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On Democracy (II): Formal, Political, and Societal Characteristics

By Guenther Baechler
Wednesday, August 1
The Messenger continues to publish a series of articles on democracy written by Guenther Baechler, the Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi. He holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.

Students of the academic research about democracy find plenty of definitions, historic explanations, and comparative studies. Myriads of sophisticated statistics rank democratic states, hybrid regimes, and autocracies. Research concentrates on the state of democratization in a given state compared to other ones. Parallel to rankings there is a large research strand that addresses structural and institutional aspects of a state that can be defined “democratic”; to these aspects belongs the economic foundation and the cultural background of democratization; the type of constitution and of power sharing agreements; the distinction bet¬ween representative, participatory, liberal, or direct democracy and the like.

All these approaches are complementary and extremely valid in order to understand and explain what democracy really means and what it definitely does not mean. For once however, I am going to introduce a rather dif¬ferent perspective on the same topic. I differentiate between three distinct charact¬er¬istics of democracy: formal, political, and societal characteristics. From this angle I highlight that democracy has to be analyzed in three dimensions which quite differ from one another. Within each one of the three proposed dimensions there are aspects that got further developed over time by existing democracies. At the same time the three dimensions are not independent: developments in each one of the dimensions impact on developments in the other ones and vice versa; there are interdependencies which link the dimensions and which shape the specific architecture of a particular democratic state at a given time.

Let me briefly outline the three-dimensional concept:

1.) The formal characteristics of democracy are defined by its constitutional, legal, and institutional foundations. Although each democracy has its own appearance and features the supporting architectural elements of any democracy are very much the same. As a rule, all eligible citizens are equal before the law and have an equal say in the decisions affecting their lives (sovereign power). Liberal Freedom and social justice are part of the fundament, too. The majority rule – so quite often mitigated in its consequences by some form of minority protection – is also constitutional for any democracy. There is a consensus among citizens that conflicts are unavoidable or even fruitful but have to be solved by peaceful (legal, political) means only. The polity shares a certain set of fundamental values and norms including a range of basic human, political, and social rights. When it comes to the more tangible institutions democracies adhere to a separation of powers with parliamentary oversight over the executive and an independent judiciary; to freely elected bodies (at the central level as a minimal standard at least); and to a certain extent also to decentralized state structures both in the unitary as well as the federal state. Additional formal elements may differ over time and across geographical regions. E.g., the democratic state in 19th century Europe certainly differs from today’s democracies be them located geographically in Europe or elsewhere around the globe. Just take national legislation as an example: the collection of laws was relatively modest in 1848 (the time of the liberal revolution) compared to the huge and somehow unbearably body of the law today.

The rule of law as well as a strong institutional backbone of the state as described above may be a necessary condition for a democracy. However, even the most sophisticated formal characteristics may not be sufficient to make democracy work. For democracy to become a reality two other characteristics are as important as the formal one is:

2.) The political characteristics of democracy comprises all activities of political actors that implement the sovereign will of the people regardless whether or not these actors are elected, nominated, or appointed. Depending on a particular constitution or on a specific democratic architecture there might be a huge variety of political figures and bodies of course which are bound to execute the free will of the citizens. It is difficult to say which politically active bodies are a necessary component of any democracy and which ones are just offspring of an emerging political culture. In some countries the most influential figures are assembled around a powerful president (cabinet), in others it is the prime ministerial office that has real power, and in again another group of democracies there are powerful parliamentary leaders that shape the political landscape. Sometimes invisible advisers are extremely important as well. There are countries with one or two mighty political parties while there are numerous countries with quite a diverse party system that helps to keep various power centers in a balance. Heads of decentralized bodies, of federal units, and of municipalities (elected mayors) may also be powerful players when it comes to defend well established regional and local interests or to implement governmental programs in a subsidiary way (devolution of power). Strong associations like trade unions, employers’ associations, organized interest groups, industrial or agricultural lobby organizations complement the political parties’ activities. Although all these actors are bound to obey democratic rules based on a constitutional consent they do have one mayor goal in common: they aim to constantly fight for their respective interests, to change the law accordingly, and to become more influential over time. Accepting the rules on the one hand with trying to transform the law or amending the constitution on the other is a most common feature of any democratic state. Party programs, statutes, bylaws, pamphlets, and other kinds of public expressions may indicate the general directions different actors want to follow. Additionally, think tanks and scientific research may foster innovation or may shed a light on critical aspects of developments. Beyond this there are two main spheres that belong to the political dimension, too. One of them is the political economy. The national economy is certainly anchored in the framework of the law. However, the law itself cannot dictate growth rates, innovations, inventions, and investments. It sets the conditions for growth while growth itself has to come from a free and competitive business sector and innovatory investors. The second one is the media sector which is quite often addressed as the “forth power” in the state. Media’s roles can hardly be described in one sentence only: information, reflection, investigation, controlling, stimulation, being an agent of change, communication of values and promoting of ethical standards belong to the main tasks of different media.

It is the ensemble of the political actors that shape a certain political culture, that make checks and balances work, that fight corruption effectively, that implement the law in a trustworthy way, that decide on confrontation or cooperation among the “social partners”, etc. Trust and confidence among the people and its representatives cannot be prescribed by the law; it has to grow in the political sphere of every day democracy. Or, in short: besides strong institutions, individuals matter!

3.) The societal characteristics of democracy encompass non-governmental and non-representative (not elected) bodies and processes. There is a growing field of related activities. Let us just name a few of them: citizens initiatives, round tables, citizens’ assemblies, women’s associations, participatory planning procedures involving state agencies and neighborhood groups, pressure groups, human rights clinics, alternative dispute resolution movement (labor conflicts), peaceful protest rallies, etc. The most powerful movements like the peace movement during the Cold War, the movement against nuclear plants, and the environmental movement got institutionalized with creating their own mechanisms for mobilization, advocacy, and public relations. Only recently the Occupy movement reacted globally against the excesses of the financial sector. Research and information as well as direct actions belong to the repertoire of such initiatives in order to address both the citizens of a state as well as the political representatives. The aim is to inform about risky developments, to raise awareness, to change behavior and attitudes, to change legislation, to pressurize political actors in order to prevent damage or cure past mistakes. Political actors may hate societal groups and try to fight or eliminate them. Others may tactically use them in order to strengthen their own argument. In many democracies there is a strategic alliance among political and societal actors. Societal actors may have penetrated the political arena in a way they cannot be ignored or sidelined anymore. To the contrary: societal actors may move from a more confrontational style towards constructive collaboration with political actors aiming to improve certain sectors or to change the society at large. Today, societal organizations together with new social media and comprehensive communication means (internet) form of more or less dense network with elements of self-organization both at a national as well as global scale (“autopoesis”).

Although societal organizations may also be rooted in nationalistic, chauvinistic, racist or bellicose circles of a given state most of the civil society organizations rather belong to the guardians of democratic and human values. Organizations like Greenpeace, WWF, and Transparency International etc. created powerful brands with a substantial (informal) influence on national and international legislation, regulations, and codes of conduct.

Let me draw some conclusions:

In the democratic reality the three characteristics are interdependent and as such inter-linked in many ways. The most visible and concrete link between the formal (1) and the political level (2) are democratic elections. Elections is a formal institution defined by law in order to enable the citizens to choose those political actors which reflect best the political will of the sovereign. Thus, elections in the democratic state are more than just a formal procedure. With their individual choices citizens periodically influence the composition of the political arena. Through their choices they impact on both program and political priorities of the representatives and as such determine the future course of their country.

The most visible and concrete link between the political (2) and the societal level (3) is advocacy through civil society organizations. Through societal activities citizens no longer just participate in elections but also in direct action that impact on the future of a given democracy (e.g. peace movement in the 80ties). In democracies with direct democratic instruments (referendum, plebiscite) there is another form of participation, too: there is a direct link between the formal (1) and the societal level (3) which is based on direct democratic expressions of the will of the sovereign people. People - and not representatives - directly decide whether or not they like a particular legislation or they may initiate a new legislation in areas of public concerns (e.g. gay movement). Direct democratic instruments get more and more popular around the world; already --- states introduced some mechanisms in this regard.

Democracy is being constituted by all three characteristics (formal, political, societal) together. Formally a democracy might be well established with a rich codex of laws and regulations. However, without a dynamic political life such state may grow stiff if and when formal procedures dominate the lives of the citizens. If courts start to highjack the political debate and hinder sound political competition, negotiations, and compromises the rule of law may be a trap for future democratic development of a state. Interestingly, societal forms of expressions of the democratic will are not formally inbuilt in the architectural structure of the state however they impact on formal aspects once they do exist. As the genesis of democratic states shows societal democracy only emerged on the basis of a fully developed political democracy that is why societal activities get more accentuated in new appearances of deliberative democracy.

A further conclusion concerns liberal freedom as a core term of democracy. In our three-dimensional concept democratic freedom exists and unfolds in all three dimensions simultaneously. Firstly, freedom is grounded in the constitutional order; secondly, it is being promoted and taken care of in the political life; thirdly, it is being tested and eventually expanded in the societal realm of the state. Or, to put it the other way round: if freedom is being oppressed in only one of the three dimensions then, freedom may seize to exist at all because freedom only exists in its concrete expression and not in its abstract form.

Finally, the dynamic interaction between both the political and the societal dimension of democracy transforms the formal architecture in such way as democracy adapts to new challenges, integrates new domains and developments (media, internet, cyber space); amends the legal framework according to new trends, collective habits, and changing cultures. Through this the democratic process widens, deepens, and affects the daily lives of more and more people which proudly perceive themselves as citizens and active creators of their own democratic space.