Three Paradoxes of Democracy
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Three Paradoxes of Democracy

The world in 1990 is in the grip of a democratic revolution. Throughout the developing world, peoples are resisting and rebelling against communist and authoritarian rule. The ferment has spread to the world's most isolated, unlikely, and forgotten places: Burma, Mongolia, Nepal, Zaire, even Albania. From the postcommunist world of Eastem Europe to the post-bureaucratic-authoritarian nations of Latin America, from the poverty-stricken heart of tropical Africa to newly rich and industrializing East Asia, nations are on the march toward democracy. Never in human history have so many independent countries been demanding or installing or practicing democratic governance. Never in history has awareness of popular struggles for democracy spread so rapidly and widely across national borders. Never have democrats worldwide seemed to have so much cause for rejoicing.

But committed democrats would do well to restrain their impulse to celebrate. Democracy is the most widely admired type of political system but also perhaps the most difficult to maintain. Alone among all forms of government, democracy rests on a minimum of coercion and a maximum of consent. Democratic polities inevitably find themselves saddled with certain "built-in" paradoxes or contradictions. The tensions these cause are not easy to reconcile, and every country that would be democratic must find its own way of doing so.

This essay explores three contradictions that will bear very heavily on the struggles now underway around the world to develop and institutionalize democracy. My analysis will draw on evidence gleaned [End Page 48] from a comparative study of experiences with democracy in 26 developing countries.1

Many of the problems that democracy has experienced in the developing world spring from three tensions or paradoxes that inhere in democracy's very nature. First is the tension between conflict and consensus. Democracy is, by its nature, a system of institutionalized competition for power. Without competition and conflict, there is no democracy. But any society that sanctions political conflict runs the risk of its becoming too intense, producing a society so conflict-ridden that civil peace and political stability are jeopardized. Hence the paradox: Democracy requires conflict—but not too much; competition there must be, but only within carefully defined and universally accepted boundaries. Cleavage must be tempered by consensus.2

A second tension or contradiction sets representativeness against governability. Democracy implies an unwillingness to concentrate power in the hands of a few, and so subjects leaders and policies to mechanisms of popular representation and accountability. But to be stable, democracy (or any system of government) must have what Alexander Hamilton called "energy"—it must always be able to act, and at times must do so quickly and decisively. Government must not only respond to interest-group demands; it must be able to resist them and mediate among them as well. This requires a party system that can produce a government stable and cohesive enough to represent and respond to competing groups and interests in society without being paralyzed or captured by them. Representativeness requires that parties speak to and for these conflicting interests; governability requires that parties have sufficient autonomy to rise above them.

This leads to the third contradiction, between consent and effectiveness. Democracy means, literally, "rule by the people," or at least rule with the consent of the governed. This is the message of people all over the world who are fed up with the repression and corruption of authoritarian or totalitarian ruling elites. As the articles in this publication attest, people across the globe are making it clear that they want the right to turn their rulers out of office, to be governed only with their consent.

But founding a democracy and preserving it are two different things. To be stable, democracy must be deemed legitimate by the people; they must view it as the best, the most appropriate form of government for their society. Indeed, because it rests on the consent of the governed, democracy depends on popular legitimacy much more than any other form of government. This legitimacy requires a profound moral commitment and emotional allegiance, but these develop only over time, and partly as a result of effective performance. Democracy will not be...