Building Democracy 2.0: The Second Innovation that Gave Rise to Modern Democracy

This is part 3 in a multi-part series examining ways to build an inclusive democracy for the 21st century.

If the first innovation spawning democracy revolved around the individual’s new role in driving a society’s decisions, the second innovation centered on the new role of groups in that process.  In a democracy, the individual acts as the audience – the recipient of information and a respondent to it.  The individual passes judgment on information provided and that judgment shapes the actions of decision-makers.  In essence, individuals send a collective signal to a group whose success depends on translating that signal into the operations of society.  This signal, if operationalized, brings a cohesion to society, making it stronger and more adaptable to changing circumstances than other systems of government.

The second innovation revolves around the group of actors soliciting and acting upon the signal received from individuals.  In a democracy, a group in the form of a candidate and her team or a party rely on the approval of voters in an election.  This relationship causes these groups to act in a fundamentally different way from groups of decision-makers in other political systems.   This essay will describe this process, how the Founding Fathers created a framework for this adaptation and why it allowed democracy to change fundamentally the course of human development.


In Liberalism: the Life of an Idea, Edmund Fawcett pinpoints a new type of behavior or practice that forms a distinctive feature of liberal democracy.  In contrast to other political ideologies, Fawcett describes liberal democracy as an “outlook” or a certain practice relating to politics.  He identifies one of its central features as conflict.  He writes:

“Liberalism’s first guiding idea – conflict – was less an ideal or principle than a way to picture society and what to expect from society.  Lasting conflict of interests and beliefs was, to the liberal mind, inescapable.  Social harmony was not achievable, and to pursue it was foolish.  That picture was less stark than it looked, for harmony was not even desirable.  Harmony stifled creativity and blocked initiative.  Conflict, if tamed and turned to competition in a stable political order, could bear fruit as argument, experiment, and exchange.”

This description by Fawcett aptly captures a critical aspect of representative democracy.  Certain practices and behaviors define democracy and those practices sanction a high degree of conflict.  Of course, prior to the emergence of democracy, there was plenty of conflict.  But in other systems, those in power did not sanction conflict except by them against others who threatened their power.  Typically, a family, clan or individual held power by threat of force, until another family, clan or individual took power from them.

Fawcett carries this distinctive feature of democracy forward to the 19th century.  After the establishment of the United States, liberal democracy expanded in Europe.  It encountered two main alternative political systems:  socialism and conservatism (note:  Fawcett uses the term conservatism to denote traditional societies – not as the term is used in contemporary American politics).  Conservatives “appealed to the fixity of the past, socialism to the fixity of the future.”  Conservatives believed in the “unchallengeable authority of rulers and custom …  Civic respect, to the conservative mind, overindulged human willfulness and private choice.  It shortchanged duty, deference, and obedience.  Conservatives took society for a harmonious, orderly whole …”  Not only did conservative societies not trust individuals to exercise independent judgment, they eschewed conflict among those competing for power.

Socialists, on the other hand, believed that society was divided by class and this division created conflict among the classes.  Socialists argued that conflict would end once a socialist government gained power and extinguished the material inequities dividing the classes.  In other words, once a socialist government gained power, the source of conflict would be vanquished.  Class division would disappear and harmony would reign.

The 20th century saw the rise of communism and fascism.  Like socialism, communism appealed to the unity of class.  Fascism appealed to the unity of race or nationhood.  Once in power, neither system indulged conflict or competition.  Consequently, the acceptance of conflict as a permanent aspect of society marks a defining aspect of democracies in contrast to other political systems.

Checks and Balances

Given that conflict operated as a key practice for democratic societies and there were no practicing democracies to observe in 1776, the Founding Fathers had little to say about it directly.  Based on their personal experience with political systems, they tended to equate conflict with oppression by a ruling authority.  No one had actually witnessed a peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next.  Nevertheless, the framers were keen observers of human nature.  They knew humans tended to align with others with common interests and those alliances sparked tension among different groups.  Instead of envisioning a harmonious society devoid of conflict, the Founding Fathers established a framework that would allow conflict and competition to blossom as a constructive force for human progress.

The best description of this framework related to the idea of checks and balances.  This system would distribute authority horizontally rather than concentrating it at the top.  In Federalist 51, Madison outlines how conflict will operate in this new republic.  He wrote that, “In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government … it is evident that each department should have a will of its own …”  An executive, legislative and judicial branch would operate independently.  Members of each branch should “have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.”  He elaborates in one of the great passages about the object of democracy:

“It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  But what is government, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Madison acknowledges, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Here, Madison articulates a vision of government where, through the distribution of roles and responsibilities, conflict and competition will provide a leveling effect, allowing government to control itself.  “This policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives … where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”  In other words, the new democratic republic will fundamentally alter how conflict is managed.  Instead of being managed vertically between ruler and ruled, it will be managed horizontally among co-equal branches of government.

Madison did not stop there.  He understood that democracy went beyond the structure of government.  It constituted a new social order that depended on the practices of its citizens.  He then extended the notion of checks and balances to the operation of society itself – “to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”  He knew that tyranny of the majority can be just as pernicious as tyranny by a ruler.  In considering different ways to address this challenge, Madison said there really can only be one way in a democracy:  “all authority … will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”  Without explicitly using the terms “conflict” or “competition,” Madison suggested the interplay among multiple, diverse interests must serve as a check on oppression.  In this way, conflict could become a constructive force.

Conflict as Practice

Given its importance as an adaptation in the social organization known as democracy, it is worth considering how conflict operates as a practice.  The terms “conflict” and “competition” as we know them do not adequately capture this adaptation.  Democracy provides a framework to channel conflict into competition among groups that ultimately leads to compromise and exchange.  All of these interconnected actions made democracy a radical departure from previous forms of governance. Without them, democracy could not generate the radical material progress that it has.

Conflict describes the fact that democracy tolerates or even embraces a level of strife or discord.  The fact this conflict occurs among and between a multitude of interests vying for influence and power channels conflict into competition.  In a democracy, competition plays out politically as groups seek the support of voters by offering alternative platforms or messages based on priorities expressed by the voters.  Ultimately, conflict and competition pass through the prism of an election.

As noted, the election acts as a signal from individuals in response to messages about salient issues and solutions.  On one level, the signal of an election tells an elected official what voters want.  As anyone who has worked closely with elected officials knows, the only thing more important than getting elected is getting reelected after having had a taste of power.  Standing for reelection operates as a motivator to discern the intent of voters – the same voters who will determine whether that official continues to serve in office.  By requiring sequential elections, a democracy encourages the exchange of ideas.  To carry out the wishes of the electorate expressed in an election or to prepare for reelection, an elected official may compromise with other officials to enact legislation or simply coop the ideas of opponents to dampen opposition.  Thereby, conflict is channeled constructively.

Of course, competition can be fierce.  But it is important to recognize that the competition associated with democracy is distinctly different from other forms of competition.  In particular, it can be characterized as “soft competition.”  Politicians compete within an electoral framework of rules, protocol and norms.  Losers accept the results of an election.  Those elected may compromise with opponents, leading to exchange.  Given that competitors expect their opponents will honor the same rules relating to the transition of power, mutual trust in the system builds.  Recall the quote from Surowiecki in Essay 1: “[Democracy is] an experience of seeing your opponents win and get what you hoped to have, and of accepting it, because you believe they will not destroy the things you value and because you know you will have another chance to get what you want.”

In contrast, forms of “hard competition” are anathema to democracy.  In such systems, competitors seek to annihilate their opponents so there will be no future competition with them.  They are willing to take down the system if it means they have won.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt capture this concept in How Democracies Die.  They describe what happens when polarization leads politicians toward hard competition.  They write, “The erosion of mutual toleration may motivate politicians to deploy their institutional powers as broadly as they can get away with.  Then parties view one another as mortal enemies, the stakes of political competition heighten dramatically.  Losing ceases to be a routine and accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a full-blown catastrophe.”  Under these circumstances, politicians stop exercising forbearance in anticipation of reciprocal treatment.  Competition no longer leads to exchange and compromise.  Society stagnates or descends into anti-democratic systems. Therefore, hard competition stands opposed to a sustainable, functioning democracy.

Like the first innovation that produced democracy, the second innovation was a human adaptation.  It also shared a close kinship with the mutually reinforcing practices associated with the marketplace emerging at that time and as described by Adam Smith.  Both systems relied on individuals or consumers sending a signal to groups that would translate the signal into action by either producing goods or policy responses.  Instead of managing conflict vertically, conflict operated horizontally among a multitude of enterprises and interests competing for allegiance of individuals and customers.  While the market lacks the intervening periods between elections, the fact that politicians must stand for reelection sustains a level of competition, including possible exchanges and compromises, until the next election occurs.  In this way, both the market and democracy convert conflict into competition and ultimately exchange, leading to progress.

And so the democratic experiment was launched.  While a number of key antecedents laid the groundwork for it and our Founding Fathers leaned heavily on the great political philosophers of that time for inspiration, the Framers had to put ideas into practice without the benefit of living examples.  Importantly, they understood democracy relied on radically different social roles.  In that regard, the Framers produced two of the great innovations in human history.  The new democratic system would tap the wisdom of the crowd, which harnessed the collective brain power of a large diverse population to solve pressing issues facing the nation.  Further, this new system would convert conflict from operating as an impediment to competition to one that imbued “soft competition” into the practices of the political process.  This type of competition encouraged the growth of trust, reciprocity, cooperation and exchange – the main ingredients of progress.

Why this Stuff Matters?

Essay 1 stated boldly that the human adaptations associated with democracy may have been the single most impactful innovations in human history.  That statement was not intended as hyperbole.  Acknowledging that correlation does not imply causation, the numbers are compelling.  Prior to the emergence of democracy, economic growth remained fairly static throughout human history.  Essentially, humans lived in a Malthusian trap.  Whenever a new technological innovation occurred such as the windmill or a new irrigation system, population would grow and then the standard of living would drop.  Economic historian, Gregory Clark summed it up, stating, “In the preindustrial world, sporadic technological advance produced people, not wealth.”

Something new started to happen with the advent of democratic republics.  For the first time, incomes began outstripping population growth.  Year by year, people experienced increasing prosperity.  British economist Angus Maddison attempted to reconstruct economic growth in all regions of the world.  While imperfect for some regions, his work has become the main source of long-run reconstructions of economic growth used today.  This analysis shows that nearly all humans lived in poverty until the last 200 years.  And then economic growth, as reflected in per capita GDP, exploded as democracy took hold – and it exploded first in those nations that adopted democracy.  The following chart of per capita GDP over the last 2000 years is stark:

It is easy to point to technological innovation in the form of the Industrial Revolution as the source of economic growth.  However, as noted, history provides numerous examples of major technological breakthrough that failed to produce prosperity.  Prior to the 19th century, those breakthroughs did not lead to sustained increases in per capital GDP.  It is plausible to say that democracy and its interplay with the free market created the conditions necessary for dramatic improvements to the level of prosperity.  By tapping the public to set priorities through the political process, democratic nations found ways to translate innovation into broad based improvement to the standard of living. The fact that liberal democracies made massive investments in the early 20th century in infrastructure to provide sanitary sewer and potable water to major urban centers is one of many examples how public policy managed to channel economic growth towards radical improvements to living conditions, unlocking the productive capacity of millions.

With the benefit of 200 years of growing prosperity and hindsight, it is easy to point to examples of economic growth created by rival political systems.  The Soviet Union in the 1930s managed to industrialize a backwards economy in a short period of time.  China has produced phenomenal economic growth since the 1970s.  Both the Soviet Union and China lacked the two key features of a democracy:  the wisdom of the crowd and horizontal conflict.  Of course, the Soviet Union showed the limits of central planning by the 1980s (and maybe much earlier).  The story remains to be told on China.  More importantly, China and the Soviet Union came in the wake of democratic successes.  How do you measure the effectiveness of another system when it can leverage the myriad of technological innovations produced elsewhere to achieve such growth?

I make these points to give democracy its due. It has had a great run.  The material circumstances of untold people around the world have benefited from the radical experiment concocted at Constitutional Hall back in 1787.  Also, I say this in full recognition that GDP does not measure happiness, equality and quality of life.  Many groups and individuals face horrible and often unfair hardships, such as systemic racism.  Later, I will address the current challenges to democracy and whether it remains a relevant and viable framework today.  The events of 2020 certainly expose these challenges in stark relief.  But for now, it is important to understand how and why democracy marked such an important step forward for humans.

Mack Paul is a member of the state advisory board of Common Cause NC and a founding partner of Morningstar Law Group.

Other parts in this series:

Introduction: Building Democracy 2.0

Part 1: What Is Democracy and Why Is It Important?

Part 2: How the Idea of Freedom Makes the First Innovation Possible

See More: Voting & Elections