Democracy or Polyarchy?

William I. Robinson

To favor democracy means to oppose U.S. foreign policy in the name of democracy. The issue is not whether democracy is desirable—it is—but whether the United States is fostering democratic relations when it claims to be promoting democracy.1

Historically, U.S. policy has been based on an outright suppression, often brutal, of democracy in Latin America and the Third World. Somoza, Trujillo, Pinochet, Papa and Baby Doc, the white minority regimes in Southern Africa, Mobutu, Suharto, Marcos, Chiang Kai-shek, Mubarak and Sadat, the House of Saud—all of these are potent symbols of the long history of U.S. and core-power promotion and defense of dictatorial and authoritarian arrangements throughout the Third World.

So what explains the turn in U.S. policy in the 1980s to an apparent support for democracy? Prior to the policy shift, mass movements for democratization had spread everywhere against these dictatorial and authoritarian arrangements, against local elite orders and against the global status quo. These movements sought an authentic and far-reaching democratization process. The prospect of the whole elite order crumbling—and with it, the larger global status quo—provoked fear among U.S. policy makers, their strategic thinkers and other global elites. Washington faced the challenges of restoring ideological hegemony and re-legitimizing U.S. foreign policy after Watergate, the Church Commission, the rise of a global human rights movement and the defeat in Indochina.

The 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua was one of several key turning points for the shift to “democracy promotion,” because it showed U.S. strategists that the old forms of control were no longer viable in a rapidly changing global order. They concluded that it would be necessary to intervene before elite orders themselves were overthrown by mass democratization movements. The challenge became how to manage political change in order to preempt more fundamental social change. U.S. policy makers developed new strategies, modalities and instruments of political intervention under the banner of promoting democracy. The new approach emphasized the penetration of civil society itself in order to secure social control and limit change from therein. In a nutshell, U.S. policy makers and their organic intellectuals became “good Gramscians”; that is, they came to understand that a real site of power is civil society itself.

Alongside the more traditional state-to-state relations, U.S. intervention would now bolster forces in civil society allied with the United States and identified with global capitalism. Electoral intervention would also play a key role, since elections, when properly managed from above and from below, are major devices for achieving hegemonic order. Theoretically speaking, the shift in U.S. policy that began in the 1980s from promoting dictatorship to promoting what it calls “democracy” represented a transition, in Gramscian terms, from transnational coercive domination to transnational consensual domination—or at least, consensus-seeking forms of domination.

The 1976 Trilateral Commission report, which warned that democracy had to be tamed lest it be wielded by popular classes against the status quo, and the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution were followed in 1981 by the National Security Council’s Project Democracy, designed to organize the shift in foreign policy, and in 1983 by the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its core groups. Another key turning point took place in the Philippines in 1985, when a mass insurrection threatened the Marcos dictatorship that had ruled with the support of the United States. The Reagan White House was in complete disarray for a few weeks—should it back Marcos as it had been doing or support some alternative? In the end, the nascent “democracy promotion” strategy won out, as Washington shifted support from Marcos to the elite opposition under the leadership of Corazón Aquino. The 1990 defeat of the Sandinistas through this new strategy of internal political and electoral intervention consolidated the strategic policy shift.

What is the united states actually promoting with this shift? Essentially contested concepts such as “democracy” and “freedom” are meaningless in and of themselves. There are competing and even antagonistic definitions of these concepts. They are always ideologically charged; whoever controls the definition controls the terms of the discourse and is able to set the framework in which people speak and even think. Far from mere semantics, the struggle over defining essentially contested concepts like democracy is a crucial dimension of power struggles among contending social forces.

When U.S. policy makers and transnational elites talk about democracy promotion, what they really mean is the promotion of polyarchy. This refers to a system in which a small group actually rules, and mass participation and decision-making are confined to choosing leaders in elections that are carefully managed by competing elites. In the age of globalization, polyarchy is generally a more reliable political system for containing and defusing mass pressure for popular social change. But it is not just a superior mechanism of stable domination; it is also a more propitious system for managing intra-elite conflict and competition, and for developing the political environment for globalized economic intercourse for which the old regimes were ill-suited.

This concept of polyarchy is an outgrowth of elitism theories that developed in the early 20th century to counter the classic definition of democracy as the power or rule (kratos) of the people (demos). It builds on earlier elitism theories that argued for an enlightened elite to rule on behalf of the ignorant and unpredictable masses. U.S. policy makers and their organic intellectuals in academia, in redefining democracy away from the power of the people and toward competition among elites, often cite (and simplify) Joseph Schumpeter’s classic 1942 study, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Schumpeter argued for “another theory” of democracy as an institutional arrangement for elites to acquire power by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote. “Democracy,” he said, “means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them.”2

It is this conception that guides U.S. foreign policy under the banner of democracy promotion. Later, organic intellectuals refined this polyarchic conception within the mainstream of what came to be the democratization theory of the 1980s and the 1990s as an institutional definition in which democracy is simply limited to procedurally correct elections within a constitutional order. In this way, removed from the discourse and the agenda is the matter of who controls society’s material and cultural resources, how wealth and power are distributed locally and globally.

Central to democratization theory and to the U.S. policy of promoting polyarchy is an antinomy. First, its defenders separate the political system from the social order, and then they turn around and connect the two by claiming an affinity between democracy and free-market capitalism. In their landmark NED-funded Democracy in Developing Countries series, Diamond, Linz and Lipset are quite clear: “Democracy signifies a political system separate and apart from the economic and social system. Indeed, a distinctive aspect of our approach is to insist that the issue of so-called economic and social democracy be separated from the question of governmental structure.”3 Yet on the other hand, these self-same organic intellectuals and U.S. policy makers blatantly contradict themselves. They insist that polyarchy must go hand in hand with neoliberal global capitalism—hence the cliché “free-market democracy.” Numerous U.S. government pronouncements declare that promoting democracy and promoting neoliberalism are complementary, a singular process in U.S. foreign policy. In order to be democratic, one must identify with global capitalism. Normal society is capitalist society; any other vision is antidemocratic heresy.

Acknowledging the link between the socioeconomic system and the political system would bring the whole construct of polyarchy down like a house of cards. Under capitalist globalization of the past 30 years, the gap between the world’s wealthy minority and the poor majority has grown exponentially. Unprecedented worldwide concentrations of wealth and power have brought about a global socioeconomic dictatorship that is the antithesis of democracy. Ruling groups in the United States, for instance, have perfected the art of “the best elections money can buy”; of “one dollar, one vote”; of campaigns that are exercises not in political debate but in marketing, driven by those who have the resources to reach mass markets. The separation of the political and the socioeconomic is an illusion, since the concentration of economic resources leads to the concentration of political power. In a world of gated communities, of expanding police forces and prison systems, of armies and private security systems, of ultra-sophisticated surveillance systems—in short, in a global social apartheid—it becomes a crude ideological maneuver to claim that there is democracy simply because a country has elections and a constitution.

Beyond the international dictatorship of the G8 countries, other groups participate in the power structure of global capitalism, enjoying and defending the privileges the system brings. Each country has seen the rise of new transnationally oriented elites who have used control over local states to integrate their countries into the global economy. These local elites form an integral part of the chain of power in the global system. They control key levers that link the local and the national to the global, and it is precisely these new elite groups and their followers organized in political parties, business and civic organizations, the mass media and so on that are supported by U.S. political intervention programs conducted under the rubric of “promoting democracy.”

In this context, there are three groups of countries that have become targets of U.S. political intervention. The first is the U.S. “enemies list,” countries targeted for destabilization or “regime change.” In Latin America, this category has included Cuba, Venezuela under Chávez, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas and Haiti under Aristide. The criterion for regime change through “democracy promotion” is not whether democracy exists—by the strict standards of polyarchy, Venezuela is the most democratic country in the hemisphere—but Washington’s broader strategic concern with suppressing states that challenge the global capitalist order. These programs are called “bringing about a democratic transition.”

The second group consists of countries where popular classes and poor majorities threaten elite social orders. Countries in this group include Ecuador, with its powerful indigenous movement; Colombia, with its insurgency and popular movements; and El Salvador and Nicaragua, where the left remains influential. Programs aimed at these countries are called “supporting weak democracies.” The third group comprises countries where neoliberal elites are in power but are weak and need strengthening. Dominant elites here are not to be destabilized but regrouped and neoliberalized. These programs are called “strengthening existing democracies.”

In all three categories, U.S. polyarchy promotion programs relentlessly pursue two underlying objectives: first, to support those groups aligned with U.S. foreign policy and the transnational project of capitalist globalization; and second, to suppress popular groups advocating more thoroughgoing democratization or change in the socioeconomic system.

There are several tiers through which polyarchy promotion becomes operationalized. The first involves the highest levels of the U.S. state apparatus: the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and certain other state branches. At this level the need to undertake political intervention in particular countries and regions is identified as one component of overall policy toward these countries and regions. In the second tier, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and several other branches of the State Department are allocated billions of dollars to be doled out, either directly or indirectly, to a series of ostensibly private U.S. organizations, as well as to the NED and its core groups, which are in reality closely tied to the policy-making establishment and aligned with U.S. foreign policy. The State Department exercises oversight authority over all “democracy enhancement” programs. The boards of directors of these U.S. governmental and quasigovernmental agencies include representatives of the highest levels of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the transnational corporate world.

In the third tier, these U.S. agencies provide funding, guidance and political sponsorship to a host of organizations in the intervened country itself, including local political parties and coalitions, trade unions, business councils, media outlets, professional and civic associations, student and women’s groups, human rights groups and so on. These local groups brought into “democracy promotion” programs are held up in the public national spotlight as independent and nonpartisan, but in reality they become integral agents of the transnational agenda. This does not mean that these groups are mere dupes or have no autonomy. While this is occasionally the case, there is more often a transnational convergence of interests. Elites in Venezuela and their followers who have been receiving massive amounts of covert and overt U.S. funding and support, for instance, have an affinity of interests with the United States in overthrowing Chávez because those elites have been displaced from power. Indeed, it is vital that organizations and movements receiving U.S. support act autonomously; otherwise it defeats the whole purpose. U.S. political intervention supports select groups and amplifies their voice.

What Washington hopes to create through these programs are “agents of influence,” local leaders with a capacity for political and civic action, who can generate ideological conformity, promote the neoliberal outlook and advocate for policies that integrate the intervened country into global capitalism. These agents are further expected to compete with and eclipse more popular-oriented independent, progressive or radical groups and individuals who may have a distinct agenda for their country. Economic and political elites tied to the global capitalist order and the U.S. policy-making apparatus must come to power and must be defended in power. The goal is to ensure the preservation or reconstruction of the elite social order.

Polyarchy promotion is always only one component of overall U.S. foreign policy, part of broader strategies designed on a country-specific basis that may include the synchronizing of “democracy promotion” with diplomatic undertakings, military aggression, CIA propaganda and covert operations, and multilateral actions. Destabilization programs conducted as “democracy promotion” often involve coercive diplomacy and economic carrots and sticks, including sanctions and blackmail. Key here is the control that Washington is able to exercise over global financial resources and markets.

What moral authority does the United States have in claiming to promote democracy abroad? How would the U.S. government react if other countries undertook the types of intervention inside U.S. borders that Washington undertakes abroad? In the United States, it is a felony to accept foreign money for elections. What if the Venezuelan government, for example, sent millions of dollars and troops of advisers to the United States to organize a referendum to see if Bush should be recalled, as Washington did in Venezuela to recall Chávez? If activists in the United States were to receive millions of dollars from Cuba to oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and if they met with the Cuban chargé d’affaires in Washington to plan such opposition, they would be branded as traitors, agents of a foreign government, or terrorists.4 We must question the asymmetry of global power relations, expose double standards and denounce the arrogance of power. Any talk of democracy must be based on a single, consistent set of principles.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global and international studies and Latin American and Iberian studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and author, among other books, of Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press).


1. This essay is based on the opening keynote speech at the conference “In the Name of Democracy: US Electoral Intervention in the Americas,” April 7, 2006, Yale University. For an extended exposition on the themes in this essay and corroborating documentation, see Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: U.S. Intervention, Globalization, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and for an update to that work, see Robinson, “Promoting Polyarchy in Latin America: The Oxymoron of ‘Market Democracy,’” in Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen, eds., Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide? (The New Press, 2006), and Gindin and Robinson, “The Battle for Global Civil Society: An Interview with William I. Robinson,” June 13, 2005, available at and at

2. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1942), p. 285.

3. See, e.g., Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1989), p. xvi.

4. U.S. Public Law 94-283, Section 441-E makes foreign funding for U.S. electoral campaigns punishable as a felony. Ironically, this and related laws in the United States prohibiting foreign in U.S. elections were revamped and strengthened in 1963 in response to interference in U.S. domestic politics by the Somoza regime. See William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder: Westview, 1992), pp. 55-56, and endnote 41, p. 204. In addition, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations stipulates that foreign representatives or diplomats “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that state,” so that U.S. internal political intervention in Cuba in recent years, including meetings in Cuba between the U.S. charge d’affaires and Cuban opposition leaders, are a violation not just of Cuban laws and reciprocally of U.S. laws, but of international law.

Tags: democracy, US foreign policy, polyarchy, elite, politics

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