Is Democracy a Universal Value?

In earlier units of this course, democracy was defined as “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representative.” (Schmitter, Karl 4) Democracy has been measured by political rights, civil liberties, and the overall “freedom” of citizens. Lipset links a certain level of development in a country with the probability of democracy. That is to say, countries that are more developed are more likely to be democratic.

On the other hand, culture has always been difficult to define. One can assume that cultural democracy exists before political democracy. Going back to citizens are the most important aspect of democracy. To determine if democracy is a universal value, we should determine the values of democracy. If the most distinct element of democracy is its people, we must then determine the value of citizens of different cultures. Before I make any claim, I want to assert that I do not believe democracy is a western value, though no doubt it’s prevalence in western society is beyond doubt and the influence the West has had on the spread of democracy is indisputable.

In “Clash of Civilizations”, Samuel Huntington debated that cultures that have asserted their identity through religion, say whose primary attachment is to a religion opposed to their nation, have a culture that isn’t susceptible to certain liberal ideals, individualism, and democracy. In many ways, I agree with Huntington’s argument. The values of democracy are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, if a culture exists as a theocracy, individuality is left behind for the collective, liberty is defined by the sacred text, and the pursuit of happiness is limited to pursuit of ideological enlightenment. I.e. Christians reaching Heaven or Buddhists reaching Nirvana, etc. That is not to say that a culture must not have a central religion to be democratic, but that a culture must be democratic before anything else. If they are religious first then democratic, democracy is defined and restricted by their ideology.

To answer the question of which cultural explanation I belong to, I would have to say that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a basic human right of which all humans should be exposed and entitled to. But, I also believe that there are certain cultures where democratic values do not and can not exist. Amartya Sen in Democracy as a Universal Value writes this, “Throughout the nineteenth century, theorists of democracy found it quite natural to discuss whether one country or another was “fit for democracy.” This thinking changed only in the twentieth century, with the recognition that the question itself was wrong: A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy.” (Sen 4)

This aligns with my thoughts on democracy. There is a need for democracy as it appeals to basic human rights unlike autocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial, tyrannical, totalitarian regimes, but I can not argue that it is a universal value applicable to all cultures as those cultures stand today because it means to argue that all cultures are democratic, existing in a democratic system of values.


Philippe C. Schmitter, Terry Lynn Kar. What Democracy Is…and Is Not. Journal of Democracy, Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 1991, pp. 75-88 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

Philippe C. Schmitter, Terry Lynn Kar. What Democracy Is…and Is Not. Journal of Democracy, Volume 10, Number 4, October 1999, pp. 4-15 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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