Why Don't More Countries Have Democracies?

While the U.S. has sometimes failed to practice true democracy, the belief in 'government of the people, by the people and for the people' remains critical to the nation's identity. But not every country has a democracy because the system isn't as great as we think, and oppressive leaders are tough to overthrow. That's according to NYU professor of politics Alastair Smith. Host Michel Martin speaks with Smith to learn more about his theory.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up in honor of Independence Day we are going to offer up a taste of some special dishes some immigrant families are cooking up to celebrate. That's in a few minutes.

But first beyond the pool parties, barbeques, and fireworks July 4th is a day when Americans celebrate this nation's rise from a colony ruled by a distant king to a democracy ruled by the people and while the U.S. has sometimes failed in the practice of true democracy our belief in the superiority of our government by the people, for the people and of the people is critical to a sense of ourselves.

But that leads us to a question. If it's really self-evident that all people are created equal and democracy is best, why don't more nations have it? We found somebody who's thought about this. Alistair Smith is a professor of politics at New York University. He recently co authored an opinion piece in the New York Times titled "How Tyrants Endure," and he's with us now from NPR's bureau in New York. Professor Smith, thank you so much for joining us.

ALASTAIR SMITH: Welcome.

MARTIN: First of all, can you give us an idea of how many nations actually have some form of democracy?

SMITH: This is always a great question to start with and it really depends upon exactly what we mean by democracy. So, there are a bunch of academics collect indices of such things and so depending upon how you want to do that those sort of freedom house people would tell us 47 percent of the world live in free politic institutions and the polity institute would tell us it's either 50 or 30 or 20 depending upon which of the particular measures you want to use. But somewhere between the 20 percent and 50 percent are free.

MARTIN: So, in recent months we've seen widespread uprisings against a number of regimes that we view in the West as oppressive; Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain. What's the difference between the countries where democratic movements succeed and those where they fail?

SMITH: Well, we want to think about democratic regimes as to who wants them. They tend to be the regimes that are best for the people. When leaders need to keep a lot of people happy they have to do things that are generally good for the majority of the people. Otherwise they get kicked out, get deposed. Leaders who have bad economic growth we kick them out in democracies. In autocratic systems we tend to think of leaders have to keep much smaller a proportion of the population happy.

And so, they don't tend to worry so much about doing things that are good for the people. They do things that are good for their cronies, which aren't generally good for the people and this makes it easier for them to stay in power.

MARTIN: Some have offered the opinion that some societies are culturally more conducive to democracy than others. Do you credit that theory?

SMITH: I think that's just an excuse for not taking the hard work that needs to be done to empower the people. People often have a particular crony that they'd like to see or a puppet that we might want to prop up for example and it will be convenient to say that the people of that country - in a very patronizing way I think - are ready for democracy and people pick up the idea of how to vote people into office and how to approve of people, disapprove of people very quickly.

And I think there's a little in cultural bias. You know, and often I think one of the ways we tend to think about regimes is do we, you know, I'm talking collectively, is the United States or the West like a country? Do we like the policies they have? And we often define the political institutions for freedom of the people and what should be done there according to what the views are that are being expressed by the current regime.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News on a day when Americans celebrate our country's independence. We're talking about democracy and we're talking about why so many people don't have it.

I'm talking to Alastair Smith. He's a professor of politics at New York University. He recently wrote an opinion piece about how tyrants stay in power. One of the things that in your piece in the New York Times that you wrote about, you said that regimes rich and natural resources are flush with foreign aid can readily suppress freedom of speech, of free press, and most important the right to assemble.

One of the reasons I was fascinated by this point is that a lot of people I think feel that if you have a lot of wealth to spread around why wouldn't you have a democracy, because you wouldn't need to - I think a lot of people think of tyranny as a way to husband resources for the benefit of the few against the many.

And if you have a lot why not spread it around? I know that may sound like a ridiculous question but I just wanted to ask a little bit more about why is that, that having a lot of natural resources actually doesn't always work in the favor of democracy.

SMITH: Right, so this is the complete irony of it. You have wonderful natural resources which could pay to improve the welfare of the people. But it provides all the political incentives to do the exact opposite. So, there's all this wealth and the leader has all this wealth and they can think about how they want to divvy it up. Paying off a small number of cronies enormous amounts of wealth so they live in luxury is a great way of buying that political support.

That money doesn't go as far if we divide it over millions and millions of people so, you sort of concentrate the wealth in a few people and providing they're willing to keep you in power and do the dirty work of preventing the people from actually rising up and trying to seize the wealth themselves you are pretty stable as a leader.

MARTIN: Well, why didn't that happen here in the U.S.? The U.S. has tremendous natural resources. I mean, we have oil, we have fertile agricultural areas. We have all kinds of natural resources. Now, how come that didn't happen in the U.S.?

SMITH: Well, this I think you're all thinking of this very much from a 20th century perspective. So, you know, one of the reasons - I guess is July 4th - so one of the reasons that the British didn't fight that hard over the United States and - make the slightly controversial interpretation - but this is that the U.S. just wasn't a particularly valuable asset at the time of the war of independence. The Caribbean was a much more important money-making thing.

So, the money was coming out of Jamaica where slaves were growing sugar and rum and things like that were much more valuable products. The U.S. was small.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: The U.S. was much more small holder farmers and trappers. It was not an easy way to accumulate vast amounts of resources from the people and therefore the people came and set up their own institutions so, small holder farmers - there wasn't this ability for the government to strip out the resources that there was in the Caribbean.

And that's sort of a I hadn't really thought of putting it in those terms but, you know, we got the next resource, that the British will concentrate on the Caribbean and not on North America.

MARTIN: Again this may sound like a ridiculous question but I think this is the kind of question that many Americans have when they look at countries who are looking to throw off despites, but one of the questions I think a lot of Americans have and this is something that was asked a lot about Egypt is why do people put up with it for so long?

SMITH: Well, precisely because the numbers of people that are actually out on the street the regime can kill those numbers of people, they can have them arrested. And provided the regime has the repressive capacity to do so, the people are wise to keep their heads down. It's very difficult for people to coordinate so, if everybody turns up on the street at the same time which we saw this happening in Egypt and we saw this happening in Tunisia. We saw this happening in Eastern Europe.

We saw this happening during the Russian Revolution. When everybody shows up then you can overwhelm the security forces. But even in most of these cases, the reason they succeed is that the army and the security forces actually decide that they're not willing to prop up the regime.

MARTIN: A number of American presidents have said in recent years that the bend of the arch of history was toward freedom. I don't remember who said that originally but I think it might have been Martin Luther King, I'm not sure, but do you credit that as well? I mean, do you think that--that is in fact true, that over the course of history that is where the bend of history goes?

SMITH: Well, we've seen democracies are relatively recent invention. The proportion of nations that were democratic a century ago was a very small proportion of the world's people lived in democratic societies, and that's definitely changing. Hopefully, the new technology, things like the Internet, the importance of knowledge in the economy is a big driving force for democracy. If you stop people meeting, you stop people talking, you prevent a knowledge-based economy.

So, hopefully a knowledge-based economy will drive leaders to adopt policies that allow people to talk, allow people to assemble, allow people to discuss their views, and at which point it becomes much harder to control people. It's much harder to stop people going on the streets if they can all coordinate to show up at the same time.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, I do understand that you're from England originally. I think that our listeners may hear that in your accent. I hate to ask, but I'm going to ask - any mixed feelings on this Independence Day? Are you happy for us?

SMITH: I'm very happy for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I think it's a wonderful country. It's been a great experiment in democracy. And I would like to see - the U.S. could become more democratic. The rules can still be changed to empower more people in the U.S. We can get rid of gerrymandering. We can get rid of the Electoral College. We could set up change to the institutions here so that more leaders become more and more dependent upon more and more people to stay in power and they'll - those sort of institutional changes hopefully will empower leaders to be even more responsive to the people of the United States.

MARTIN: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at New York University. He's the co-author of a recent New York Times opinion piece called "How Tyrants Endure." If you'd like to read that piece, we'll link to it on our website. Go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE. Professor Smith was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

SMITH: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

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