Democratic government is impossible when the social conditions that it rests on don't exist. Democratic governments have disappeared.

Democratic government is impossible when the social conditions that it rests on don't exist. When favorable conditions arise, previously undemocratic countries can become democratic.

We have tended to assume that once a country becomes democratic it will remain that way. Unfortunately, it is becoming obvious that this assumption was wrong.

Developments in many countries like Peru, Brazil, Hungary and even the United States suggest that we cannot assume that once democracy exists, it will always last.

We should not be surprised. After all, Germany's Weimar Republic was a democracy. Remember how it was destroyed by Adolf Hitler.

Societies that are governed democratically are not immune from social change. If the change makes democracy impossible, we should not be surprised when democracy disappears.

In the absence of government, "the people" are an unorganized mass of individuals incapable of any collective action.

What social conditions are necessary for democracy? Let us start with a realistic description of democracy, which is clearly not "government by the people." Rather, it is government by some people, limited by the people.

In the absence of government, "the people" are an unorganized mass of individuals incapable of any collective action. Government requires power, power requires organization, and organizations are inherently oligarchical. The "iron law of oligarchy" is that in any organization the power to make day to day decisions on behalf of the organization will gravitate into the hands of a few individuals.

That is why all governments---which are organizations--- are run by a relatively few individuals. However the conditions within which these individuals work can make a huge difference in how they behave. This is where the second part of the definition of democracy---"limited by the people"---comes in. The limits come through periodic elections which can remove individuals who govern and replace them with other individuals.

Officials who know they could lose the next election must keep that fact in mind when they make decisions. This limits what they can do.

If elections cannot remove top officials, there can be no democracy. This is the minimum social condition enabling democracy to exist.

But in order for elections to remove top officials there must be a general consensus - in society and among the political elite from whom officials are chosen - that candidates who lose an election and those who voted for them will accept that result and recognize that someone else won.

As Winston Churchill observed once, "democracy is the worst form of government... except for all the others that have been tried."

In order for this consensus to exist, there must be enough freedom of speech and communication for people to debate government policy, and there must be voting systems that most people can trust to report how they have actually voted.

Lacking this consensus, it will be impossible for elections to determine who occupies public offices. Democracy will be impossible.

This is too bad. As Winston Churchill observed once, democracy is the worst form of government… except for all the others that have been tried."

Recent elections in Brazil and the United States featured losers who refused to accept their defeat and followers who placed more importance on victory for their preferred candidate than on maintaining a democratic political system. If these isolated developments were to become a general pattern in any of these countries, democracy would come to an end there.

Without democracy a decent society would still be possible. For most people, the rule of law is far more important than democracy. Under the rule of law, people can only be deprived of life, liberty or property if they are duly convicted of violating a general rule of action, one applying to everybody's actions. Abominable rules like "non-white people must ride in the back of the bus" are incompatible with the rule of law.

But an ideal regime would be both democratic and respect the rule of law. Those of us who value democracy should therefore do what we can to protect the social conditions necessary for democracy to continue.

This commentary is also posted on LA Progressive.

BC Guest Commentator Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. He can be reached at [email protected].

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