What is Democracy? — Definition, Features, Pros & Cons

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Democracy and Democratic Government

In the modern world of today, when you ask anybody to define or describe democracy, the likely answer is that democracy means rule by the people or popular will. This is usually taken from the classical definition of democracy given by Abraham Lincoln as "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." However, studies have shown that the term democracy is not as simplistic as it sounds, and secondly, there is still no agreement as to the real meaning or understanding of what democracy is all about from the inception of the term in the Greek city states.

Today, there are over 170 national constitutions in the world, all claiming to be democratic yet differing in form and content.

Hence, Bernard Crick notes:

Democracy is perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs. She is everybody's mistress and yet somehow retains her magic even when her lover sees that her favors are being illicitly shared by many others. Indeed, even amid our pain at being denied her exclusive fidelity, we are proud of her adaptability to all sorts of circumstances and to all sorts of company.

Democracy has not always been an attractive system to many people. Even the Greeks were recorded as having abandoned it for other forms of government. To the ancient Greeks, the word bore the sinister connotation 'demos-kratien' meaning rule by the people.

Plato, for instance, notes that rule by the people meant rule by the masses. He argued that there are few people of high quality in any society and that if all the people were allowed to rule, those of high quality who are more numerous would dominate the state. They would establish a government that would reflect their meanness, and the result would be a tyranny of the majority. Thus, he advised that the reins of government be undertaken by a few professionally trained in the art of governing for the sole purpose of governance. This group he called the Guardian class.

Aristotle, on his part, was less pessimistic about democratic rule or the rule of the many. He defined it as the government of the poor. His definition is drawn from the simplistic logic that if democracy is the rule of the many, and in almost all countries, the many are the poor, then, by implication, it is the rule of the poor.

Aristotle, however, reasoned that under certain conditions, the will of the many could be equal to or even wiser than the judgment of a few. Rule by the many is acceptable and good when they govern for the good of all, but when the many rule only for the benefit of themselves, the system becomes a perverted one, and he called it ochlocracy, meaning mob rule. He further notes that the best form of democracy is aristocracy, by which he meant rule by the upper class for the good of all the people in society.

A very important question that arises from the foregoing is: is rule by the many possible? This leads to another question: what constitutes a rule? Jack lively notes that there is obvious ambiguity in the notion of 'rule'.

On the one hand, it could be said that in the strict sense of the world, the many cannot rule. If rule includes the right to command others, a democratic system, no less than other systems, will require a concentration of rule in the hands of a small number. On the other hand, if popular rule is taken less strictly to mean that the majority decides on the broad lines of policy and legislation, it has been argued that this is empirically impossible since in any organization, whether or not the majority has the formal right to decide, the actual decisions will be taken by small groups of leaders as propounded by the elite theorists.

There are yet other notions about the concept of democracy. There are those who think of democracy in procedural terms, known as the procedural democrats, and those who contend that democracy contains important philosophical principles that should be adhered to, known as the principle democrats. The procedural or process democrats claim that there is no real philosophy or theory of democracy; rather, democracy is nothing more than an agreement among citizens that the majority vote will carry the issue or that one branch of government will not reach too far into the functions of another branch.

The principle democrats argue that democracy has a very important theoretical base. Although procedure is important, it is secondary to the basic intent and objectives of democracy as expressed in democratic theory, like the principle of equality for all, the notion of liberty, etc. It has, however, been noted that though democracy implies some of these principles, like equality, such principles are inevitably negated by other glaring social problems. For instance, the equality principle is negated by inequalities in income, access to education, communication, etc.

The concept of democracy was further rendered problematic by the concept of representation. When it became obvious that rule by the many was not practicable, rule by consent became prevalent, giving rise to the notion of representation, or representative government.

The concept of representative democracy is also bedeviled by many contradictions. For instance, questions like What is the role of a representative?; and Should a representative do what his constituents want? Or what does he think is best for them? (what Anna Pitkins called the "mandate independence" dispute). To these questions, there have been many answers.

While some people contend that the representatives must act according to the Whims and Caprices of their constituencies, a position that adjudges people to be rational and therefore in a position to understand their needs and the various programs that bear on those needs, On the other hand, there are those who contend that the representatives should use their judgment to determine the interests of the people and then select the course that is best suited to those interests.

This view assumes that the representatives are somehow better qualified to decide policy than are ordinary people, because the people may not clearly perceive their interests as clearly as their representatives do and, for that reason, may favor action that is clearly harmful to them. This view is contradicted by J.S. Mill's notion of representative government:

There is no difficulty in showing the best form of government is that in which the sovereignty or supreme controlling power in the last resort is vested in the entire aggregate of the community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty but being, at least occasionally called in to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local or general.".

He argues that human beings are only secure from evil at the hands of others in proportion as they have the power of being and are self-protecting, and they only achieve a high degree of success in their struggle with nature in proportion as they are self-dependent, relying on what they themselves can do either separately or in concert rather than on what others do for them.

Mill, however, acknowledged the fact that "all cannot, in a community exceeding a single small town, participate personally in any but some minor portions of the public business." It follows that the ideal type of perfect government is representative democracy.

Whatever the controversy or concept of democracy, there are still certain discernible ambiguities surrounding the features that act as a standard reference point for describing a system as either a democracy or not.

Features or Attributes of Democratic Government

David Beethan and Kevin Boyle, in their work "Introducing Democracy: 80 Questions and Answers," raised a very important question: why do we value democracy? They contend that men tend to lean towards democracy because of certain principles and ideals that democracy embodies.

Though some of these principles cannot be easily realized in practice, they serve as guidelines for governmental operations and goals that should be sought and maximized by any society. These principles include:

1. Equality of Citizens

Democracy aims to treat all people equally. This principle requires not only that people's interests be attended to equally by government policy but that the views of many, if not all, should count equally. This notion of equality led to the concept of universal suffrage. As a result, many contend that the most obvious measure of democracy is universal suffrage. That is the right of all people to vote.

A penitent question has also been raised in this regard. Is it possible to have a country where all citizens vote? This has posed a limitation to the concept of universal suffrage because it is a well-known fact that many people are barred from voting. For instance, minors, mentally ill people, and, until recently, women, are disenfranchised.

Further, the notion of equality is again negated by the glaring inequalities in our system. For instance, having the right to participate in decision-making or to be voted for does not automatically guarantee that right, as the opportunity to participate or contest for an elective office is again determined by other factors like family background, educational attainment, income levels, etc.

Hence, Ake argues that these democratic principles only ensure equal treatment of unequals and thus concludes that poverty disempowers and negates the equality principles.

2. Rule of Law

It is a common belief that democracy promotes the rule of law, or, put differently, the supremacy of the law. This principle, which is an adjunct of the equality principle, supposes that everybody is equal before the law, and the law is no respecter of persons or positions. The law serves as the guiding principle of governmental operation.

The extent to which this principle is adhered to varies from society to society and, more importantly, depends on the extent of the autonomy of the state and its various classes, especially the ruling class. In Africa, there are many indications to show that some people, especially the governing class, are above the law. They contravene the law with reckless abandon and without fear of reprisals from law enforcement agencies.

3. Guaranteeing Basic Freedom

This principle presupposes that open discussions as a method of expressing and resolving societal differences cannot take place without those freedoms that are enshrined in the conventions of civil and political rights. For example, freedom of speech, association, religion, movement, etc. These rights are basic to individual survival and therefore must be guaranteed and protected by the state.

4. Social Renewal (or Periodic Election)

By providing for the routine and peaceful removal of policies and politicians that have outlived their usefulness or failed, democratic systems are able to ensure societal and generational renewal without the massive upheaval or governmental disruption that attends the removal of key personnel in non-democratic regimes.

5. Meeting Popular Needs

The basis of this principle is that it is ordinary people who experience the effects of government policy in practice, and only if there are effective and consistent channels of influence and pressure from below does government policy reflect this experience.

This principle is based on the notion of popular sovereignty and the idea that government exists to cater for the overall wellbeing and general interests of its citizens. This principle has, however, been criticized as idealistic in the sense that it has no bearing on reality. For instance, it is difficult to define what constitutes national or general interest. Moreover, only rarely can a policy be in the general interest of all.

The practical reality is that there must be losers and winners with every policy. This does not in essence mean that the government is uncaring; rather, governmental processes of decision-making are constantly involved in compromises so as to ensure the maximization of the interests of the greatest number. This issue is further resolved in the next principle.

6. Pluralism and Compromise

Democracy relies on open debate, persuasion, and compromise. The democratic emphasis on debate assures not only that there are differences of opinion and interest on most questions of policy but that such differences have a right to be expressed and listened to. Democracy thus presupposes and protects diversity and plurality within society.

7. Presence of Political Parties and Competitive Elections

In a democracy, the choice and selection of candidates for elective offices are made possible by a system of political parties. Political parties bring together those who share similar views and interests to campaign for political office and influence. They perform a number of different functions for the electorate. For example, they help simplify the electoral process by offering broad policy positions and programs from which to choose.

For governments, they provide a reasonably stable following of political supporters to enable them to achieve their programs once elected. For the more politically committed, they provide an opportunity for involvement in public affairs, a means of political education, and a channel for influencing public policy.

The party system of democratic government is either essentially a two-party system (as in Great Britain, Germany, or the USA) or a multi-party system (as in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Japan). Thus, to give meaningful expression to the rights of universal suffrage in the context of representative government, citizens must be able to participate in competitive elections in which personnel and policy choices are structured by the competition of two or more political parties.

We shall conclude in the words of Beetham and Boyle (1995), who note that

No state, in practice, realizes the twin principles of popular control and political equality as fully as it might. To that extent, the work of democratization is never-ending, and democrats everywhere are involved in the struggle to consolidate and extend the realization of democratic principles, whatever regime or political system they happen to live under.

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