How democratic is the UK and the USA?

I’ve just had an e-mail thanking me for my web site examination of the differences between the British and American political systems. The writer, from Norway, asks my opinion on whether one is more democratic than the other.

This is such a difficult question to answer. It depends on how one measures the notion of ‘democratic’. I might write an essay for my web site on this theme one day but, in the meanwhile, the sort of questions one would have to pose are:

  • What proportion of the population is eligible to vote? – that is, has the legal right to vote and is on the electoral register
  • What proportion of the population actually votes? – one could look at both national and local elections
  • How often does the citizen have the right to vote? – again one could distinguish national and local elections
  • Does the citizen have a credible choice between a variety of political parties? – do one or two parties dominate elections?
  • How easy is it to be a credible candidate in elections? – particularly does it take a lot of money to run a credible campaign?
  • How free are elections of financial influence? – can powerful corporations or lobby groups influence outcomes?
  • How free are elections of media influence? – is there a diversity of political opinion in the press, radio, television and other media?
  • How transparent and accountable is the exercise of power in the three arms of government?
  • What is the dispersal of power between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary?
  • How easy is it to challenge and correct abuse of power?
  • How strong and vital is civil society? – that is, trade unions, pressure groups, campaign organisations, think tanks

So, what do you think? Is the UK or the USA the more democratic nation?


  • Joe Bloggs

    They are both democratic. I refer you to the Democracy Index:

    Both countries are more or less the same in terms of levels of democracy. Their are some aspects of the UK that are more democratic than the USA and vice versa.

    Scandinavian countries are the most democrratic countries in the world. They are the real role models all other countries should follow

  • Toby Evans

    The USA’s political rhetoric and media are explicitly philosophically elitist, racist and homophobic whereas the UK’s are what we call “politically correct” and explicitly egalitarian. However, it seems to me that, on a practical level, policies are more sensitive to public perception and influence by the public in the USA than they are in the UK.

    The public is much more politically active in the UK, much more organized, better informed, but, paradoxically, the government is less responsive to popular opinion. That is the contradiction of democracy in the UK. An active civil society and an elite-controlled government.

    In the USA, elites are able to shape the message, shape political opinion and quash dissent in popular discourse before demands are even made on the government. Elites control who can get elected by their campaign contributions. Elite control of the USA is much firmer than in the UK and in that sense the USA is less democratic. However, when the public in the USA is worked up about something, politicians and government officials are quick to respond. The public can fire officials even though they are not the ones who hire them or provide for their “retirement”. The British have much more respect for their Parliament than Americans do for Congress. Over my lifetime and probably going back a century, Congress has steadily ceded power to the Executive Branch, to the President and to regulatory policy-making bodies in the Executive Branch such as the FAA, FCC, DoD, FDA, EPA and Justice Department. Administrative Courts and Tribunals in these same departments have been given power from the Judiciary by Congress as well.

    Both systems are set up with many choke points to prevent policies from being implemented so it is easier to stop government action than it is to force government action.

    White men in the USA have experienced the country becoming much more elitist and less responsive to popular opinion. However, enfranchisement of women and minorities has meant that overall, the usa is just as democratic as it was in the fifties, just in different ways.



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