Understanding Democracy Through Failure

 On February 8, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King’s College, Cambridge, John Dunn gave a lecture on “Why the Democracies Fail?”

John Dunn spent the recent years of his studies on examining democracy both as an idea and as a practice, combining both historical perspective and modern political ideologies. HIs early works are more concentrated on political ideas of John Locke. His books have been translated into many languages. The professor has worked within different cultures, including the Indian and Western cultures.


Professor Dunn began his lecture with words of greeting and mentioned that he approaches Armenia as an old country but a relatively new state.

Here, I will recap some of the important ideas of his lecture.

To begin with, democracy has had the most extraordinary history. It travels through space and time. To understand the true essence of democracy, Mr. Dunn advised beginning to view it from the standpoint of disappointment and stated that his goal is to persuade us to think about and look at democracy from a completely different perspective-from the perspective of failure.  

He mentioned that democracy is not the same as it was in ancient times. It evolved through time.  He, of course, mentioned  success stories of democracy, Sweden, for example, and claimed that the reason that democracy has such good reputation is that its bases seem safer, but it is not a fact when we look back at history.

Professor Dunn  wanted the audience  to  understand why democracy succeeded, why it failed, and to value it the same way. In order to understand all the above mentioned, one should understand democracy and should be ready to deal with a variety of definitions.There are many definitions: one may understand it as word, as a variety of forms of government, or assume that democracy is  neither  an idea nor a political formation. But one has to understand a simple thing right from the beginning: it’s unfair to form a government at all if we think of democracy out of context.


He gave examples of democratic countries such as Mexico, Japan, and Britain, and said assume that the world’s democratic governments do good things in spite of consequences. The problem is that those consequences are not so much democratic. His other point was that we are all human and any democratic government, i.e., government that does good things on the behalf of people, may succeed and also fail.

However, the speaker said that all the regimes fail in the end due to the challenges on their way, be it an ecological catastrophe, biological degradation, or a climate change. Other challenges include creating and sustaining peace, peaceful coexistence, religion, simply raising children, making the new generation, etc.

But where democracy fails the challenges within the society or not is a different story. That’s when corrupted democracy comes to play, the democracy which Professor Dunn defined as “nasty.” However, all political structures can become corrupt. Rulers and ruled ones corrupt one another. So, the role of the people in the democracy is essential. In order to succeed, a government needs people who have long term interest and understand the challenges on time in order to avoid failure.

Closer to the end of the lecture, Professor Dunn defined democracy as a game between the citizens and the rulers and mentioned that in order for the democracy to succeed the main point is to never think of any of the sides as less important. However, even after centuries of practice, it’s hard to give equal meaning to both sides in our days, as in the modern state democracy becomes a metaphorical idea. But if we put the whole responsibility on the shoulders of political leaders, the democracy will truly become an ideological mirage. It’s not only the leaders who are endlessly corrupting.



Margarit Mirzoyan


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