Representative Democracy and Alternative Models

A focus on “Anxieties of Democracy” at this time raises a paradox. For all the talk of the rise of state capitalism, the challenge from China, and the ineffectiveness of democratic governance, “real existing” alternatives to democracy are scarce. Autocracies now constitute a smaller share of regimes than ever before.1 Of the 165 countries with populations greater than 500,000, only 20 are autocracies, while another 50 are hybrid regimes (Polity IV). Autocratic regimes feel compelled to call themselves democracies and hold elections, flawed though they may be. As Krastev (2013) notes: “the Russian and Chinese systems are essentially adjustments to the age of democratisation: Russia is faking democracy, while China is faking communism.” Brazil and India provide alternative models of democratic development. In contrast to the “crisis of confidence in democracy” in the 1960s and 70s, empirical examples of compelling and coherent alternatives to democratic rule are harder to find. Yet, while democracy has made unprecedented gains, anxieties about democracy are widespread.

Representative Democracy and Alternative Models: Expansions of Executive Power

To overcome political instability and legislative gridlock associated with democratic rule, some have called for expansions of executive power and, indeed, for limits on democratic freedoms. Russia’s transition from unstable democracy in the 1990s to economic growth and political stability in the last decade is said to be a prime example. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of this interpretation. One interesting nuance is that while Russians routinely express lower levels of support for “democracy” than one might expect due to the chaos and economic collapse of the “democratic” 1990s, they also express overwhelming support for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to elect rulers rather than have them appointed (Hale 2011). Even after the upheavals of the 1990s, Russians have mixed feelings about democracy; they favor free and fair elections, free speech, and freedom of assembly, however.2 More generally, greater attention to whether citizens perceive a tradeoff between political stability and individual elements of democracy is needed.

Calls to expand executive power are common in democracies as well. The impressive expansion of democracy in Latin America over the last thirty years undermines the claim that strong presidencies are incompatible with democracy, but whether the strong presidencies of the region have improved the quality of democracy and governance is unclear. In Venezuela, President Chavez abolished presidential term limits in 2009, but economic performance has been poor and corruption rife. In Colombia, by contrast, the Constitutional Court ultimately blocked President Uribe’s attempt to run for a third term and, by some measures, governance has improved. More generally, democratic regimes facing terrorist threats have seen expansions of executive power and the national security apparatus, yet evidence of the success of this strategy is hard to muster.3 Three questions seem pertinent: Under what conditions do expansions of executive power occur? What impact does expanded executive authority have on democracy? How can we prevent executives from translating temporary advantages due to surges in commodity prices or national security threats into longer-term changes in institutions?

Direct Democracy

Direct democracy and plebiscites provide another option to cure the ailments of representative democracy. Thirty-seven countries currently have provisions for citizens to rule on policy outcomes and many more allow referenda at the subnational level (Beramendi et al. 2008). In evaluating the impact of direct democracy, the devil is in the details and the great variation in institutional design hinders generalizations about it. On several occasions in the postcommunist world, incumbents expanded presidential power by using or threatening to use referenda. On the other hand, Frey and Stutzer (2000) find a positive correlation between direct democracy and perceived happiness.4 Here, we might ask: does direct democracy undermine support for legislative authority? Does it bring policy outcomes closer to those of the median voter?

Non-Adversarial Deliberation or Adversarial Non-Deliberation

Another alternative is “non-adversarial deliberation” which, in its comparative politics guise, emphasizes an underlying harmony of interests in society that can be reached via deliberation. This often takes the form of “democracy with adjectives,” such as “guided” democracy (Indonesia under Sukarno), “sovereign” democracy (contemporary Russia), or “Confucian” democracy, (China).5 One concern with these “non-adversarial” models is that they are much more likely to be put forward by the powerful rather than the meek. In addition, the traditions or concepts cited above are elastic. Huntington (1984) sees Confucianism as incompatible with democracy, while Ackerly (2003) points to affinities between the two.

Yet, two points are worth raising. These traditions are not exogenously given, but invented anew. The strategic use of “democracy with adjectives” by incumbents can be a powerful means of undermining democratic practices. We might think about identifying the conditions under which these appeals to democracy with adjectives resonate with the mass public. Second, skepticism toward democracy with adjectives is not to overlook ethnocentric strains in many discussions of democracy or to argue for institutional conformity. Indeed, democratic institutions will inevitably be tailored to fit local circumstances.

As for “non-adversarial deliberation” in the U.S. context,6 it seems to me that the more accurate view of U.S. politics today is “adversarial non-deliberation”—with partisan political elites primarily seeking to score points with their respective base in hopes of obscuring areas of agreement rather than fostering them. Identifying how to bring adversaries to the table seems temporally prior to determining whether or not non-adversarial deliberation improves decision making and support for democracy.

Autocratic Temptations

The governance problems of democracies have led some to ponder the advantages of state capitalism and autocratic rule. China provides perhaps the clearest empirical example of performance legitimacy given its high rates of economic growth. One can dismiss China as an outlier given its size, but it is a very large outlier indeed. At the same time, China’s high rates of economic growth have also come with significant social costs and surprisingly high levels of interregional and interpersonal economic inequality.

More generally, the performance legitimation so central to autocratic rule is a double-edged sword because many factors on which citizens judge regime performance are beyond the immediate controls of incumbents. For example, until recently, presidential approval ratings in Russia were correlated with economic performance to a stunning degree (Treisman 2010). Now that economic performance in Russia has stumbled, however, appeals to nationalism and Russian uniqueness have replaced boasts of the economic advantages of “sovereign” democracy.

Finally, the problems of inequalities of participation and influence are likely greater in non-democracies. Following the 2010 Citizens United decision—which, among other things, expanded the rights of employers to engage in political advocacy in the workplace—there appears to have a sharp increase in such politicking. However, it is important to keep scale in mind. Frye et al. (2013) estimate that 25 percent of workers in Russia felt pressure from their employer to vote in parliamentary elections in 2011. The quality of participation and influence is hard to measure systematically, particularly in non-democratic regimes, but surely they are causes for deep concern.

Institutions and the Last Crisis of Confidence in Democracy

In seeking to increase confidence in and support for representative democracy, our instinct as political scientists is to focus on institutions. Indeed, this strategy was central to democracy promotion during the Third Wave. Yet, we now have a better sense of the limits of institutional design due to concerns for endogeneity. Over the last decade, studies of democratization have focused more on structural features, such as economic inequality and asset mobility, than on institutional design. Since political institutions reflect the power of incumbents, we need to better understand incumbents’ incentives to adopt institutions that would improve representation and governance, but would likely weaken their hold on power. If we are to offer policy prescriptions, we should take this knowledge into account. Understanding the impact of institutions is one task. Getting incumbents to adopt them is another.

Selected References

Beramendi, Nancy et al. 2008. Direct Democracy: The International IDEA Handbook. Stockholm: IDEA.

Fishkin, James. 2009. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frey, Bruno S., and Alois Stutzer. 2000. "Happiness, Economy and Institutions," Economic Journal 110 (4): 918-38.

Frye, Bruno S., and Alois Stutzer. 2002. “What Can Economists Learn from Happiness Research.” Journal of Economic Literature 40 (2):  402-435.

Frye, Timothy, Ora John Reuter, and David Szakonyi. 2013. “Political Machines at Work: Workplace Mobilization and Electoral Subversion in the Workplace.” World Politics: 2014.

Gibson, James. 1996. "A Mile Wide But an Inch Deep(?): The Structure of Democratic Commitments in the Former USSR.” American Journal of Political Science 40 (2): 396-420.

Hale, Henry. 2011. "The Myth of Mass Support for Autocracy in Russia.” Europe-Asia Studies.

Shapiro, Ian. 2005. “The State of Democratic Theory: A Reply to James Fishkin.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 8 (1): 79-83.

Przeworski, Adam. 2011. “Non-Western Democracy in the West.” In Democracy Through a Russian Mirror, ed. Andranik Migranyan: 191-201. New York.

Treisman, Daniel. 2011. The Return: Russia’s journey from Gorbachev to Putin. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Appendix I.

Frye graph


  1. To get a sense of the expansion of democracy across countries and over time, see the Appendix.
  2. On the other hand, they fall short on measures of tolerance for opposing views or ethnic minorities (Gibson 1996).
  3. One exception comes from Georgia, where President Saakashvili used his executive authority to reform the police and dramatically increase levels of trust in the organization.
  4. Frey and Tutzer (2002: 424-426) review the impact of direct democracy on various outcomes.
  5. Przeworski (2011) reminds us that the fear of social divisions was a common theme of democratic thought in the nineteenth century, but over time political thinkers and politicians learned that democracies can stand even if the people are not united and that democracy itself was a system for processing conflicts.
  6. See, among others, Fishkin (2009) and Shapiro (2005).
About the Author
Timothy Frye is a professor of political science at Columbia University.