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An Introduction to Democracy

We live in an era of democracy. A majority of the world’s people live in countries with a democratic form of government, and many others desire democracy. This is a startling new development.

During most of the 20th century, there was mortal conflict between democracy and its rivals, and the nondemocratic side often seemed to be winning the struggle. In 1920, for example, there were only 15 democracies in the world, and at mid-century fewer than one-third of the world’s people lived in the 22 established democratic countries. By the end of the 20th century, however, democracy was ascendant; nearly two-thirds of the world’s people lived in the more than one hundred countries with a democratic form of government. The global advancement of democracy has continued into the 21st century.

What exactly is democracy? When and where did it begin? What are the differences between democracy in ancient and modern times? How do we know the difference between democracy and non-democracy today? What is the universal problem of good government in a democracy? What are arguments for and against democracy? And why do citizens of a democracy need to know exactly what it is and is not?

The Origin of Democracy in Ancient Times

Although democracy is newly resurgent, it is an old idea. More than 2,500 years ago in Athens and other cities of Greece (Hellas), there was rule (kratia) by the people (demos). Democracy (demokratia), or rule by the people, was an alternative to such traditional governments as monarchy, rule by one, and oligarchy, rule by the few. In the first democracies, citizens made and enforced the laws for their small republic, the polis or community of the city. There was majority rule by the citizens, the people of the polis who participated directly in their assembly, the lawmaking body. The status of citizen, however, was restricted to free males of Greek descent, a minority of the population. Women and slaves could not be citizens, and only a small number of non-Greek males ever were granted the privilege of citizenship.

Ancient Greek democracy afforded citizens equal rights to participate directly in governance for the common good of their community. The claims of the community upon the person, however, were primary and superior to the claims of the person upon the community. A good citizen was expected to serve unconditionally the interests of the city-community, especially to defend its freedom and independence against the threat of foreign domination.

There was no sense of personal and private rights of individuals in the democracies of ancient Greece. The decisions made by a majority vote of citizens often disregarded the interests of those in the minority, and sometimes the citizen majority formed a tyranny that abused and oppressed individuals with unpopular opinions.

The Differences between Democracy in Ancient and Modern Times

Democracy today is very different from its ancestors in antiquity. As in the past, democracy today is a government of, by, and for the people, but modern democracy involves government by the people acting indirectly through their elected representatives, rather than government conducted directly by the people themselves, as in antiquity. And the large-scale nation-state—very different in size and complexity from the small Greek polis—is the typical domain of the modern democratic government.

In striking contrast to the limited definition of citizenship in ancient times, democracy today is inclusive; nearly all permanent inhabitants of a country may possess or acquire the rights and privileges of the citizen and thereby claim membership among the people of the polity. Most important, modern democracy works by majority rule in tandem with the protection of minority rights. Tyranny of the majority over minorities is considered unjust in a democracy of our time—a gross flaw to be avoided, and if it occurs something to be corrected immediately.

The idea of liberty in today’s democracies differs significantly from that in ancient times. Democracy in our world implies both collective and personal liberty. There is concern for civic unity and the public good, as in ancient times, but diversity and privacy matter, too. Differences in opinions and interests are tolerated and even encouraged in the public and private lives of citizens. Unlike democracy in ancient times, which directed citizens primarily to serve the community, the primary purpose of government in a modern democracy is to serve and protect all persons under its authority and especially to secure their inherent rights to liberty and safety.

How to Distinguish Democracy from Non-Democracy Today

There is broad international agreement today about the minimal criteria a country must meet in order to cross the threshold of democracy. In an authentic democracy, the citizens or people choose representatives in government by means of free, fair, contested, and regularly scheduled elections in which practically all adults have the right to vote and otherwise participate in the electoral process. Between elections, all persons living in a genuine democracy can participate freely to influence the decisions of their government. And members of minority parties are able to criticize and otherwise oppose the ruling party or parties without obstruction in their pursuit of victory in the next electoral contest to control the government. Popular sovereignty prevails; the government rules by consent of the people to whom it is accountable.

An authentic democracy of our time is anchored in a constitution, a framework for limited government that guarantees the rule of law to protect the political rights of individuals to freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly, and association. Thus, citizens can participate freely to elect their representatives in government and to hold them accountable during the period between elections. And they can freely associate and express their individuality and diversity in civil society, the private domain of life that exists independently of control by government. A legitimate constitution functions effectively in the daily lives of individuals to prevent the government from acting arbitrarily to impose either a tyranny of an elite group over the majority or a tyranny of the majority over unpopular minorities.

The primary characteristics of democracy today, which distinguish it from non-democracy, are constitutionalism, representation in government, and individuals’ rights to liberty. Constitutionalism provides limited government and the rule of law based in a constitution. Representation of the people in government comes by way of free, fair, competitive, and periodic elections conducted in accordance with a constitution that protects individuals’ rights to participate. And the ultimate desirable consequence of constitutionalism and representative government through elections is the guarantee of rights to liberty for each person in the nation, majorities and minorities alike. Thus, liberty in an indirect or representative democracy depends upon constitutionalism, which limits and regulates the power of government in order to guard against tyranny of any kind.

Constitutionalism in a democracy especially protects against the pitfall of majority tyranny, which has afflicted popular governments of times past and present. Only by constitutionally restraining the majority to protect the rights of minorities can there be the inclusion of all the people in the polity, a necessary condition for justice in a democracy today.

The Universal Problem of Good Government in a Democracy

Constitutionalism involves a tension between power in government required to maintain order among the people and limits on power to prevent a government from unjustly denying liberty to the people. This inescapable tension raises a fundamental and universal problem for any people who aspire to achieve or maintain constitutional democracy. How can a society combine liberty and order for the purpose of securing equally and justly the rights of all persons in the nation?

This universal problem was discussed in an acclaimed collection of papers written to encourage ratification of the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist, co-authored in 1787–88 by three founders of the United States of America: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. In the 51st paper of The Federalist, Madison defined the problem of liberty and order in constitutional government:

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions [a well-constructed constitution].

Madison recognized that the individual’s rights to political and personal liberty are at risk if the government has too much power or too little power. If the government’s power is too strong, or insufficiently limited, then it can and probably will be used to oppress certain individuals and deprive them unjustly of their right to liberty. There must be constitutional limits upon the power of government in order to protect the rights of all members of the community.

However, if the government is too limited, or insufficiently empowered, it will be incapable of maintaining law and order and protecting individuals against domestic or foreign predators, who could deprive them of their rights to life, liberty, and property. So, a good government in a democracy is both sufficiently limited and empowered by a constitution, to which the people have consented, for the achievement of order that secures liberty.

It is a daunting challenge for the people of a democracy to create, establish, and maintain such a constitutional government. Observance of constitutional limitations is the key to meeting this challenge. A good constitution limits the power of the people’s representatives in government to prevent them from abusing individuals’ rights to liberty, and it empowers the government to limit licentious expressions of liberty in order to prevent rampant disorder that could destroy democracy. Thus, when the government threatens the rights of individuals it is constrained, and when individuals threaten the authority of government they are checked. The result is ordered liberty, the solution to the universal problem of how to achieve good government in a representative and constitutional democracy.

The direct democracies of ancient times did not adequately balance liberty and order. This failure led to critical deficiencies that doomed them, such as disruptive factional conflict, excessive demands by the city-community on the citizens, tendencies toward majority tyranny, disregard of personal or private rights, and inept or unjust enforcement of law and order. In 1787, James Madison wrote in his 10th paper of The Federalist, “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

The papers of The Federalist include remedies to the deficiencies of past democracies. These proposed remedies influenced the development and improvement of representative democracy in the United States of America and in other modern democratic republics. The principal and overarching remedy to the ills of direct democracy was this: to establish and maintain a representative government, a democratic republic, empowered and limited by the supreme law of a well-constructed constitution to protect equally the liberty and other fundamental rights of all persons in the polity. Every sustainable democracy responds more or less adequately to the universal problem of how to combine liberty and order in one constitutional government. But, although some people have done better than others, there has never been a perfect response to this problem. A genuine democracy today is constitutional and representative. Protecting equal rights to liberty of all persons in a democracy, however, depends primarily upon constitutionalism, the indispensable guarantor of representative government and individual rights.

Arguments For and Against Democracy

Ever since ancient times, democracy has had its proponents and detractors. For most of human history, the critics of democracy have far outnumbered its advocates. Only within the last two hundred years has support for democracy in its constitutional and representative form gained momentum. And only within the past 50 years have the promoters of democracy in the world greatly outnumbered its opponents. Among the major claims of its proponents are the propensities of democracy to:

  • enhance the individual’s sense of dignity and self worth
  • encourage individuals to promote the well-being of their community
  • provide equal opportunities for individuals’ self fulfillment
  • draw upon the collective wisdom of the people in making decisions
  • treat individuals as political and civic equals
  • protect the equal rights of all persons to life, liberty, and property
  • encourage economic productivity and a high quality of life by distributing rewards based on merit rather than inherited status
  • promote international peace, order, and stability, because democracies tend not to fight against each other
  • bring about orderly resolution of conflict within a country
  • make rulers accountable to the people they rule
  • justify the legitimacy of government by basing it on popular consent

Opponents of democracy dispute the claims of its advocates. Some major deficiencies of democracy, say the detractors, are its tendencies to:

  • govern inefficiently due to excessive deliberation in decision making
  • govern ineptly because the most able persons are not selected to rule
  • make unwise decisions in government by pandering to public opinion
  • erode political and social authority and unity by encouraging criticism and dissent
  • obstruct excellence by catering to conventional ideas and to the lowest common standards among the masses of the people
  • overemphasize political and social equality to the detriment of liberty
  • encourage abuse or disregard of unpopular persons and opinions
  • discourage innovation and creativity by ignoring or marginalizing unpopular sources of ideas and artistic expression
  • fail to achieve its ideals or to adhere to its basic principles

Most people in the world today believe the strengths of democracy greatly exceed its weaknesses. The case for democracy has been greatly augmented by the demise in the 20th century of prominent non-democracies, such as the Japanese Empire, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe. The acceptance of democracy by countries of diverse histories and cultures—such as Argentina, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, and Sweden—indicates a pervasive desire for freedom and self-government throughout the world.

It seems that, given a choice, people throughout the world political means to fulfilling their needs and aspirations. The great 20th-century British political leader Winston Churchill recognized that democracy, despite its shortcomings, was better than the alternatives, declaring, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Despite its widespread popularity, it is clear that democracy is not and cannot be a utopia. Its wisest proponents neither promise nor pursue absolute political and social perfection through democracy. Rather, they recognize the inevitable disparities in every democracy between ideals and realities, and they expect that citizens in every democracy will fail occasionally to fulfill its highest ideals and defining principles.

Its apparent imperfections do not invalidate the ideals and principles of democracy. Throughout the history of democracy in the United States and elsewhere, the standards by which democracy is defined have inspired citizens to persevere in a never-ending quest to narrow the gap between lofty ideals and flawed realities and to practice its principles more exactly and authentically. Although the highest standards of democracy remain unrealized, they nonetheless have been catalysts for improvements in the political and civic lives of people throughout the world.

Why Citizens Need to Know the Core Concepts of Democracy

The establishment and maintenance of a democracy depend greatly upon effectively educating the people about the differences between constitutional democracy and various other types of government. If there would be “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — Abraham Lincoln’s pithy phrase about the meaning of democracy — then there must be education of the people about what it is, how to do it, and why it is good, or at least better than the alternatives to it. Confounded concepts of democracy inevitably lead to confused and flawed practices of it, putting at risk the future of this form of government.

During the past century, rulers of nondemocratic regimes appropriated the vocabulary of democracy to mask their dictatorial control of the people. Despotic regimes, such as the fallen Soviet Union, the defunct Democratic Republic of (East) Germany, the Democratic Republic of (North) Korea, and the People’s Republic of China, used showcase constitutions that proclaimed governments of the people and the defense of human rights to confound their opponents and justify their existence. In such corrupt regimes, there were constitutions without constitutional governments and guarantees of human rights without the practical protection of them. These wrongful uses of the vocabulary and trappings of democracy demonstrated dramatically the importance of teaching citizens the concepts by which genuine democracy can be distinguished from its bogus imitators and rivals.

The great 19th-century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville feared that flawed definitions of democracy would confuse people’s understanding of it and threaten its very existence. So, he bequeathed a wise warning about definitions and uses of words to the defenders of democracy against despotism. He said,

It is our way of using the words ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic government’ that brings about the greatest confusion. Unless these words are clearly defined and their definition agreed upon, people will live in an inextricable confusion of ideas, much to the advantage of demagogues and despots.

Tocqueville wanted people of the future to realize that if they were unable to tell the difference between an authentic democracy and its counterfeit imitators then government of, by, and for the people would be at risk, an unfortunate circumstance that afflicted many countries during most of the 20th century. The sage advice of Tocqueville guided the planning and writing of this little book. Its reason for being is improving public understanding of the words by which democracy is understood and practiced throughout our world today. If more and more people are able to identify an authentic democracy, then democracy in our time might be more faithfully practiced and its blessings more extensively enjoyed. Toward this end, the core concepts of democracy are presented alphabetically in the subsequent pages.

These concepts are, collectively, the criteria by which we can know what democracy is and what it is not. They are generic categories that enable us to analyze and appraise how democracy is practiced in countries throughout the world. These core concepts may be practiced differently among the various countries of our world, but every genuine democracy is based upon them in one way or another. And, if they are missing or slighted in a country claiming to be a democracy, then its claims are false.

The vocabulary of democracy in this little book denotes knowledge that should be possessed in common by citizens of the United States of America and any other democracy in order to make this form of government work better for them. If they would be supporters and promoters of democracy against its detractors and critics, then citizens of a democracy need to know its essential characteristics.