The Rise (and Fall) of Democracies around the World

Shelley Rigger, Political Science, Davidson College

This seminar will be held at Davidson College 

In 1947, Winston Churchill said, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Still, despite its flaws, democracy is an object of admiration and aspiration for peoples across the world. But what is democracy? Government of the people, by the people, for the people? Majority rule? A way of balancing the preferences of the majority against the rights of minorities? A manifestation of justice in human communities? A mode of communication and deliberation? Or is democracy really just a “cheerleading word” like motherhood and apple pie?

This seminar will begin with a discussion of how democracy has been defined and measured by philosophers, political scientists, and citizens. As we gain a clearer sense of the different ways democracy can be understood, we will launch an exploration of how democracy can be cultivated in a nation. We will consider the social prerequisites for democratization as well as the economic circumstances that are associated with successful democratization. We also will look at specific examples of countries that have become democratic, and analyze how they managed the transition. We will pay particular attention to the wave of democratizations that took place in the developing world in the 1980s and 1990s, but we will be thinking about those states against the backdrop of American democracy and its development.

Unfortunately, despite Francis Fukuyama’s suggestion that liberal democracy might turn out to be the destination for states at the “end of history,” experience shows that democracy is not irreversible. Some countries have drifted away from democracy gradually, with their institutions and civic cultures breaking down into “pseudodemocracy” or “illiberal democracy.” Others have seen their democratic systems collapse under the weight of authoritarianism or civil war. In the seminar we’ll also pose this question: why and how do democracies fail?

Finally, we’ll ask whether democracy matters. Are the outcomes for society any better under democracy than under other forms of government? Do individuals thrive more readily in a democracy, or can other forms of government serve just as well?

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.