Is Democracy a Universal Ideal?

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I’ve been spending a fair bit of time reading up on civil society, democracy, and politics more generally in a cross-cultural perspective. Being an anthropologist, but also someone committed to the idea of social justice, I am left in a bit of a dilemma: Do our ideals of democracy apply universally? How far and in what ways is cultural relativism relevant when discussing topics like democracy?
Certainly in both American foreign policy and in the social sciences the term tends to get used as a universal ideal. There’s a certain evangelical ring in a lot of the official policy discourse about spreading “democracy and freedom” around the world. In the social sciences, some writers tend to reduce democracy to a few institutions or a method of decision making such as elections—a tradition that grew out of Joseph Schumpeter’s writings. Others, like Robert Dahl, have defined ideals first and gone out to test to see if certain institutions realizes these ideals, but with little sensitivity to the fact that the ideals chosen may be influenced the scholars own social and cultural background.
A book I am finding very thought provoking on this topic is Frederic Shaffer’s Democracy in Translation. Political Scientist by training, Schafer uses linguistic and ethnographic methods to try to understand how native Wolof speakers in Senegal speak and think about democracy. Schafer then compares these ideas to elite discourses in Senegal, to American understandings of democracy, and to academic theories of democracy. His focus is on understanding Wolof perceptions of democracy in their own terms and the variety of ideals that may guide democratic institutions (8). What he finds is that both popular ideals and academic theories of democracy differ substantially from understandings of democracy on the ground in Senegal.
Demokaraasi, the Wolof term, although etymologically related to the term “democracy” focuses on consensus, even handedness, and solidarity (84). In other words, a common Senegalese conception of democracy does not focus on individual freedom to decide who to vote for, breadth of participation, keeping elected officials accountable, or the creation of at least an ostensibly equal political sphere. Instead, maintaining community solidarity and networks of reciprocity; a sense of fair treatment from those higher in the political hierarchy; and general amicable agreement are considered more important. The implications of this difference can be profound. For example, people in Senegal often choose their vote so as to maintain smooth social functioning rather than for a particular candidates platform (98). Even vote-buying can be a completely ethical form of exchange if it is perceived to be part of a properly reciprocal relationship (98).
However, Schaffer does not argue that democracy is untranslatable or that some cultures simply cannot conceive of democracy. Rather he argues that: “Democracy,”…is unique in the particular combination of its features; but each individual feature may still have analogues in other languages and cultures” (145). The ideals that come to be associate with democracy in any particular case are a mix of more familiar, internationally recognizable forms, and local concerns and culture. Which ideals become important and how they shape politics, however, and mean every case deserves its own attention. Schaffer’s approach has the advantage of not reducing democracy to simply elections nor relying on the uncritical use of measurements that rely on culturally specific political ideals. 
However, the book never resolves the issue of whether these cultural forms are sometimes a type of false consciousness, or ideology, or veneer that hide exploitative or authoritarian realities. What are your experiences with democracy or discussing democracy with other people? Do you think democracy is universal or culturally relative?
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3 Responses to Is Democracy a Universal Ideal?

  1. Jason Kerwin says:

    My take on democracy is that it's too often promoted as an end in itself, when in fact it is a (generally effective) means to desirable ends. I'm not sure that a discussion of what democracy “really means” or how it translates across cultures is really taking us anyplace we'd like to go. We know that cross-sectionally democracy (say, as measured/defined by Freedom House) correlates with desirable outcomes ranging from the prevention of famine and inter-country conflict to rising economic standards. The relevant question is how, in any given context, political institutions are helping or hindering progress toward those other goals.

    To put it another way, I may not like Singapore's government very much but Singaporeans generally do and it's been quite successful at promoting progress in human development, broadly defined. Or alternatively, focusing too much on democratic legitimacy in underdeveloped countries may be counterproductive.

  2. Pamela Sud says:

    Jason,

    Great post. Did you ever get a chance to take Larry Diamond's class at Stanford, Comparative Democratic Development? The class focused a lot on what I find one of the most interesting subsets of democracy literature — links between democracy and economic development.

    Lipset's famous 1959 assertion is that “The more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chance that it will sustain democracy.” He found correlations between democracy and education, urbanization, industrialization, and wealth, with a particular emphasis on education. Larry Diamond's counter (1992) is quite interesting — he agrees with Lipset but says the relationship between democracy and development is not linear, but rather N-shaped, indicating a strong correlation between the very poor and very rich countries and democracy, but a neutral or negative relationship for countries in the middle range of development (e.g. Singapore).

    Overall, I agree with Kerwin that we focus too much on democratic legitimacy instead of the underlying economic development indicators.

  3. Jason Hopper says:

    @Pamela

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I have mixed feelings about Lipset, particularly since his analysis to my mind fails to explain India adequately. He also has a very shallow, instrumental view of the state as merely a sort of policy implementer that I find lacking. But his stuff on the importance for democracy of a political culture where people can tolerate some variation in worldview and also accept they are playing the same political game is convincing to me.

    Did not take any classes with Diamond at Stanford, but I've read some of Diamond's work. I'm not familiar with the N-shaped argument–thanks for pointing that out to me.

    However I did take a class with another scholar on Democracy, Edward Friedman, at UW-Madison. He argued in discussion that democracy should not be seen as an elected “rule of the people” but rather some form of institutionalized uncertainty, public accountability, and peace within a society. There are problems with this definition too, of course, but it’s an interesting contrast.

    @Jason Kerwin

    I agree with what you said about how context matters as does a strategic consideration of how to best attain certain goals. But both here and in your post you seem to use democracy to refer to a particular, universal set of institutional arrangements (apologies if I've misread you). There are advantages to this approach especially for considering how a certain regime type affects other variables we care about—war, ethnic conflict, famine, economic growth. However, I do not think that considering the various meanings of democracy is a waste of time.

    The reason being two fold: first, the ends of development are open to some debate to my mind and may include a mixture of overlapping social, economic, and political goals. It is important to being open to the ways in which the generally accepted goals in any particular case may be similar to or different from our own. I’m not calling for radical relativism, what I assume you are concerned about, just an appreciation that the goals of development are often contested and that it might be worth listening.

    Secondly, people actually use democracy to mean a wide variety of different objectives or institutions, both of which may vary depending on context and culture. Understanding how people actually use the term can help better understand their motivations and the political game in a particular context.

    As always, appreciated your comments.

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