How difficult can it be?

In Estonia, as in many other countries, there is a formal requirement for people who hold public offices to be proficient in Estonian language. The basis for this requirement is — quite understandably — the fact that the ability to speak the official language is a prerequisite of being able to actually carry out the duties associated with civil service. This weekend, when listening to Jaak Allik, a former Minister of Culture and current member of the parliament speak at the annual Forum of the Estonian Chamber of Culture, it occurred to me that we should likewise establish a qualification exam for people who serve us in government or parliament.

I have given up on getting annoyed when I hear someone publicly mention — as it happens ever so often in Estonia — that “democracy is a rule of majority over minority.” However, when Jaak Allik took it upon himself to lecture the public from the stage that “democracy is, after all, a form of government where people vote for parties and elected representatives decide upon the matters of society by majority vote,” I could only shake my head in disbelief. I think that it would be really nice if people who are acting as our democratically elected representatives actually had a basic grasp of what does δημοκρατία mean beyond the trivial etymology of “rule by the people.”

Of course, I am not trying to argue that what Jaak Allik described is not democracy. It pretty much sums up the basic political system that is currently used in Estonia at the state level — and Estonia is certainly a democratic country. However, to say “this is democracy” is not the same thing as to say “this is what democracy is.” Rather, what Allik described is one particular form of democracy out of several possible ones. Perhaps he is actually aware of this fact that there are other alternatives that, while different, would still be democracies — and his remark was only meant to reflect upon what he considers as a “true democracy.” This in fact sounds likely, as it appears to be a view that is widely shared among the Estonian politicians of different stripes — and that has some rather important implications. But more about that later.

Robert Dahl, one of the foremost contemporary political scientists and experts of democracy, has mused as follows:

Democracy has been discussed off and on for about twenty-five hundred years, enough time to provide a tidy set of ideas about democracy on which everyone, or nearly everyone, could agree. For better or worse, that is not the case.

Thus I will (wisely, as I believe) steer clear of trying to settle the issue right here and now, and instead propose a somewhat different approach, borrowed from a recent book by Frank Hendriks. When we talk about democracy, it is a good idea to simultaneously keep in mind two different dimensions that relate to power as it is vested in the society. First of those would be a question of “who makes decisions?” Clearly, the issue is not as simple as to be neatly answered by “the people,” as “people” can mean different things. Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament, is not “people.” Those 101 men and women who assemble there are representatives of the people, and thus Estonia is a representative democracy. However, this is not the only way how people can rule, as there are ways of non-representative rule that would nonetheless be considered as democratic — and, as many people would insist, perhaps more democratic — than Riigikogu. This will give us an axis that has representative (or, in other words, indirect) democracy at one end and self-governing (or direct) democracy at the other.

On the other hand, we will do well to also consider another question, namely “how are decisions made?” There are clearly ways of deciding that are not democratic — but there are also different ways of deciding democratically. Yes, majority vote can be one of those, but this does not imply that deciding by seeking consensus would be undemocratic. Quite to the contrary — many people would argue that it is in fact more democratic way to come to a decision. If voting is a means by which we choose one alternative from several then consensus is a process of synthesizing many diverse elements. By this token, voting is a game of win and lose, where 50% + 1 majority settles the issue and forces its preference upon the minority, while consensus-based decision-making seeks to accommodate all the different parties and their legitimate concerns.

This all, obviously, merely scratches the surface and is a long way from providing an exhaustive line-up of different democratic options — for instance, in his famous Patterns of Democracy (1999), Arend Lijphart lists in total thirty-six distinct democracies. Besides, in its actual application, democracy almost never appears in a single, “pure” form. Rather, it is always hybridized, a bricolage of different methods and approaches. Thus, if we combine those two axis, we arrive at what could be called a democratic space of possibility, a certain toolbox of different options that are all democratic.

Pendulum democracy

Also known as “Westminister democracy.” Representative and majoritarian – power is vested by elected representatives who decide by majority vote (which is binding for everybody)

Consensus democracy

Proportionally representative and non-majoritarian (or, in other words, indirect and integrative). Executive power sharing in broad-based coalitions.


Voter democracy

Direct and majoritarian, as perhaps most clearly manifested in referendums and opinion polls. Almost never appears as a dominant form of democracy, but is rather used as a method for particular applications.

Participatory democracy

Direct and integrative – people self-govern and seek for consensus. The legitimacy of political decisions is achieved by the process of deliberation and discussion, rather than majority vote.

If to look at the toolbox above, Estonian democracy (as representative and majoritarian) would clearly fall into upper left. Swiss democracy, however, relies on a combination of voter democracy (by the way of regular and frequent referendums that are direct and majoritarian) and consensus democracy (at the canton-level integrative decision process). Consensus democracy is also the modus operandi of EU parliamentary politics. Americans elect their president by direct majority vote — and I trust it would be difficult to argue that the Estonian way (where the president is elected by proportional representation of political parties) is somehow more democratic. #OccupyWallStreet would be an example of participatory democracy, which is also closely related to the general idea of “deliberative democracy” as it has recently been championed by Jürgen Habermas, among others. And so on.

In the end it bears to keep in mind that democracy is means rather than an end in itself, and thus it would serve us well to look at it precisely as a conceptual toolbox of different choices that can (and should) be combined. It also means that where-ever we, as a society, may at present find ourselves within that space of possibility, we should always remain open to other options within that broad space — and thus critical towards any views that argue for any single “pure” and “true” model of democracy. There simply is no such thing, any more than one could argue that a hammer is a true tool while the saw is not. All those different options have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, and while it is probably true that there may be perfectly good reasons to choose certain ones over the others at a particular time, place and situation, this should not lead us to hold that other choices are somehow inherently un- or sub-democratic.

And this leads me back to Jaak Allik’s unfortunate remark. I am quite sure that he has, in fact, heard of a thing called direct democracy. He certainly knows that Estonian constitution was adopted by the way of referendum. So what gives?

I have a nagging suspicion that the view of true democracy being necessarily representative and majoritarian belies a curious ambivalence that Estonian politicians all across the political spectrum (and up to the president) have towards “the people” as a political subject. On one hand, they all romanticize the notion of the Estonian nation awaking in 1988 and singing themselves to freedom. It was, as pretty much all the Estonian politicians publicly maintain, a true grassroots popular revolution that ended the occupation and brought Estonia the freedom that it deserved. However, now that we are free, the prevailing opinion seems to be that people should work rather than try to do politics — apart from showing up at voting booths every few years in order to tick a box, or perhaps declaring an allegiance to a political party by paying one’s membership dues. This, I believe, belies a view expressed in 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter, that “politicians are simply the response to the fact that the electoral mass is incapable of action other than a stampede.”

I would dearly hope that one of those days the people would prove them wrong.


2 thoughts on “How difficult can it be?

  1. This is a very useful post and, unfortunately, the conclusions are persuasive. However, I would add the questions “what kind of decisions are being made?” and “how are the decisons carried out?” to your two questions. In other words, if people decide through a democratic process (let us say, a consensual one) that all citizens with green eyes will be made slaves, I would say, this brings about something that is not quite a democracy. Or if the majority decides that the harassment of the green-eyed will no longer be tolerated, but on the everyday level it continues worse than before, this is not a democracy. (OK, maybe I am collapsing liberal democracy and democracy here, but I guess other forms of democracy too have to ask similar questions in the framework of their value-systems.)

    Would you agree that the democratic decision making processes of any kind need continuous structures compatible with democracy to support them?

    From the viewpoint of providing such liberal structures I could also argue (as others have done) that it would not be more democratic to elect the President directly, because it could give excessive weight to the institution of the President (and even, psychologically, to the person of the President) compared to other powers.

  2. As I said in the original post, the approach that I proposed is by no means exhaustive or all-encompassing — and there are many other ways to cut the issue. Also, what I proposed is a space of possibility, i.e. it is a space within which democracy is possible. This does not imply that these two dimensions are sufficient, that democracy would necessarily emerge out of this space. No, there are several other conditions for this to be the case — some of which you also mentioned.

    For instance, regarding consensus or majority vote: both are democratic ways of reaching a decision, but neither of them ensures that the decision reached is actually a democratic one. They merely make such a thing possible. However, I would argue that it is not possible to reach a democratic decision by undemocratic means. I first realized this a couple of years ago in Bhutan, where the king Wangchuck was facing a curious predicament — he wanted to give up his power in favour of democracy, but his people would rather had him go on as an absolute monarch. As a monarch, he could simply have issued a decree that from now on, Bhutan is a democracy. But if you think about it, this would not have worked. It cannot work, as democracy that is imposed on people against their will is no longer democracy — one cannot be forced to be free, right? Thus the only option for king Wangchuck was to announce the referendum and try to convince his people vote for democracy, which he was trying to do. This led into a rather schizophrenic situation, where many Bhutanese people were voting against their own best judgement and conscience, simply out of respect towards their king who had told them to do so.

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