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  • Dangers and Dilemmas of Democracy
  • Philippe C. Schmitter (bio)

The celebrations that have accompanied shifts from autocracy to democracy since 1974 have tended to obscure some serious dangers and dilemmas. Together, these presage a political future that, instead of embodying "the end of history," promises to be tumultuous, uncertain, and very eventful. Far from being secure in its foundations and practices, modern democracy will have to face unprecedented challenges in the 1990s and beyond.

For the world's established liberal democracies, the very absence in the present context of a credible "systemic" alternative is bound to generate new strains. Defenders of these regimes have long argued—and their citizens have generally agreed—that whatever its faults, this mode of political rule was clearly preferable to any of several forms of autocracy. Now, these external models for comparison have (mostly) disappeared, or in any case are no longer supported by the propaganda and military might of a great power. All that remains are internal standards for evaluation enshrined in a vast body of normative democratic theory and in the expectations of millions of ordinary citizens. What will happen when well-entrenched elite practices in such countries are measured against these long-subordinated ideals of equality, participation, accountability, responsiveness, and self-realization?

Second, the widespread desire of fledgling neodemocracies to imitate the basic norms and institutions of established liberal democracies is by no means a guarantee of success. There is no proof that democracy is inevitable, irrevocable, or a historical necessity. It neither fills some [End Page 57] indispensable functional requisite of capitalism, nor corresponds to some ineluctable ethical imperative in social evolution. There is every reason to believe that its consolidation demands an extraordinary and continuous effort—one that many countries are unlikely to be able to make.

My focus here will be limited to the dangers and dilemmas inherent in the difficult and uncertain task of consolidating democracy in the aftermath of the recent collapse, overthrow, or self-transformation of autocracy. I will set aside the many problems involved in reforming and relegitimating "real existing" liberal democracies, although I know that the two challenges are linked in the longer run. To the extent that citizens in established democracies, who have long been accustomed to limited participation and accountability, begin to question these practices and to express their disenchantment openly, they are bound to have some impact on their counterparts in new democracies, who are just aspiring to acquire these same practices. Conversely, the failure of many of these young regimes to consolidate themselves will certainly shake the confidence of liberal democrats in the West and increase pressures for more substantial institutional and policy reforms.

An Exploration of Dangers

"Democracy," in some form or another, may well be the only legitimate and stable form of government in the contemporary world—if one sets aside those entrenched autocracies where monarchs, dictators, technocrats, fundamentalists, or nativists have thus far been able to sell the notion that competitive elections, freedom of association, civil liberties, and executive accountability are merely instruments of Western imperialism or manifestations of cultural alienation. It is striking how few contemporary parties or movements openly advocate a nondemocratic mode of rule. Even the above-mentioned régimes d'exception sometimes hold (rigged) elections, tolerate (limited) contestation, and usually claim that their (authoritarian) tutelage will eventually lead to some culturally appropriate kind of democracy.

If democracy has become "the only game in town" in so many polities, why bother to explore its dangers? Is not the absence of a plausible alternative enough to ensure the success of its consolidation in most if not all neodemocracies? The answer is no, for two reasons:

  1. 1. Democracy's current ideological hegemony could well fade as disillusionment with the actual performance of neodemocracies mounts and as disaffected actors revive old authoritarian themes or invent new ones.

  2. 2. Even if autocracy fails to experience a revival, democracies may stumble on without satisfying the aspirations of their citizens and without consolidating an acceptable and predictable set of rules for political competition and cooperation.1 [End Page 58]

The first scenario implies a "sudden death," usually by coup d'état; the second involves a "lingering demise," whereby democracy gradually...