There is no universally accepted definition of democracy, and Arblaster says, “Democracy is a concept before it is a fact, and because it is a concept it has no single precise and agreed meaning.” (ARBLASTER, 2002: 3) Essentially democracy has three main ideals: ‘Popular Sovereignty’, the belief that the legitimacy of the state is created by the will or consent of its people, who are the source of every political power; ‘Political Equality’; and ‘Individual Autonomy’. Abraham Lincoln summed up democracy well in saying it is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, and so, in the case of liberal western democracies it is government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. For Aristotle the underlying principle of democracy is freedom, since only in a democracy the citizens can have a share in freedom. In essence, he argues that this is what every democracy should make its aim. There are two main aspects of freedom: being ruled and ruling in turn, since everyone is equal according to number, not merit, and to be able to live as one pleases. Democracy is indeed a set of ideas and principles about freedom, but it also consists of a set of practices and procedures that have taken a very long time to develop. In short, democracy is the institutionalisation of freedom. For this reason, it is possible to identify the fundamentals of constitutional government that any society must possess to be properly called democratic: human rights, and equality before the law. Therefore two principles that any definition of democracy incorporates are, namely that all citizens in a state are equal before the law, and they have equal access to power. A third common principle is that all citizens are promised certain legitimised freedoms and liberties, which are generally protected by a constitution or set of legally prescribed democratic practices. This essay will explore these defining elements of a democratic society as well as considering some of the problems faced by democratic institutions in trying to realise and sustain them.
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One of the most essential elements in defining democracy is ‘self-rule’. The word ‘democracy’ originally came from the Greek ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, meaning that the people (demos) rule. The only possible object of rule is the people who form the state or political system being considered, hence, the rulers in a democracy, the people, are also the ruled. (HARRISON, 1993) Therefore democracy can be described as people ruling themselves. If one takes the meaning of democracy literally it is essentially ‘the rule of the many’. In its original context in the city state of ancient Greece, this rule was exercised directly by the citizens, also called direct democracy. The size and scale of modern states mean this method of rule is often considered impractical. In order to reach an appropriate balance between adequate participation and adequate efficiency and practicability, people’s rule is exercised indirectly through elected political leaders that represent people’s interests (representative democracy). However, the idea that democratic institutions could accurately represent the people has been debated thoroughly. Some political thinkers, such as Rousseau and Mill, have suggested that some degree of socio-economic equality is needed to guarantee a reasonable level of political equality and therefore indispensable for a stable democracy. Held argued that it is extreme material poverty amongst the masses that renders genuine democracy impractical. On the other hand, Dahl noted that not just absolute poverty but also relative poverty poses a stumbling block for the realisation of political equality and therefore democracy. (SORENSEN, 1993) Rousseau believed that no one could be truly free who did not govern themselves. In his Du Contrat Social, he made fun of the English form of government by claiming that the English people, “is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are elected, the people is enslaved.” (ARBLASTER, 2002: 59), and “for him sovereignty belonged inalienably to the people, the problem was to decide how they could retain it and exercise it.” (ARBLASTER, 2002: 60) On the other hand, the English philosopher John Locke defends representative democracy as be believes that men in civil society should enter a contract with their government and that “citizens are bound to obey the law, while the government has the right to make laws and to defend the commonwealth from foreign injury — all for the public good.” (Holden Online)
This leads to another defining element of democracy; the fundamental concept which secures the rights of people is the consent of the governed. In a democracy the people are sovereign and are therefore the highest form of political authority. This means the decisions made by the government ultimately have to be accepted by the people. For example, during elections, all the candidates have to campaign freely in order to educate people on their policies and allow them to scrutinise each candidate’s ideas. Lewis believes “Consent is an essential element of democratic theory, but not a distinguishing element. The important test is not whether a major portion of the adult population accepts or approves a government or its policies, but the manner in which this consent is secured” (LEWIS, 1940) Hence it is important that elected representatives at a national and local level should listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions. However, Hobbes mentions in his book Leviathan that ‘in exchange for security, individuals give away their rights to an all powerful ruler’ (Hobbes, 1651). In the modern day, it is hard for governments to be truly democratic as, due to scale, it is unlikely that all the citizens will agree with all decisions made by the government.
The active participation of people as citizens in political and civil life is also important when defining democracy. Active participation of the people is one of the basic requirements for a state to be democratic, and thus it is essential in defining democracy. The main role for citizens in a democracy is for them to participate in public life, hence the right to vote increases participation amongst citizens. Schumpter puts forward a minimalist interpretation of participation in arguing that democracy should only be a mechanism for choosing political leaders. Therefore participation would be limited to voting (SORENSEN, 1993). On the other hand the concept of democratic autonomy can be regarded as an important means of participation which calls for people’s direct involvement at a local level through community institutions. (HELD, 1996) In this sense, participation would incorporate the ability of citizens to directly influence decisions that affect their lives. Therefore, citizens should essentially attempt to gain an understanding of relevant public issues, and be willing to listen to these issues and the views of the government. Education is vital in democracy because, in order for people to fully participate, they have to be informed on the relevant topical issues of their state. It can be argued that democracy relies heavily on collective participation as democracy is stronger as a whole when people actively participate. Rousseau analysed the concept of collective participation when he spoke about the idea of the general will, ‘the result when citizens make political decisions considering the good of society as a whole rather than the particular interests of individuals and groups.’ (Rousseau, 1762) The active participation of citizens in political and civil spheres of society is a vital element of democracy as, “Individuals must be allowed a share in political control because to command obedience without free participation in control is to deny the right of all to self-development through responsibility for their own acts – is to reduce men to the degrading irresponsibility of slaves or mules.” (LEWIS, 1940) However, personal autonomy must be taken into account when defining democracy. This is because for a society to be democratic people should have the freedom to choose whether to participate in the political process or hand over the decision making to a person or group more qualified to make well informed political decisions, like an elected government.
Furthermore, one of the most important defining elements of democracy is that the underlying right of the people is to have rights and more specifically the right of choice. The freedoms to take pleasure in one’s own culture, without such minorities being scrutinized; the freedom to express opinions and decide what to do. “The European Union believes that democracy and human rights are universal values that should be vigorously promoted around the world. They are integral to effective work on poverty alleviation and conflict prevention and resolution.” (http://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/what/human-rights/index_en.htm) Demonstrations against government policies and decisions are also fine in true democracy, as long as the rights of others are taken into account, hence protests should be non-violent. There is now a general acceptance among the international community about the centrality of human rights and their importance to democracy, and Ghandi gave a useful definition of democracy when he said, “My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.” The greatest protection of human rights emanates from a democratic framework grounded in the rule of law. The principle that ‘all power ultimately rests with the people and must be exercised with their consent’ lies at the heart of democracy. Democracy is premised on the recognition and protection of people’s right to have a say in all decision making processes which is itself based on the central principle of equality of all human beings. The exercise of this fundamental political right requires a guarantee of crucial freedoms; to express one’s thoughts and opinion without fear, to seek and receive information, to form associations and to assemble in a peaceful manner to discuss public affairs amongst others. Accommodation of the views of minorities is essential to prevent democracy from degenerating into despotism by the majority. The purpose of democracy like that of human rights protection is to uphold the dignity of every individual and to ensure that the voices of the weakest are also heard. Its core values; freedom, equality, fraternity, accommodation of diversity and the assurance of justice underpin the norms of human rights as well.
This leads on to another key element of democracy is ‘majority rule’ and it is often described as a characteristic feature of democracy. The web definition of ‘majority rule’ is, “a decision rule that selects one of two alternatives, based on which has more than half the votes.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majority_rule) An essential process in representative democracies is competitive elections, that are fair both substantively and procedurally. Furthermore, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are essential so that citizens are informed and able to vote in their personal interests.” The election process of modern liberal democracies sees the party with the majority of votes leading the government and representing the people on a national scale. This is crucial when exploring democracy because, even though only a proportion of the population are in agreement with the government, it is the largest so the greatest number possible will be satisfied. However, without responsible government or constitutional protections of individual liberties from democratic power it is possible for dissenting individuals to be oppressed by the ‘tyranny of the majority’. So, therefore, a key element of any democracy is to ensure that minorities have the right to promote their representatives for election to government against the majority view.
In conclusion, Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Democracy is by no means a perfect system of government but many of its defining elements explored in this essay are vital. Indeed, as Arblaster tells us, democracy is still an “unfinished business on the agenda of modern politics.” (ARBLASTER, 2002: 10) and there much ground to be covered before we develop a fully democratic system. The original ‘direct’ system of democracy from ancient Athens was possible down to the fact that the scale, in comparison to the present day, was far smaller. Therefore, it seems that presently, the closest we can get to proper democracy is a representative system with elected representatives making decisions and carrying out policies for the people. The nature of democracy has changed over time but the essential elements that make up its definition remain the same. To summarise, the three main elements of democracy are essentially participation, competition and liberties and perhaps what is most important to note is that the ideas behind democracy are based on, “the hypothesis that power and the right to exercise power belongs to the people” (Goodwin, 2007, p.288). The pillars of any modern day western liberal democracies are as follows; sovereignty of the people, government based upon consent of the governed, majority rule, minority rights, guarantee of basic human rights, free and fair elections, equality before the law and constitutional limits on government. A democratic society must incorporate these values as democracy is more than a set of constitutional rules and procedures that determine how a government functions. In a democracy, government is only one element coexisting in a social fabric of many and varied institutions, political parties, organisations, and associations.