A wave of protests is roiling Moscow. Millions of people, young and old, have been crowding the streets in Hong Kong. If democracy is on the ropes worldwide, as many voices currently insist, you’d have a hard time making the case from these headlines.
In fact, at a time of concern and, in many quarters, cynicism about democracy and its prospects, they remind us of a basic truth: people want a say in how they’re governed. They prefer living in democracies. And when they don’t feel the popular will can find expression, at some point conditions ripen to the point where, as in Russia and Hong Kong, they take to the streets.
Why is this? What do people value about living in a democratic system? Most of us who support democracy would argue that its key characteristics — openness, accountability, transparency, media freedom, responsiveness — improve the nation’s overall well-being. On the whole, democratic nations have stronger economies. They tend to be less corrupt. Citizens know where they stand because the rules of the road are set up to apply to everyone. They recognize the value and dignity of each individual.
To be sure, even in the best of times democracies are imperfect. They too often wallow in political stagnation or gridlock. Issues that need resolution get batted back and forth for years. It’s far easier for opponents of a given approach to block it than for its proponents to enact it. Elections may give the people a voice, but they also serve as a de facto horizon, inclining political leaders to short-term fixes rather than investing in people, infrastructure, or other long-term goals.
Yet even people who complain about their governments or their representatives rarely argue that they need a different system. Most citizens of democracies believe their countries are wealthier, less corrupt, more resilient, and more responsive than the alternatives, and that their deficiencies are correctable. They count themselves happier, healthier, and freer than they would be in any alternative.
This is why, in the end, the discussion in the world’s traditional democracies is about how to make them stronger. It’s about fear of slipping into autocracy, not about the desire for autocracy. Among those who understand what it is like to live in a free society, democracy remains the system of choice.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.