Democracy, Part 1: Elements

What is democracy? The American Heritage Dictionary’s first, most comprehensive definition is “[g]overnment by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.”1 The two last definitions in the same dictionary give the two main elements of this form of government: “Majority rule” and “[t]he principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.” How do these two come together?

Majority rule is the most obvious part of democracy. In a democratic meeting, a show of hands determines the group’s decisions. In a democratic state, one way or another, the majority vote puts the administration in power. But if democracy is supposed to be government by the people, can the minority simply be left out of the loop?

This is where the other part comes into play: a democracy leans on principles of social equality and respect for the individual. The majority rules, but only under the condition that it cares for everyone’s interests, not only its own. A democratic state where only the majority has political power can use democratic procedures and have as many votes all it likes; the mere fact of majority rule does not make it a democracy. This is because the procedures of majority rule are mere tools of a greater cause: government by the people, for the people. Individuals belonging to minorities of all sorts – from ethnic groups through political movements – belong to the people no less than their counterparts in the majority and must not be subject to discrimination under a democratic government; government for the people must include them all.

But unlike majority rule, equal treatment of all people is not a simple mechanical measure that can be easily defined and protected. Majority rule is, on the face of it, a simple yes or no question. Not so the principle that all individuals are equal and worthy of respect protects all individuals equally; different democratic organizations and states have wildly different ways of applying to this concept. It is very often a difficult and debatable question whether an organization is acting in accordance with this principle.

One prominent example is the well-known divide between the economical left and right. In some democratic states, it is considered essential to the equal treatment of individuals that they are given equal socio-economical footing regardless of their history and background; such states often collect large amounts of taxes from their citizens and redistribute this wealth to make sure that individuals coming from a background with less money have a fair chance to succeed where others have the advantage of greater resources; this is usually called socialism. In other democratic states, an opposite approach is taken: it is considered essential to the equal treatment of individuals that they get to personally enjoy the fruits of their own labor as much as possible and that the government interferes as little as possible in their lives; such states try to collect less taxes, and accordingly spend less money on financially supporting their citizens, allowing the latter the opportunity to prop support themselves; this is usually called capitalism. Of course, hardly any state is entirely capitalist or entirely socialist, and all Western societies today are somewhere in between.

But there are divides on many other lines, regarding of the equality and respect due to all individuals in a democracy. Taken as a whole, these divides present a very complex picture of equality; there are quite a lot more interpretations of this concept than there are democratic states, if only because these states usually house two or three opinions on each divide, if not more.

Despite the myriad possible interpretations of equality, it is difficult to say which states treat equality in the “right” way for a democracy. This is mostly a matter of opinion and tends to depend on the opining individual’s personal interpretation of the concept; a capitalist will typically claim socialist states are not quite democratic, and a socialist will typically claim the same of capitalist states.

When the question of equality is considered together with that of majority rule, things get even more difficult: a socialist may believe that majority rule is distorted by the richer classes’ ability to manipulate the poorer classes by means of money; a capitalist may believe that government interference in the spheres of private society gives the government undue control over society and subsequently distorts majority rule.

Still, with these two concepts in mind, along with the many ways they interact and affect society, one has a working definition of democracy in the modern sense of the term. In coming posts, I shall discuss a few aspects of democracy (often focussing on its application in Sudbury schools). These definitions may be nothing new, but they form a solid basis to begin a discussion of this rich topic.

1 democracy. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: February 21, 2009).

9 thoughts on “Democracy, Part 1: Elements”

  1. Hi Michael,

    I, like you, am a(n Israeli) blogger interested in democracy – its theory and practice.

    I think that the answer to your question,

    What is democracy?

    is rather straightforward. The issue tends to be confused by interested parties who are unhappy with the straightforward answer, and thus use meaningless platitudes such as the one you quoted from the dictionary (“government by the people”).

    Your Rousseau-like offer of “[t]he majority rules, but only under the condition that it cares for everyone’s interests, not only its own” sounds nice, but is not helpful. It presents a condition that is at best completely subjective and in reality nonsensical in many situations. People’s interests are often in conflict – there is no rule which would “care” for everyone’s interests. At the same time, many political actors claim to be promoting everyone’s interests (and sometimes truly believe themselves to be doing so) and yet others see them as being self-serving.

    The simple definition of democracy – the one that reflects most people’s intuitive understanding of the term – is that it is a system of government in which political power is distributed equally. Everything else should and can be derived from that.

    Please see more on this matter on my blog, and particularly at this post: Non-intimate democracy.

    Yoram Gat

    1. Hi Yoram,
      Thank you for your reply and the link to your post. I had not encountered that definition before but it seems very apt.

      At any rate, what I meant was mainly that democracy is no mandate for whoever happens to be in the majority to blatantly ignore the interests of the minority. Clearly, this part of the definition becomes meaningless in many situations, but for a clear description of democracy it seems to me a useful element. Certainly, describing a democracy as a system in which political power is distributed equally would be a very concise way of saying exactly what has to be said, no more and no less, but it is a definition that requires further extrapolation to make sense. I opted, perhaps out of ignorance, to use a definition that describes in a more immediate manner what actually goes on in a democracy. This sort of definition seemed appropriate to my purpose.

      Nonetheless, I believe I will refer to your definition as well in future posts, and I thank you for introducing me to it.

      1. Certainly, describing a democracy as a system in which political power is distributed equally would be a very concise way of saying exactly what has to be said, no more and no less, but it is a definition that requires further extrapolation to make sense.

        Carrying out exactly this extrapolation is a fruitful way to explore what a democratic system would look like. For example, it appears to me that if we accept that democracy is the equality of political power, then we must see some characteristics of the Western political system (U.S., Western Europe, Israel, Australia, India, etc.) as inherently incompatible with democracy.

        One major source of political power is control of mass media. In all Western systems mass media is controlled by a very small group of unrepresentative people. Control of mass media gives those people extremely disproportionate influence over the public agenda – who can be elected and what public policy is being considered.

        Democratic control over mass media is a prerequisite for a democratic system of government. Thus, capitalist control of mass media – which is a phenomenon common to all Western countries – is undemocratic.

      2. Point well taken.

        As for mass media, that’s an interesting point, and a matter I have not given much thought to (this probably has something to do with my focus on democratic schools, where mass media is a non-issue, for obvious reasons.)

        But aren’t regulations enacted on mass media by the government a form of democratic control? Or do you propose rather that the mass media become a state monopoly as a matter of principle, becoming, in its entirety, a part of the democratic bureaucracy?

  2. [M]y focus [is] on democratic schools, where mass media is a non-issue, for obvious reasons.

    “Mass” starts at surprisingly small scales. I argue in the that within any non-intimate group – more than a few dozen people – the model of all-to-all communication is not feasible making the question of control of communication channels non-trivial. How do you think communication should take place in a democratic school?

    [D]o you propose rather that the mass media become a state monopoly as a matter of principle, becoming, in its entirety, a part of the democratic bureaucracy?

    Entrusting a professional organization with such a powerful political tool is risky as well. My proposal is here: Implementation of democratic mass media.

  3. Ah, but this is the key – democratic schools are intimate democracies. Sudbury schools typically have 150 students at most (most have much less than that), a number which incidentally keeps showing up in sociological studies as a “magic number” of people which is the maximum that can work together with the benefits of intimacy. (I would cite a source, but unfortunately my copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, where this matter is discussed at length, has disappeared.) As such, communication in most Sudbury schools is based on very simple, small-scale media:
    -Word of mouth
    -Vocal announcements (including walking around the school and repeating the announcement like a town crier, when meetings start etc.; and an “announcements” time-slot in each school meeting, for example)
    -Bulletin boards where notices are put up, usually divided by topic/type of notice (Sudbury Jerusalem had one such board in its first year, and last time I was there there were about 5 of them… They multiply as the school grows.)
    This basically works just fine when you have less than 100 students. I haven’t personally visited Sudbury schools with more than that, but apparently it works with 130 or 150 just as well.

    Your proposal is intriguing, but I do see a few potential problems with it. I will write a detailed reply some time in the coming weeks, either as a reply to your post or as a post here on I wish I could do so now but there are other things that require my attention.

  4. Word of mouth is an intimate communication method. A bulletin board, if completely unregulated (anyone can put notices at will), is not intimate but is a democratic communication channel. The use of a crier and official announcement slots are, however, broadcast channels that give whoever controls them significant political power. Who decides what the crier says? Who decides what announcements are made?

    100 people is probably a group larger than can sustain an equalitarian all-to-all communication format (except in unusual circumstances, where the stakes are high and an expensive support structure is in place). The reason is that it is practically cognitively impossible to become truly familiar with the opinions of 100 people on all the matters that need addressing in a society.

    By the way, if you are not aware of it, you may be interested in this classic tract: THE TYRANNY of STRUCTURELESSNESS.

    I am waiting with interest for your comments about my proposal for democratic media.

  5. The bulletin boards get increasingly regulated, but mainly on two counts:
    1. Clarity (at some point in SJ’s third or fourth year, a regulation was created saying all notices should be printed, not hand-written – and the office computer was available for anyone who needed to print something)
    2. Order – as the bulletin boards multiplied and specialized, generally each serving a specific type of announcement, it became more or less officially regulated that certain types of announcements go on certain boards, and also, to an extent, that certain types of announcements were not appropriate (but in most cases such were left hanging until space became scarce, and there was still at least one unregulated board when I left the school.)
    So they generally still remain democratic, I would say.

    As for the “crier”, there was absolutely no structure around this during my time at SJ (nor is there, to my knowledge, since). In my last year there, when I was Chair of School Meeting, I used to – on my own initiative – run around before meetings and poke my head into each room and say “School Meeting is starting”. As for the announcements slot in School Meeting, it is simply a point on the agenda where anybody present may announce anything whatsoever, and others are allowed to ask questions (but not reply, because the point is to make announcements, not start discussions. Of course, you can always frame a reply as a question, and many do this.) The Meeting progresses to the next point when nobody has any more announcements to make, but not a minute sooner.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.

    It looks like it will take me another few days to get blogging again, including my comments on your proposal, but hopefully I will get there soon.

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