Preconditions for Democracy

Central thesis: Are the people ready?

The people may be striving very desperately and passionately for democracy, but are they ready? The central thesis of this informal paper is that among the many preconditions necessary to create and grow a thriving, vibrant, and sustainable democracy, the one that stands above the rest is that the people must be ready, not so much that they have a passionate desire, but that they have the abilities and skills and commitment to actually pull it off.

  1. Deep commitment to a long and arduous process. Patience is as important as passion.
  2. Deep bench of founding fathers who have the skills to assume the mantle of leadership of the democracy enterprise. Somebody has to provide leadership and it can’t be a single person or a small, inner circle.
  3. Deep bench of professionals who have the skills to construct a vibrant and functional bureaucracy that facilitates a vibrant economy with opportunity for all and know how to make the trains run on time. Policies, procedures, and processes need to be designed, implemented, and sustained.
  4. A deep, vibrant, and vocal civil society able to inform, check, assist, and support formal government.
  5. An informed electorate who are prepared to elect enlightened leaders and representatives, and to shoulder their own civic responsibilities in their daily lives.

The full list of preconditions

These are the many preconditions required to create and grow a thriving, vibrant, and sustainable democracy, not strictly in any sequential order per se:

  1. Are the people ready?
  2. Depth of commitment to a long and arduous process — much patience will be needed in addition to much passion.
  3. Law and order — that provide stability and a foundation, and can be respected by the people.
  4. Generally free from any significant unrest or disorder — people can freely go about their daily lives.
  5. Generally free from any significant organized crime.
  6. Strong sense of the value of order and stability, at all levels of society.
  7. Strong sense of the need to promote and protect order and stability.
  8. Strong respect for authority.
  9. Strong sense of humility by those wielding authority and power.
  10. Strong commitment to prevent and fight corruption.
  11. Strong sense of physical security, for borders, communities, and homes.
  12. Strong and vibrant economy that provides everyone with a decent livelihood.
  13. Strong sense of social justice.
  14. Strong sense of economic justice.
  15. Critical mass of shared values.
  16. Strong sense of personal responsibility.
  17. Strong sense of personal agency.
  18. Strong sense of individualism.
  19. Strong respect for personal privacy.
  20. Strong commitment to education, both public and private.
  21. Reasonably educated populace.
  22. Readily available health care for all.
  23. Strong public discourse between and among both elites and the general populace on what democracy means from a practical perspective. Elites and the populace must be on the same page for all of the important elements of democracy.
  24. Strong respect for intellectual property, including trade secrets.
  25. Strong respect for the rights of individuals and human rights in general.
  26. Strong respect for the rights of women as full-fledged citizens and members of society — no second-class status in any areas of society or governance.
  27. Strong sense of freedom of association and peaceful assembly — rights of groups.
  28. Strong leaders, founding fathers — not dictators, but ready to shoulder great burdens and lead.
  29. Deep bench of leadership, any of whom can lead the country.
  30. Strong and deep cadre of professionals ready and able to take up the reins of running the practical, day to day elements of government
  31. Strong sense of community — derived from strong individuals more than just leaders.
  32. Strong sense of transparency for government.
  33. Strong and vocal non-state media — free of government interference.
  34. Strong, active, and vocal civil society able to inform, check, assist, and support formal government.
  35. Strong sense of optimism for the future.
  36. Strong willingness to set tribalism, ethnicity, and other demographic differences aside.
  37. Strong sense of ethnic and racial justice, fairness, and equality, with minimal tension, hostility, or conflict.
  38. Process and support for reconciliation of conflicts, disputes, and differences between social groups.
  39. Strong sense of mutual respect and civility.
  40. Strong commitment to religious pluralism and mutual respect between religions.
  41. Strong affinity to plural government and sharing of power.
  42. Strong willingness of the people to trust elected leaders and representatives.
  43. Strong commitment of elected leaders and representatives to faithfully represent and pursue the interests of the people.
  44. Strong commitment of appointed government officials (bureaucrats) to respect the will and interests of the people.
  45. Strong entrepreneurial spirit.
  46. Free and open markets.
  47. Heavy economic reliance on government-owned enterprises is not compatible with democracy.
  48. Kleptocracy and oligarchy are not compatible with democracy.
  49. Private capital in addition to more modest investment by government.
  50. Ready availability of substantial foreign direct investment in addition to more modest indigenous private and government capital.
  51. Currency, monetary policy, and strong central bank to maintain monetary stability.
  52. Robust and professional banking sector.
  53. Light and smart regulation.
  54. Strong belief that change is inherently good and inherently continuous.
  55. Strong commitment to sustainability in all aspects of government, the private sector, and society overall.
  56. Strong commitment to a reasonably balanced budget and fair and equitable sources of revenue.
  57. Limited and focused government investment in critical services and infrastructure.
  58. Availability of critical services and infrastructure — whether provided by the private sector or government.
  59. Rule of law — Independent judiciary, respect for and enforcement of contracts, fair and equitable application of regulations, law, and administrative decisions.
  60. Strong commitment to respect for regional and demographic differences within the country.
  61. Strong local government. Whether or to what extent it is fully democratic is less important than that there be a strong sense of civil order and civic responsibility, with strong mutual respect between local officials and local citizens. Special emphasis on plural rather than tribal governance.
  62. Strong commitment to respect neighboring countries and their peoples.
  63. A single host or sponsor country that will lend significant assistance, both to start and to follow through every step of the way for a substantial period of time.

Importance of civil society

There is no single universal definition for civil society, but roughly speaking it means that there are strong and vocal institutions outside of government and business and industry who help to inform, check, assist, and support government, such as:

  1. Religious institutions.
  2. Academic institutions.
  3. Media.
  4. Labor unions.
  5. Professional associations.
  6. Philanthropic organizations.
  7. Activist organizations and service-oriented nongovernmental organizations.
  8. Political parties, particularly those not in power or control of the government.
  1. An ideal society, as envisioned by Plato and other early philosophers, where the entirety of an ideal society is civil society. Nice ideal, but not so practical, yet.
  2. All associations outside of government proper, particularly business and industry — some people prefer to consider business as a key part of civil society, while others prefer not to.
  3. Exclude all establishment organizations, such as religions, mainstream media, professional associations, labor unions, and traditional philanthropic organizations, focusing on grassroots organizations or so-called NGOs.

Where to start, when to start, and how to start

There is no easy and pat answer to where, when, and how to start the serious process of evolving a country into a proper democracy. Sure, revolution can indeed work, sometimes, but as the American Revolution proved, even a successful revolution is difficult to pull off.

Spark to light the fire of democracy

The impetus to democracy is most commonly an extreme pessimism towards the present conditions rather than some grand vision when times are good or even moderately pessimistic. The actual spark to kick off the process to begin the long arduous march towards democracy can be anything. It could be some otherwise minor event, but one which draws attention to long-simmering anxieties and resentments, such as:

  1. Fear of the existing regime that transforms into insatiable anger, but an anger that can be transformed and channeled into the positive energy needed for democracy rather than merely to break windows and burn buildings.
  2. Extreme oppression.
  3. Lack of basic freedoms and human rights.
  4. Lack of economic opportunity.

Short list of key preconditions

It sure would be nice if only a small subset of the full list of preconditions needed to be met to at least get a fledgling democracy started and off the ground. Sorry, no can do. But, at least we can focus on the few really bigs ones, such that if you can come up with a plan for them, then you at least have some chance of then branching out to start planning for the rest. I’d start planning with these:

  1. Law and order.
  2. Individual and group rights.
  3. Ethnic, racial, and religious equality and fairness.
  4. Vibrant civil society.
  5. Thriving private sector and free and open markets, limiting government to a minority of the overall economy.
  6. Ready availability of some combination of indigenous private capital and foreign direct investment.
  7. Economic opportunity for all.
  8. Ready availability of housing, education, and health care for all.
  9. Plural political system — more than two major parties, with at least two capable of capturing a solid majority in any given election. And a willingness of each to accept the rule of the other without excessive acrimony.
  10. Commitment to minimizing and eliminating corruption in government, law enforcement, and the courts.
  11. Stable relations with neighboring countries
  12. A host or sponsoring country to get the process started and follow through every step of the way.

Again, where to start

That short list was more about the functional areas of focus and left off the top two preconditions from the original list:

  1. People are ready, with founding fathers, professionals, civil society, and average citizens.
  2. Depth of commitment to a long and arduous process.

Summary list of preconditions

If you really want a short list that summarizes the overall preconditions from a higher, more abstract level, this would be it:

  1. The people are ready — deep bench of founding fathers ready to become leaders, seasoned professionals for bureaucrats ready to make the trains run on time, a broad and deep civil society ready to both support and guide the new government, and a well-informed citizenry ready to select enlightened leaders and shoulder civic responsibilities in their daily lives.
  2. Depth of commitment to a long and arduous process.
  3. A comprehensive economic plan that will provide economic opportunity for all.
  4. A credible plan for security — military, local police, and national special police.
  5. A host or sponsoring country to get the process started and follow through on every step of the way.

Importance of a sponsoring country

Going it alone is a very tough and very risky proposition. It is much better to establish a relationship with another country to sponsor the democracy efforts of the new government, not to seek to be subservient to that country, but to gain their expertise, support, and assistance, not to mention their moral support and advice when times get tough.

Evolution from an existing non-democratic government

Again, true revolution is technically certainly an option, but very difficult to pull off. More likely is a gradual evolution from the existing non-democratic system. Not likely to be a very smooth process, but incremental nonetheless.

Importance of impatience

As important as patience is for the long-haul, a short-term tactical need for impatience is also needed to assure that the long and arduous process doesn’t get too bogged down in such a way that saps the essential energy and passion needed to keep the process going.

Role of street protests

Are large street protests really a best first step in bootstrapping a new democracy? To listen to some people and activists, you would think that they were, but unfortunately that is typically not the case.

  1. Let the voices and aspirations of the people be heard by the government.
  2. Blow off steam, to avoid festering resentments that might otherwise result in outright rebellion.

Role of passion

Passion is required to keep the fire of democracy alive and vibrant, but can never be viewed as a substitute for patience, commitment, diligence, and competence. All are needed to create and grow a sustainable democracy.

Role of anarchists?

Anarchists can certainly be effective when it comes to regime change and taking down existing authorities, but their political ambitions are diametrically opposed to any sane democratic effort — anarchy is in opposition to republican democratic ideals.

Democracy as a hobby?

It is very easy for people to become enthralled with the ideas of democracy and get caught up in street protests and soaring speeches, but it takes a lot of energy, focus, commitment, patience, and hard work to make democracy a reality, and a sustainable reality at that. Democracy cannot be pursued as a hobby. It is not the work of amateurs.

Going through the motions

As noted at the outset, a successful democracy is more than just writing up a constitution and having elections. Simply going through the motions is not good enough. The motions being:

  1. Get a bunch of people together to agree on the type and structure of government.
  2. Have lawyers draw up a constitution.
  3. Draw up an org chart for the bureaucracy of government.
  4. Build some buildings for the institutions and offices of government.
  5. Have an election.
  6. Appoint people to official positions.
  7. Hire professional and support staff.
  8. Hope for the best.

Role of founding fathers

A relatively small but relatively diverse group of founding fathers is essential to getting the ball rolling and keeping it rolling.

Boring stuff

As exciting as founding or transitioning to a new democracy can be, unfortunately governance is largely mundane and boring work, the daily tasks of bureaucrats. Sure, politics and leadership can be exciting, but so much of the success and sustainability of a democracy is dependent on long-haul grunt work, almost completely lacking in excitement. Or when it does get exciting, it is usually because something has gone wrong or somebody has screwed up or done something scandalous, in which case the real, true goal is to get things back to mundane and boring as quickly as possible.

Law, order, and security vs. freedom, equality, and justice

You frequently hear people arguing about trading off between security and freedom, but this is really a false choice, a false dichotomy. Freedom, equality, and justice are the goals we wish to achieve in society, and law, order, and security are simply means to those ends. Security is not needed per se except to protect the rights and freedoms of the people. Law and order are not needed per se except to protect equality and to administer justice.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Sure, democracy focuses on good governance, equality, and freedom, but… ultimately everything hinges on whether people feel that they have sufficient economic opportunity to support a decent lifestyle. Without jobs, decent incomes, and affordable (and available) goods and services, unrest among the populace will build and overwhelm even the (perceived) best of governance.

Governance and economic opportunity

Good governance is essential, but is wasted and won’t last for long unless there is sufficient economic opportunity for all. Economic opportunity will depend on:

  1. Strong entrepreneurial spirit.
  2. Free and open markets.
  3. Private capital.
  4. Foreign direct investment.
  5. Light and smart regulation.

Government investment and private capital

There will always be a tension between which services and infrastructure should be provided by government and which will be provided by the private sector.

Go easy on foreign aid

Providing foreign aid, whether in the form of direct grants or loans, seems like an easy fix, but is not really the best best for getting a new democracy off the ground, especially when it comes to sustainability. Again, achieving a durable democracy is not a one-time affair, but takes a very long-term view of sustainability.

Democracy promotion and advocacy

There is no question that everybody everywhere should aspire to living in a democracy, with freedom and access to opportunity.

Peaceful democratization

Generally speaking, promotion and advocacy for democracy should be limited to peaceful transition to democracy.

Regime change and incitement

Granted, an oppressed people have the natural right to revolt and use whatever force they feel is necessary to throw off the shackles of oppression, but that’s a decision for the people of a country to make for themselves, not a decision to be imposed or incited by a foreign government, no matter how well-intentioned such efforts might be.

Direct democracy vs. representative democracy

Direct democracy has its appeal, but is impractical for other than very small societies. As a general proposition, representative or republican democracy is more practical, although it does depend on the people willing to trust that elected representatives will represent their interests faithfully.

Fledgling democracies

New-founded democracies cannot be expected to have all of their ducks lined up on day one. Even if they do indeed have all of the preconditions met on paper or with names in all the boxes, it can take years and decades before the fledgling democracy is able to truly flourish.

Credibility with the people

The really important thing is that a newly-founded democracy has credibility with the people — the people have to truly believe in their government, not just on an abstract, intellectual level, but on a passionate, visceral level as well. Their enthusiasm must be boundless, otherwise the democracy will falter.

Mature democracies

Although it may be very tempting to declare “mission complete” at some stage of maturity for a democracy, the simple, ugly truth is that the hard, heavy work of democracy is never complete. In fact, it never really gets easier and only ever gets harder, but that is is nature of a truly robust and resilient democracy — the robustness and resiliency is needed to both assure that the democracy can survive in tough times of crisis, but also needed in sunny, good times to assure that the democracy does not get complacent and soft.

Continual change

The main secret ingredient need to both build a new democracy from scratch and to keep a mature democracy fresh and vibrant is a passionate commitment to continual change.

Balanced budget

Money is always a difficult matter for any form of government. Sure, you can borrow money in a pinch, but as a general rule government spending can’t sustainably grow at a faster rate than the underlying economy.

Ideological foundations and theory of democracy

Much has been said and written about democracy over the past few centuries, in addition to the work of ancient Greek philosophers, but there is no single work that suffices as a true guidebook for democracy. It is unfortunate, but practitioners are faced with a crazy-quilt patchwork of uncoordinated theories.


Corruption is one of the more common and significant complaints against non-democratic regimes, and even many nominally democratic governments. It is an insidious affliction that saps respect and trust in government. It may take the form of outright bribery, quid pro quo, nepotism, or discrimination. Worse, it may be semi-officially sanctioned and even accepted or expected by the populace, sometimes as a quasi-legitimate form of compensation for unfairly low official salaries. Even so, it will still sap the respect and trust that citizens have for government. At the end of the day, it means that decisions in government are not being made on their merit.


Although a court or a military victory can formally end a conflict, differences can linger, fester, and cause problems down the road. A reconciliation process is needed. Despite its enormous value, reconciliation has not yet been commonly used even in the nominally more successful democracies. Established democracies and near-democracies may be technically able to get away without any formal reconciliation process, but it may be mandatory or at least a significant benefit for more modest-sized, younger, and fledgling democracies.


Democracy really is worth all the hard work, but the hard work is still required.



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