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Some general institutional characteristics of modern democracies

May 7, 2013

Bernard Crick observes that “…there are some general institutional characteristics of [-p.107] modern democracies. Some are obvious, some less so; but let me set them down nevertheless” (pp.106-107)

Referencing Robert Dahl’s article in The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Crick lists these characteristics:

  • Elected representatives. Control of government by members of a parliament or assembly etc. elected by citizens. …
  • Free, fair, and frequent elections. [Dahl] adds ‘in which coercion is relatively rare’. …
  • Freedom of expression. ‘Citizens have a right to express themselves without danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined…’. Indeed, but is ‘political’ needed here? Some suppression of free speech in autocracies takes place by branding words as ‘political’, certainly; but it can also be said ingenuously that the banning of sex education in public high schools is not political – simply a matter of the private morality of school boards, parents, and even legislators not subject to political compromises.
  • Access to alternative, independent sources of information. Dahl is right to put this immediately after ‘freedom of expression’, which becomes useless if sources of evidence are not available to challenge governments’ publications and their ability to massage, suppress, or even invent statistics, especially if the governments have undue influence, even control, over the press and broadcasting media.
  • Autonomous associations. Citizens must have ‘the right to form relatively independent associations or organisations, including [-p.108] independent political parties and interest groups’. Indeed, following Tocqueville, this is fundamental to freedom and democracy; but it seems that political parties in modern democracies are the basic institutions that bind government to the electorate. So ‘a multi-party’ system may deserve a separate title. And issues of how far new demands for multicultural policies can go are complex and not easy (as are self-portraits about how multicultural are states like Britain and the USA already).
  • Inclusive citizenship. ‘No adult permanently residing in the country and subject to its laws can be denied the rights that are available to citizens and are necessary to the five political institutions listed above.’ But note that the right to vote is often not granted to permanent residents. National feelings can run high. And laws on the status of foreign spouses can often be highly specific and peculiar.” (pp.107-108)

“However,” Crick continues, “perhaps Robert Dahl takes for granted what is not to be taken for granted, especially in new or emerging democracies: the need for some real independence of the judiciary from government and some real constitutional support for an impartial and reasonably neutral civil service.” (p.108)

He also observes: “There are no final answers in the name of democracy. Lists, like definitions, settle nothing. There is only a continual process of compromise between different values and interests, politics itself.” (p.109)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Bernard Crick (c2002) Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford


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