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What is a democracy? Part 2

Sep 14, 2021

Democracy (Greek: from dēmos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’) is a form of government in which the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation, or to choose governing officials to do so. Who is considered part of “the people” and how authority is shared among or delegated by the people has changed over time and at different rates in different countries, but over time more and more of a democratic country’s inhabitants have generally been included. Cornerstones of democracy include freedom of assembly and speech, inclusiveness and equality, membership, consent, voting, right to life and minority rights.

The notion of democracy has evolved over time considerably. The original form of democracy was a direct democracy. The most common form of democracy today is a representative democracy, where the people elect government officials to govern on their behalf such as in a parliamentary or presidential democracy.

Prevalent day-to-day decision-making of democracies is the majority rule, though other decision-making approaches like supermajority and consensus have also been integral to democracies. They serve the crucial purpose of inclusiveness and broader legitimacy on sensitive issues—counterbalancing majoritarianism—and therefore mostly take precedence on a constitutional level. In the common variant of liberal democracy, the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of representative democracy, but the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority—usually through the enjoyment by all of certain individual rights, e.g. freedom of speech or freedom of association.

The term appeared in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Classical Athens, to mean “rule of the people”, in contrast to aristocracy, meaning “rule of an elite”.

Democracy contrasts with forms of government where power is either held by an individual, as in autocratic systems like absolute monarchy, or where power is held by a small number of individuals, as in an oligarchy—oppositions inherited from ancient Greek philosophy. Karl Popper defined democracy in contrast to dictatorship or tyranny, focusing on opportunities for the people to control their leaders and to oust them without the need for a revolution.

The question we need to ask is what are we really celebrating nowadays? Is it the downfall of authoritarian regimes or is it actually the triumph of democracy?

This negative concept of democracy and freedom, expounded notably by Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, is convincing because the main thing today is to free individuals and groups from the stifling control of a governing élite speaking on behalf of the people and the nation. It is now impossible to defend an anti-liberal concept of democracy, and there is no longer any doubt that the so-called “people’s democracies” were dictatorships imposed on peoples by political leaders relying on foreign armies. Democracy is a matter of the free choice of government, not the pursuit of “popular” policies.

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