Commentary Magazine

Democracy for Everyone?

On June 8, 1982, in a speech to the British Parliament, President Reagan called for a “global campaign for democracy.” In a key passage he said: “The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy—the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities—which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

This presidential initiative both legitimated earlier efforts to use American government resources for the promotion of democracy abroad and launched a new effort directed at the same end. The most important such effort has been the project to create a National Endowment for Democracy, a new institution that would draw on the two major political parties as well as on organized labor, the business community, and possibly other private institutions. Bearing some resemblance to the political Stiftungen of West Germany, the Endowment would give assistance and advice to democratic parties and movements abroad, and especially in the Third World. At the same time, the United States Information Agency (USIA) has been directed by the administration to intensify its presentation of democratic ideas and realities.

The issue of the advocacy of democracy has thus acquired a new timeliness. That issue has a number of political and ideological aspects. It is clearly related to the concern, shared by many people at different points along the political spectrum, that this country needs a new sense of itself and its mission in the world. There is also the conviction that despite (or because of) recent tensions, the countries of the Western Alliance need a rallying point for their common democratic values, which, after all, constitute the only durable foundation of the Alliance. Then there is the need to define a Western stance in the face of the Soviet Union and its use of Marxist ideology in the service of its imperial purposes.

In addition to each of these facets, there is the North/South dimension of the issue. Specifically, there is the question of the manner in which democracy can or should be advocated to non-Western societies—precisely those societies, notably in Asia and Africa, where one cannot readily presuppose a commonality of values of the kind the United States shares with Europe and (at least in the educated classes) with Latin America. Is democracy so closely intertwined with specifically Western values that to advocate it in non-Western societies is futile, or undesirable, or both?

President Reagan addressed himself to this question in his speech. Immediately after stating the objective quoted above, he went on:

This is not cultural imperialism; it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.

In view of the history of this century, both in the West and elsewhere, the President’s final sentence may be somewhat over-optimistic; after all, there is indeed the phenomenon that Erich Fromm (referring primarily to Nazism) called “the escape from freedom,” and that Jean-François Revel (referring to the apparently ineradicable sympathy of Western intellectuals for dictatorships of the Left) has described as “the totalitarian temptation.” Be that particular point as it may, however, the assertion that to champion the spread of democracy does not constitute cultural imperialism requires further elaboration.

On the face of it, there is a certain resemblance here to the debate over human rights during the Carter administration. There is a similar concern for the American self-image, for the ideological underpinnings of the Western Alliance, and for the proper definition of the contest with the Soviet Union; and there are similar questions about cultural relativity and ethnocentrism.1 But it is important to stress that the issue of democracy, or of political rights altogether, is not the same as the issue of human rights. For there are fundamental human rights that are not in themselves political—such as, for instance, the right to the free exercise of religion. Although in practice a very high correlation exists between human rights and democracy (a point I will return to below), in principle they are discrete phenomena. For this reason, we must be clear what we mean by the term “democracy.”

In defining democracy, American political scientists have tended to emphasize the institutional as against the ideological aspect. They see democracy as a specific set of institutions and processes rather than as a set of ideas. This is useful, since it limits discussion to the political sphere proper, leaving aside the questions (interesting though they may be) of “democratization” in other spheres (the family, work, education, and so forth). It also leaves aside the subject of democracy as an ideological creed or philosophy. The political scientist Myron Weiner probably expresses a wide consensus among his professional colleagues when he says that the following four characteristics are essential to democracy as a political process: governments are chosen in competitive elections in which there are opposition parties; parties, including those in opposition, have the right openly to seek public support, a right that must include access to the press, freedom of speech and assembly, and protection against arbitrary arrest; electorally defeated governments step down and the losers are not punished unless they have violated laws, in which case they are protected by due process; and elected governments really govern and are not figureheads for non-elected elites.

One might add to or subtract from this list, but it clearly points to the essentials of democracy as a political process. Nor is it an oversimplification to say that all these characteristics express an all-important principle—namely, the institutionalized limitation of the power of government. Democracy seeks to insure that the rascals are periodically kicked out and that, while they are in, there are certain things they may not do.

Now, not even the most enthusiastic proponent of the universality of democracy can deny that this particular “package” of institutional arrangements has highly specific roots in Western history and is linked to specific Western social developments (such as Roman law, medieval guilds, Protestant churches) as well as to specific Western values (the ethics of Judaism and Christianity, the Enlightenment, the ethos of entrepreneurship, and so on). The question may then be put quite simply: how does this “package” apply to societies rooted in very different social developments and animated by very different values? Can democracy plausibly be advocated in such societies? Should it be? And if so, in what terms?



These questions are not new. In the current debate one may distinguish two viewpoints, both originating in earlier periods of American history and both legitimated in the name of American political ideals.

There is, first, the view that the values of democracy are universal, deriving from human nature itself, and therefore that the United States should support and advocate these values everywhere, as well as the institutions founded on them. Interestingly, this view may be found both on the Right and on the Left within the American political spectrum.

Then there is the contrary view, again found on both Right and Left. According to it, American democracy is contingent upon specific values that are not universal, and the United States cannot and indeed should not try to propagate democracy indiscriminately in all places. Cannot, because the project is unrealistic; should not, because to do so is ethnocentric arrogance.

Curiously, both viewpoints are grounded in affirmations of the “American Creed”—the former in its emphatic universalism (the Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men”), the latter in its tradition of respect for human differences (American pluralism). The two viewpoints appear frequently in somewhat crude forms—in the one case, manifesting what could be called a “vulgar” Wilsonianism; in the other case, manifesting a masochistic denigration of one’s own culture. These have well-known antecedents in American history. The vulgar Wilsonian who insists that the whole world is destined to become democratic in the Western sense is a secularized reincarnation of all those missionaries who draped Mother Hub-bards over the bosoms of Polynesian maidens newly won to Methodism or Congregationalism. The denigrator of American values stands in apostolic succession to a long line of pilgrims, expatriates, and tourists-gone-native.

These are extreme types, easily caricatured. But this does not mean that they do not walk around in the flesh. They do; the Christian churches of America, which used to produce the missionaries, now produce a lot of the masochists, and they deserve every possible caricature. Nevertheless, some of the ideas underlying the two opposing viewpoints cannot be dismissed out of hand. The first view embodies the correct insight that the most deeply held values always imply universality: I cannot claim inalienable rights as a human being without thereby implying that the same rights belong to every other human being. The second view also embodies a correct insight—that human cultures do in fact differ in their values, even very basic ones, and that Western democracy has grown out of a highly distinctive cultural history: I cannot assume that my own values are shared by people of other cultures, or that the “American Creed” will be as self-evident in Ibadan as it is in Indianapolis.

Cultural relativity, in other words, is an undeniable empirical fact. One of the main effects of modern social science, indeed, has been to make this fact widely known, certainly here and in Europe. Pascal’s dictum, that what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other, was revolutionary when he uttered it in the 17th century; today it has become a staple of popular consciousness. No viable approach to the problem of democracy in the contemporary world can bypass this widespread knowledge of relativity.

Yet if the “vulgar Wilsonian” position underestimates cultural relativity, the anti-Wilsonian position overestimates it. The aim should be to formulate a more nuanced middle-ground position, one that is intellectually defensible and politically practical. This is by no means an impossible agenda.



Precisely which Western values are basic to democracy? Inevitably the focus falls on the set of values loosely called “individualism,” however vague and even slighty pejorative the term may sound. Western democracy has been founded on a specific understanding of the individual as an autonomous being. This understanding means that the individual has a capacity for freedom, for realizing himself in the course of his actions, and that he has inherent rights over and against the demands (or, for that matter, the rights) of any community to which he may belong.

It is not very difficult to trace the source of these notions in the convergence of two cultural streams: the first originating in biblical religion, with Protestantism playing a decisive role in its application to political democracy; the second rooted in the Hellenic view of man, transmitted to modernity via the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and applied to the invention of democratic institutions by the French Revolution and its successors. Obviously, these cultural streams have failed to affect non-Western societies in the same way; indeed, in most of the latter they have begun to have an impact only rather recently, and as a result of Western expansion.

But just as democracy is an idea that manifests itself in concrete institutions and social processes, so the autonomous individual is not only an idea but a lived experience. Actual human beings must feel themselves to be autonomous, to be free or aspiring to freedom, to have inherent rights. For such experience to be possible, specific processes of socialization must take place, beginning in early childhood. These processes too require an institutional framework; the “bourgeois family” of the modern West was a key institution in forming the sort of individuals for whom democracy could be a plausible project.

Thus it is not just a matter of Asians or Africans not holding certain ideas. More importantly, it is a matter of their not having had the experiences through which these ideas become plausible or “real” in actual life. In this sense, Western individualism is a deviation from the “common human pattern” (to use a concept coined by Jan Romein). It is so perceived by many non-Westerners. (The fact that Western individualism has also been challenged from within Western culture, notably by Marxism and other collectivist ideologies, further complicates the situation.)

The unusual assumptions of Western individualism become sharply evident as soon as one compares them with what is taken for granted in the great majority of non-Western cultures, in all parts of the world, and indeed in the traditional substrata of Western societies as well, such as in the remaining peasant cultures of Southern Europe. In Latin America, Western individualism frequently amounts to a thin veneer over totally different Indo-American or Afro-American cultures with a deeply communal, non-individualistic character. In Africa, the veneer is even thinner, due to the briefer and more superficial experience with the West. But it is in Asia, with its ancient and highly sophisticated civilizations, that the alien quality of Western individualism is most clearly evident.



Asia is the most important testing ground for many assumptions about modernity. It can be argued that there is in Asia a “second case” of modernity in the making, one which is not a simple extension of the Western case. Its clear center is Japan, though it now also includes the newly industrialized countries of the “Asian Rim” (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) and is radiating further (especially into the ASEAN countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand). These societies lack the Western history of individualism. Yet some of them have developed democratic institutions. Japan and India are the most important cases, and they can serve to test many assumptions about an allegedly necessary connection among modernization, democracy, and the values of Western individualism.

Now, modernization changes all cultures, and individualism has indeed been one of the more successful cultural exports of the West. It would be foolish to expect all Asians to be guided by traditional communal values. In Japan, for example, there is much evidence of the inroads of individualistic values (a fact that may have far-reaching social consequences in the future). Also, the West itself has been changing. Strong anti-individualistic tendencies are at work there, and not only of the political sort; witness the counterculture and the rise of charismatic religious movements. But the point is that in most if not all non-Western societies, there is an “audience” for Western individualistic values. To this “audience,” democracy can be advocated in exactly the same terms that one would employ in America or Europe. By and large, this audience is made up of those who have undergone a modern education on the secondary or university levels.

Yet even in these strata there have been neotraditionalist movements, some of them rejecting modernity outright, most of them advocating modifications of modernity in line with indigenous values, as expressed in the slogan, “modernization without Westernization.” These movements are particularly powerful in the Islamic world, but they exist elsewhere as well. There is a Shinto revival in Japan, there are strong neotraditional movements in Hinduism, and there is a rapid growth of indigenous Christian churches in Africa. Thus there exist not only continuing, and in some places vast, traditional sectors of society that have been relatively untouched by Western values. There also exist significant groups that have turned away from the Western values once espoused by themselves or their parents.

Does this then mean that in non-Western countries democracy can plausibly be advocated only to “converts” to Western values? Or can it also be advocated to those who either continue to live by traditional values or have newly returned to such values? I believe the answers to these two questions are, respectively, no and yes.



Quite apart from its relation to positive values or ideals, democracy is, under modern conditions, the only practical alternative to unrestrained tyranny. There is scarcely a human society that would defend the absence of any restraints on the actions of rulers. “Tyranny” is a universal pejorative. The issue is how tyranny is to be prevented.

In traditional societies, there are various countervailing forces to tyranny, sometimes institutionalized. For example, in old China there were the Imperial Censors—Confucian officials whose job it was to monitor and if necessary reprimand the authorities, including the emperor himself, in the name of the accepted norms of political conduct. The Brahmans, the priestly caste of India, played a somewhat comparable role in that society. In other cases the function was fulfilled in a more informal manner, through non-governmental institutions such as kinship, tribe, priesthood, and the like, which imposed limits on what rulers could do.

But in pre-modern times the most important constraint on government was the sheer inefficiency of its reach. Even the most despotic empire of earlier times simply lacked the means to extend its power uniformly and steadily throughout the area supposedly under its sway. Away from the capital city and a few other political centers, many people lived their lives untouched by government, and perhaps ignorant of its existence.

By contrast, even “soft states” today, because of modern technology, have a vastly augmented power to project themselves into every nook and cranny of society. At the same time, modernization tends to weaken the traditional institutions that used to counterbalance government. The social functions of kinship shrink and extended kinship ties weaken; tribal allegiances become less compelling; priesthoods are undermined by secularization; and so on. All this greatly increases the chances for tyranny—not because rulers have become more wicked, but because, if they are wicked, they are in a much better position to carry out their nefarious designs.

What sort of institutional arrangements can one imagine that would reimpose constraints on the immensely powerful entity known as the modern state? What would be the “fundamental equivalents” of Imperial Censors? The answer is: arrangements similar to those embodied in Western democracy—institutionalized restraints on the powers of government, provisions for orderly succession, guarantees for critics of government actions, independent custodians of law and morality, and so on.

Put differently, if democracy did not exist, one would have to invent it. Or, in the language of advocacy: say all you want about your unwillingness to accept Western values, about your desire to pursue independent and indigenous paths of development—unless you want untrammeled tyranny, there is no alternative to democracy.

It is here that the correlation between democracy and human rights becomes particularly relevant. Leaving aside political rights (like the right to vote or to speak freely) that may be deemed culturally relative, there are fundamental human rights that all or nearly all human societies recognize: the right of an individual not to be subjected to arbitrary and cruel punishment by his own rulers in the absence of any crime; the right of parents to keep their children; the right of people to go on living in the place of their birth; and so on. If one traces offenses against these rights on a map of the world, the democracies will show very few entries. Governments that arbitrarily imprison, torture, or kill their own people, that separate parents from their childen, and that engage in massive involuntary “transfers of population,” are very rarely democracies. It is not hard to see why. Although in theory it is possible to imagine benevolent despots, respectful of human rights and devoted to the welfare of their subjects, in practice despotism is rarely or only intermittently benevolent, at least under modern conditions. If one is concerned with human rights, under any conceivably credible definition of that term, the only reliable guarantee lies in the institutions of democracy.

It may be argued that the requirements of economic development make the necessity of democracy less compelling. At least in the short run, there have been non-democratic regimes with impressive records of economic development, such as in the countries of the Asian Rim. Yet the evidence does not allow anyone to assert that “development dictatorships” are a necessary or invariable condition of economic progress. The record of most such regimes is quite depressing—in the case of the socialist ones, it is uniformly dismal. By contrast, there are democracies with impressive economic records (Sri Lanka has been a good example).

An argument can be made, in fact, that if economic development is successful, pressures toward democracy begin to build up (South Korea). Not that democracy is to be advocated merely as a means to the end of economic development; both democracy and development are human desiderata, each on its own. To defend either it is not necessary to argue that one leads inevitably to the other. Democracy is a good in and of itself.

Moreover, the desirability of democracy cannot be weakened by saying that it is of little interest to the poor. For one thing, every contemporary democracy was once poor. For another, it is precisely the poor in every country who have the greatest stake in protections against tyranny. Democracy is not a “luxury of the rich,” as has been argued; the rich, with or without democracy, usually manage to take care of themselves.



If democracy is indeed a political structure to safeguard the rights and liberties of the individual, it also happens to offer the most plausible structure for the protection of traditional values.

The state is not the only threat to traditional values. Other modern institutions and processes—the forces of the market and of technology, modern urban life, mass communications—create their own threats. But the state is the most potent threat.

Take the case of education, virtually everywhere today a state monopoly, pressed on everyone despite frequent resistance. Ivan Illich has proposed that the school is the church of modernity, and in most countries today it is an “established” church, controlled by government and imposed on people by the police powers of government if necessary. Let it be quickly stipulated that government education is not necessarily bad, and that both democracy and economic development require an educational infrastructure. Nevertheless, those with allegiance to traditional values correctly perceive the state educational system as a major threat to these values. How can they minimize it? Once more, the most effective brake on the untrammeled power of educators to impose their own values on everyone lies in the institutions of democracy.

The most practical way to protect tradition is to limit the powers of the state. In non-democratic regimes, traditional groups are “obstacles to progress,” to be manipulated or coerced as policy requires; in a democracy, they are members of an electorate. Democracy as an institutional mechanism, especially if it is limited to the political sphere, is not in itself inimical to traditional values. On the contrary, a democratic polity allows “breathing space” to traditional values and institutions. One need only compare the benign fate of tradition in the democracies of India and Japan with the ruthless suppression it undergoes in China or even in some of the milder authoritarian regimes of Asia.

Thus, in many situations, protecting the rights of individuals against the state is tantamount also to protecting the rights of tradition—more precisely, of those individuals who desire to continue living in traditional ways. Democracy fosters pluralism and coexistence, including coexistence between modernized and more traditional sectors of society.



In addition to all this, democracy is the most practical method for safeguarding those “mediating structures” that are, themselves, the matrix of democracy.

By mediating structures I mean institutions that both give shape to people’s private identities and also help them relate to the large structures of a modern society. These institutions exist both in highly modern and in less developed societies, and they are very important in both. Some of them continue to be traditional in character or (especially in the West) have undergone modernizing modifications. The most important of these are the family, organized religion, and the structures of local community. Others are such innovations as cooperatives, labor unions, and other associations to protect or promote particular interests. Virtually everywhere in the world, people have a strong interest in these institutions, because their most precious values and self-identifications are closely bound to them.

Whether one speaks of more or of less modernized populations, the protection of mediating structures is an urgent popular concern. Here too the major threat comes from the state, and here too democratic limitations of state power are a beneficial answer.

Development strategies that run roughshod over these institutions are likely to founder and/or become increasingly tyrannical. A major cause of the downfall of the Shah of Iran, Grace Goodell has argued, was the repressive manner in which his regime, in the name of development and modernization, dealt with the “natural” mediating structures of Iranian society. By contrast, the success of Japan may have much to do with the creative manner in which intermediate institutions were preserved in the course of modernization.

Mediating structures prevent individuals from falling into the anomie or “alienation” that is one of the high costs of modernization, and also insure that government retains a connection with the values by which ordinary people live. For this reason, they are crucial to the legitimacy of all large political structures and especially of government. Mediating structures are also the sociological soil from which political democracy, if absent today, may grow tomorrow. And here, on this point, the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is highly relevant.

Totalitarian states, by their very nature, cannot tolerate even the relative independence of such institutions. They must be leveled, controlled, and integrated into the all-embracing polity. Authoritarian regimes usually do not operate under this compulsion. Once they are in a position to control political opposition, they frequently permit various mediating structures—family, religion, local community, even cooperatives and other economic interest groupings—to function relatively autonomously. In this way, even unintentionally, they permit institutions to exist that form a potential matrix for a future democracy.

It is in itself good if the state does not seek to interfere in the family or religious life of its people, or if it allows them to band together for the pursuit of economic interests. But beyond this immediate good, there is also the strong possibility that this kind of participation will eventually lead to pressures for political participation—and, just as important, will accustom people to social practices that are indispensable to the workings of democracy.



The day when Westerners could go to Asia or Africa and, missionary-like, proclaim the supremacy of Western culture with unabashed self-assurance is well past. The last major nation of Western provenance that still practices “cultural imperialism” of the 19th-century type is the Soviet Union, and its successes, such as they are, may be credited to fear of Soviet power rather than to the persuasive force of Soviet values. Those who represent Western democracy have, by contrast, every reason to be interested in the great dialogue among cultures that is as yet only a promise, but an enormously exciting and challenging promise, of the modern age.

If the day of the missionary is past, one is less certain that the day of the self-denigrating pilgrim is also past; but it should be. Those who come into dialogue with non-Western cultures in a stance of uncritical admiration for what they find there, and of masochistic disavowal of their own cultural heritage, are unlikely to obtain a serious hearing and deserve none. A reasoned stand for the human achievements of Western civilization, including the monumental achievements of political democracy, is long overdue. Just possibly the current discussion may contribute to a wider reaffirmation of Western values.


1 See my article, “Are Human Rights Universal?,” COMMENTARY, September 1977.

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