Get access

When Democracies Fail



Despite democracy's universal appeal, democracies have frequently suffered from debilitating crises, often of their own making. Sometimes, they have even self-destructed. Why is this the case and how might we respond to democracies that fail? In this article, I review five recent works which provide new answers as well as new provocations to these questions. In particular, I argue that there are three interrelated categories of reasons and responses prevalent in the literature on democratic failure. The first category intimates that democracies fail for reasons that have to do with unresolved institutional, socio-economic or political problems and that, as such, the best response is to seek to remove these impediments to democratic consolidation. The second category of literature, however, argues that there are certain conditions and characteristics intrinsic to democracy that make it prone to fail and self-destruct. Democracies that seek to guard against this possibility are those that are paradoxically the least democratic. This leads to the third category: studies that acknowledge democracy's inherent weaknesses and seek to overcome them through a call for anti-democratic alternatives. Foregrounding these categories is, I argue, crucial not only for improving our understanding of how and why democracies decline and then perish. It also provides us with a better glimpse into the very nature of democracy itself.

Stepan, A. (ed.) (2009) Democracies in Danger. Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lazar, N. C. (2009) States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keane, J. (2009) The Life and Death of Democracy. London: Pocket Books.

Wolin, S. S. (2010) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kofmel, E. (ed.) (2008) Anti-democratic Thought. Exeter: Imprint Academic.