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Why Do Some Democracies Survive While Others Fail?


Published June 2, 2022

New democracies fail when leaders violate the rule of law and use extraconstitutional actions to stay in power. During the Glorious Revolution, England established a Bill of Rights that limited royal authority and made it clear that maintaining the throne required sovereigns to protect the rights of the people. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights echoed these ideas and ensured the protection of individual liberties.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do some democracies survive while others fail?
  2. How does the Bill of Rights empower our citizens?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England,” by Douglass C. North and Barry R. Weingast. Available here.
  • Read “Constitutional Stability and the Deferential Court,” by Sonial Mittal and Barry R. Weingast. Available here.
  • Read “Legal Order: Lessons from Ancient Athens,” by Federica Carugati, Gillian K. Hadfield, and Barry R. Weingast. Available here.
View Transcript

Why is it that some democracies, like the United States and much of Europe, survive, while others fail?

Democracies fail when elected leaders violate or circumvent the rule of law to stay in power, attacking the very nature of democracy.

This failure of democracy happens when leaders don't believe that the citizens and their representative institutions can or will unite against them, and hold them accountable for breaking the rules.

So how can this failure be prevented?

In the late 1600s, the philosopher John Locke argued that citizens have a right and duty to defend their liberty.

The English took this to heart during the Glorious Revolution when they deposed the Stuart king, James the second.

But the English Parliament did more than just replace one tyrant for another.

They established a Bill of Rights that limited royal authority, and clearly defined what the crown could and couldn't do. This gave citizens the ability to recognize, agree, and act when the crown violated essential rights. The result was that English kings believed that maintaining their throne required faithfully protecting the rights of the people.

Influenced by Locke, the American Revolution was founded upon this same belief that citizens had the right and duty to defend their liberty, and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the rule of law.

As the Declaration of Independence describes: "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."

Following the revolution, the Americans adopted a Constitution and their own Bill of Rights that defined the role of the federal government.

Like the English Bill of Rights, the Constitution defined what the government could and couldn't do, so that citizens were knowledgeable and equipped to police transgressions from the government.

Because of this, our elected officials understand that to stay in power or maintain influence beyond their term, it is in their best interest to abide by Constitutional rules.

This is one of the keys to establishing and preserving a successful democracy - having clear lines as to what the government can and can't do, and having citizens who believe that it is their right and duty to defend their liberty, and to unite against rule-breakers if those lines are crossed.