What is Democracy ?

Democracy can be defined in multiple ways. According to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1996, 1998) democracy can be defined as
“Government by popular representation; a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people, but is indirectly exercised through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed; a constitutional representative government; a republic.”
This broad definition leads us to believe that all democratic states have representative governments, regular elections, have a constitution and are republics. Of course the regular governments and regular elections are cornerstones of democracies, but democratic states are not all republics or they do not all have constitutions. According to Cincotta (1998) there are pillars of democracy, which are:
• 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.
• Due process of law.
• Constitutional limits on government.
• Social, economic, and political pluralism.
• Values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation, and compromise.
These pillars and historic versions of democracy will be discussed in this essay.

Today democratic governments are the most common forms of government. From the early 1990’s the countries of the former soviet block cast off the yoke of communism and embraced democracy. More and more African and Asian countries are becoming democracies. Democracy is practiced in countries as varied as Japan, Italy and Venezuela. According to Cincotta (1998),
“Democracies flourish when they are tended by citizens willing to use their hard-won freedom to participate in the life of their society–adding their voices to the public debate, electing representatives who are held accountable for their actions, and accepting the need for tolerance and compromise in public life”

Democracies fall into two categories, direct and representative. The classic example of direct is classical Greek democracy, but it still is used today. It is not used to extent as representative democracy. The most common form of direct democracy used today is referendums. According to The Economist (August, 1999) only 3 democracies in Western Europe make no provision for referendums in their constitutions, they are Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway. Only six major democracies have never held nationwide referendums, they are the Netherlands, the United States, Japan, India, Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany. In other countries such as Switzerland and several U.S. states referendums rival legislatures in their significance. They are different types of referendums, advisory and mandatory. Advisory referendums are a way for governments to test public opinion on controversial issues. Mandatory referendums are apart of the legislative process and are one means of changing the constitutions.

In a democracy equality before the law and due process should be guaranteed to all citizens of the state. This is a fundamental to any just and democratic society. This judicial system should also guarantee basic human rights. The courts should be protecting the rights of the individual against encroachment form the government. The courts should also uphold the rights of minorities so that the democratic government does not turn into a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and abuse the rights of minorities to further their own gains. According to Cincotta (1998) there are essential requirements of due process in a democracy. These are:
• No one’s home can be broken into and searched buy the police without a court order showing there is good reason for such a search.
• No person shall be held under arrest without explicit, written charges that specify the alleged violation.
• Persons charged with crimes should not be held for protracted periods in prison.
• The authorities are to grant bail, or conditional release, to the accused pending trial if there is little likelihood that the suspect will flee or commit other crimes.
• Persons cannot be compelled to be witnesses against themselves. This prohibition against self-incrimination must be absolute.
• Persons shall not be subject to double jeopardy; that is being charged with the same crime twice.
• Because of their potential for abuse by the authorities, so-called ex-post laws are proscribed.
• Defendants may possess additional protections against coercive acts by the state.
Undemocratic states often try opponents for treason. For this reason, all democratic states should have a clear definition of treason to protect citizens from abuse of the government.

Elections are often used as a benchmark of democracy to see if newly democratised states are truly on the road to democracy. The reason elections are so important in a democracy is that, in elections people chose the primary law-makers of the state. Whether the elections be for president or parliamentarians, those elected have been endorsed by the majority of their constituents. This allows them to govern with legitimacy. There are number of criteria for democratic elections. Elections must be;
• Competitive, more then one candidate standing for election
• Periodic, giving citizens the opportunity to pass judgement on government performance
• Inclusive, the number of voters should be a large proportion of the adult population and should include all minorities.
In democratic states all elections should be by secret and free ballot. This is to ensure that no voter intimidation takes place. At the same the protection of the ballot box and counting of votes must be as open and accountable as possible.

Checks and balances are very important in democratic states. This is to ensure that political power is dispersed and decentralised are not concentrated in one position, a dictator. These checks and balances ensure that there is a curb on government powers and that government is as close the people as possible. An important part of these checks and balances is the separation of powers. The writers of the United States’ constitution ensured that power would not be focused within one branch of government by sharing between the branches of government. The separation of powers provides an important safeguard against the abuse of power by governments, which all democratic states must confront.

A weakness of democracy is that if citizens do not take part in regular elections the legitimacy of the government is threatened. Of course citizens are perfectly entitled to show their dissatisfaction with the political process by not taking part in elections. Without the lifeblood of citizens’ actions, democracy will die. Citizens, who do not vote, may be involved in one of a myriad of organisations concerned with public policy. The right of individuals to join these nongovernmental associations is fundamental to democracy.

In a democracy communication is vital especially in large states. The media has begun to dominate communications between the government and the people. Communication and public debates now take place on radio, television, newspapers, magazines and books. Due to their importance within a democracy the media has a number of functions. The media is there to inform and educate the public on government proposals. This should be accurate, timely and unbiased information. Due to diverse opinions the media should access a wide range of viewpoints. This role is especially important during elections, as few voters will have the chance to meet the candidates. The media should act like a watchdog on the government to and other important state institutions. By being independent of the government, the media the media can expose the truth behind government claims and hold officials accountable for their actions. The media can also take a more active role in public debate through editorials and investigative reporting. By doing this the media can also call for reform of institutions and highlight what needs to be done. The media can also become an outlet for public opinion by printing letters to the editor and by printing articles of differing viewpoints.

There have many styles of democracy used throughout the centuries. These models are both historical and philosophical. The ancient Greeks used what we refer to as classical democracy. These were modelled on the city-states of ancient Greece. These city-states were governed by mass meetings in an assembly called the Ecclesia. Classical democracy had limited and weak central institutions which included a five hundred-strong Council, a fifty-strong Committee and a President of the Committee who held office for one day and not more then once in his lifetime. This was a major problem with classical democracy there was no continuance of policy in the power structures in government. Classical democracy was a true direct democracy as it was participatory. It was only viable because the city-states were very small. Also exclusion featured strongly in classical democracy as slave, women and foreigners were not allowed to participate.

In the seventh and eighteenth century’s protective democracy developed. This was helped by the liberal thinking about rights and freedoms by John Locke and others at the time. This model of democracy was used to constrain the over-mighty power of the state. This is what became known as government by consent. Protective democracy is associated with minimising the power of the state and maximising individual freedoms. Protective democracy was liberal and was the first step towards representative democracy. Protective democracy became the basis of the American political system. Protective democracy was supported by economic liberals. The problem with protective democracy was it often led to weak governments.

After protective democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others came up with developmental democracy. According to this model, democracy is a means of promoting of the development of both the individual and the community. It was associated with maximalist ideas of government and the state. Developmental democracy became associated with the common good, which led to the development of the welfare state. This led to more focus on the community rather than the individual. Developmental democracy became associated with the ideas of the left and centre-left. Developmental democracy also led to the creation of strong governments. The question of how and who defines the ‘common good’ is a major problem with developmental democracy. This model is often criticized as ‘totalitarian democracy.

‘People’s democracy’ is a term adopted by communist regimes to attempt to legitimise their regimes. People’s democracies were based on Marxist critique of liberal democracy as ‘capitalist (bourgeois) democracy’, as opposed to participatory democracy. People’s democracies believed in economic democracy, where all wealth would be shared among the proletariat. In practice, communist parties defined themselves as ‘the vanguard of the working class’ and controlled power.

The dominant version of democracy used throughout the world is liberal representative democracy, usually referred to as liberal democracy. It is representative democracy as people elect representatives to govern them and it is liberal as political equality and freedom of all individuals are guaranteed. It is argued that liberal democracy is on the way out, as it faces growing problems. Declining electoral turnouts threaten the legitimacy of governments. There is a growing trend of declining membership of political parties, showing disillusion with party politics and politicians.

Democracy faces an unknown future. With more and more states becoming democracies, something must be done to encourage other undemocratic states to become democracies. Democracy has a number of challenges ahead of it. As pointed out already electoral turnout and membership of political parties are decreasing. There are some arguments that democracy needs to be renewed or strengthened. Some say that greater use of direct democracy is needed. This can take the form of greater use of referenda, e-democracy or citizens panels. Some members of the left and centre-left argue that freedom and political equality are insufficient for democracy. They believe that real power lies with wealth. On the other hand some members of the right and centre-right argue that states have too much power. They want to minimize state power and focus of maximising individual freedoms

Author: Stephen

Cork born and bred, proud European and Irishman. Involved in many organisations and politics. Also writes for SpirtualityIreland.org and UCC Express.

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