As protesters from Benghazi to Sanaa risk their lives in the name of democratic freedoms, while Bush-era stalwarts cry victory for the "Freedom Agenda" and their opponents note that freedom in Egypt and Tunisia came from within, it is worth remembering two things: that the right to vote is worth such sacrifice, and that it is far from a guarantee of freedom.
Democratic institutions may be part of the secret to long-term growth (if not to the short-term kind). As Amartya Sen has pointed out, they don't tend to let their citizens starve to death. And people living in democracies report themselves marginally happier than people living under other forms of government. As we all know by now, democracies don't go to war with each other (much).
But for all of their positive attributes, democracies can be shallow and easy to overturn. First, a lot of democracies don't stay democracies. You don't have to go quite as far as Niall Ferguson -- who has argued that recent events in the Middle East could lead to a New Caliphate intent on Islamic global revolution -- to worry that newly democratic regimes might fall back toward more autocratic rule. Indeed, many people in Egypt were concerned over just this thing as the March 19th vote on the country's new constitution approached.
Democracies can also be shallow in their roots. Notre Dame's Christian Davenport and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's David Armstrong found that "limited" democracies -- countries with the vote but with less than free or fair elections -- were no better at protecting civil rights than non-democracies. Davenport even suggests that limited democracies include some of the worst abusers. David Richards at SUNY Binghamton University similarly suggests that there is no link between the mere presence of national elections and observance of human rights.
In 1997, Fareed Zakaria coined the term "illiberal democracies" to describe this phenomenon of democratic governments running amok with civil rights. But he wasn't describing a new type of regime -- throughout history, most democracies have, in fact, been markedly illiberal. The word itself, after all, comes from ancient Athens: a city that tolerated slavery, denied women participation in public life, and had a weak record on fair trial, empirically demonstrated by the firsthand experience of the philosopher Socrates. The protection of broader rights in putative democracies has been patchy ever since. The United States ratified a constitution dedicated to representative government in 1788, but only finally abolished slavery in 1865, guaranteed the vote to women in 1920, and only passed the Civil Rights Act ending racial segregation and discriminatory voter registration practices 176 years after the Constitution was ratified.
And the lion of liberty, Winston Churchill, believed his democratic bona fides were in no way compromised by a determination to deny votes to women or democracy to India and other parts of the British Empire. He was also happy to say of Native Americans that "I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."