1. WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
Democracy is well recognized to mean government by and for the people.
The real question, then, is what does this mean? How do the people govern themselves?
There are two basic models of democracy: representative and direct. Under representative
democracy, which is the version in use in different countries around the world,
the people participate in a series of elections. Through such elections, they
select a small group of leaders. It is these leaders that actually have the job
of running the government.
Under direct democracy, the people make the choices of government. In other words,
they vote directly on all important governmental issues, rather than elect leaders
to decide them. Direct democracy has not yet been implemented on a large scale,
for many reasons, including the difficulty of administering such a system and
also organizing the transition to it from the current representative model.
The preference for representative democracy in turn raises the question, is this
all there is to it? Does the role of the people end once they have made their
The answer to this is: No. Democracy is a complicated system of social organization.
It has a variety of principles, responsibilities and institutions. The most important
principles of democracy are human equality and personal freedom. But, there are
many others as well. For the second, both the people and the leaders have their
own respective responsibilities, and for the people these extend well beyond the
vote. Lastly, democracy also has many different institutions, beginning with what
are known as checks and balances, and the rule of law.
An implicit but rarely considered responsibility that the people bear is that
they must understand democracy: all of its different aspects. Otherwise it is
impossible that it will function and is actually an unachievable goal.
At the moment, though, most of the people of the world have little or no understanding
of the democratic system. Even in countries where it is long established, comprehension
is limited and in many ways flawed.
This is the starting point for why the democracies that are in place today experience
wide-ranging and serious problems.
The reason for the lack of understanding is simple: as just mentioned, democracy
is complex. The system has many individual elements, and to achieve a proper understanding
of it you must isolate these elements and then logically link them together.
By completing this series of lessons, you will learn about all of the different
elements of democracy, and through doing so reach a level of knowledge such that
you are prepared to participate in a democratic society.
One aspect of the prevailing ignorance is that democracy has become the subject
of fierce controversy. Within countries and also from nation to nation there is
great dispute about what it is supposed to be.
A basic issue in the controversy is whether democracy is an absolute or a relative
system, with the latter view implying that it, meaning representative democracy,
can have multiple, fundamentally different forms. Proponents of this position
distinguish such things as the democracy of one political party versus another,
Asian versus Western, Russian democracy under Vladimir Putin, Venezuelan under
Hugo Chavez, etc.
In fact, democracy is an absolute, because it is based on a core set of principles.
Any system that does not satisfy or embed these principles is necessarily not
On the other hand, democracy does have legitimate and differing forms: parliamentary,
where the head of the government is appointed by popularly elected legislators;
and presidential, where he or she is also elected. Furthermore, the democratic
system must be adapted to such things as a nations history, population and
ethnic diversity, as well as its geography and prevalence of natural resources.
This is where the controversy develops, in discriminating between democratic principles,
which must be fulfilled, and other characteristics that may reasonably vary. For
example, politicians such as Putin and Chavez say that national attributes justify
the denial of certain principles, including the protection of civil liberties
and the freedom of the press, and through this the creation of an authoritarian
system, which they then attempt to brand as democracy.
As this suggests, the alternative to democracy is an authoritarian
society, where a small group of people has authority, or power, and then uses
it to tell everyone else what to do. This is government by and for such a small
group, rather than on behalf of everyone. Authoritarian rule, which is also known
as dictatorship, can take many different forms. There are military dictatorships,
or rule by army generals, in such countries as North Korea and Burma. Many Islamic
societies are religious dictatorships, or rule by religious leaders, which is
known as theocracy. There are also economic dictatorships, including such things
as colonialism, where one country controls another, for economic gain; and feudalism,
where a small group of individuals in a society controls most of the economy and
everyone else is subservient to them in one way or another. Some authoritarian
countries, such as China, even incorporate more than one form.
A related source of confusion with democracy is whether it is limited to a political
role. Government regulates or at least oversees all of society. From this perspective,
then, democracy, as a means to organize government, is more properly a social
system rather than just political.
Societies have many different subsystems. There are political systems, both democratic
and authoritarian, to run the government. There are also economic systems, including
such things as capitalism and communism, to organize the production of goods and
services. Other subsystems include communications, or the Internet, telephones,
and the media; educational systems, starting with schools; and also spiritual
systems, the most well-recognized of which are the major organized religions.
Importantly, if any one of these is able to dominate, it can be termed an overall
social system as well.
Currently, there is widespread and aggressive competition between the different
subsystems. The most extreme example of this is with democracy and capitalism.
Democracy is considered to be a political system and capitalism economic, but
both aspire to overall social control. (For democracy, this is more properly social
guidance.) The underlying issue here is that the two systems are not compatible.
Capitalism also has its own sets of principles, responsibilities and institutions,
and in many cases they conflict with democracy. This competition and conflict
will also be examined throughout the lessons.
Similarly, and which the lessons too will explore, the principles, responsibilities
and institutions of a society that is dominated by a particular religion are also
frequently incompatible with democracy.
In conclusion, as human societies around the world are becoming integrated, through
the process known as globalization, these types of disputes are becoming more
and more pronounced. The world is now seeing a resurgence of authoritarianism
and dictatorship, and the associated rejection of democracy. It is hoped that
this series of lessons will help clarify things, and also demonstrate that democracy
is by far the preferred choice.
© Roland O. Watson 2008