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How to spot a democracy: free speech and “loser consent”

By Dr Anthony Lewis

Anthony is Chair of Windsor Humanists and former Chair of the South Central England Humanist Network. In this article, he explores the spectrum of political systems from closed autocracies to liberal democracies and he clearly explains the fundamental features which have to be in place before we can declare a country to have a functioning democracy.

A democracy is a liberal political system in which there is separation of powers between state institutions, protection for individual human rights and freedoms, a diverse plural civic culture where power is dispersed across different types of autonomous groups, and there are free and fair elections. The litmus test of any democracy is whether there is respect for free speech, an independent media and the results of elections and votes are honoured. If any of these are missing a country cannot be a democracy.

After losing the UK election in 1945, immediately after World War II, Winston Churchill made the following powerful defence of democracy in a speech to the UK Parliament on 11th November 1947:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”

Democracy is broadly understood to mean a liberal electoral political system in which citizens get to participate in free and fair elections and are able to choose their civic and national leaders and thus peacefully hold their leaders to account. It is often characterised as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, as succinctly summarised by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address in 1863. Many also define democracy as a system of government in which the individual rights of all citizens are protected from the state, whose power is constrained through the operation of constitutional norms, the rule of law and the establishment of democratic institutions that apply transparent processes with effective checks and balances at all levels.

People do not always agree on what characterises a democracy. Various organisations assess democracy in different ways using different scoring systems. One such assessment is the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Project, based at the University of Gothenburg, which uses the Regimes of the World (RoW) Classification developed in 2018 by their in-house political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg and Staffan Lindberg. Another is the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit based in the UK (discussed in more detail by Maggie Hall in this edition). Our World in Data provides an overview of other approaches. Despite their different methodologies, these surveys all broadly agree on measures of democracy for most countries, although there are some differences in the detail for particular countries. This is not surprising, given the complexity of the real world and the subjective nature of many of the judgements which come into play when using such scoring methods. I have drawn on the V-Dem assessments for this article.

Over the last 200 years there has been a long term trend towards more countries becoming democracies, with about half of the world now being assessed as being democratic to varying degrees. There were none in the modern sense before about 1850, as shown in the chart above. There were upticks after the Second World War and at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. But this trend has stalled in the last decade and there has been a slide back to autocracy for large parts of humanity. For example, Russia and China have become more autocratic in recent years. This reversal is worrying, given that democratic countries are usually assessed as being better-governed than autocracies, having faster economic growth and fostering more peaceful conduct within and between each other. There is a direct correlation between GDP growth and democratic freedoms which can be linked to reduced levels of violence, improved health outcomes and more robust protection for the human rights of all citizens under the rule of law.

Key features of a democracy

The key features of a democracy, based broadly on the V-Dem scoring system, fall into the following five overlapping areas:

1. A democratic constitutional framework

There is a clear separation of powers between the head of state (whether an elected president or a constitutional monarchy), the executive which runs the country on a day-to-day basis, elected legislatures which debate and make the laws, and a politically impartial Civil Service which administers the day-to-day business of government. An independent judiciary apply the rule of law in free courts where citizens have a right of appeal and representation. The operation of state sovereignty and power is dispersed, transparent and accountable at both the local and national level.

History teaches us that democracy is the only proven system... where political power can be peacefully transferred without violence or war.

2. “Loser consent” and the peaceful transfer of power

There are regular free and fair elections with universal suffrage for all adult citizens. The principle of democratic consent is deeply embedded in local, civic and national institutions such as policing. A foundational principle of democracy is that of “loser consent” where the losers of a vote or an election give way to the winners. This ensures the peaceful transfer of power when an incumbent government steps aside to allow a new administration to take power. It is the key indicator of a healthy democracy. There is clearly no point holding elections of any kind if the participants do not intend to accept the result. Liberal democracies quite often have several ex-state leaders who have stood down from power. For example, in the UK, there are currently an unprecedented seven living ex-prime ministers: John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss. In the US there are four living ex-presidents: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump. In autocracies the leaders usually die in office having held power for many decades, often by dismantling the constitutional protections prohibiting long periods in office. History teaches us that democracy is the only proven system that humanity has developed so far where political power can be peacefully transferred without violence or war.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant… The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.”  John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)

3. Freedom and liberty

In democracies there is a clear presumption in favour of all aspects of liberty, from the intellectual and political freedoms of expression, association, assembly, speech, thought, dissent and protest, to the equally important economic freedoms of ownership, commerce, trade, innovation, invention and the free movement of people, goods and products. Also, in a democracy the secular principles of “freedom of belief” and “freedom from belief” are promoted by a strong civic culture of mutual respect and tolerance where there is no privileging of any single “state sanctioned” religious or political worldview through de facto blasphemy laws. As highlighted in the John Stuart Mill quotation above, a healthy democracy only restricts its citizens' freedoms through minimal regulation or censorship to prevent harm to others. Of course, the freedoms enjoyed in normal times may temporally be curtailed in exceptional circumstances, for example during a war or a national emergency such as a public health crisis.

4. Respect for civic rights 

In a democracy, citizens are free to participate in and set up a broad range of different autonomous organisations and institutions that are independent of the state, such as businesses, commercial enterprises, political parties, professional bodies, trade unions, charities, social clubs, sports associations, educational bodies, and even new religions. In such a diverse civic society power is dispersed and shared across the various economic, political and cultural groups with the various entities promoting their own best interests. Such a complex civic culture requires the balancing of what are often competing special interests in order to find the necessary compromises through peaceful but often raucous discourse, dialogue and debate. The health of any plural democracy therefore depends on the existence of an independent and diverse media that is free of state control. In this way, competing interests can be expressed, promoted, scrutinised, challenged, and resisted if necessary.

5. Protection of individual human rights

In a liberal democracy the inherent dignity and equal inalienable rights of every human being to liberty, justice, peaceful existence, privacy and free speech, are recognised and protected, and given primacy over any collective, organisational or national rights. All democracies have at their core the protection of the individual human rights of their citizens, regardless of their culture, belief, sex, age, race or politics. Many of these rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are commonly protected in law and often enshrined in written constitutions through a Bill of Rights. The UDHR was summarised in Humanistically Speaking last year (link).

The importance of free and independent media

The map above by Our World in Data categorises countries into autocracies (closed in red, or electoral in orange) or democracies (liberal in dark blue or electoral in light blue) based on assessments of their election processes and democratic freedoms. The key differences between the four categories are best illustrated in the diagram below which plots the strength of state and civic institutions (strong versus weak) on the x axis against the level of protection for individual freedom and human rights' (high versus low) on the y axis.

Based on Our World in Data - drafted by Anthony Lewis
Political Regimes - Strength of State Institutions versus respect for Individual Freedom

The diagram demonstrates the critical importance of individual human rights to the protection of our democratic freedoms. The following three examples illustrate different aspects of how a democracy operates:

  1. It can be seen that both liberal democracies such as the UK, USA and Australia, and closed autocracies such as China, Saudi Arabia and most of the former Soviet Union, have strong state institutions. However in closed autocracies there is weak to non-existent protection for individual freedoms and human rights where the power of the state is used to suppress and restrict many of the freedoms of their citizens. Spain is an example where a previously closed autocratic fascist dictatorship transitioned peacefully into a liberal democracy, but only after the death of General Franco in 1975. However, as the Nazi takeover of the Weimer Republic in Germany in 1933 illustrates, liberal democracies can flip in the other direction to become a closed autocracy by the erosion of individual freedoms, often driven by the ideological or theocratic capture of key civic institutions leading inevitably to a coup d'état and dictatorship. The most effective defences against the capture of a liberal democracy’s institutions by undemocratic forces are strong democratic checks and balances between the various branches of government, free and independent media and, most importantly, a civic culture where there is deep commitment to freedom of speech.

  2. The transition from being a closed to an electoral autocracy can be chaotic and violent, as illustrated in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. There was a rapid freeing up of economic activity without a concomitant commitment to the improvement of democratic freedoms and human rights. Russia, with its weakened state institutions and a fragile commitment to individual freedom, rapidly descended into a thuggish anarchy and, like many electoral autocracies, became vulnerable to the allure of a "strong leader" to bring order out of chaos. Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999 promising to rebuild Russia and since then he has consolidated his power, moving Russia inexorably back towards being a closed autocracy by bolstering Russian state institutions at the expense of the human rights of his own citizens. Often, electoral autocracies such as Russia hold “sham elections” where there is no credible opposition or possibility of the incumbent leader actually being voted out of power. In Russia at present the media is now almost entirely state controlled.

  3. Emerging electoral democracies such as Brazil, Kenya and South Africa are countries in transition with strong commitments to individual freedom and human rights where the process of democratic nation-building is still in its early stages. These three countries hold free and fair elections and have recently seen peaceful changes in their leadership and governments. However, as with many countries in the early stages of building their democratic freedoms, the public's trust in state and civic institutions is often undermined by the scourge of widespread corruption. The best way to root this out is for it to be exposed by a free and independent media which then enables it to be tackled in an open, peaceful and transparent manner.

From Unsplash+ under licence

The bedrocks of democracy - free speech and “loser consent”

We may conclude that a civic culture, in which there is an enduring commitment to freedom of expression, provides the best bulwark against the capture of state institutions by undemocratic forces, the erosion of freedoms and human rights, and effective action against corruption. For this reason, restricting free speech is usually the first priority for those who wish to undermine democracy. Freedom of speech is therefore the foundation of all other democratic rights and freedoms and its rigorous operation is the best way to protect a democracy. The other way to spot a democracy is when there have been repeated peaceful transfers of power following multiple elections. In a healthy democratic country there are usually several living ex-heads of government who have relinquished power and retired from active politics. In autocracies there are usually none. The concept of “loser consent” is essential to ensure that the outcome of any election is respected.

The best way, therefore, to quickly spot a democracy is to check whether there is a vibrant diverse and independent media, freedom of speech is protected, and “loser consent” is in effective operation after any vote or election. If the result of either of these litmus tests is negative the country being assessed is unlikely to be a functioning democracy.

From Unsplash+ under licence

Useful Links

World in Data on Democracy - Democracy

International Churchill Society - 1947 Speech on Democracy

Liberal democracy definition in Britannica

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Summary in Humanistically Speaking

Democracy and economic growth Wikipedia

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