Democracy: as Winston Churchill put it, "it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. "
Today, I couldn't help noting that even regimes governed by ideologies hostile to western free-market orthodoxy adopt a lot of the forms of democracy. (Look at Iran, for example: within the limits staked out by the religious authorities established by the late Grand Ayatollah Khomenei, it's a highly politicized and democratic society. ) On the other hand, if you rewind the clock to 1938, democracy was pretty widely viewed as being on the ropes: autocratic regimes were the norm rather than the exception. Seventy years before that, it was monarchies as far as the eye could see.
So. Why are democratic forms of government spreading?
By way of disconnected and rambling thinking-aloud (with no basis whatsoever in actual political theory — hey, I'm a blogger, you expect me to study stuff before I open my mouth and start talking about it?) I'd like to propose a handful of reasons:
1. Democracy — and elections in particular — do not so much select the best possible leaders from a pool of contenders, but avoid selecting the worst possible leaders from the pool of contenders.
To stand a chance of election, a candidate has to convince the electorate not only to vote for them, but not to vote against them. (Witness the Chirac/le Pen presidential run-off in France in 2002, and the pissed-off socialists bearing banners saying "vote for the crook, not the fascist".) Yes, it is possible for a rogue candidate to get through the filter of public disapproval — but in order to do so, they have to (a) get a large base to vote for them, and (b) more importantly, prevent a majority of the population from uniting against them. Hitler managed to hold his base together in 1933 in the face of fragmented opposition and a perception of national crisis; even so, his most brutal rhetoric was reserved for party ears, rather than the public, until the NSDAP grip on government was secure.
More often, we see unsuitable candidates weeded out before they can get their hands on the levers of state power.
2. Democracy provides a pressure release valve for dissent. As long as the party in power are up for re-election in a period of months to (single digit) years, opponents can grit their teeth and remind themselves that this, too, shall pass ... and wait for an opportunity to vote the bums out. Democracies don't usually spawn violent opposition parties because opposition parties can hope to gain power through non-violent means. But a regime that concedes no limit to its duration threatens its opponents sense of control over their own destiny; the longer the perceived injustice stretches out ahead, the harder it is to resign one's self to waiting and voting in due course.
3. Never underestimate the value of an organized succession. With monarchies, you know where the next king's coming from ... probably. Hereditary succession has a bunch of drawbacks, not least (a) they can go horribly off the rails if a single hairless primate has reproductive problems, and (b) it has yet to be demonstrated that political competence is a genetically associated trait. (It also usually begs the question of why this particular family is destined to rule, either shuffling it off onto the shoulders of the local version of the Invisible Sky Daddy™ or reducing it to "because I say so; address any further questions to my employees from SAVAK".) If an unsuitable heir is proposed, in the absence of a pressure release valve for dissent, opposition can lead to actual civil war.
Even dictatorships have problems with the organized succession. Most members of ruling juntas want, like everybody else, to die at home — not in a prison cell or facing a firing squad. When dictators die, the consequences are usually turmoil on a par with the death of an heirless king; and if it's a ruling committee or politburo, the death of senior members usually results in, at the least, upheaval and competition. Any administrative solution that reduces the probability of facing a firing squad tends to be popular among the survivors of a dictatorship; note for example the gradual shift towards collegiate management in the Soviet and Chinese systems after the demise of their respective charismatic dictators (Stalin and Mao).
Democracy is at a huge advantage over dictatorship or monarchy when it comes to handling the organized succession problem, because the entire system is predicated on the possibility of non-violent succession and an amnesty (or at least amnesia) for the former rulers. Parenthetically, this also makes it extremely dangerous to prosecute the former elected rulers of a democracy, at least for crimes they may have committed during their time in office — it sends a signal to future administrations that they may end up being persecuted by their opposition (and by extrapolation, they can save themselves by exchanging their elected status for a permanent dictatorial one).
Anyway. Here we have three ways in which democracy is less bad than rival forms of government: it usually weeds out lunatics before they can get their hands on the levers of power, it provides a valuable pressure relief valve for dissent, and it handles succession crises way better than a civil war.
Unfortunately democracy has some really huge drawbacks too ... that'd make a fine topic for another rant, but I'm getting a bit tired of this right now, and I've got some work to do.
But anyway: looking (with my science fiction writers' eye) at the above list of reasons why democracy sucks less, I'm inclined to wonder: can we conceive of a form of government that combines the lack-of-comparative-weaknesses of democracy with other, additional strengths? And if so, what would it look like?
You have the mike ...