Being a student of political science, I have managed to consume a lot of knowledge and information about the United States democracy and its principles. Throughout my studies, I have always come to the conclusion that I am an avid supporter of democracy as a regime type and believe that its basic values, such as individual rights and liberties, should be translated into areas outside of politics as well. However, I have recently been asking myself why we feel so attached to democracy and why we feel so strongly about expanding the regime outside of U.S. borders.
I am aware of all the theoretical reasons why expanding democracy is good; it’s easier to trade with democracies which creates interdependence which should lead to more peace between countries. But what is the psychological aspect behind it? Why do we feel threatened when democracy seems to be eroding?
In a world characterized by globalization, many people have found their nationality becoming more emotional. Humans, at our core, are emotional beings, and when our identity appears to be slipping it causes some sort of internal crisis. It is a comfort to know where you came from, what you value, and what you hope for the future.
Hope and democracy are mutually supportive of each other. Much of democracy’s success comes from the willingness of citizens to achieve their goals for what they want the future to look like. If there was no hope, there would be no civil movements that led to the change we have today. When there is a lack of participation (i.e. democracy is eroding), there is no desire to reform, and this is threatening to groups who seek change. Many of the movements that have occurred throughout history, the biggest arguably being the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, have based their arguments for change on democracy’s most basic principle: individual equality for all. Perhaps that is where our attachment to democracy comes from. When we believe that we are entitled to equal rights, it allows us to see the flaws that exist in institutions, and that is when hope is necessary to accelerate improvements within our government. People need to be able to criticize the current system in order to make it better. This is where First Amendment rights come into play, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech quite literally gives everyone a voice, and as emotional beings, we need to be heard in order to feel that we can accomplish the goals that we set.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on individual equality as a form of identity that we use to compare ourselves to other regimes who pride themselves on collectivity rather than individualism. Our relationship with China is a good example of this. We trust that we will always be on top because we are democratic, even if that is not necessarily the case, which creates a sentiment of security that ultimately contributes to our identity. In this sense, expanding democracy abroad not only has material benefits in the form of trade, but also a feeling of relief that we will always be safe.
Many people love democracy because they feel in control of its outcomes. This is true as long as people participate correctly. When polarization gets too extreme, it devalues democracy because party affiliation takes precedence over policy decisions. Democracy works by presenting two options, allowing voters to decide between which option best suits their beliefs and hopes for the future. When your vote is already decided without giving regard to policy, it becomes a competition between two sides as opposed to creating the best government that the people want. Polarization has become a major issue in recent years, but people are starting to take note of it. This is why hope goes hand in hand with democracy. We are starting to set the goal of creating a new dialogue between parties that prioritizes truth and tolerance instead of hatred and propaganda, but it’ll take a while to get there. We just have to hope that we can resolve our issues instead of breaking into further conflict.
Above all, people just want to be assured that what they are doing is right and good. Democracy gives the tools for people to express themselves without penalty, which creates the hope that is needed to push movements forward. However, there needs to be mutual tolerance on both sides in order to affirm what each side believes, thus strengthening the competitive nature which is essential to the democracy we love so much.
I think this was a really interesting post and it really got me thinking more about the United States’ adamant foreign policy of spreading democracy throughout the globe. In a post-cold war world, where we are no longer bitterly struggling to overtake the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence over newer countries that emerged after de-colonization, what exactly is the need to spread democracy? One may argue that China has now taken the role of the USSR in the 21st century and that now the US continues its democracy spreading efforts in order to curb the power of a rising China, but the way that China spreads its sphere of influence is markedly different from the USSR, so I personally feel that this argument is not sufficient.
Other than this, I think there is also somewhat to consider the slow progress the West had to achieving democracy, compared to the way that it is being pushed onto other non-western countries to usually not great results. The West had the entirety of the enlightenment, multiple violent revolutions and democratic backsliding into authoritarian regimes and monarachies before finally achieving the relatively stable democracies they have now. All of that conflict and back and forth of their regimes helped to attune the public’s perception and ideals of enlightenment principles and democratic values before they were able to achieve that.
Knowing the steps to create a democracy is one thing, but making sure the culture revolves around democratic values takes time as it did in the west and I think this may explain somewhat why the current American goal of quickly installing democracies that quickly backslide into authoritarianism keeps occurring.
Hi Ashley and Abbas, and thank you both for an interesting discussion. As a result of reading through your comments, I have a few thoughts. First off, I think I’d argue a different root cause for continued “democratic expansionism,” if you will, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and that isn’t due to China’s expanding influence. I think that, as Ashley mentioned at the end of her post, that we’ve developed a cultural attachment to the values that democracy promotes, such as equality and basic human rights that democracy seeks to protect. Maybe I’ve got too much faith in humanity, but I think that we as humans are generally empathetic people, and that for many of us – at least in democracies, where we are used to expressing our ideas – we don’t like the idea of people being subjected to authoritarian rule, especially when that considers a violation of physical human rights in addition to these people not being able to self-govern. That attraction to human rights, I’d argue, is what fuels modern-day democratic expansionism, or at least validates it to the public, while the government may pursue it for more strategic reasons. I will say that this presents a perverse incentive structure, in which America attempts to impose democracy, which is at least logically anti-democratic. Still, however, like Abbas said, I think that our historical struggle to arrive at democratic values fuels this urge from the public’s perception.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree. Hope is essential. But it is only effective if it is an impetus for action. You mentioned this by saying that hope is a condition for the emer-gence of social movements.
After I have read your post, I thought about how difficult it is to enforce democracy upon a society which has never experienced these values. Think about the US intervention in Af-ghanistan which might be the most prominent example. This adventure cost vast sums of mon-ey and every implemented step towards democracy was being reversed by the Taliban or is at least under the risk of it.
Although, I think installing a democracy is cheaper than supporting an autocratic regime in the long-term not just because it is economically beneficial but because maintaining an au-tocracy is very expensive. Please take a look at this graph (https://twitter.com/skudelia/status/907262678485356545).
In order to keep itself in power as an autocratic leader there have always to be expend-ed costs for repression. In consequence, if an autocratic regime is installed by a foreign coun-try, this country has to bear at least a part of its cost in order to keep the puppet in its post. One could summarize this with the statement that a sustainable autocracy raises costs during its whole lifespan. Anecdote: The term sustainable autocracy rather seems like an oxymoron, in my opinion.
Onward, the first part of this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs) il-lustrates why it is so expensive to maintain an autocracy in some countries. An autocratic ruler always has to spend its money wisely to minimize the risk of being hoodwinked. It is not just about repressing the people as mentioned before but also about to keep the elites in line. This is costly.
The point I want to make is that an autocratic regime has no invisible hand or intrinsic mechanism which keeps itself running. A stable democracy on the other hand does. Of course, the danger of democratic erosion as we have learnt has always to be taken seriously. Still, a democracy can be understood as a self-perpetuating system. Democracies are just expensive to install. But once they are in place, they reward the undertaken efforts.
Actually, this sounds like a collective action problem. Which Western country is willing to undertake these expensive efforts considering that the profits have to be shared? According to the Hegemonic Stability Theory one can argue that the Free World is lucky because the US is willing to undertake this effort. Evaluating this argument however is a story for another day.
Ashley, thank you for sharing! I have always found the American obsession with democracy so interesting. I think it is helpful to examine the relationship between spreading democracy and interdependence through a constructivist lens. As you said trade between democracies is easier – this usually stems from shared interests and creates interdependence. In the case of the U.S. – Chinese economic relationship, the U.S. intended to tie China down through tight, complex economic interdependence in order to shift China towards democracy. While the United States was successful in integrating the two economies, the U.S. push for democracy in China has been greatly unsuccessful. Constructivists generally argue that shared interests create institutions, which in turn help shape interactions and identities. Interdependence between the U.S. and China did create Chinese interest in the state of the global economy, resulting in China’s joining of the World Trade Organization. However, the United States has made the mistake of equating a free market system to democracy.
Economic interdependence is a great first step in mending international relations, but in order to get China to commit to democracy, the United States must recognize the key differences between economic interests and democratic interests.
First of all, I think you wrote a wonderful post. For me, it was at least the most fun to speculate about. Why do we care so much about democracy? Why is erosion a big deal? Why not have a class called Authoritarian erosion, or Autocratization? Culturally, democracy is very important to Americans and you have very good points as to why it’s a desirable political system. Asking why democracy should be lauded and upheld is a great political science question. Is it really the best system? For some political scientists like Eric X. Li, he thinks there are better ways such as China’s meritocracy model . This question also comes at a time when people around the world are wildly dissatisfied with democracy . Even though I believe that democracy is not the answer, I still think it’s the best thing we have right now. I am more aligned with Plato, who believed that democracies tend to elect people who are great at manipulation and mass appeal rather than people with expertise necessary for the proper governance of societies . Democracies are breeding grounds for demagogues and populists who loudly rile up the public and over promise solutions, however, have little interest or ability to change things. I’d idealistically prefer Plato’s philosopher king, or a perfect AI that can govern society objectively and expertly rather than the mayhem that is democracy. However, my own opinions can only be fantasies. That is why Plato’s philosopher king is in the Republic and not a reality of our political systems. Along with AIs still being too subjective and primitive to function anywhere near as a benevolent “god” to guide society fairly. What we do know is that monarchs and dictators notoriously behave inimically toward the well being of the public. They are often aggrandized kleptocracies that have little interest in helping the people. That’s one reason democracy is the best thing we have, and why you posed very great questions with even better answers.
 “Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systems – YouTube.” 1 Jul. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0YjL9rZyR0. Accessed 2 May. 2022.
 “How people around the world see democracy in 8 charts.” 27 Feb. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/02/27/how-people-around-the-world-see-democracy-in-8-charts/. Accessed 2 May. 2022.
 “Democracy – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” 27 Jul. 2006, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/. Accessed 2 May. 2022.
This is a crucial question that everyone in political science and international affairs has to grapple with. At what point is spreading democracy globally beneficial, and at what point does it become a harmful obsession?
This reminds me a lot of the point that Morgan made about “Two things can be true at once.” It’s easy to advocate for global democracy when you list out all the benefits. There are so many great things about democracy. The guaranteed human rights protections, the civil and political liberties, the international relations benefits, the citizen input into the government- these are all great things that democracy brings. However, it is also true at the same time that democracy simply does not work everywhere.
This reminds me of a TED Talk from a Chinese political scientist about the Chinese government and how their system of government works extremely well for them. Would democracy work better in China? It’s hard to say, but China is achieving immense success at their current pace. However, this does seem to come at the cost of many human rights, including the Uigyer Muslim killings or even just the lack of freedom of information. However, while human rights and democracy have a strong correlation, this isn’t to say that China can’t fix their problems without democracy. The point of the TED Talk was to demonstrate that China’s authoritarian government works extremely well and curates an environment where, apparently, the citizens aree extremely happy and innovation thrives.
Anyways, democracy works well where it works, but doesn’t thrive everywhere, and this is a concept that Americans have a hard time grasping due to our sheer obsession. Is our obsession with democracy validated in many ways? Yes. But it is also harmful in many other ways? For sure.
Ann Hollis Sanders
Thank you for your writing on this topic, Ashely. This is something that also has interested me and I wish I had more time (and knowledge) to be able to study more in-depth about it. I found it interesting that your main point was that we value democracy so much because of its ideal of freedom and equality for all people. I agree with you, I believe that is the main reason why this regime type has been so successful throughout the years (generally speaking). However, I think we could do more digging, physiologically, as to why we even value freedom and equality for all people. In class we discussed how the first people to really come up with the idea of human rights were Christian monks. This is due to the Christian belief that all people are made in the Imago Dei, the image of God, which means all people have equal value and worth. Since America historically has been based on Christian values, this makes sense as to why we psychologically hold this so close to our heart, whether the person is a Christian or not. As an International Affairs and Religion student, I find it so interesting to see how politics affects religious values and how religious values effects politics, even subconsciously.