Democracy pros and cons summon a hearty debate. “Rule by the people” has its advantages — and drawbacks. Let’s examine both sides of the coin. To have news and analysis like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
What is democracy?
Before jumping into democracy pros and cons, what is democracy anyway? Simply stated, democracy is “rule by the people.”
According to Merriam-Webster, democracy is a political system in which “supreme power is vested in the people.” Each citizen has equal say and exercises his or her voice either directly or indirectly through a system of representation.
Historians believe that democratic organizations arose naturally within prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribes. Nevertheless, the origin of contemporary democracy is largely associated with the rise of popular rule in 5th-century Athens, Greece. Today, democracies govern more than half of the world’s most populous countries.
Two dominant varieties stand out amongst different types of democratic governments: direct (or pure) and representative. Athenian democracy was a form of direct democracy that obligated citizens (free men only) to actively participate in government.
Most Western civilizations today follow forms of representative democracies. The US government, for example, is a representative democracy described as a “constitutional republic.” The United Kingdom’s government is a form of representative democracy called parliamentary democracy, under a constitutional monarchy.
Finally, democracy directly contrasts autocracy — governance by one person or group who holds absolute power over the people. Now, let’s examine democracy pros and cons.
Like all political systems and theories, democracy presents advantages and disadvantages. Let’s start with the former.
First, democractic institutions give citizens a say in how they are governed. Both direct and indirect democracies provide citizens with multiple ways to participate. This can include voting on representatives/laws and referendums and collecting signatures to place initiatives on a popular ballot.
Democractic institutions also feature built-in safeguards for personal rights and freedoms. Constitutions govern most modern democracies, outlining how the government is organized and overarching laws of the land. Changes to these documents typically require agreement by a large majority. In contrast, the whims of a supreme leader spur law changes within autocratic political systems.
Similarly, these safeguards help democracies enjoy more social and economic stability. Today, economists increasingly believe that democracy correlates with increased economic growth. In 2019, MIT released a study showing that “countries switching to democratic rule experience a 20 percent increase in GDP over a 25-year period, compared to what would have happened had they remained authoritarian states.” One potential explanation, the researchers suggest, is that most democracies tax and reinvest in the people’s welfare, especially health and education.
Now, the cons. Athenian philosopher Plato was one early critic in a line of detractors. He argued two main points still debated today. First, he warned that the most charismatic leaders win elections, rather than those most competent. Second, he believed that the majority of citizens do not have the time or interest to adequately prepare themselves to make informed decisions.
One contemporary critic, French philosopher Bernard Manin, argued that modern democratic republics actually promote “rule of the aristocratic.” In his view, today’s representative democracies only provide elites with the chance for election. This is in contrast to ancient direct democracies, in which all citizens were able to populate the government.
This leads to another con: the high cost of running elections and the role money plays in them. During the US 2020 general election, presidential and congressional candidates and their supporters spent an estimated $14 billion — making it the country’s most expensive election to date. That number doesn’t even include what states and local governments spent to administer the vote.
Lastly, critics contend that opportunities for public discourse plus multiple checks and balances can contribute to a slow pace of reform within democratic institutions.
Where Both Sides of the Aisle Lean
While there are democracy pros and cons, Democrats and Republicans historically agree that democracy is the superior political system. Current debates center on how to protect American democracy from perceived threats.
Voices on the left warn that a rise in populist and fascist leaders threatens global democracy, viewing former President Trump as one of the most dangerous. Congressional Democrats introduced a reform bill to prevent presidential abuse, bolster checks and balances, and prevent foreign interference in elections.
Republicans seek to protect free and open elections from abuse in their quest to strengthen democracy . However, their efforts center on eliminating potential voter fraud by tightening voting requirements on citizens. Democrats argue that voter fraud is not rampant and many new restrictions disenfranchise minority voters.
Similarly, Republicans and Democrats disagree on the level of ideal citizen participation within American democracy. Republicans increasingly argue the US is a republic and its founding fathers penned minority protections from majority rule into the constitution. Efforts to increase direct participation then “weaken our republican customs and institutions.”
Democrats tend to support more opportunities for direct participation in US democracy. One popular solution in that vein: abolishing the electoral college and allowing the popular vote to decide presidential elections.