- Grades: 9–12
Democracy is a form of government in which a substantial proportion of the citizenry directly or indirectly participates in ruling the state. It is thus distinct from governments controlled by a particular social class or group or by a single person. In a direct democracy citizens vote on laws in an assembly, as they did in ancient Greek city-states and do today in New England towns. In an indirect democracy citizens elect officials to represent them in government; representation is typical of most modern democracies. Today the essential features of democracy, as understood in the Western world, are that citizens be sufficiently free — in speech and assembly, for example — to form competing political parties and that voters be able to choose among the candidates of these parties in regularly held elections.
Origins of Democracy
The term democracy is derived from the Greek words demos ("the people") and kratia ("rule"). The first democratic forms of government developed in the Greek city-states during the 6th century B.C. Although demos is sometimes said to mean just "the poor," Aristotle's Constitution of Athens shows that in Athens all citizens, rich and poor, participated fully in government; minors, women, slaves, and foreigners, however — perhaps 90 percent of the population — were not citizens.
Greek democratic institutions collapsed under the imperial onslaught first of Macedonia and later of Rome. Republican Rome had popular assemblies (comitia), in which the citizens met to elect officials and make laws. The comitia lost their powers, however, first to the aristocratic Roman Senate and ultimately to the Roman emperors. Democratic ideas did not reappear on a significant scale until the 17th century. The barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome in the 5th century A.D. produced a European society that was primarily concerned with security rather than with democratic institutions. This gave rise to the rigidly hierarchical systems of feudalism and manorialism. Political attitudes were, moreover, shaped by the powerful Christian church, which taught, in effect, that existing institutions had divine sanction.
Representation. Nonetheless, the Middle Ages saw the establishment of rudimentary representative bodies that began to lay the foundation for the later development of democratic institutions. The medieval kings claimed divine authority to rule, but they relied on their principal baronial vassals for practical advice, rendered in council. Gradually, the councils claimed more than advisory powers, and their membership was expanded to include elected representatives from the knightly and burgher classes. This was the genesis of the modern legislature. The British Parliament traces its history directly back to such an institution, and the development of political democracy in Britain can be measured, first, by the gradual assertion of parliamentary supremacy over the hereditary monarch and, second, by the even more gradual transformation of Parliament into a fully representative body (that is, a body elected by the entire adult population on the basis of one person, one vote). In the English Civil War of the 17th century, Parliament briefly won full supremacy over the crown, but it vigorously rejected the constitution proposed by a radical and unsuccessful group known as the Levellers, which called for universal male suffrage, fair representation, and the abolition of noble privilege.
Popular Sovereignty. The Levellers were far in advance of their time, but a philosopher of the same century, John Locke, articulated a theory of government that was to be seminal in democratic development. Locke argued that the political state is created by a social contract in which individuals give up their personal right to interpret the laws of nature in return for a guarantee that the community (or state) protect their natural rights of life, liberty, and property. If the state does not fulfill that guarantee, the people have the right to overthrow the government. This idea of popular sovereignty was taken a step further by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that the only legitimate state was one based on the "general will" of the people. Unfortunately, the general will has been difficult to identify in practice; thus this element of Rousseau's thinking has also been viewed as the basis of modern totalitarianism, in which a dictator interprets the general will.
The Lockean tradition was reflected in the Declaration of Independence, which presented the colonists' philosophical justification for the American Revolution and reflected the ideas of Locke and Rousseau; the new United States of America became the first modern democratic state. The same ideas, but with more radical assertions of social as well as political equality, nourished the French Revolution of 1789. France, however, did not achieve real democracy until the Third Republic (1870–1940). During the 19th century democratic forms of government also developed in Britain — where the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 greatly expanded parliamentary suffrage — and in the self-governing British colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, as well as in Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries.
All other modern democracies are the product of the 20th century; beginning then, most states called themselves democratic. Many such governments, however, rule in the name of the people without allowing real popular participation. During most of the 20th century this was true in the Communist world, where Marxist-Leninist theorists rejected Western-style democracy as the creation of capitalism. They argued that true democracy is impossible without full economic and social equality, which can only be achieved by overthrowing the capitalist class and establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat. The Soviet Union — the most important Communist state — collapsed as party theorists abandoned at the end of the 1980s the rigid positions they had held in the past. (A wide range of political groups evolved in the new Russia, although the new parties still had to contend with a lingering authoritarianism.) Communist China remains firmly antidemocratic. In some countries, however, such as Italy and France, Communists have joined at times with other socialists in working toward their goals through democratic institutions.
Democratic Ideals and Practice
An increase in popular participation in government has often come about because the ruling group sees political advantage in it. For example, when Cleisthenes created Athenian democracy about 510 B.C., he was apparently packing the assembly with new voters. In the United States several major expansions of the electorate occurred for similar reasons: Jeffersonian Republicans eliminated property qualifications to win the votes of the very poor; Republicans passed (1870) the 15th Amendment (on black voting) to win blacks' votes in southern and border states; progressive reformers in the early 20th century pushed for women's suffrage, expecting that women, more frequently than men, would support humanitarian causes such as temperance; and Republicans and Democrats vied with each other in the 1950s and à½¸s to promote black voting in the South in order to win black votes.
Not every expansion of the electorate is so consciously self-serving, however. In colonial America, participation widened almost by accident. Most colonies initially adopted the traditional English property qualification for voting: the 40-shilling freehold. This represented an income that was very high in late medieval times and still fairly high in the 17th century. By 1776, inflation and prosperity had enabled the vast majority of adult males to qualify as electors. In the 20th century some countries, such as Turkey and India, greatly expanded their electorates as an incidental consequence of the decision to adopt democratic forms. In the latter cases, democracy was adopted because it represented an ideal.
The Ideal of Justice. Democracy has attracted support from the time of ancient Greece until today because it represents an ideal of justice as well as a form of government. The ideal is the belief that freedom and equality are good in themselves and that democratic participation in ruling enhances human dignity. The ideal and the practice of democracy are inseparably linked because rulers subject to voter approval are more likely to treat the voters justly. For example, in the United States during the 1920s many blacks moved from the South, where they could not vote, to the North, where they could and did. In the 1930s this black vote became critical for both major political parties, and they began to emphasize civil rights. As a result both of Supreme Court decisions and of partisan politics, southern blacks obtained voting rights and civil rights. The oppression established in the South in the 1880s has thus been almost eliminated, not simply because of the ideal of justice but because the blacks became part of the political system. Although full racial equality has not yet been achieved, political participation has encouraged the fair treatment of a minority.
Freedom and Faction. The vote itself is not enough to guarantee that oppression will be eliminated. Many modern dictatorships, both of the left and of the right, require almost all adults to vote; yet dissident voices are nevertheless suppressed. For participation to be an effective method or a feasible ideal, it must be accompanied by political liberty. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist, "Liberty is to faction as air is to fire." The freedoms that promote faction are important not only as high moral ideals but also as a method of realizing democracy.
Almost all traditional freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, economic freedom) were gained as a result of factional disputes within oligarchical governments. They were extended by persons in office who expected, if and when they left office, to be persecuted by their successors. As factions grew in size, the liberties were gradually extended to the whole electorate and thereby became protections for democratic political parties and freely organized elections.
For example, the speaker at the opening of late medieval English Parliaments petitioned the king to grant members the privilege of not being prosecuted for anything they said in Parliament. As a result, factions flourished within Parliament, but not outside. During the English Civil War censorship and prosecution for assembly were removed, and parliamentary free speech was extended to the general public. Since then, free speech, although not always practiced, has been regarded as an essential element of democratic liberty. Similarly, habeas corpus, a writ ordering the release of a prisoner held illegally or without having been charged, was originally enacted in 1679 in order to get Whigs out of jail.
Freedom of religion and economic freedom, now usually considered ends in themselves, also originated in the protection of factions. Religious sects were themselves the main political factions in the European wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and their secular leaders were the most likely to be severely persecuted in defeat. Economic freedom, the privilege of having, keeping, and inheriting property, is protected in the provision against forfeiture for treason in the U.S. Constitution (1787) and is emphasized as a democratic liberty in the American Bill of Rights (1789) and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). It has an obvious relation to faction and freedom in general: if governments can seize property without compensation, then dissenters may lose their basis of economic support. Such confiscation by modern collectivist dictatorships has undoubtedly helped them eliminate effective opposition. Although democratic governments do take private property, as in the use of eminent domain or nationalization, restrictions have been placed on the excessive use of such power through the application of due process of law.
Equality, another ancient ideal, is inseparable from the democratic method. The right to vote means little unless votes are equal and voters have the same influence. Thus equality of treatment under the law is, like freedom, both an ideal and a method of democracy. Some theorists would add equality of resources, or at least equality of opportunities, to the ideal characteristics of democracy. Such goals, however, conflict with the ideal of economic freedom and certainly cannot be taken as a defining characteristic of democracies as they now exist.
Difficulties of Democracy
Democracies are not easy to establish or to maintain. Because two sets of rulers are required, one to govern and the other to take over when the first set loses an election, democracy is expensive. Some societies seem too poor to afford the luxury of leaders-in-reserve. In the modern world, moreover, democracy requires almost universal literacy, which is also expensive. The worst defect of democracy is that politicians are under constant pressure from the lobbyists of special-interest groups to support particular public policies. Because their future depends on winning elections, and because elections are won by attracting marginal voters, politicians seek the support of marginal voters who belong to such groups by promising to vote for legislation they favor. This weights the legislative process in favor of interest groups, especially the well organized and well funded. The sum of the benefits granted to these groups may be more than the society can afford. These kinds of expenses have contributed to the downfall of democratic governments — as happened in various regions in the second half of the 20th century. Democracy thus lost can sometimes be regained, however, as the history of Latin America, in particular, demonstrates. Many newly emerging democratic nations are threatened by ethnic or religious tensions and lack the basic institutions on which a democracy depends, contributing to chronic instability.
Bibliography: Bickford, Susan, The Dissonance of Democracy: Listening, Conflict, and Citizenship (1996); Cammack, Paul A., Capitalism and Democracy in the Third World (1997); Diamond, Larry, and Plattner, M. F., The Global Resurgence of Democracy (1993); Elshtain, J. B., Democracy on Trial (1995); Gellner, Ernst, Conditions of Liberty (1994); Hodge, Carl C., All of the People, All of the Time: American Government at the End of the Century (1997); LeDuc, Lawrence, et al., eds., Comparing Democracies: Elections and Voting in Global Perspective (1996); Lipsitz, Lewis, and Speak, D. M., American Democracy, 3d ed. (1993); Pridham, Geoffrey, et al., Building Democracy? The International Dimension of Democratisation in Eastern Europe (1997); Putnam, R. D., Making Democracy Work (1995); Snyder, Jack, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (2000); Vanhanen, Tatu, Prospects of Democracy: A Study of 172 Countries (1997).