Our instinctive response is to praise the results of Sunday's balloting in Venezuela and question the same day's results from Russia. But, dirty politics notwithstanding, democracy worked in both places: It just worked differently - because the two electorates wanted different things.
Russians and Venezuelans have different expectations - so they made different choices. Russians voted big for Vladimir Putin's favored party in parliamentary elections, while Venezuelans refused to grant Hugo Chavez a lifetime presidency and complete the country's transition to a Cuban-style mockery of socialism.
In Russia, voters chose social and economic security over political liberty; in Venezuela, they did the reverse - refusing to be bribed, they insisted on preserving their free political institutions.
Yet, in both countries, a global trend was at work: the spread of democracy.
The now-derided voices who argued, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, that democracy would sweep the world had the basic thesis right. They just got two big details wrong: They expected too much too soon, and they expected new democracies to mirror our own.
Democracy is the coming thing. But it's going to come more slowly than we hoped. In some cases, it will be a matter of decades, with ugly setbacks. In others, it may need centuries to take hold. History won't hurry up whenever we whistle.
The other point is inseparable from the first: Different cultures are going to work out their own versions of democracy by trial and error. We can't impose a template and tell societies with radically different social and political values to just get with the program.
Above all, populations have to learn from their own mistakes. And they will. The disappointments we've experienced, from postcolonial Africa to Iraq, as tribal societies voted along ethnic or religious lines, were inevitable. Our expectations have long been too high - not least, thanks to ideologues who refuse to accept that human societies are not identical in their maturity or merit.
Yet democracy hasn't failed: It's just starting to develop. Even in embittered, blood-soaked states, the people are trying to make their votes count. Around the globe, billions of human beings are struggling to create local forms of self-government that fit their aspirations, needs and customs.
Democracy will sweep the world. It just won't mirror our own practices and institutions in every detail. And it's going to take time.
In Venezuela, the people stood up, in the streets and at the polls, to a would-be dictator who nonetheless felt he needed the imprimatur of a national referendum. A generation ago, Latin American strongmen didn't feel obliged to seek voter approval.
Chavez did all he could to win, denying media access to opposition voices, beating students with clubs and bribing the poor with promises of six-hour workdays and fairy-tale government benefits.
Despite all that, a majority of Venezuelan voters said, "No!" And, at least for now, their would-be dictator has accepted the will of the people.
This is huge. The people of Venezuela, a country of bitter economic disparities, chose the preservation of democracy over promises of material benefits. Freedom won.
In Russia, of course, the opposite result came in: The people voted for security over liberty. But they voted for it. Russia's just at a more primitive stage of political development. Putin's electoral mischief-making was even more shameless than that of his Venezuelan counterpart. Even so, Putin felt the need for voters to confirm the course upon which he's set their country.
The sick joke is that, thanks to ineradicable Russian paranoia and Putin's secret-police mentality, he used a heavier hand against the opposition than he needed to. Had the vote been totally free and fair, Putin-favored United Russia might have seated a few less parliamentarians, but it still would've bested all the other parties combined - Putin is that popular with Russians.
While Chavez tries to impose an eccentric personal vision, Putin exploits centuries of Russian tradition - not least, the yearning for individual security and social order. He embodies Russia's national character: titanic vanity yoked to fears of inferiority vis-à-vis all things foreign.
We make the mistake of over-valuing foreign intelligentsias - because they seem "like us." But Russia's opposition parties simply don't reflect what most Russians want at present. That's why Russia had no mass protests - just isolated demonstrations for the media.
In the West, we've been mortified by the lawless treatment of oligarchs who, having built enormous fortunes pre-Putin, failed to snap to attention when the Kremlin changed hands. But if there's one pervasive characteristic of individual Russians, it's jealousy of those who are more successful.
Putin gave the people what they wanted: revived national pride, economic stability - and revenge against the new aristocracy. He's the "good czar," Russia's stern-but-just national father. Putin's mythic.
Chavez tried to subvert the system, and it cost him the vote. Putin subverted the system - and didn't have to.
A generation from now, China may have a more-open democracy than Russia. But Russians will still be invited to the polls. Even Putin can't turn back the clock to the USSR's utterly fake elections. Russia's experiment with democracy isn't over; it's barely begun.
Increasingly, human beings around the world insist on having a voice in the way they're governed. They won't always choose what we think best for them. But when even would-be dictators feel the need for an electoral mandate, we're making progress.
That progress may be miserably slow, painful and frequently disappointing. Some electorates may vote for a new czar or even for war. But they'll vote.