Globally, people hold different understandings of what democracy is. In the current moment of global democratic precarity, the way mass publics understand democracy and political participation has important implications for democratic survival. While understandings of democracy vary globally, Africa has an especially high degree of variation across and within countries. Many African countries are currently facing threats to democracy, making these understandings particularly crucial.
In 2016, I conducted a series of interviews in Zambia to investigate how people understood democracy and the point of political participation. In 2011, Zambia had elected its first president from the opposition party since its return to multipartyism in 1991. However, by 2016, there were increasing concerns that his successor—Edgar Lungu—was undermining Zambian democracy. While Lungu was limiting the activities of the main opposition party and silencing dissenting voices, he also justified his consolidation of power by highlighting the economic benefits he had delivered to supporters in his stronghold.
Did Zambians think the point of democracy was to secure personal benefits and economic growth, or did they think democracy was about maintaining the integrity of multipartyism and protecting freedom of speech? I investigated this question in my recent journal article, “Infrastructure and Perceptions of Democracy in Zambia: Democracy Off the Rails“.
The latter conception of democracy reflects a “procedural” understanding: one that is focused on the process and rules in place to ensure political competition. Procedural understandings of democracy include a focus on such features as the existence of multiple political parties, the freedom to express one’s beliefs, and the ability to choose leaders in free elections. The former conception reflects a “substantive” or “instrumental” understanding of democracy: one that is focused on the outcomes that a democracy should produce, such as adequate public goods provision and assistance for the poor.
The way people understand democracy is consequential, particularly in the current climate of stalled or eroding democracy worldwide. If people place value in democracy because they hope it will deliver a specific outcome, rather than valuing it as a political process, then they may quickly lose patience with a democratic government that struggles to deliver. Similarly, if people are more focused on the receipt of personal aid as the hallmark of democracy rather than the processes that ensure free and fair elections, they may be less concerned about would-be autocrats eroding democratic procedures.
My study in Zambia included a qualitative analysis of 92 semi-structured interviews from the county’s Southern Province collected in 2016, alongside nationally-representative survey data from round five of the Afrobarometer. This study revealed that Zambia’s political geography—specifically, degree of remoteness—had important consequences for the way people understood democracy, reflecting different political dynamics in the country’s center and periphery.
In the interviews, I asked people about various forms of political participation and asked them to explain why they engaged in them (or not). The interviews revealed a stark difference between people who lived in central versus remote locations. Those who lived closer to the region’s major road-and-rail infrastructure were much more likely to describe their political participation in procedural terms, highlighting the importance of holding the government accountable and transmitting their ideas to their representatives. Alternatively, those who lived more remotely were much more likely to explain their participation in instrumental terms: as a bid for personal aid, or to try to draw public goods to their communities.
This trend applied nationally as well. In Zambia, political and economic power has historically centered along the rail line, which was developed during the colonial era to export copper south through the colony’s center. Since independence, the rail line has continued to represent both the geographical and political-economic center of the country, with greater government presence and access to infrastructure and markets. Areas further from the rail line are more remote, with seasonally unpassable dirt roads, sparser population, and less government presence.
In 2012-13, the Afrobarometer carried out a nationally representative 1200-person survey across Zambia, and included a line of questions about whether people understand democracy in more procedural or instrumental terms. This data was geocoded, meaning it was possible to measure how far the survey respondents lived from the central rail infrastructure. Using this as a measure of how “central” or “peripheral” communities are, the survey data demonstrate that people living centrally are more likely to hold procedural understandings of democracy, while those living more peripherally are more likely to hold instrumental understandings. Further analysis demonstrates that the center/periphery divide as captured by distance from the rail line is more meaningful than the urban/rural divide for explaining these different understandings of democracy.
Two features of the center/periphery divide stand out to offer some explanation for these different understandings. Compared to the center, peripheral communities are more ethnically homogeneous, and are more likely to have traditional authorities (usually designated as “chiefs”) that hold considerable local power.
Taken together, these findings suggest that “democracy” plays out very differently in central versus peripheral areas in Zambia. In the center, living in more diverse communities with ideological pluralism, people are more likely to view democracy as a system for weighing different political ideas, and to emphasize the importance of procedural safeguards such as multipartyism and freedom of association. In more peripheral areas, where communities are more homogeneous and traditional authorities hold more sway, people are more likely to view democracy as a system for distributing material benefits. Other studies illuminate how, in such circumstances, traditional authorities can become political brokers, delivering the bloc vote of their community in exchange for public good provision or other types of benefits.
Relative remoteness, as captured by proximity to the rail line, matters for the way people understand democracy and explain their political participation (or lack thereof). This observation is important for several reasons, particularly considering the current precarity of democracy globally. First, as I state in the full-length version of this study: If a significant portion of a country’s citizens consider the hallmark of democracy to be the receipt of personal aid, rather than a robust multiparty system or an independent judiciary, then they will be unlikely to balk as would-be autocrats erode democratic procedures. Furthermore, since the publication of this article, other studies have demonstrated that varied understandings of democracy are also associated with less willingness to participate politically, especially in more costly forms of participation like contacting, and are linked to more contingent support for democracy.
Understanding these varied conceptualizations of democracy, their origins, and their relationship to patterns of political participation and support for democracy writ large are thus essential for understanding the role that mass publics will play in demanding democratic persistence or tolerating its erosion.
Erin Hern (@hern_erin) is an Associate Professor of the Political Science Department, and Senior Research Associate of the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration, at Syracuse University.
 Lu, Jie and Yun-han Chu. 2021. Understandings of Democracy: Origins and Consequences Beyond Western Democracies. Oxford University Press. Chapter 3, p.19
 V-Dem Institute. 2022 Democracy Report 2022: Autocratization Changing Nature?.
 Chanda, Ernest. 2017. “How to Gut a Democracy in Two Years,” Foreign Policy. 3 August 2018 https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/03/how-to-gut-a-democracy-in-two-years-zambia-state-of-emergency-lungu/
 Ex. Dominika Koter, ‘Urban and rural voting patterns in Senegal: The spatial aspects of incumbency’, Journal of Modern African Studies 51, 4 (2013), pp. 653–679; Robin Harding and Kristin Michelitch, ‘Candidate coethnicity, rural dwelling, and partisanship in Africa’ (Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions Working Paper 2, 2019).
 Lu, Jie and Yun-han Chu. 2021. Understandings of Democracy: Origins and Consequences Beyond Western Democracies. Oxford University Press. Chapter 6
 Chapman, Hannah, Margaret C. Hanson, Valery Dzutsati, and Paul DeBell. 2023. “Under the Veil of Democracy: What do People Mean When They Say They Support Democracy?” Perspectives on Politics DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592722004157