“Democracy” is Greek for “people’s rule.” It refers to a set of political ideas that became popular worldwide during the last century, but that for most of human history have been considered dangerous, short-sighted, and potentially insane.
Because democracy is so popular in our era, the word is used by a wide range of different political systems: like “freedom” or “justice,” it has become a bit of a vague catch-all for whatever political arrangements the speaker admires. During the Cold War, both the American Capitalist system and the Soviet Communist system described themselves as democracies.
Everyone agrees that “Democracy” is a system of government in which the people are in charge, but what exactly does that mean? Who is included in “the people”? What political institutions empower them to control their society? Are there any limitations on their power?
In general, democracy includes some combination of the following features, though different democracies prioritize different goals:
- Majoritarianism (i.e. voting)
- Protections for ethnic, religious, and other minorities
- Open political offices, which can in theory be held by ordinary citizens
- Representative institutions, such as a Senate or Parliament
- Guaranteed minimum rights, such as free speech, freedom of the press, and a right to education, housing, or minimum income
II. Democracy vs. Despotism
We’ve seen that the word “Democracy” has become a catch-all political term without a very specific meaning, aside from its positive connotations. In this respect, the mirror image of “democracy” might be “despotism,” a term meaning “absolute power.” Despotism is used to describe all sorts of political systems, from monarchy to Communism to Fascism, which have historically been opposed to each other. It bears a strong negative connotation, but other than that it’s pretty vague.
Despotism, however, has some clear attributes which can be contrasted with democracy:
Power limited by a constitution
Open political offices
Basic rights for all citizens
No voting – people do not choose their leaders
Leader’s power is absolute and unlimited
If representative institutions exist at all, they exist only in an advisory role and can always be overridden by the leader
Political offices granted at the leader’s discretion
No basic rights
III. Democracy vs. Oligarchy/Plutocracy
In practice, there are very few despotisms: it’s simply too difficult for one person to control a large population in any country or kingdom. In the real world, despotism usually takes the form of either an oligarchy or a plutocracy.
Oligarchy is rule by an elite few: the King’s family, noblemen, aristocrats, the Party, or the military. A small group of people controls the political system, often with a designated leader chosen from among their number. Usually this group is fixed, meaning the same families or organizations are eternally part of the oligarchy.
Plutocracy is rule by the rich. Whoever has the most money controls the political system. Unlike an oligarchy, the members of this system may change over time as some families lose money and others accumulate it. But even if the names change, the system stays the same, always favoring whoever has the good fortune to be wealthy.
In the current (2016) American election, the topic of democracy has become a central point of debate. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don’t agree on much, but they’re both making the case that America has started to become a plutocracy rather than a democracy – they just have wildly different ideas on how to fix that problem.
IV. Famous Quotes About Democracy
“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” (Winston Churchill)
Winston Churchill’s quip is a popular defense of democracy. There is no question that democracies have a lot of problems: chief among them the risk of people choosing wrong! (After all, the German people elected Hitler and the Americans elected the inept James Buchanan.) On the other hand, true greatness is hard to achieve in a system that has so many checks and balances built into it – no matter how adept and honorable the democratic ruler is, he or she always has to deal with the opposition and can never achieve as much as someone like Cyrus the Great (King of Persia) or the Mughal Emperor Akbar (Indian Mughal Emperor). However, Churchill believed that on the whole democracies produced better leaders than monarchy or despotism ever could.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address)
Thousands of school children memorize these words every year. Only a fraction stop to reflect on what they really mean. When Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, the nation was drowning in blood and foreign nations were looking on anxiously – to Lincoln, and to those foreign observers, the war was not simply about slavery or states’ rights. It was about the very idea of democracy. If the South seceded and the nation split in two, European monarchs would argue that this proved the inherent instability of democracies, and it would become infinitely harder for revolutionaries to gain support. If the North prevailed, it would prove that democracies could be just as strong as monarchies, and the world would look with fresh eyes at the American revolutionary idea.
V. The History and Importance of Democracy
People generally trace the history of democracy back to Ancient Greece, when the Athenians set up a system of government that included many of the features we recognize as democracy today. For example, high administrative offices were open to ordinary citizens (as long as they were free-born Greek men; women, slaves, and foreigners were not so lucky). However, the Greeks did not have the practice that we think of as definitive of democracy: voting. Instead of voting for candidates, the Athenians elected their leaders by lottery, effectively just picking a name out of a hat!
There were many other places in the world where pseudo-democratic experiments took place, but we don’t hear as much about them.
In the traditional cultures of the Arabian Peninsula, rulers were expected to hold a regular majlis, or sitting, in which people were invited to speak with the ruler, ask questions, and offer advice. The ruler still had absolute power in theory, but in practice it had to be wielded within the framework of the majlis, or the people would lose respect for the ruler and it would be harder to maintain power.
Of course, this is a long way from modern democracy – but so was the system of ancient Athens. So rather than tracing the ancient history of democracy back to a single city in Europe, it makes more sense to think of it as evolving out of traditional practices in many times and places, growing and adapting to changing conditions.
The modern era of democracy is, in most parts of the world, a result of the European Enlightenment. During the late 1700s, several countries were formulating new ideas for a government system that would not be dependent on monarchs. This radical proposal was severely criticized, but in 1776 it formed the basis for the American Declaration of Independence, which would eventually lead to the establishment of the world’s first modern democracy. Similar experiments occurred in France shortly thereafter, though owing to historical circumstances the French would take several decades to finally abolish their monarchy for good (and even then the country continued to be ruled by highly centralized authorities such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III).
Two more monumental events changed the history of democracy for the world: 1945 and 1947. In 1945, the Allies won the second World War, defeating a group of fascist and despotic powers and proving, as the Civil War had proved, that democracy and military strength were not incompatible. Then, in 1947, India won its independence from Britain and became the world’s largest democracy, a title that it still holds today and will probably continue to hold for the foreseeable future. The Indian government demonstrated that democracy could work even in a huge country with massive health, education, and poverty problems. This finally put an end to the old European belief that only “advanced races” were capable of sustaining democracy, and opened the door for democracy to become a global philosophy.
VI. Democracy in Popular Culture
One of the major events in the Star Wars saga is when the Emperor abolishes the Galactic Republic, a democratic system ruled by a powerful representative institution (the Senate). In the original Star Wars movie, several Imperial officers argue about whether the Empire can keep control of the entire galaxy without the old representative bodies, but Grand Moff Tarkin shuts down the debate by insisting that no one will dare to rise up against them once the full power of the Death Star is demonstrated.
The Civilization video games usually give you the option to run your country as a democracy, and it’s interesting to think about how the game interprets the advantages and disadvantages of that choice. Typically, democracies have a boost to science and culture, because freedom of speech allows for enormous intellectual creativity. However, they may suffer in areas like industry, commerce, and military strength.
We’ve seen how democracy has become a vague political term, used to express approval rather than to analyze or make objective arguments. Unfortunately, this makes the topic very difficult to discuss, since people tend to get defensive about their own system and insist that it is the only “true form of Democracy.” In order to understand this topic, however, we need to think critically about why the Soviet Union claimed that it was a democracy, and that will be impossible as long as we continue to use a simplistic “good vs. bad” approach.
Take another look at the features of democracy listed in section1 and think critically about how Soviet Communism did, or did not, meet this definition:
- Voting: while the Soviet Union did hold elections, in practice they meant very little, especially at the national level. The Communist Party always dictated who would win. People did not have any real choice, and everyone pretty much knew it
- Minority protections: in some respects, ethnic minorities were better protected in the Soviet Union than the United States, especially if we take slavery into account. However, the Soviet Union also had significant violence and neglect toward ethnic minorities in its border regions.
- Open political offices: Russian citizens could rise to high office through energy and dedication. There were significant advantages and privileges for certain prominent families, but this is true in any democracy.
- Representative institutions: this is an extremely complicated issue in the Soviet case. The word soviet means a “council,” and Communist institutions were supposed to be controlled by representative councils. In practice this representation was not always reflective of the citizens’ preferences due to a lack of voting
- Minimum rights: very strong in some areas, very weak in others. Soviet citizens had excellent education and had guaranteed housing, which created ample opportunity for artists and intellectuals to dedicate themselves to their work. However, there was no freedom of the press, and freedom of speech was limited since direct criticism of the Party was generally not permitted.
People will continue to argue about whether the Soviet system really represented “true democracy,” and with good reason; but the Soviet claim to democracy is not completely without merit – the Soviet Union has at least as much claim to being a “Democracy” as does ancient Athens or the United States during slavery. You may well conclude that the Soviet Union was not a real democracy, but you should draw this conclusion based on evidence rather than stereotypes.