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. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/democracy (accessed: February 21, 2009).