The Confusing Language of Democracy

One of the reasons building lasting democracies, either from the perspective of democratic activists inside of a non-democratic country, or from outside powers seeking to push a given country further towards democracy is so difficult is because the language which is used to describe concepts related to democracy take on different meanings in different countries and political systems. Concepts like elections, corruption, legislature, campaigns or opposition, do not mean the same thing in consolidated democratic countries as they do elsewhere.

The word election, for example, in democratic countries refers to the citizens of that country expressing choosing their leaders through a process of aggregating and counting preferences. Those leaders will then, more or less, reflect the ideals and visions of the people who elected them and seek to turn that into policy and law. This is an ideal which is rarely entirely met by elections in any country, but the goals of elections are broadly understood and agreed upon and the election itself usually seeks, after a fashion, to achieve those goals. In non-democratic systems, in contrast, elections are an opportunity for the state to demonstrate its ability to compel citizens to action, strengthen their patronage networks or even gauge the strength of the opposition, but have little to do with selection leaders or turning preferences into policies.

Similarly, in democratic countries campaigns are primarily concerned with candidates and parties communicating with voters, albeit frequently nonsensically or in ways that are petty, divisive or irrelevant to governance. Candidates are expected to, through media surrogates or in person, present their ideas and record to the people who will then make a choice based on these or other criteria. Even if the ideas are bad, and the candidates worse, this is still the basic structure of a campaign in a democratic system. In non-democratic countries campaigns are primarily about candidates and parties passing out money or goods in exchange for promises of support, or intimidating and making threats towards supporters of political opponents.

Sometimes the way these terms are used is inconsistent in other ways. The word corruption, when used by powerful western countries to describe activities in less powerful countries often takes on a different and sometimes broader meaning than it might have in western countries. For example, while some activities such as police officers shaking down or tax officials taking bribes instead of legitimately collecting taxes are viewed as corrupt by powerful western countries, other activities, such as the strong links between financial contributions to candidates and legislative outcomes are not seen as corrupt behavior by western, particularly American, policy makers. The Citizens United ruling, as we are seeing in the Republican primary this year, has made it possible for extremely wealthy individuals to sponsor candidates for congress and even the White House. If this existed without the protection of the American legal system, in another country, it would be clearly understood to be evidence of a troubling level of corruption.

Overall, using the same words to define very different activities makes it easier for undemocratic leaders, specifically those whose regimes are in the grey area between democracy and dictatorship, to overstate their democratic credentials. It is also easier for even well-meaning observers and analysts to underestimate the extent to which political words mean different things in semi-democratic or semi-authoritarian countries than they do in consolidated democracy. This often produces a situation where the presence of elections or of parties that seem to be campaigning, despite the often fundamentally undemocratic way those activities are conducted, can sometimes create a surprisingly persuasive appearance of greater democracy than actually exists. Observers who are looking for democracy can tell themselves they have found it, when they see its trappings, particularly when undemocratic leaders often make great efforts to create this illusion.

Thus, one of the major issues which needs to be addressed by democracy activists is that of language. An understanding that words like election means something different in Australia than it does in Russia; a campaign is a very different thing in France than it is in Cambodia; or that to be in opposition implies a very different level of tolerance and legal protection from the government in power in England than in Georgia, is the first step towards doing this. When this happens, it will be much easier to assess and understand political conditions more frankly and thus arrive at more clear-eyed approaches to democracy assistance.

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Lincoln Mitchell joined Columbia University in January of 2006 as the Arnold A. Saltzman Assistant Professor in the Practice of International Politics. Before joining Columbia, Lincoln was a practitio ...read more

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