What Do You Mean Democracy?

by Chuck Schultz
Democracy can be defined in different ways.  Democracy can be a principle or it can be a process.  These do not necessarily co-exist.

Every group of people develops rules and traditions concerning how members of the group are expected to behave.  Customs cover such factors as respect, space, property, decorum, resources, food, clothing, and decoration.  The people accept the customs as fair and feel that they determine how things ought to be.  For example, Americans rise when the judge enters a courtroom.

A group’s customs create hierarchies, responsibilities, and consequences.  People at the top of a hierarchy sometimes abuse privileges.  Some people may be disadvantaged in ways that are of no useful purpose to anyone.  Considerate people seek to amend customs to the advantage of everyone, that is, to make things more democratic.

The democratic principle means equanimity of rights and privileges.  A country or an organization is democratic if it is concerned with the well being of all its members.  So everyone’s needs should be considered and everyone should be treated fairly.

The democratic process is a set of rules and procedures intended to bring about the effects intended by the democratic principle.  A democracy is a country in which everyone takes part in the government.  Since it is impossible for everyone to be deeply involved, people participate by proxy.  A country is said to have a democratic government if everyone has access to government services and authorities are chosen by a free and fair elective process.

A majority vote explicitly disallows the minority.  This give rise to the “tyranny of the majority,” feared by both James Madison and Plato. Popular opinion would suppress idiosyncrasy, or the masses would overrule informed judgment.  Compromise may leave both sides dissatisfied.  Consensus is preferable but difficult to attain.

Democracy, in principle, assumes that conflicts will be resolved fairly.  Fairness may be defined by a complicated judicial system designed by representatives of the majority, advised by members of the elite.  It may not duly consider the needs and the idiosyncrasies of all factions.  The same can be true of the council of elders of a primitive tribe.

While many governments are said to be democratic, processes adopted rarely ensure equanimity of treatment.  When a part represents the whole, some elements are likely to be neglected.

A democratic government supports individual achievement.  However, tradition differentially values ends sought by different individuals.  The production of an artist, a banker, or a cabinet maker are not equally facilitated.  So, great inequality of wealth will accrue from the same effort.

A government may act democratically whether it is considered a democracy or not.  Free elections and majority rule do not guarantee democracy in principle.  A philosopher king could insist on equitable treatment of all citizens, as could a council of elders or a reconciliation commission.  Socialism is predicated on ensuring that everyone’s needs are fulfilled.  Unfortunately the dictatorship of the proletariat tends to lose sight of its objectives.

Democratic treatment could arise from rulings made by a monarch, an august body, a spiritual leader, interpreted entrails of a goat, or an august body.  It could also arise from a democracy.  The formal structure of the government is much less influential than the behavior of the participants.