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What is democracy good for?

'It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried' - Winston Churchill

Our society's biggest decisions are made through the ballot box. Those eligible to vote have an opportunity to influence direction and everyone (in general) respects the outcome. The question we are asking ourselves today, in what ways does democracy help us make decisions, and the follow-on question, when is democracy a weak way to make decisions.

A bluffer's history of democracy

We value and appreciate democracy. It has been a hard-won right and is still denied to many people today. We should rightly be proud of our democratic systems and as a result it has become almost sacred and unquestioned.

Importantly, democracy is an ancient concept translated to be 'rule by the people'. The earliest recorded examples of democracy were Ancient Athens (which was closer to a citizen's assembly) and Ancient India where family representatives came together and made collective decisions. In both cases democracy did not survive, and so the other important thing to note about democracy, is that once established it is not guaranteed. In fact today, many proudly democratic nations are seeing an erosion of many of the pillars of democracy. We should not take democracy for granted - for the first time in over half a century we have seen an increase in closed autocracies.

The different types of democracy

There are many forms of democracy, each having their own cultural and historical tilt. In most systems, electors get an opportunity to vote a representative, who acts as their voice in a Parliament that proposes and votes on laws.

Below is a table of the key flavours. Direct democracy tends to be in the form of referenda whereas representative democracy is where your elected parliamentarian votes upon an issue. In some countries a President is a separate body, whereas in the UK for example, the Prime Minister is not chosen directly by the people, but by the parliamentarians.


The differences do not stop there. There are also different types of way of counting votes. For some systems there is proportional representation where parliamentarians are selected by parties as a proportion of the national vote e.g. if your party has 35% of the vote, you will (give or take) get 35% of the MPs. This is different than first-past-the-post where only the local vote matters, and the representative in each area, needs to have the highest vote, and the number of parliamentarians can be much higher or lower than the national share of the vote. get the gist, lots of variations to what we call democracy.

Why does democracy work well?


It's important we understand why democracy is so respected to us:

  1. Everyone gets an equal say: Democratic exercises have legitimacy. Everyone had the opportunity to input and hence it can be seen as representative and inclusive. This is useful when different parts of society have different needs e.g. healthcare. Given people have directly or indirectly been involved in the decision-making process for laws, it gives enforcement of those laws i.e. the rule of law more legitimacy too.

  2. Politicians are accountable: The value of having people elect their representatives is that if they are unhappy with the performance of their elected representatives, they can change them. Transparency is important for this. Re-election requires people feeling that the person has done a good job. A seamless transfer of power is an important part of democracy.

  3. Society can illustrate its changing views: We do not know how a society is changing unless we see how it responds to various issues with its votes. Society regularly change its mind whether the focus should be on reducing taxes or improving public services.

  4. It’s the most impartial way to decide: Sometimes societies are polarised on key issues. A fair, democratic exercise is valuable as even if people do not love the outcome, they cannot have much to say about the process of deciding.


Where democracy struggles

Would you want science or surgery conducted by vote? No, clearly there are some matters that we would say we are not informed enough to opine on.


  1. Popularity does not mean good: Many policies that are popular might be impractical or have long-term side effects that are not considered/discussed.

  2. Does the voter understand?  Many complex issues are reduced to meaningless soundbites. This provides the illusion of understanding and strong views, without having the right background knowledge. Often, the elected politicians themselves do not understand the issues fully. This lack of knowledge makes communication and voting on issues really tough. Is voting on something you cannot reasonably understand a useful exercise?

  3. Decisions tend to be short-term: When people in general are given an opportunity to take some pain upfront for a gain down the line, they most often avoid this, and in fact are most tempted by policies which provide gain today and take pain down the road. This is clearly true with debt, demographics, and climate change.

How should a democracy be measured?

Different indicators of the strength of democracy from the Economist or Freedom House tend to prioritise the election process. These measures include

  • free and fair elections

  • presence of multiple political parties

  • access to voting

  • freedom of dissenting views

  • transparency

  • checks and balances

  • civic engagement

However whilst it is important that there is a clear process, would we prefer highly precise processes or good outcomes? Governments like growing business can get stuck in process, when the outcomes might be worse.

I would like to see different measures of the success of the democracy:

  1. Do important decisions get made in a timely fashion? Or is 'process' getting in the way.

  2. Is the government balancing the needs of generations fairly? Here there are many barometers: Borrowing, investing in infrastructure, population growth.

  3. Is the government focusing its activities on the areas of most need and opportunity?

  4. What is the standard of living of someone who is in the bottom half of a society like? Not the inflation measure we have, but something that reflects an ability to progress in life

    1. live in your own property

    2. have access to state or affordable healthcare and education

    3. be able to afford to get married and have children

    4. save for your pension

    5. experience a low crime rate.

I believe these measures are much more effective at holding administrations to account. Whereas you can fudge many of the typical indicators through wordy process documents, it is harder to fudge a lived reality.

I believe although we keep telling ourselves how wonderful our democracy is, our societies are becoming increasingly short term in our decision-making which is not seeming to show up in the measures of democracy.

So what?

  1. Democracy is an ancient concept originating in places like Ancient Athens and Ancient India. Its survival is not guaranteed, as history shows instances where democracies have been eroded or replaced by autocracies.

  2. Despite its flaws, democracy is valuable. It allows for broad participation in decision-making, ensuring legitimacy and holding politicians accountable through elections.

  3. Democracy is not without challenges. These include voters' lack of expertise on complex issues, the potential popularity of impractical policies, and a tendency towards short-term decision-making over long-term benefits.

Next week we discuss "What is the far right?". Don't forget to sign up to the blog Blog | Deciders (

Democracy series


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