On Democracy and the Russia Case

Democracy is often defined as a political regime in which policies are determined either directly or indirectly by the citizens over which that regime rules. Robert Dahl suggests that democracy is “continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” (Dahl 1). According to Dahl, if citizens are able to “formulate their preferences…to signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action… [and] to have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government,” then they live in a democracy (Dahl 2).

Phillippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl respond to Dahl, proposing that we challenge ourselves to defining democracy more deeply. They add components of state freedom from external pressures, and the necessity of “a variety of competitive processes and channels of expression of interests and values” (Karl and Schmitter 78). They expand on the idea of personal liberties in participation, indicating that citizens are only expected to obey the results of political competition if, and only if, the result is truly contingent on the consent of the people. Finally, they challenge us not to think of democracy as “the end of ideology,” but as a system which “[has] the capacity to modify their rules and institutions consensually in response to changing circumstances” (Karl and Schmitter 87). Karl and Schmitter’s definition of democracy is clearly the more comprehensive view of democracy, and is the best definition currently available.

This latter definition reveals its strength when we examine both definitions in the context of Russia. Technically speaking, Russia is a semi-presidential democratic federation. Kathy Lally and Will Englund’s description of Russia as it is today shows a very different Russia than there is on paper. However, it does fit within the bounds of Dahl’s definition of democracy. The Russian government allows individuals to formulate and express preferences, and to have their preferences weighed equally with other citizens’. Russia has elections with multiple parties, allows protesting, and weighs the views of each of its citizens equally. Thus by Dahl’s definition of democracy, this is a democratic regime.

Unfortunately, this is certainly not a regime which “encourage[s] citizens to deliberate among themselves… to discover their common needs… without relying on some supreme central authority” (Karl and Schmitter 79). In addition, these preferences do not have any true competitive channels through which they can be expressed. Thus, the government ignores them. In addition, though this regime values its citizens’ opinions equally with each other, there is not enough political participation to determine whether the consent of the people has truly been attained. This, compounded with the bribery which takes place among political participants, demonstrates just how undemocratic Russia really is.   Thus it is clear that Dahl’s definition is far too broad, as it encompasses some nations that “work on bribes” and are described as “authoritarian” (Lally and Englund).

“Polyarchy Participation and Opposition” by Robert A. Dahl

“What Democracy Is… and is Not” by Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl

“Russia, once almost a democracy” by Kathy Lally and Will Englund Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russia-once-almost-a-democracy/2011/08/12/gIQAMriNOJ_story.html


2 thoughts on “On Democracy and the Russia Case

  1. I think that democracy is an ideal which cannot be achieved, at least in the not near future, but different countries are closer to that ideal than others of course. Russia may be very corrupted compared to America, but America also has corporations lobbying the government to put in place policies which infringe personal liberties of people such as legal consumption of marijuana. (by Axel, Tristan’s friend)

  2. I agree with Tristan’s assertion that Karl and Schmitter’s definition of democracy is a comprehensive view of democracy, especially considering their belief that a true democracy should contain “the capacity to modify their rules and institutions consensually in response to changing circumstances” (87). Dahl’s assessment of democracy as “continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” (1) may be a little far-fetched in the reality of current day political systems. In democracies where citizens all get a chance to vote for representatives, they may not hold every same belief as the person they vote for. Core values are probably similar, but there is no possible way representatives can absolutely represent the voice of every citizen. Often, we can wonder if politicians vote in line with their constituencies or they make another decision based on what they think is the greater good. Politicians are elected because of their, in theory, expertise in various political relations. In this manner, citizens are not political equals. I think Karl and Schmitter are more accurate when asserting that a modern democracy is a “system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives” (76). In this sense, we can understand that citizens are maybe not political equals, but rather a check to their own elected rulers.

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