Critically examine Robert Dahl’s notion of procedural minimum as essential features of democratic system.
The recent wave of democratization has presented a major conceptual challenge to scholars. Many countries have moved away from authoritarianism, with the application of democracy in many settings. Even though the new political regimes in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and former communist world share important attributes of democracy, many of them differ greatly from democracies in developed countries. Robert Dahl has made profound contribution in determining the essential features that constitute democracy. He came up with the notion of procedural minimum as an essential feature of democratic system.
Robert Dahl gives procedural minimum definition of democracy through his seven attributes, which stipulate that democracy requires free and fair elections as well as protection of civil liberties. Robert Dahl’s procedural minimal conditions for democracy require that the control of governmental decisions on policy be constitutionally vested in elected officials who are chosen frequently through fair elections. Dahl also maintains that adults have the right to vote and vie for political positions as well as the right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment. Dahl adds that citizens have the right to seek alternative sources of information and form independent associations, including interest groups and independent political parties. Schmitter and Karl extended the definition by adding that popularly elected officials must exercise their constitutional powers without seeking approval from unelected officials.
Dalton, Scarrow, and Cain argue that the institutional impact of the reform wave have resulted into three different modes of democratic politics. These include representative democracy, direct democracy, and advocacy democracy. The authors assert that the changes in both attitude and formal rules in recent decades have enhanced the reliance on mechanisms of direct democracy within the developed democracies.
Like many democratic theorists, Robert Dahl identifies democracy with the institutions and processes of representative democracy, ignoring other forms of citizen participation that can enhance citizen influence over political elites. While considering Dahl’s essential criteria for defining a democratic process, Dalton, Scarrow, and Cain broaden the framework to include other forms of democracy including direct democracy and advocacy democracy. The five criteria for a genuinely democratic system include inclusion, political equality, enlightened understanding, control of agenda, and effective participation.
Dahl’s notion of procedural minimum as essential features of democratic system is practical and consistent with the concept of democracy. Democracy is participatory and involves all citizens in running the affairs of the country. However, Dahl’s five democratic criteria have its advantages and disadvantages. For example, industrial democracies have attained the inclusion criteria by engaging all adult citizens. In addition, almost all advanced industrial democracies now meet the political equality criterion as they allow majority of citizens to participate in voting. Most countries today allow a majority of citizens to vote, while political parties, labor unions, and other civil organization mobilize the population to enhance level of engagement. However, there remain certain problems of equality, as debates revolve around financing of campaigns and voter registration illustrates, it is difficult to attain equality on political practice.
It may appear that increasing the number of elections extend these principles. However, increasing the number of times citizens vote only serve to depress the turnout. Another problem is that low turnout in polls raises the issue of equality. Further, second-order elections tend to result into more alteration in the representativeness of the electoral process.
While considering enlightened understanding, Dahl’s democratic criteria and democratic practice comes into perspective when considering enlightened understanding. Evidently, voters have the ability to make informed choices during high-visibility (for instance, parliamentary or presidential) elections and much less when it comes to lower visibility elections. Consequently, as much as expansion of electoral marketplace may enhance public participation, it may also make it difficult for voters to exercise meaningful political judgment.
Dahl effectively outlines the essential for what has characterized the advanced industrial democracy. In the absence of principles laid by Dahl, participation would lose meaning because disconnect would prevail and there would be lack of mechanisms to gauge the responsiveness of government to people. This is the basis for opposition against authoritarian regimes. However, Dahl’s ideal assumes that institutions have the capacity to withstand these practices. This is evident from his conclusion that leaves his definition open to all efforts necessary to facilitate sustained participation. This makes it possible for institutions create a specific definition what institutions should become.
Majority of industrial democracies still believe that the Chinese are not decided on whether democracy is a universal value suits human nature or election lead to manipulation of people. The country has never held an election, but democratic processes have been tried at local levels. The documentary Please Vote for Me raises many questions about democracy, competitiveness, culture, and values in modern China. Eight-year old children vie for the position of a class monitor through the support of their parents and teachers. Such level of democracy could help the pupils to have power in the management and improvement of classes. However, these children could not realize their democratic rights because of the existence of a dictator, the teachers who elect the contestants. These teachers directly select three candidates, who then play with democracy, and when the election is over, the teacher regains the power. This film raises the problem of selecting, deciding, and introducing candidates to the voters. This undermines Dahl’s concept of representative democracy as those who select the candidates retains the power thereby diminishing access to democracy.
The right to vote in an election is a critical tenet of democracy according to Dahl. It is important to recognize the fact that citizens must be given the platform to participate in the electoral process of electing their leaders. When citizens are given the opportunity to take part in the electoral process they feel part and parcel and give backing and mandate to the elected leaders. The other Dahl’s critical issue is that everyone has a right to run into an elective office. It is important that all the citizens are given platform to exploit their leadership skills. Such opportunity enhances competiveness in leadership and results to the citizens finally get good leaders who are selfless and out to serve the citizens through improving their livelihoods. However, in the documentary Please Vote for Me, despite having the opportunity to participate in a democratic process, the contestants have not been selected through due process.
The spate of revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria are clear manifestation of the power of the ordinary citizens in authoritarian system. The power of citizens is critical in spring up and opening democratic space in various countries. The end of the colonial era is credited to the power of the people who were mobilized to stage a revolt against the colonial masters. The end of colonial period marked a critical chapter of the long struggle for democracy. Most leaders who took over power from the colonial masters failed to offer the democratic leadership that the people expected from them. Instead, they reverted to authoritarian rule, nepotism, corruption and misuses of the state’s resources. The leadership was not characterized by selfness but selfishness and greed. The leadership forgot their critical role of improving the livelihoods of citizens. In order to understand this concept better, the section delves into exploring the role of citizens for democratic development as well as the obstacles to democratic developments in the Middle East.
Successful democracy can only be achieved through the protection of minorities and oppositional groups. Barring groups from any political undertaking leave them with limited choice other than violent opposition. This fact directs to the need for liberalization as it presents the only effective means of incorporating minority groups. While the type of minority group may vary from country to country, be they racial, political, or religious among others. Even the African Americans revolted when they realized that the Whites were infringing their constitutional rights. Democracy is not a preserve of the majority rule, but it must integrate the concerns of the existing minorities.
With specific emphasis on Arab uprising from the spring of 2011 Benjamin R Barber writes that majority of democratic in the Arab world suppose that Islamists who abide by the rules of the game must have the opportunity to engage in mainstream politics, which is much better than forcing them to engage in a violent, conspiratorial underground. Arab Spring refers to a series of revolutions characterized by demonstration and protests that currently take place in the Arab world. Arab Spring commenced on spring of 2010 and has taken place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. The protests and demonstrations are characterized by increased cases of civil wars and uprisings that have culminated into resignation of head of states and fall of governments. The Arab Spring employed civil resistance techniques that manifest through protests, rallies, demonstrations, as well as deployment of social media to organize, communicate, and increase awareness associated with authoritarian rule.
Obstacles to democratic developments in the Middle East
There exist myriad of reasons why it has taken so long for democracy to be realized in Middle East. The end of colonial period marked a critical chapter of the long struggle for democracy. Most leaders who took over power from the colonial masters failed to offer the democratic leadership that the people expected from them. Instead, they reverted to authoritarian rule, nepotism, corruption and misuses of the state’s resources. The leadership in the Arab world assumed an authoritative stance, lacking involvement of the citizens. The leadership forgot their critical role of improving the livelihoods of citizens. In order to understand this concept better, the section delves into exploring the role of citizens for democratic development as well as the obstacles to democratic developments in the Middle East.
The Arab Spring has led to fall of many regimes in the Arab world, sparked mass violence in others, while some governments managed to delay the uprising through a mix of promise of reform, repression, and state generosity. The Arab Spring brought widespread optimism, both among the Arab citizens as well as Western analytics, with the false hope that they would lead to sustainable democracy. Even though it may prove early to judge the process, one may conclude that much has not been achieved in terms of achieving the goals of democracy and respect for human rights. Despite the long-held belief that democracy in the Arab countries will improve U.S. security, F. Gregory Gause III refutes this claim arguing that there is no evidence suggesting that democracy can reduce terrorism. He also argues that accumulation of wealth, political coalitions, and foreign patronage acts as obstacle to democratic development in the Arab world.
Many scholars tend to focus on religion, particularly Islam as the main obstacle to democratic development in the region. Even though this is a significant factor, people often overlook other factors that require equal consideration. To start with, the eventual success of uprisings in Arab countries depends heavily on three core areas. Access to democracy is associated with social and economic conditions, such as poverty level, widespread literacy, and GDP per capita. Despite the economic growth experienced in Arab countries over the recent years, the growth has only benefited some group of elites. The presence of unequal distribution of economic and social resources increases the tension between the people and leaders.
Secondly, political theorists have emphasized the importance of certain values and beliefs. Dahl argues that democratic stability requires a commitment to democratic rules and values. As in the case with Arab countries, many ascribe to conservative beliefs and values, something they often associate with intolerance toward social deviance. This may encourage some people to submit to the authoritarian rule without realizing the need to question the authority. Many Arab countries are in dilemma when it comes to human rights. They are also not ready to acknowledge the principle of universality, arguing for exceptions emanating from religious grounds. Concurrently, Arab regimes have tried to assert the respect of Islam for human rights by signing up to UN convections. Among the Arab countries that have made reservations when it the right to application of Islamic law, are Libya, Egypt, and Syria. This same situation is also similar to the behavior of Western governments when they claim to uphold universal rights, yet deviate from these standards when dealing with perceived enemies of their allies.
Lastly, another impediment to democracy in the Arab world is some features of social and political structure. A democratic environment require that institutions of authority throughout the society, such as family, business, church, and trade unions must prove their level of democracy before demanding the same from government processes. Uprisings have erupted in the Arab world against governments demanding fair elections, freedom, and crackdown on corruption. However, these protesters have not promoted a distinct ideology, not to mention a unified one. Bob Bowker adds that the uprisings in the Arab world are bounded by weak conventional Arab political behavior, rather than by credible, institutionally-based political processes, and also because it is taking place in climate of escalating economic insecurity. In addition to their undemocratic nature, authoritarian governments in the Arab countries lack civil social structure. The Arab countries have limited number voluntary organizations and the few that operate have been suppressed by the government. Even after overthrowing authoritarian regimes, there has been lack of civil society ready to occupy the void, but allow power struggle to ensue between tribes, clans, and groups with divergent interests. Taras Kuzio on the other hand argue that development of civic societies has little to do with the influence of domestic democratic consolidation and building of civic institutions.
The current events in the Arab world have come into spotlight on how ordinary citizens and activists are using connection technologies and social media to both advocate for social change as well as transmit information in real time. The documentary Revolution in Cairo covers a special report on protest movement in Egypt, which sent shock waves throughout the country. The documentary explores the role played by Muslim Brotherhood in the revolution and probable influence of the group on the political climate of the country in the future. The group, comprising mainly youths assumed a larger role as the uprising continued.
Dahl argues that democracy entails responsiveness rather than institutional arrangements, because responsiveness facilitates the process of that differentiate the changes required to achieve democracy. For example, people should not concentrate on conducting frequent elections, rather, the main concern is whether the elections results into responsive regimes without personal interest. This makes such governments to have the obligation of accountability and meeting demands of their citizens to remain in power. According to Dahl, the political reforms in the Arab countries do not aim at achieving pure democracy; rather, the autocratic administrations are adopting using controlled liberalization. Such cases, replacement of traditional authoritarian rule with late democratization, only result in failure of states.
The Arab Spring thus conforms to the second wave to the assertion made by Huntington on the third wave of democratization. Additionally, the Arab Spring points to a state of failure, which culminates from the inability of political reforms to support democracy. This conforms to Dahl’s view on democratic reforms, which calls for establishing responsive political regimes. When considered in the perspective of Huntington’s framework on the third wave of democratization, there is enough evidence to show that Arab countries are characterized by freedom deficit, which results to absence of democracy in the region. As such, Arab Spring resulted from the deficiency of democracy that emanated from freedom deficits. Using Dahl’s view on polyarchy, it is evident that political reforms taking place in Arab countries lacked democracy, in the sense that they were not responsive.
Barber R. Benjamin. Jihad vs. McWorld. The Atlantic, Mar 1, 1992. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1992/03/jihad-vs-mcworld/303882/
Catalani, Ronault. Please vote for me. 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aC-6kRSxgnM
Frontliner. Revolution in Cairo. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/revolution-in-cairo/?utm_campaign=homepage&utm_medium=proglist&utm_source=proglist
Linz, J. Juan and Stepan, Alfred. “Toward Consolidated Democracies.” Journal of Democracy 7, no. 2 (1996) 14-33.
McCormick, John. Comparative Politics in Transition (7th Edition). Belmont,CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2012.
Yap, Fiona and Ryan Gibb, ed. Annual Editions: Comparative Politics 13/14. Guilford: Connecticut McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 2013.