The Emergence and Survival of Democracy


The emergence and preservation of democracy have been one of the most debated topics in political science throughout the establishment of the field. There is a lot of disagreement regarding the definition of democracy, but for the sake of simplicity, this paper accepts democracy as “political power exercised either directly or indirectly through participation, competition, and liberty. ”1 It is doubtlessly difficult to make a definitive analysis of level of democracy in a country solely by analyzing its constitution. Other factors must be considered when analyzing the level and emergence of democracy, such as economic development, socio-cultural factors, and actor-based determinants.2

Economic development is an important factor that determines the level of democracy, and it may be considered as one of the reasons behind emergence of democracy. O’Neil defines the origin of democracy as follows:”

”…liberal democratic institutions and practices have their roots in ancient Greece and Rome…. Athenian and other early Greek democracies are important because they provide the foundation for the concept of public participation. Typically found in small communities, ancient Greek democracy allowed the public… to participate directly in the affairs of government, choosing policies and making governing decisions. In this sense, the people were the state. In contrast, the Roman Empire laid out the concept of republicanism, which emphasized the separation of powers within a state and the representation of the public through elected officials (as opposed to the unaccountable powers of a monarchy or the direct participation of the people).”3

The economic development approach to democracy fundamentally stresses the importance of modernization, disregarding both ancient approaches. Modernization is closely related with economic development and industrialization, which may be the reason why today’s highly democratic countries, i.e., England, France, etc., are unsurprisingly ones that had an industrial breakthrough early in the 18th and 19th centuries. As O’Neil puts it:

”…modernization theory suggests that as societies become more economically
and societally sophisticated, they would need and desire greater control over
the state in order to achieve and defend their own interests. In this view,
democracy is an almost inevitable process that comes with modernization.”4

For individuals of the society to engage in politics they must first be free of concern regarding basic human needs, such as shelter and nourishment. Societies where necessities are not met, due to economic instability or inability, may perceive preservation or establishment of democracy as a “luxury”. Hence, this may be one of the reasons why economically developed countries have high levels of democracy today.

Economic development is not a factor that only addresses the process of democratization, but also has an impact on the socio-cultural identity of a society. To further elaborate, democracy is not solely dependent on economic development; it depends on civic and emancipatory values of the society. In words of O’Neil:

”What is important here is that although such [social] groups may be inherently apolitical, they serve as a vehicle for democratization and democracy by allowing people to articulate, promote, and defend what is important to them… Where civic association can emerge, it may create a powerful incentive for democratic change, even if that is not the original intent.”5

It is critical to note that a change in socio-cultural determinants happens in the long-run. Early industrialized countries had the chance to change their socio-cultural values over long periods such as centuries and decades, whereas for countries with lower levels of democracy, such as Sub-Saharan African countries where economic development is low and socio-cultural values are relatively less appropriate, it would not be realistic to assume the possibility of rapid democratization in the short-run. In a country consisting of a society that suppresses individual rights and freedoms, it would be plausible to expect a rise in anti-democratic government behavior, due to possible discouragement in political participation of individuals, which is one of the key elements of the term.

Other factor that encourages the establishment of democracy are the political ideas, actions and formations. According to S. P. Huntington and O’Donnell, there have been “waves” of democracy throughout history, and these “waves” have affected countries across the globe, due to the human nature of learning from others. This factor does not only contain actions of an individual or activist groups, but also of political organizations, i.e., parties that participate in the political process. As Mansfield and Snyder put it, initially a state power must be established, after which the state should encourage a democratic process. Competitive democracy should follow national unification, rule of law, and capable state bureaucracy. Moreover, the plurality of political parties is not only one of the key indicators of democracy, but also a crucial element of establishment of it. As Ziblatt puts it,

”…democracy required a long tradition of robust, organized and pragmatic conservative parties in order to be viable. If this type of conservative political party fails to develop, or falters, a key buttress supporting democracy is undermined, making it more fragile.”6

To support the ideas that democracy advocates, elites must assure the continuity of their influence over the executive and their properties, thus the importance of politically strong and organized conservative parties.

”If elites can be made secure with regard to their future wealth, status, and power as democratization unfolds, this account holds, rather than supporting counterrevolutions, critical portions of the elite will become reluctant but essential democrats. On the other hand, if elites remain insecure, politically fragmented, and fearful of major loses in their future, then they will support and even lead counterrevolution, creating a historic record of unsettled democratization.”7

In other words, in absence of such a party, elites would fear democracy and therefore try to oppress any initiative for its establishment and development.

The survival of democracy is a different topic of discussion, but not unrelated to establishment of it. Democracy can exist in different forms political systems, namely; parliamentary republics, parliamentary monarchies, and presidential republics. The form of state does not necessarily eliminate or create democracy; however, it may affect the level of it. The life of a parliamentary democracy that existed between 1946-2002 was 58 years, meanwhile, for a presidential democracy, this number was 24. Parliamentary systems often seem more democratic due to the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, where both branches typically have the authority of dissolving one another at times of gridlock or crisis, hence the higher likelihood of survival of democracy. This is typically not the case for presidential systems, where executive and legislation may be horizontally accountable to one another but not dependent. According to S. Fish, however: ”the strength of national legislature may be a – or even the – institutional key to democratization.”8

Complementarily, another concept that is important for preserving democracy is the separation of powers, i.e., separation of executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of a state, but accountable to one another. This prevents the possibility of one person possessing enough power to control more than one branch and therefore commit anti-democratic acts. Type of government is a determinant of the length of democracy, however, it is not the only factor, as discussed above.

Conclusively, establishment of democracy is a long-term process that requires economic development followed by modernization, change in social identities, and participation political actors whether that be individually or with a group such as a political party. Preserving democracy, regardless of the system in which it exists, requires measures that will prevent an individual or group from preforming anti-democratic practices, such as the separation of powers, making every branch accountable to one another or establishing a just system of public elections.


1-O’Neil, Essentials of Comparative, 110

2-O’Neil, Essentials of Comparative, 113-118

3-O’Neil, Essentials of Comparative, 111-112

4-O’Neil, Essentials of Comparative, 115

5-O’Neil, Essentials of Comparative, 116

6-Ziblatt, Conservative Parties, 4

7-Ziblatt, Conservative Parties, 16

8-Fish, Stronger Legislature, 18


1-Daniel Ziblatt, “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Modern Democracy in Europe.” 2017. doi:10.1017/9781139030335.

2-Steve Fish, “Stronger Legislature, Stronger Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 17, no. 1 (2006): 5-20.

3-Patrick H O’Neil, “Democratic Regimes,” in Essentials of Comparative Politics. 3rd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010.) 109-118.

Cover Photo: 2021. Eumans.Eu.


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