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President Boric’s limited notion of democracy

Chilean president, Gabriel Boric, often insists that he has had to shed a good part of the traditional clichés of the Chilean left. However, perhaps he is not aware of all the ones he still drags along. In the last weeks, he has repeated a phrase that he loves, but without realizing that it reflects a limited notion of democracy, typical of the traditional left, especially in Latin America.

The president affirms every time he has the opportunity: “Democracy is there to solve people’s problems because if it doesn’t, people become disenchanted”. That would be the fundamental value of democracy: to procure the welfare of the population, especially in the socio-economic field (although not only). In expressing this idea, Boric inscribes himself in the usual conception of the Latin American left, according to which the nature of democracy is purely instrumental; it has no value in itself.

This ignorance of the substantive value of democracy has consequences: it is what has led to praising the Cuban regime for a long time and dissimulating the “imperfections” of governments such as the Venezuelan or Nicaraguan.

The Latin American left is still reluctant to admit that democracy has a double value. The democratic system is not simply a welfare factory. Its substantive value consists of the fact that it is a system that allows a social group to make collective decisions under peaceful and predictable conditions. This substantive value is crucial for human development. Therefore, we may like democratic collective decisions more or less, and they may or may not be in accordance with our ideology or our value system. But if a decision has been adopted in a normatively correct manner, democracy has fulfilled its main function: to allow the social group to make collective decisions peacefully. 

Of course, the democratic system is also oriented toward the common good, in that sense, it will pursue the welfare of the population. But to reduce the value of democracy to this second function reflects a disregard for the substantive value of democracy, which may jeopardize this plane of human development. As Adam Przeworski said, development is something very oral: to be able to eat and to be able to speak. And if either element of the binomial is violated, human development is impeded.

On the other hand, ignorance of the substantive value of democracy leads to the maintenance of a deficient civic and political culture. If citizens (and, above all, their political representatives) only value democracy for its capacity to generate well-being, it is not surprising that citizens cease to feel committed to democracy as soon as a national or international economic crisis arises.

President Boric should realize that in Chile there are high rates of that population that are disaffected with democracy and, in fact, they could have had a great deal of weight in the result of the last plebiscite. Of course, both planes of democratic value are connected: raising the standard of living of the population can also contribute to a greater commitment to the democratic system. But this is not automatic or linear.

It is necessary to pay special attention to raising the level of democratic political culture in Latin America. Therefore, it would be a fundamental achievement of Boric’s presidential mandate if the commitment to the substantive value of democracy were to increase appreciably among the population by the end of his administration. However, in order to do so, he would have to get rid as soon as possible of the merely instrumental notion of democracy that he still carries with him.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Enrique Gomáriz Moraga ha sido investigador de FLACSO en Chile y otros países de la región. Fue consultor de agencias internacionales (PNUD, IDRC, BID). Estudió Sociología Política en la Univ. de Leeds (Inglaterra) con orientación de R. Miliband.


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