Why do we have democracy? Said another way, for whom does it exist?

The answer to this is the people, the general public. It is the presence of inalienable human rights, and the fact that power lies with the people, which infers that society must be democratic. However, this is not a one-way street. For democracy to succeed, and serve the people, the people in turn must fulfill a number of obligations.

This distinction, that democracy serves us but we must also serve it, is easier to understand through considering dictatorship. The people in a dictatorship are subjects, not participants. They do not make decisions for themselves; instead, they are told what to do. The misrule and repression of dictatorship generally compels the people to concentrate on survival. Interestingly, it is common to use group or communal survival strategies. While it is in a sense forced, by circumstance, they cooperate together. This is the basic obligation that the people in a democracy bear: they must be willing to cooperate.

In such societies the people establish democratic systems within the overall dictatorship. This further illustrates that democracy is both a natural response to the challenge of life, and also that it works.

The people in turn have a particular nature, what is known as “human nature.” Human society can only be as good as the people from which it derives. Democracy is also a response to human nature. It is not based on a false, an unrealistically positive, appraisal of it. Instead, it is a system that is designed to function with people as we really are.

Humans are regularly unethical. Democracy incorporates many systems, beginning with the legal system, to account for this.

Another aspect of human nature is that we are independent. We do not like to be told what to do. What this implies is that our participation in society must be voluntary. Democracy is based on such voluntary action, and it is also the only social system that enables the popular voice, that lets us decide what we want to do.

A final aspect of our nature is that we have the ability of reason. Democracy is based on reason, not emotion. It assumes that we have the ability to discriminate among the different choices with which we are faced, and also the vigor to do it. Democracy implies that we have the will to want to understand the world, and that we will work at this until we do.

The ability to make informed decisions requires education, to understand what is at stake; and experience, to put the choices that are available in a larger context. It is extremely significant that for the first time in human history formal education is being extended to all the world’s children. Similarly, international travel, which is the means to truly wide experience, is now available to everyone. We finally have the prerequisites in place to enter what might be termed the “Democratic Age.”

Democracy further requires self-discipline, in particular that people will not respond with violence if they lose a vote or otherwise do not get their way. It requires that voters who have been defeated on a particular issue or for a specific candidate control their emotions and wait through the intervening years until a new election is held and they get another chance.

An important problem for democracy is that many social influences seek to undermine our reason and self-discipline. For example, institutions commonly treat us as subjects. To religions, we are believers, and to corporations, employees and consumers. Such institutions attempt to control us, including through manipulating us using appeals to our emotions.

The personal decision making process begins when we are children, and as children we generally accept what we are told, by our parents. We therefore do not discriminate, and we also become the recipients of whatever social beliefs our parents have been conditioned to have. It is only later, as we mature and become adults, that we learn to think on our own. Only then do we develop the power to reject social influences, including those that we inherited as children.

This, however, is not an easy task. The influences of our childhood are imprinted in our brains, and certain social influences and beliefs are so strong that they are effectively uncriticizable. For instance, Muslims cannot challenge their faith. To do so makes them apostates. Likewise, in the United States, the President, military and police are (or at least were) considered to be above criticism. Anyone who opposes their abuses of power is branded as unpatriotic.

These cases illustrate the subtle distinctions that we must grasp. A religion that disseminates an honest approach to spirituality is above reproach, but one that spreads hate must be stopped. Militaries that defend a society, and when called upon fight just and ethical wars, should be applauded, but armies that engage in wars of aggression and barbaric combat practices must be opposed. Similarly, police who fight crime and risk their lives in the process are heroes, but officers who repress social dissidents are criminals themselves.

For democracy to function well, nothing is above criticism. Otherwise, we have lost our right to freedom of expression, and taken the first step towards truly becoming the subjects of dictatorship.

The challenge of confronting social influences is now greater than ever before. The modern media of television and film are so powerful that their effects constitute nothing less than brainwashing.

In the face of social influences, reason can be ephemeral. It does not always prevail. For example, it is disturbing that the people who are best at influencing us, such as to vote for them, are regularly not the most skilled educators: those individuals who can explain the intricacies of complex issues. Rather, they are the people who are most adept at rhetoric and behavioral manipulation. In almost all cases involving large groups, the latter tend to be more persuasive, and attract more followers, than the former.

Democracy imposes an obligation for the people to reject such influences and instead choose the well-reasoned course. At the present time, though, we regularly fail in this requirement.

The people also exhibit other shortcomings, depending on the nature of the democracy to which they belong. For instance, it is common in new democracies for individuals to sell their votes. It goes without saying that the system cannot function properly in these circumstances. Alternatively, in mature democracies the public is often apathetic, and does not even bother to vote. Or, in response to social influences, the people, and their respective political parties, become polarized over specific issues and lose the ability to cooperate.

Democracy sets a high standard for its participants. And, at the present time, and in most societies, significant portions of the population appear unable to meet it. This does not mean that we should abandon the system as a failed experiment and instead revert to other, traditional forms of social organization (based on natural law rather than human rights). Rather, it just means that we still have a lot of work to do.

When democracy fails, the people become disordered mobs, including such things as ultra-nationalists and religious fanatics. This is unacceptable. We must learn to work together, and to leave our differences behind. To do this, everyone must confront, and defeat, the influences that encourage such mobs.

What this also illustrates is that personal responsibility does not end with the vote. The people must continually evaluate elected officials, and express their views on important issues. They must hold the officials accountable, and for individuals who abuse their power, demand relief up to and including dismissal, impeachment, and criminal prosecution.

© Roland O. Watson 2008