The role of democratic institutions in the essay


In a democracy citizens take for granted many things that legitimate democratic institutions make possible such as the right to vote, being able to check out a federal law book from the library, or being able to run for city council. Discussions about legitimacy in coffee shops or over kitchen tables are mostly about laws or some politician’s social behavior.

The legitimization of coercive power of democratic institutions may be thought of as an academic philosophical concept but its importance in practical, everyday governing cannot be ignored. Democratic institutions are actors in the justification and legitimization of coercive power because each instituion can act in ethical or unethical ways.

Coercive power is most often thought of as violent or bullying but there are other ways which also result in compelling or enforcing a result. Research has been published on the use of pacifism (Dugan, 2003) and shared power such as integrated (Dugan, 2003) and relationship (Boldt et al, 2007) power. These will be briefly discussed and offered in comparison to the first great observer of American democratic institutions, author Alex de Tocqueville (Tocqueville, 1853). The discussion section of this essay will start by giving examples of these institutions and how they are used in contemporary times. Commentary from great thinkers and contemporary researchers will be discussed in relation to democratic institutions use of coercive power to gain legitimacy and to justify their existence.


For some, thinking of institutions acting inappropriately or appropriately may seem like a strange consideration. Yet how often do political conversations start with the nouns, “ The government . . .” “ The treasury . . . “ “ The Congress . . .”? These institutions (the government, the treasury, and the Congress) are only three of the thousands of institutions which we expect to act appropriately for and within a democracy.

An institution can use coercive power in an inclusive way or an exclusive way. For example they may act democratically or use an ideology like fascism to compel people to follow a set of laws. But are both of those ways ethical? The constant reviewing of ethical behavior in democratic institutions should be a part of coffee break discussions in all walks of life. An awareness of appropriate versus inappropriate use of coercive political power is essential to being able to address the good and the bad use of this type of power.

One of the greater thinkers and writers on the subject is the educator John Rawls who has written, “ To employ the coercive apparatus of the state in order to maintain manifestly unjust institutions is itself a form of illegitimate force that men in due course have a right to resist.” (Rawls, J., 1999) and that is exactly the reason that ethics are a necessary and desired in democratic institutions. The purpose underlying all the bureaucratic departments of local, state and government is to divide power fairly and justly throughout the system. Democratic institutions include but are most definitely not limited to city councils, school councils, county departments, the National Electoral Commission, the Political Parties Registration Commission, Congress (or Parliament), the media, civil organizations.

Democratic institutions can occur between nations in alliances such as the one between the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) and the Research Centre for Political Studies (RCPS). (Rolfe, J., 2004) One of the goals of the cooperation between these two entities is to ease transition in Eastern Asia as China’s role becomes more powerful in the area. It is a good example of how interrelated democratic institutions can become. The RCPS is part of the in the Institute of South Korea. A major participant representing APCSS is a United States Air Force officer.

Academics from universities around the world are also involved who have a variety of specialties such as Eastern Asian languages and Economic History. Each of the above institutions must be trusted or none of the decisions or suggestions they make will be taken seriously.

An example of the types of questions people try to answer when considering the legitimization of democratic institutions is asked by Ian Ayres in the introduction to “ Designing Democratic Institutions” (Shapiro & Macedo, 2000). The discussion is referring to getting money out of the election process and at which stage of the voting process would regulating or stopping the money flow be most effective. In other words whether a voter is bribed to cast a particular vote at the polling booth or a representative in the state or national legislature is bribed with campaign financing an assumption is made that money is a corrupting factor and cannot be part of a legitimate institution.

Ian Ayres (2000) noted,

“ So which is better: mandated disclosure or mandated anonymity? Each holds the potential for disrupting political corruption. This Article tries to imagine the effects of pure disclosure and anonymity regimes.* If we were to repeal all contribution or expenditures limitations and were going to regulate only information, which should we prefer? I tentatively argue that mandated anonymity is preferable. It is a less restrictive alternative that is more likely to deter political corruption.”

Ayres comment is an example of the usefulness philosophical discussions about democratic institutions take place by discussing their functioning on a foundation of morality and ethical.

Discussion of experiences from the past and contemporary times in order to try to determine what has and hasn’t worked is essential as well. An ability to effectively gauge what might happen in the future if certain actions are or aren’t taken is necessary.

International democratic institutions often have umbrella-like, globally active institutions over them such as the Office of the OSCE for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and demonstrate another example of the all important procedure of fair and just elections and how interconnected decisions can be concerning “ coercive power” The address of the Director of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The address of Janez Lenarcic was given to the ODIHR Ian Ayres noted, “ In an earlier article that forms the basis for much of the analysis, Jeremy Bulow and I argued that mandated anonymity would be a useful complement to the current limitation on contributions. See Ian Ayres & Jeremy Bulow, “ The Donation Booth: Mandating Donor Anonymity.”

Permanent council and included his discussion of the successful needs assessments missions (NAM) to overseeing elections in Belarus, Albania, Estonia, Ireland, Cyprus and others countries (Lenarcic, 2011). 2011 is a particularly special year for this organization because with the overseeing of Andorra the institution will have overseen 53 states as well as performing other necessary jobs for legitimization and justification activities such as making follow-up visits and writing legal briefs. The ODIHR functions as an important international democratic institution.

The description of “ coercive” in front of power is usually assumed to be the use of violence or the use of physical force. Yet coercion can be done in other ways which also result in compelling or enforcing an action. Marie Dugan (2003) reminds us that the threat of violence or punishment can gain the desired results and pacifism; such as when used as an act of civil disobedience, is simply another face of “ coercive power.”

Solving seemingly insolvable problems with integrative power can be a powerful non-violent tool for conflict resolution. The use of integrative power requires thinking of “ persuasion, integration, and cooperation as sources of power” (3, 2009) and indispensible in solving “ intractable conflict” (Dugan, 2003).

A study on replacing coercive power with relationship power (Bold et al., 2007) concludes that this type of intervention for at-risk youths is successful but only with continued self-review and flexibility in the program to meet new needs and challenges as they arise. So although an institution is often assumed to be a symbol of rigidity, in fact, flexibility is necessary in order to justify the continuation of the institution.

A citizen’s trust in democratic institutions has been found to be affected by variables that are not very easy to measure but nonetheless make a perceivable difference. “ Variation in social capital can be explained by citizens’ psychological involvement with their communities, cognitive abilities, economic resources, and general life satisfaction” (Brehm & Rahn, 1997).

Above you have seen that coercive power has more than one definition and perhaps has more useful replacements. Terminology must be clearly defined inorder to be of any use and Fabienne (2010) has tried to answer the question of the basic meaning of “ political legitimacy.” He does so by asking the question “ How should legitimacy defined?” then proceeds to consider the answer to the question from different frames of reference such as whether or not the concept is “ primarily a descriptive or a normative concept?”

An issue which is being passionately discussed and perhaps illegally acted upon in the USA is immigration, illegal and legal. Abidzdeh (2008) has taken upon the task of considering what democracy means when setting boundaries or state borders. He introduces his arguments as a discussion of the “ ethics of borders” and it seems that we can also consider something as elusive as borders as a type of democratic institution which can be helpful if accepted as legitimate but controversial perhaps even dangerous when citizens question the legitimacy

In ToqueVille’s (1853) essays about his tour of the developing United States of America he interestingly and in unexpected ways compares the American democratic institutions with those of aristocratic European.

“ It (aristocracy) proceeds scientifically; she understands the art of making the aggregate force of all her laws converge at the same time And here he expresses his puzzlement at any progress possibly being made in a country such as America operates.

“ It is easy to see that the American democracy is often mistaken in choosing the men to whom it confides public trusts; but it is not so easy to say why the state prospers in their hands. Observe, in the first place, that in a democratic state, if the governors are less honest or less able, the governed are more enlightened and more vigilant.“

The intangible but viable power of legitimate and justifiable democratic institutions could be the reason success can be found. So another important reason for ensuring the legitimacy and justification of democratic institutions has been observed even a century and a half ago.

Here is an observation by de Tocqueville (1853) of Americans.

“ Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy. This complete equality eludes the grasp of the people at the very moment at which it thinks to hold it fast. The lower orders are agitated by the chance of success, they are irritated by its uncertainty; and they pass from the enthusiasm of pursuit to the exhaustion of ill-success, and lastly to the acrimony of disappointment. Whatever transcends their own limits appears to be an obstacle to their desires, and there is no kind of superiority, however legitimate it may be, which is not irksome in their sight.”

His comment sounds like it could have been made on the Op-ed page of a popular national newspaper. It could even be referring to the border problem and immigrants pouring into the country to meet needs of employers while causing an uproar from citizens who do not want to accept the presence of these “ foreigners.” And those that do not want the new neighbors can never seem to be satisfied no matter how close they get to reaching the goals they have requested, it only seems to remind them of another part of the issue that causes them unbearable problems.


Without legitimacy no government institution democratic or nondemocratic can keep the trust of the citizens. Democratic institutions must ethically justify their use of coercive political power.

The most common place to find commentary on the ethics of democratic institutions is in the political cartoons on newspaper Op-ed pages. Addressing the problem of lack of ethical behavior in democratic institutions will be printed sometimes as an essay or a letter to the editor. Lately most discussion on the Op-ed pages is centered on personalities and blame. That is an unfortunate way to use this tool of the democratic process and will hopefully be changing.

The above discussion has offered some of the basic arguments and/or discussions that can determine the justification for implementing a change in an existing institution of a system such as voting procedures. Research in contemporary times is concerned with peaceful conflict resolution and comparing the pros and cons with coercive power that is defined as violent.

Legitimacy includes ethics, morality, and transparency. Justification includes fair play, practicality, and justice. Perhaps in the future we will see replacing coercive power with relationship power (Boldt et al., 2007) or interactive power (Dugan, 2003) but whatever may come, justification and legitimacy for democratic institutions will always be necessary to keep the useful and keep citizens trusting to make a positive impact on lives.


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