Democracy is a form of government in which parties lose elections.

I learned this definition in grad school in Adam Przeworski’s course, “Theories of the Capitalist State.” Clearly, it stuck with me.

This definition gets to the heart of the matter. It hinges on what political scientists call “the democratic bargain.” In a competitive political system governed by the rule of law, each election creates winners and losers. The losing party accepts that it will have another chance to compete during the next election cycle. Following the rules of democracy, the losers respect the legitimacy of the winners. They cooperate where possible and oppose, if necessary, within the accepted normative and legal framework.

“Where parties lose elections” was particularly meaningful to me in grad school because I was studying East European politics during the latter days of the Cold War. Leninist states held regular elections but the Communist Party never lost. So, the ability of parties to lose is a great metric when considering how democratic a country is. Look at Russia today. What is the likelihood that Vladimir Putin will lose the next election? Probably less than it was the last time.

The last presidential election in Russia took place in 2012. The process of nominating candidates was odd, by American standards. The current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev nominated his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who accepted the nomination. In turn, Putin offered Medvedev the number two place on the ticket; Medvedev became Prime Minister when Putin was elected President. The election itself was “clearly skewed” in Putin’s favor, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The parliamentary elections in 2011 had set the stage for Putin’s resurgence. Cyber attacks against political rivals, threats against journalists, and repression of protests resulted in a tense and non-transparent campaign. Putin’s United Russia party won a plurality of the votes but still lost seats in the Russian Duma. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked OSCE to conduct a full investigation of the electoral irregularities. Once he assumed the Russian presidency, Putin began dismantling independent news media, piece by piece. At least ten of Putin’s critics met with foul play. In Freedom House surveys since 2012, Russia is ranked Not Free.

Elections happen— but they don’t matter in a non-democracy.

In a healthy democracy, elections are transparent and competitive. Electoral participation is open and unfettered for all those who qualify as electors.

Currently, Freedom House ranks the United States as Free. But they also note:

in recent years the country’s democratic institutions have suffered some erosion, as reflected in legislative gridlock, dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth and economic opportunity.

And, technically speaking, the US is not a democracy. What we’ve got here is “A republic, if you can keep it.”