The ubiquity of democracy, and its universal adoption as the only legitimate political order in the modern world, transcends the huge structural and ideological diversity of political life in the 21st century. There is no government today, regardless of its circumstances, interests, alliances and level of stability, that does not claim some kind of adherence to democratic principles, at least in words. In the United States, for example, military interventions in foreign territories have been justified as actions in defense of freedom and democracy. Such was the case when the United States invaded Puerto Rico in 1898 and the commander of the invading forces, General Nelson Miles, publicly declared that his country’s purpose was to eliminate the Spanish autocratic tradition and bring the virtues of U.S. culture, with its free and democratic institutions, to Puerto Rico. Even in Spain, to give another example, where the authoritarian right has rallied in recent elections, the official discourse is firmly based on the fundamental rhetoric of democracy. The leaders of the Spanish political right and their media allies fervently chant “We, the democrats.”

The most important modern political institution, the main structure around which political life is organized, is clearly the nation state, regardless of how it is constituted. The state regulates public life, including the economy, creates institutions to serve the citizenry, gathers and distributes resources, represents the community to the rest of the world, defends the territory and its inhabitants, establishes rules and limits on the exercise of power, and establishes commercial, cultural, sporting relations and war and peace with other nations. On a symbolic and legal level, the nation state is the main sign of identity. It also occupies an important place in socialist economies because of its role in planning the economy and controlling production. But it must be remembered that despite the basic tenet of capitalism that it is the market that is supposed to rule economic activity, the state is equally essential for capitalism. Without the support of the state’s economic regulations, the economic system called the free market could not exist.

There have been times throughout the 20th century when the international system (relations between states) was affected by dramatic territorial and political conflicts that led to enormous acts of violence and destruction. The most notable of these was the expansionism of the German national socialist regime (1933-1945), which unleashed a world war that caused more than 50 million deaths (most of them in the Soviet Union), culminated in the destruction of Germany, destabilized international relations and left in its wake a level of physical and human destruction never before seen in the history of humanity. The Holocaust (the systematic extermination of European Jews by the Nazi regime), the systematic bombardment of German civil populations by the air forces of Britain and the United States, and finally the use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 have come to be powerful symbols of the extraordinary destruction that an expansionist state is capable of in the modern era.

The immediate response to this dehumanizing experience at the end of World War II was to create international institutions that could arbitrate conflicts between countries with the goal of preserving the peace. In addition to promoting cooperation between states, these new institutions would work to put an end to the two main political and social conditions that caused recurring conflicts in modern times: colonialism (dominance by a foreign state over a territory) and disparities in the quality of life between the more powerful nations (developed countries) and the less fortunate (Third World). In 1947, the United Nations was created, along with its subsidiary institutions, such as UNESCO (culture), UNICEF (education) and WHO (health). Also created at the end of the war were the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the International Court of Justice.

At the same time, the post-war decades in the West saw the growth of the institutions of the welfare state, an institutional (and ideological) system through which the state expands direct services to society and takes primary responsibility for the well being of the population. Education, health, housing and labor are areas of government service that joined the traditional state responsibilities of providing security for citizens and maintaining the social stability that is necessary for economic development. Later, due to the meteoric development of transportation, information and communication technologies, a trend toward globalization emerged into economic activity. In other words, investment of capital, production of goods and trade were less limited by territorial and national boundaries. So-called globalization — which is more of an idea and a trend than an accomplished reality — unleashed in turn a multinational campaign to weaken the ability of states to regulate economies and to implement rules that were more favorable to the interests of corporations in the free market. At the same time, social forces opposed to global capitalism have extensively criticized the very structure of the nation state, which is seen as complicit in globalized capitalism, responsible for modern imperialism, and the cause of increased poverty and inequality in the world. But the United Nations, globalization, and opposition social movements have not, to date, displaced the state from the central role in political life.

It is therefore essential to look at the various democratic institutions in today’s world in the specific context of each state. A country’s particular political organization is determined by the constitution of the state. Despite rhetoric about democratic principles, each state shows its own characteristics based on its historical, cultural and geographic circumstances. In the world today, in other words, there are a wide variety of forms, institutions, practices and traditions in regard to the state. Coexisting are republics and constitutional monarchies, federations and centralized states, parliamentary systems and presidential systems. All, however, ascribe to consensus democratic principles: the rule of law as a guarantee of individual freedoms, direct civic participation, parliamentary representation, compliance with state authority as formally constituted, and procedures for succession based on popular will as expressed through the exercise of universal suffrage.

But the most profound element of democracy is not the electoral system, the guarantee of civil liberty, parliamentary representation or the separation of powers, but rather the recognition of the citizens’ authority to act on public and private circumstances, or in other words, the right and ability to individual self-realization. In a democracy, the citizen does not, by law, have to submit to a higher social authority based on class hierarchies. The citizen only has the duty of complying with the rules agreed to by the community of which he or she is a part. In a democracy, these rules are produced and agreed to by the citizenry. The state is responsible for administering these rules and regulations, which cannot be arbitrarily altered without the consent of the governed. In general terms, public policy in a democracy is set by the community (civil society) and it is up to the government to administer it.

In Puerto Rico, the state and the government are commonly confused with each other and the public sphere is thought of as synonymous with the government. But that is not the case. Governments change periodically and their main role is to administer the institutions of the state. The state, by comparison is permanent. It is the unit that defines us as a country, forms the shape of our political life and represents us to the rest of the world.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

Related Entries

This post is also available in: Español

Comente

The Puerto Rico Endowment for the Humanities welcomes the constructive comments that the readers of the Encyclopedia of Puerto Rico want to make us. Of course, these comments are entirely the responsibility of their respective authors.