What is a functioning democracy and why I suspect it's an empty, ignorant term

The question came to mind after reading this post and the reply it caused. I thought that the Turkish government functions as a democracy, but maybe I am missing something. In searching I found that Jimmy Carter thinks America is no longer a functioning democracy. I also found out that there are many democracies in the Middle East that I was unaware of. I failed in finding a specific definition for the term.

I suspect this term has no real specific definition that will allow categorization of one country’s democracy as functioning while another country’s democracy as not functioning.

I think in any specific instance its use is to criticize and nothing more. More broadly, I think it is used by those who wish to maintain the elite position of Western governments in the face of the spread of democracy throughout the world and particularly in the Middle East.

Going on this suspicion I think it is a term of true ignorance. A term that not only reflects a lack of awareness of how things are in this or that part of the world but a term that deliberately attempts to obfuscate its true purpose, which is to continue the trend of separating the good countries of the Earth from the bad countries.

Or maybe it is yet another academic term that has changed when used by laymen. Or maybe it is a very specific term and because I did not find its definition or am not a political scientist I am the ignorant one. So I thought I’d start this thread.

I guess one place to start is to make up a list of ten or so things one might expect of a functioning democracy and see if the U.S. (or any country) still has them, and not just in a pro-forma on-paper kind of way.


[ul][li]Will citizens be treated equally by the courts, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc.[/li][li]Are the courts themselves influenced by short-term political goals?[/li][li]Do elections of members of the legislature represent actual votes cast by actual citizens?[/li][li]Can any citizen attempt to get elected without being arrested or harassed by those already in power?[/li][/ul]

That’s just off the top of my head on topics that relate to how the power structure is formed and how it operates. One can easily come up with tests of the freedom of individuals to express themselves and such. I daresay this is the minimal exercise one has to do in order to say “X is not (or was and is no longer) a functioning democracy” and not have it just be off-the-cuff bullshit.

See Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy.

It’s definitely a fluid term depending on who’s talking and their opinion of democracy in general. When applied to non-Western states it usually seems to mean they think the vote itself is rigged or there’s human rights abuses. When applied to the West it tends to mean there is a large divergence in policy opinion between those with power and the electorate, and that those in charge would have to actually listen to public opinion to make voting more than a cultural charade. Or the view that that democracy is a lot more than the vote itself, and without those other activities there’s not much but a hollow shell.

[quote=“Bryan_Ekers, post:2, topic:680995”]


[ul][li]Will citizens be treated equally by the courts, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, etc.[/li][li]Are the courts themselves influenced by short-term political goals?[/ul][/li][/quote]

Way too high a bar. Unless a functioning democracy is some platonic ideal floating out there.

Well, I guess the alternative form is the negative - is there systematically unequal treatment of citizens based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc. which would prove the negative, i.e. a country is not a functioning democracy, at least in this aspect, and assuming that one sees equal treatment under the law as necessary to functioning democracy.

The U.S.'s record in this is not perfect (I doubt any country’s is), but I daresay it’s gotten better than it used to be. Whether the U.S. may have slipped in other areas, including whatever criteria Carter is using, I can’t say without more detail.

A democracy is not a system that respects human rights. A democracy is a system where the state does whatever the majority of the people want it to do.

A liberal democracy is one that more or less follows the universal declaration of human rights.


There may be a more official definition of ‘liberal’ democracy, but that list should mostly cover the civil, political and human rights in a liberal democracy vs. an illiberal one.

As far as the benefits of democracy supposedly they do not go to war with each other.


Also, in theory, in a real democracy true oppression and cruelty by the government will piss off 51% of the electorate, leading to a change of government. As long as the public have access to media, severe abuses and injustice will be harder to commit in a democratic government.

You post a list of middle eastern democracies and it included Iran. But the public vote for reformers in Iranian elections, but those elected officials usually have very little power. The latest election in Iran was probably stolen. Even if it weren’t, a reformer or moderate would have little power.

Granted I grew up in the west where the benefits of democracy are always espoused. Nobody talks about the drawbacks, or the benefits of non-democratic governments.

I don’t know to what degree the US actually supports democracy, and how much is just talking points. But it is backfiring in some places. Latin American democracies are seeing a rise of leftist leaders as the poor are left behind by globalization. Putin was reelected again. Who knows how much fraud there was, but he was far and away the winner.

You think Iran is a democracy?:dubious:

A functioning democracy is one in which the minority is protected from abuse by the majority.

That’s where the Middle East fails, and the West succeeds.

Well, it’s the nearest thing to one between Turkey and India, not counting Israel. (Iraq and Pakistan and Afghanistan being too unstable for comparisons to apply.)

Since the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, the United can arguably be called a “functioning democracy.”


[li]Haven’t been any coups or threats of coups[/li][li]Was only one seriously questionable election. And while I didn’t (and don’t ) think that the results were accurate, it was settled without violence[/li][li]Has been only one President who resigned. He DID actually resihgn and didn’t attempt to hold on to power using military force[/li][li]Is rule of law[/li][/ol]

That’s what approximates a functioning democracy in today’s world.

Leaving aside the fact that you ignored Lebanon, please explain such a claim.

Please explain why it’s more democratic than Jordan, much less the idea that it’s a democracy.

If I were making up a definition for the term I would certainly include the third point. I’d feel like I should include the last but cannot really justify it given the nature of democracies in the past and present.

Beyond whether I can work with you toward a definition we accept, there are already people in the thread adding conditions beyond your baseline, and there are others who wish to reduce the conditions in the baseline. The only consistency I see in usage of the term is the expression of distaste for the way one nation runs its democracy versus another.

The Preface to Democratic Theory lays out what I would consider several prerequisites for possibly the best form of democracy, but has nothing that would make me want to categorize nations into functional/non-functional.

Sounds more like such a democracy would not be fully inclusive, but certainly exclusive democracies have been fully functional.

Are you saying that is what people actually mean by the term functioning democracy?

No I don’t. It’s not listed as a democracy in the article.

Isn’t that just a bunch of conditions for the best democracies?


I think there are three key factors in having a functioning democracy:

  1. People are reasonably able to vote. You have to have a reasonably broad electorate. There have to be regular elections. There can’t be intimidation or retaliation based on voting.
  2. People are reasonably able to run for elections. Your elections have to offer the voters choices. You can’t have oppressive controls over who’s allowed to run for office. As with voting, running for office has to be free from intimidation and retaliation.
  3. Elected officials have to have genuine power. There’s no point in having a democratic system if the people who are elected have only symbolic or advisory power.

What I recall from poli-sci 101 is that a liberal democracy is a state where legitimate elections are routinely held, that have actual consequences in terms of policy and power changing hands, and in which almost everyone is meaningfully enfranchised. In other words, in broad strokes, what the government does can be said to be the will of the people because it’s regularly subject to being voted in or out based on what it promises and what it does.

It says nothing about specific rights being guaranteed–that definition is aspirational. It says nothing about protecting minority rights, either, though arguably if minorities are not as meangingfully enfranchised as the majority, then you haven’t met the condition of maximal enfranchisement. Still, if 80% vote to enslave 10%, you can’t argue that it’s not the will of the pepole.

Iran is not a functioning democracy because the presidential candidates are limited to those approved by the Supreme Leader and the clergy, who use candidacy to limit options to acceptable ones. Carter’s criticism of the U.S. as no longer a functioning democracy was about the revelations of the NSA’s spying–it’s pretty hard to claim that the NSA is under the control of the people through their elected representatives, when even their representatives don’t know what the NSA is doing, and the NSA’s spying has or can have profound consequences for “meaningful enfranchisement”.

True. A lot of people in this thread are confusing democracy with other things.

As H.L. Mencken put it: “Democracy is the idea that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard!”

What do the courts have to do with a functioning democracy? Functioning is not the same as liberal.

AFAIAC, a “functioning democracy” is one in which people are reasonably free to vote as they wish (democracy) and the government is able to change hands without violence (functioning). Civil rights are nice and all, but a democracy isn’t so much about that.

Oh, and if Carter said what the OP claims, he’s an idiot.

Why would you think he does? Can you quote the part of his post or his cite that makes that claim? :dubious: