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 electoral choices?

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 democratic.

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 nation’s 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