Why Does Democracy Work and Why Doesn’t It?


The concept of democracy, notwithstanding its ever-growing topicality in the modern society, is not as easy to explain as it may seem to be. In one respect, its meaning as the power of people is familiar to the vast majority; on the contrary, it is exclusively semantic and provides little to no understanding of how this should work. The paper analyzes several theories of whether democracy is possible or not and why; in fact, all of them see the imperfection of human beings as the main obstacle.

Enlightenment according to Kant

Kant today is mentioned among the pioneers of democratic thought, as one of his most famous ideas lies in moving beyond the ideologies that public institutions enforce on the population, which presupposes empowerment. Simply stated, he proclaims that an average individual is not sufficiently decisive and psychologically mature to make decisions on his or her own rather than rely on the monarch, church, or other. Intellectual development by thinking outside common convictions is the only way to change the situation since it brings autonomy, hence the ability to self-govern (Kant, 1784). Democracy, therefore, is possible to reach through enlightenment, which means being sufficiently courageous to reflect.

American Democracy According to Tocqueville

Tocqueville believed equality to be the essential sociopolitical idea of his time, notably, the first half of the 19th century, and apparently saw the United States as a textbook example of it. It would be relevant to specify that in the given context, equality stands for comparable social conditions and opportunities, which minimize income-related misunderstandings and favor stability (Tocqueville, 2002). It manifests itself in the absence of civil disturbances since there are few to no reasons for them. Along with this, Tocqueville describes the possible risks of universal suffrage, among which further individualization of the society and the so-called tyranny of the majority. Both, according to him, can cause political crises; the former due to the prevalence of personal interest over the public good, and the latter through neglecting minorities, hence the elimination of alternative viewpoints.

Deliberative Democracy of Habermas

Although the term of deliberative democracy appeared later, Habermas is worth mentioning in the list of the authors of this concept. As guessable from the name, he considers discussion the key to democracy as it is the only way to identify the cause of the existing disagreement (Habermas, 1992). More specifically, the participation of all categories of the population in political life and constant communication among them are critical for shortening the distance between the political establishment and ordinary citizens. In reality, the role of the latter frequently comes down to electing, after which the elite gain power, sometimes unlimited, and seek to prevent people from influencing them.

Key Concepts and Theoretical Strategy

All of the above theories hint at the interrelations between the structure of the society and the ways in which its members behave. Thus, Kant sees the population as a relatively or completely passive mass following a leader, which drives to the conclusion than an individual can be more powerful than a group is. This may change, however, in case more people resolve to think beyond the frameworks that are normal in a certain society. This decision is able to modify the proportion of those who lead and those who follow; therefore, it exemplifies the possible influence of behavior on the structure.

Tocqueville, on the contrary, describes a situation where the original social context determines people’s actions, focusing on the entire society rather than its particular members. Specifically, he mentions that the creators of the United States were all middle-class, English-speaking, and Christians, which made internal conflicts hardly probable (Tocqueville, 2002). In other words, he illustrates the importance of cultural and ideological consensus in building democracy.

Regarding Habermas, he describes an opposite situation, where different categories of the population have unequal opportunities by definition. Such a structure of the society, according to him, results in separation of the strata from each other and creates obstacles to adequate communication, without which no agreement and, subsequently, no democracy is possible. Overall, social context and people’s actions are intertwined and able to determine each other at all levels, specifically, those of individuals, groups, and the entire society.

Causal Relationships and Social Mechanisms

It would be relevant, apparently, to analyze the theories in detail for better understanding of how their authors see the mechanisms of democracy. Kant, in particular, insists on a causal relationship between the breadth of thought and freedom that means the ability to regulate. Simply stated, a person who has courage to make his or her own decisions rather than follow outside instructions can change the environment (Kant, 1784). A society that consists of such individuals, in turn, needs no supreme power to make decisions for its members since each of them, or at least the majority, can do this. Such people may elect representatives to organize and coordinate their actions but will not allow forcing and oppressing them, which actually means democracy.

The American society of the early 19th century that Tocqueville describes may serve as a proper example because it had been democratic since its formation. Nevertheless, the thinker’s remarks on the potential threats are quite valid. He mentions, notably, that every person tends to consider his or her personal benefits more important in comparison with those for the entire society (Tocqueville, 2002). In case everybody has the right to elect, everybody opts for the candidate whom he or she believes to be able to protect his or her interest, which breeds internal conflicts. In addition, if a certain candidate appeals to a bigger amount of people than the other do, less popular perspectives lose their weight. This, in turn, can lead the society to unwanted consequences up to a collapse because the direction, which the dominant group has chosen, may be wrong.

Habermas offers a solution to minimize the risks; a causal relationship, according to him, exists between deliberation and democracy. Notably, political decisions should emerge from a rational, argumentative, and well-rounded social discourse, which presupposes considering all of the opinions and eliminates impulsive steps (Habermas, 1992). Equal respect to each viewpoint makes tyranny of the majority less possible, and sufficient argumentation helps balance personal and public interests, compensating for the above disadvantages of universal suffrage.

General Logic

It is difficult to classify the above theories as concrete or abstract categorically since their subject, the society, is not an individual countable item but consists of such. The cases of this kind may qualify as collective, also referred to as concrete universals, because they have the features of both units and unities (Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.). Societies, in fact, are of similar nature because they comprise people and relations among those. Due to this, all of the given theories are applicable to any society, in other words, generalizable. On the contrary, structural peculiarities such as stratification or cultural context may differ substantially from one society to another. This limits the falsifiability of the theories, making them actual in certain communities but irrelevant in the other.

Testable Implications

The correspondence of Kant’s idea of enlightenment to reality seems doubtless; the entire history of the humanity is a way from feudalism to democracy in the course of exploration and the development of thought. In each particular case, however, thinking beyond the existing normal not necessarily has positive consequences in terms of the population’s empowerment. Thus, the revolution of 1917 in Russia terminated one empire but immediately created another, where real power belonged to the administration of the leading party (“USSR established,” 2009). This allows assuming that the direction in which people think depends on their mentality even in case they are sufficiently courageous to oppose the ideology.

Two other theories, meanwhile, have sufficient implications in several countries. Notably, the USA is experiencing social unrest resulting from the conflict of worldviews and the neglect of minorities, as Tocqueville predicted. Regarding adequate communication between the levels of the society, its lack can lead to a situation where the president becomes a dictator, which happened, for instance, in Turkey or Belarus (“Dictatorship countries,” 2021). On the contrary, mutual respect of the population and authorities, for which Scandinavia is famous, presumably is among the reasons for the known social stability of the region.


The paper summarizes on three popular theories of democracy and assesses their applicability to reality. Notwithstanding the difference in interpretations, each of the philosophers supposes that the obstacles to building the given political order derive from the society itself, more precisely, from human nature. Among the unfavorable features are poor self-reliance and the inability to find a balance between personal and public interests, which results eventually in the dominance of certain groups over the other.


Dictatorship countries. (2021). World Population Review. Web.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Concrete. Britannica. Web.

Habermas, J. (1992). Civil society and the political public sphere. In C. Calhoun, J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff, & I. Virk (Eds,), Contemporary sociological theory, (3rd Ed.) (pp. 469-489). Wiley-Blackwell.

Kant, E. (1784). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? Web.

De Tocqueville, A. (2002). Democracy in America. (H. C. Mansfield, Trans.) University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1835).

USSR established. (2009). History.com. Web.

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1. DemoEssays. "Why Does Democracy Work and Why Doesn’t It?" December 25, 2022. https://demoessays.com/why-does-democracy-work-and-why-doesnt-it/.


DemoEssays. "Why Does Democracy Work and Why Doesn’t It?" December 25, 2022. https://demoessays.com/why-does-democracy-work-and-why-doesnt-it/.