09/25/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

Democracy Is Not Always a Benefit to Those on the Economic Margin

Since the Cold War, America has, and rightfully so, advertised the superiority of democracy. But what exactly does that mean?

Is it simply a matter of voting? Is democracy one of those things difficult to define, we just know it when we see it?

Nowhere is "democracy" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. If one examines the democracy that America has sought to export around the world, such definition has been truncated to voting.

From purple fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Arab Spring, many sought to make these the symbols of democracy that was gaining a foothold globally. But history has unfortunately proven such was not the case, at least not yet.

The classical definition of democracy in the 21st century would include:

• A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.

• The active participation of people, as citizens.

• Protection of human rights of all citizens

• A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

By this criteria America's ability to achieve the basic democratic goals has been less than 50 years. President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation in support of civil rights legislation based on the events in Birmingham 1963.

The image of police dogs and water hoses provided the embarrassing contradiction of Jim Crow segregation that was shown around the world.

This inconsistency, however, did not serve as a deterrent from rhetorically touting democracy to the world, demonstrating that one's ideals are invariably more moral than one's actions.

Democracies come in many forms; it can become overly simplistic to speak in terms of a one-size-fits-all definition. Perhaps the best that could be said of democracy is the famous Winston Churchill quote: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Yet, the aforementioned criteria that defines democracy matters little, if that system is unable to meet the needs of its citizens.

Antonio Pedro Ramos, professor at UCLA and the California Center for Population Research, has examined infant mortality over the world for the past 50 years.

Studying infant mortality has long been a useful tool to measure not only the health of a society, but also a host of additional metrics including the quality of governance.

It is hardly newsworthy to report that such well-known data as black infant morality in America is higher than whites, or that the same hold true for low-income versus high-income individuals.

Surprisingly, Ramos analyzed 5 million births from 50 developing countries since 1970. He found that democracies do not consistently make things better for the poor.

How can this be? How is it there is not a wider gap in infant mortality rates between democracies and countries governed by dictators?

The common belief among those living in democratic societies has been democracy improves the quality of life, especially for those on the economic margin. The assumption being as more people vote, government will be unable to ignore those in need.

The democracies in the report were in varying stages. Moreover, Ramos' findings do not to suggest that we exchange the stars and stripes for the antiquated hammer and sickle.

The obvious strength of democracy is that it allows all of its citizens to participate, but it is only as effective as the level of that participation.

When democracies function as they should, there is no question they outperform dictator-ruled societies.

But when democratic rule is unable see those on the margin, enacting policies that fail to improve the social well being of all then the debate between democracy and dictatorships is one more dependent on rhetoric than deed.

Ramos' findings are not reflective of the weakness of democracy but rather the weakness in humans to achieve its lofty goals.