Democracy do individuals understand democracy? This review

Democracy
depends upon the consent and support of the citizens. There are different
theories explaining why and how democracies survive and collapse which mainly
focus on institutional, structural and socioeconomic factors. However, there is
a growing interest to look beyond this actors and explore the cognitive aspect
– how do individuals understand democracy?

This
review of related literature would be organized as follows: (1) discussion on
existing definitions of democracy in theory ; (2) analysis of empirical studies
on meaning of democracy including methodologies and approaches used; (3)
discussion on state of democracy in the Philippines and the role of
legislators; (4) what others have studies regarding this topic; and lastly, (5)
summary of the state of the literature including the gaps and the contribution
of this research proposal in the matter at hand.

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Defining democracy

            Democracy is a contested concept.
Following democratic theory, it has taken on different meanings both in the
academe and in practice. One broad method of categorization is the minimal and
maximal definition of democracy. The most employed definitions of democracy
focus on procedures and institutions or ‘means’ (Collier and Levitsky 1997)
fall under the minimalist democracy. Democratic institutions and processes are
the first elements to be established in a democratizing society as these are
believed to be the defining feature of democracy. From this, it is expected
that citizen’s experience of these democratic elements could lead them to
identify these with democracy. A prominent example is Robert Dahl’s eight
criteria of democracy (1971): elected officials, recurring free, fair and
competitive elections, universal suffrage, right to run in office, alternative
information, right to form groups, freedom of expression, and institutions that
depend on votes and other expressions of preferences. Schumpeter also defined
democracy as the “institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions
in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of competitive
struggle for people’s vote.” For Schumpeter (1943) to Przeworski et al (2000),
procedures such as elections and institutions such as political parties are
important in a democracy. These kinds of definitions are also mostly employed
by institutions that do evaluations of the state of democracy in countries such
as the Freedom House and Polity IV.

            Others have challenged this and
argued for a maximalist definition of democracy. Under this maximalist
approach, democracy could be seen not only in terms of its means but as well as
its outcomes. Increasingly, freedom and liberty are seen as essential goals of
democracy with democratic institutions as means to achieve it. Hence the means vs ends democracy. Larry Diamond
(1999) identified four liberal values as part of the core democratic values:
political liberties, participation rights of citizens, equal justice before the
law and equal rights for women. This definition could be the case for nations
where democratic institutions are not extensively supported but still argues
for democracy because of its positive consequences such as the freedom and liberty
that may be generated from it.

 Another concept of democracy, still under the
maximalist approach, focuses on its socio-economic aspect. Marshall (1992)
discussed that along with civil and political rights, social rights are
included in democracy. For example, some individuals equate democracy with more
economic equality, access to social services such as health and education, less
poverty and crime and government ensuring general welfare. These ‘maximal’
individuals may agree that there are elections and democratic institutions in
their country but would not consider it as a democratic state unless these
social services are present. Other scholars would separate political elements
from these social elements, arguing that these are consequences or products of
democracy rather than a feature of democracy itself. This definition could also
explain why there is popular support for democracy in developing nations since
they see these affluent, industrial societies having democracy as its form of
governance (Dalton, Shin and Jou 2007)

In
the study of public understanding of democracy, scholars have devised different
ways to group meanings of democracy. Some of the taxonomies used are: procedural vs liberal vs social, procedural vs substantive, means vs ends, intrinsic vs instrumental, and political
vs economic (Dalton, Shin and Jou 2007). All these methods are derivations
of the minimalist and maximalist definitions of democracy. Others have employed
much more maximal approach by differentiating, for example, voting and the rule
of law as definitions of democracy, instead of putting them under a single
category such as procedural definition. Scholars have also looked on negative
or pejorative conceptualizations of democracy.

on
the contrary, others have moved beyond the Western liberal definition of
democracy and argued for alternative democracy. A prominent example is the idea
that because of difference in values, culture, belief, and history, liberal
democracy is not compatible with Asian state. Hence, the Asian style democracy. 

 

Citizens’ perception of democracy

The
development of national and cross-national surveys that initially are measuring
levels of support for democracy has been helpful in the rise of studies
regarding conceptions of democracy among citizens. Notable examples of surveys
focusing on countries within the same region include Latino barometer,
Afrobarometer, East Asian Barometer (EAB), Asian Barometer Survey (ABS),
AmericasBarometer and The Post Communist Citizen Project. Questions on
identifying the meanings of democracy vary among these surveys. It could either
be open-ended or close-ended questions. An open-ended question allows the
respondents to define democracy in their own words.1 Using this
method, one could determine if a citizen has the capacity to understand the
concept and how he/she understands it. In contrast, some surveys enumerate
certain principles or indicators that are associated with democracy and ask the
respondents to choose or rank which is the most and least essential component
for him/her.2
Questions structured like this, however, are already assuming meanings of
democracy and does not fully capture if that is the meaning the respondent has
in mind. Close-ended surveys could also be problematic if done in areas where
language could be a barrier. Concepts such as universal suffrage or liberty or
even democracy itself (Bratton and Mattes 2001) could probably not exist in
their native language or have a different term for it. Use of open-ended
questions or interviews could address this by allowing space for respondents to
explain whenever they will mention a native word that they associate with
democracy. The use of close-ended questions or indicators is not only common in
studies of meaning of democracy but as well as in the measurement of democracy
itself. One reason why this method is employed could be the need for
comparability. Also, existing surveys that used indicators are easily and
readily available for empirically-oriented scholars.

In
Latin America, equating democracy with “liberty, freedom, and civil rights” is
predominant (Camp 2001, Carrion 2008, Lagos 2008, Canache 2012). This is also
true in other parts of the world. In the examination of at least 50 democratic
nations, liberty and rights still remain as the primary meaning of democracy
(Dalton et al 2007). The same goes for the results of Afrobarometer,
Post-Communist Citizen Project and surveys of Eastern and Central European
states.  Notably, procedural definition
trails behind. Such is contrary to the idea of democratic theory that citizens
would be more familiar with democratic institutions and processes since it is
the first thing that is promoted or created during democratization. In the case
of Asian states surveyed by ABS, people place more emphasis on substantial
outcomes such as good governance and social equity as essential to democracy.
This supports the argument that democracy could be equated with social and
economic terms. Yet, defining democracy in social terms is still less answered
in the case of open-ended questions. The prevalence of liberal definition, as
well as emphasis on socio-economic elements as demonstrated by Asian citizens,
implies that individuals focus more on intended outcomes of democracy. The
presence of elections, parties, and other democratic institutions are inadequate.
For most, democracy could be best defined by its outcomes. To consider
themselves living in a democratic state or to support democracy as the best
form of government, these elements, social rights, freedom, liberty, must be
present. Also, Latin America, Africa, and Asia host most of the developing
nations or third world countries. This could partly explain the prevalence of
outcome-oriented definition of democracy.

Miller
et al (1997) furthered the study by looking at both elites and masses of Russia
and Ukraine. They seek to address the skepticism that citizens living in
countries that have been dominated by authoritarian rule for a long time do not
have the capacity to form coherent opinions on political matters as well as
lack understanding of political concepts such as democracy.  They used data obtained from surveys and
interviews of ordinary citizens and elites, both the legislators from national
parliaments and administrators from major governmental ministries, conducted in
1992 and 1995. Based on personal interviews, elites emphasize rule of law and
order while the masses focus on the freedom aspect of democracy. The focus on
law and order for elites could be explained by them having more access to
positions in the government that creates laws and institutions that serve the
society for good. Interestingly, definitions could vary among them as well.
Elites from urban areas and the legislators emphasize more on rule of law while
those from the rural and the administrators define democracy in terms of
freedom. According to the study, ordinary citizens, on the other hand, define
democracy as freedom that they can attain and did not attain during the Soviet
Union regime. Variations among masses also exist. Still and all, the notable
finding is that the differing conceptions of democracy would not be the one
that could pose problems in democratization but the lack of common and shared
understanding among mass and elites. This study also implies that inexperience
in democratic governance does not hinder the public in acquiring knowledge
about democracy (Miller, Hesli and Reisinger 1997, Carnaghan 2001). At the time
of the survey, it was only a number of months since the collapse of the Soviet
Union. Miller et al also pointed out that democracy exists as a concept in the
former Soviet Union as it is part of the communist philosophy. From the
perspective of the Soviet communist, class conflicts hinder democracy and the
achievement of communism (Miller et al 1997). However, the study’s measurement
of whether democracy as a concept is salient and participants have complex
understanding of democracy is done by counting the number of responses they can
offer. This is problematic since other factors may affect the capability of
participants to offer definitions such as openness to converse, language and
personality traits.

1 Example of open-ended questions: What does democracy mean for you? What do you think are the essential
components of democracy? Most allowed for participants to give as many
answers as possible while some limit it to two-three responses.

2 Example of close-ended question: Listed below are some statements/principles/value that is associated
with democracy. For you which is the most essential to democracy? Do you agree
or disagree with the statement that democracy is …? Example of included
in the list are political participation, universal suffrage, rule of law. See
Schedler and Sarsfield 2007