Philip Kotler
4 min readJun 10, 2023

Should We Accept an Imperfect Democracy?

Philip Kotler

Many countries are often described as democracies. One sign is that the country periodically runs an election process. Various candidates declare themselves as candidates for specific political offices. A time and place are set for voters to arrive and place their votes on a ballot. Presumably the voters have heard the background, views and promises of the various candidates. The votes will determine who gets the job of running the country. In that sense, the people determine the policies of the country. Issues are decided by majority votes.

To be a true democracy, a number of conditions must be met:

1. Every citizen above a certain age has the right to vote.

2. The country has made it easy for citizens to vote.

3. Virtually all the qualified citizens actually cast their votes.

4. The candidate for each office who receives the largest number of popular votes wins.

Consider that each condition may not be met. First, the country may determine that certain citizens are not allowed to vote, such as prisoners, persons who failed to pay their bills and declared bankruptcy, or persons who did not know the native language or were illiterate.

Second, many citizens might find it too costly to vote. There may be too few voting locations. The vote might be during a working day such as Tuesday and they would have to be granted an absence. Voting might be easiest by mail but the country might not accept voting by mail.

Third, many citizens might not vote for a number of reasons, including it might be too costly, or the opposition candidates are both unattractive, or one political party is so dominant in that area that a lot of voters think their vote is either unnecessary or it will be ineffective.

Fourth, the losing candidate might charge that the popular vote was bought or rigged and should not be trusted and wants a recount or a new election for that office.

In sum, the nation may fail to meet the conditions for a true democracy. We would describe that nation as having an imperfect democracy. Most nations that claim they have a democracy have only an imperfect democracy. Even several framers of the American Constitution did not want a true democracy. They were very scared of the masses. Some would have favored voting only by citizens with a certain income or education. This wasn’t approved by the framers. However, the framers instead chose to add an Electoral College feature to the Constitution. They established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, that the Electoral College would be the formal body which elects the President and Vice President of the United States. “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.”

Initially, the idea was that each state would try to vote according to the majority wishes of the electors in the State. Over time, states chose different methods. A point was reached where today, 48 states rely on the plurality winner-take-all system to select their presidential electors. But a winner-take-all system is undemocratic and can subvert the majority vote principle. Take the following two times this has happened:

On December 13, 2000, Al Gore conceded the presidential election to George W. Bush. Gore had won the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes but narrowly lost Florida, giving the Electoral College vote of 271 to Bush and only 266 to Gore. Then in 2016, Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Trump, but the Electoral College again defied the will of the people, electing Donald Trump as President. In these two cases, the losing candidate was installed in the White House. In a perfect democracy, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have been the Presidents.

Criticism of the Electoral College has increased since the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Fifteen states have already favored getting rid of the Electoral College or making it run more democratically.

There is further evidence when a country’s democracy has given up on the majority vote principle. In imperfect democracy exists when polling shows that most citizens favor policies that never or rarely are passed by the elected legislators. Suppose 70 percent of the citizens favor a women’s freedom to have an abortion but the country’s laws prevent women from having this freedom. Suppose 90 percent of the country wants no banning of books but many political districts are banning books and jailing librarians who oppose banning books. In these situations, a minority of elected officials have managed to stop the majority from getting the policies they favor.

The likelihood is high that imperfect democracies may transmute from democracy to oligarchy to autocracy. Suppose that the political parties start abandoning bipartisanship. The political parties are so opposed that they can’t get any bills passed. The President promises to restore peace and “make the country great again.” The President starts using executive power to support undemocratic measures. The leadership slowly becomes more authoritarian. This is what took place in initial democracies, those of Hungary, Turkey, Philippines and others that slipped into autocracies.

Most autocracies are bad for the citizens. Exceptions were when Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or Kemal Ataturk of Turkey took over as autocrats. They used their power in an enlightened way. Unfortunately, this rarely happens with autocrats.

Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)