian direct democracy had serious flaws, and its exact practices are clearly impossible in huge, technologically complex societies.

But Athenian direct democracy still stands as an ideal against which modern representative democracy should be measured. While much has been gained by replacing direct democracy with representative democracy, much has also been lost. Direct democracy makes people into active citizens. In a representative democracy, most people never experience the opportunities for growth and self-discovery that extensive participation in public life can bring. Perhaps even more importantly, when government decision making power is turned over to a small number of elected representative and public officials, the character of the decisions made changes. The elites who lead representative democracy differ dramatically from ordinary people in life circumstances, social milieu, economic interest, point of view, and ultimately in the way they deal with public problems.

Athenian direct democracy serves as a standard against which the actions of political elites of representative democracy can be judged. Do the decisions of political elites reflect the interests and desires of the people to the same degree as would those made by a hypothetical direct democracy?

VII. Contemporary Theory of Liberal Democracy and Political Elites

The contradiction between elite rule and rule by the people is the central problem of democracy in the modern world. Democratic political theory in the second half of the twentieth century has consisted largely of attempts to square elite power with notions of popular rule evoked by the concept of democracy (Schumpeter, Dahl, Lipset, Etzioni-Halevy).

The prevailing contemporary theory reconciling elite rule with democratic theory is liberal democracy. Liberal democrats recognize that elites dominate representative democracies, but they are essentially comfortable with this. Liberal democrats have squared elite rule with democratic theory by restricting the scope of democracy. They have abandoned any notion that democracy can mean rule by the people. Instead liberal democrats argue that as long as different elites have to compete for political power by appealing for votes and other forms of mass support, ordinary citizens can exert some check on elite power.

Liberal democrats advocate what I will call a "minimalist" notion of democracy. Liberal democracy requires open competition between political elites for mass public support. Thus liberal democracy requires regular and freely contested elections. It also requires civil liberties--the ability of citizens to form associations and articulate political ideas free of interference by government. Liberal democracy requires an active and free civil society characterized by a plurality of competing groups.

Liberal democrats are largely the intellectual heirs of early modern republicanism. American liberal democrats are particularly beholden to Madison. Early modern republicans argued in favor of limited suffrage and bemoaned mass democracy. Liberal democrats have no hostility to popular participation, and they take elite domination not as a moral but a practical imperative. But like republicans, liberal democrats are comfortable with, and sometimes even favor, the privileged position of political elites.

VIII.Critical Theories of Democracy

Participatory Democracy

Liberal democratic or Minimalist theories are the prevailing notions of democracy in western, and particularly American, political science. Yet there are challengers. One school of critics of liberal democracy is participatory democracy. (Barber, Pateman) Participatory democrats harken back to the Athenian ideal of a polity that directly responds to the will of the people and of citizens who develop their social capacities through active engagement in public life. Participatory democrats do not feel elite dominated representative democracy is adequate to express the real will of the people or nuture a widely shared democratic ethos. They seek to create new channels to allow ordinary people a voice not only in government decisions but also in the workplace and other non-governmental social institutions.

Social Democracy vs. Liberal Democracy

In the U.S., participatory democracy is the major theory contesting the predominance of liberal democracy. But in Europe the major challenger to liberal democratic theory is social democracy. (Tilton, Esping-Anderson) Social democracy shares with participatory democracy several common themes, but it places greater emphasis on the importance of social class in understanding elite dominance within liberal democracy.

It is not easy to simply characterize social democracy, because there are a wide range of theories that have used that label, ranging from those seeking incremental reform of liberal democracy to neo-Marxist Euro-communists seeking to establish socialism through parliamentary means. But fools rush in where wise men fear to tread, so this section tries to summarize the common threads of social democratic thought, because it is important to establish the major line of criticsm of liberal democratic hegemony as a prelude to studying democracy in East Asia. The differences between social democracy and liberal democracy have been examined in more detail in other studies, but the following synopsis highlights the issues relevant to this project.

Like liberal democracy, social democratic theory recognizes that in contemporary capitalistic democracies political elites rule and the ordinary citizen is largely a spectator. However, unlike liberal democrats, social democrats do not accept this condition as natural or desirable. Social democratic theory seeks to empower ordinary people over against political elites. It points to the conflict between elite rule and popular rule and sides with the mass of people over against the political elite.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two philosophies is that liberal democrats are complacent about the state of contemporary western democracies while social democrats take democratic theory as essentailly a critical concept, which they turn against political elites in all societies, including liberal democracies. Liberal democrats take contemporary western democracies as the standard by which democratization in other societies should be judged. Social democrats judge contemporary western liberal systems as not fully democratized, and thus in need of reformation themselves. Liberal democrats accept and even in many cases favor elite domination of western politics. Social democrats favor the ordinary citizen over against the power elite.

Social democrats differ from liberal democrats in their way of thinking about the basic democratic principle of majority rule. Liberal democrats view majority rule as established when a majority of legislators vote for a law. Social democrats see majority rule in terms of the conflict between a small elite and the vast majority of citizens who are wage earning workers. To social democrats, majority rule is when the government favors the interests of the majority of wage earners over the privileged minority of owners and controllers.

Philosophically, liberal democrats favor limiting government power, but social democrats favor using government power to help people, especially ordinary working people and the less privileged. Liberal democrats have a negative conception of human rights, that is, human rights are defined in terms the things government is forbidden to do such as interfere with the press, religion, or business or put people in jail without due process. Some social democrats reject the very concept of individual rights, but most social democrats have both a negative and a positive conception of human rights. Social democrats accept that citizens need protection from arbitrary government action, but they also argue that government has a positive duty to make sure every citizen has an adequate standard of living, enough to eat, a place to live, a basic education, access to medical care, and the chance to work.

Liberal democrats and social democrats also differ systematically on the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Some liberal democrats oppose virtually all forms of what they see as government intervention in the private economy. Other liberal democrats favor more activist government economic policies. But all liberal democrats see a privately controlled capitalist economy as a bulwark of democratic freedoms.

Social democrats on the other hand view the vast inequalities of a capitalist economic system as fundamentally incompatible with democracy. Social democrats view the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority as inconsistent with the real exercise of popular rule. The social democrat seeks to redistribute wealth and power out of the hands of the few and into the hands of the many. This requires fundamental changes in economic institutions. Social democrats recognize that the only way to accomplish this goal is through government policy.

Social democrats also have different visions of political participation and established political institutions. Liberal democrats tend to conceive of mass political participation as voting in elections and membership in voluntary associations such as churches, trade and professional groups, etc. Liberal democrats are more comfortable with political activism that is channeled through long established political and social institutions. Some more conservative liberal democrats have even argued that too much political participation is dangerous to democratic institutions and that the widespread apathy characteristic of citizens of contemporary liberal democracies is actually healthy for the system. While not all liberal democrats share this view, liberal democrats, like Madison, tend to view political institutions and constitutions as the heart of democracy and distrust mass political activism that bypasses existing political channels.

On the other hand, social democrats support mass political mobilization. Social democrats have been important organizers of mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, and environmental degradation and in support of the rights of workers, women, and ethnic minorities. Social democrats support participatory democracy, not only in the explicitly political arena, but also in the workplace, the universities, and other "non-political" arenas. Social democrats do not trust existing political and economic institutions to express the interests of the majority of ordinary citizens. Rather they seek to create new channels to express popular grievances and implement reforms.


IX. The Individual and the Community

Throughout the 20th century social democratic parties have contended for power across Europe and even been the leading party in most Scandanavian countries. But liberal theories of democracy have generally prevailed in the western world, especially in the U.S. However, in recent years a new challenger to the hegemony of liberal theories of democracy has arisen, especially in the U.S.--communitarian theories of democracy. (Chapman and Shapiro, Etzioni)

The exact content of the new theories of communitarian democracy is somewhat vague, but the flaw in liberal democratic theory that gives rise to communitarian ideas is quite real. Liberal democratic theory puts great stress on the importance of individual rights, many would say too much emphasis on rights. The other side of the coin of individual rights is social responsibilities, obligations, and duties. No one's individual rights can be protected unless others recognize their responsibility to respect those rights. Communitarian theories of democracy say liberal democratic theory and practice overlook this flip side of democratic theory. They point to a wide variety of social ills ranging from rampant crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, child neglect, the rapid spread of sexually transmitted diseases, to the abuse of the legal system for frivilous complaints, which they argue are largely the result of too much stress on individual rights and not enough emphasis on the rights of the community and the responsibilities of individuals.

Probably more than any other western theory, communitarian notions of democracy have the potential to resonate in the East Asian context. Most Asian cultures, particularly Confucian cultures, have put more emphasis on harmony in society than realization of the individual, and stressed the duties, rather than the rights, of individuals. For centuries Asian critics of the west have decried the rampant individualism of westerners. Contemporary East Asian critics of western democratic theory such as Lee Kwon Yew of Singapore have argued that is the price of democracy is the disorder and selfishness of western individualism, then the price is too high to pay. While communitarian theorists of democracy would not go that far, they share the same concern that exclusive emphasis on individual rights does not serve the need for a community of mutual respect.


X. National Democracy, Imperialism, Hegemony, and the International System

But perhaps the greatest problem in western democratic theory is its tendency to focus on the nation-state as the sole unit of analysis to the exclusion of the international system. (Held, 1993) Most western theories of democracy completely ignore the problem of national self-determination in the global system. Perhaps the most elemental violation of democracy is "rule by a foreign people." But in fact, modern western theories of democracy arose during the Age of Imperialism when western societies were waging world wide wars of conquest against non-white peoples. While the age of political imperialism is over, the problem of foreign economic and cultural domination has taken a new turn in the era of globalization and the transnational corporation.

Just as a country cannot be democratic if it is ruled by a foreign colonial power, a country cannot really be democratic if it has colonial possessions or exercises excessive power over other peoples. When talking about democracy within one nation, western democratic theorists recognize that rights must be universal and reciprocal if a system is to be truly democratic. That is, in a democratic system, you and I have the same universal rights, and for the system to be truly democratic I must respect your rights and you must respect my rights. But most democratic theorists fail to apply the same principles to the international system. For a country to be democratic it must not only have self determination for itself, it must respect self determination of other peoples. The historical record of western nations in respecting the rights of self determination of other peoples is a sorry one indeed.

In the 20th century the global scramble of western empires for colonies came to an end, and in the wake of the second world war most peoples gained political independence. But westerners, particularly the U.S., continued to exercise massive political, economic, and ideological influence over the non-western world. The CIA intervened to overthrow popular nationalistic governments in every corner of the globe. Western corporations often overwhelmed local peoples in influence over their governments. Hollywood images often displaced indigenous culture in shaping the minds of the young. Colonialism is dead, but American political hegemony and western cultural hegemony still are real threats to national self determination in many parts of the world. Hegemonic power can never be democratic. Democracy must be conceptualized on a global scale if it is to have any meaning in the age of globalization.

Rethinking the Concept of Democracy