I.4: What is Democracy?

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what is democracy

How would you define democracy?

Both the old Soviet Union and Communist China have claimed to be democracies. But do they match your definition of democracy?

America is properly called a representative democracy. That is to say, it is a “republic”. That word comes from the Latin and means “for the public good”. So does our government operate for the public good? Moreover, is our government truly in the hands of the people?

Is democracy merely the ability to vote in elections? Today, elections require a well-organized political party. And that party has to reap contributions from special interests. How much influence do ordinary people have to decide the candidates they’re allowed to choose from? Have you been happy with the choices you’ve seen in the voting booth?

One political science textbook declares that every citizen in a democracy should:

  • have meaningful input into both political and economic decisions;
  • be equally subject to law and protected by law enforcement;
  • have equal opportunities for education and training;
  • have equal access to economic resources for both necessity and happiness;
  • be free to express themselves and communicate with others, including government;
  • have the right to privacy and protection from interference by others, including government;
  • be free to protest when they believe these other freedoms are being lost. (Edwards 1982, 631)

Of course, these principles leave many questions unanswered. For example, should a society seek equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Or should unborn children be members of society with a “right to life”? What level, from pre-K to PhD, of education should be free, and to whom? Should the society allow same-sex marriage, or should it completely remove the word “marriage” from the legal system?

Furthermore, what is the difference between a democracy and a representative democracy?

John Adams said a representative democracy is really an elective aristocracy:

Is not every representative government in the universe an aristocracy? … Representation and democracy are a contradiction in terms. (Adams, 1814)

Thomas Jefferson also understood that one person cannot truly represent another:

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? (Jefferson, 1801)

The Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, put it this way:

Sovereignty … cannot be represented …. The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts. (Rousseau, 1762)

Is a representative democracy like America really just an elective aristocracy?

Are our representatives merely aristocrats who can get filthy rich lording over us? Gordon Wood, an award-winning historian, wrote:

The [U.S.] Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period…. (Wood [1969] 1998, 513)

In the same vein, many of our modern problems stem from our extreme dependence on our representatives. For example, only special interests can raise enough campaign contributions to yield successful re-elections. So elections force our representatives to cater to special interests, rather than the people.

However, politicians love to talk about “the good of the American people”. But when you hear those words, do you feel that your life will improve? Or do you feel you’re being lied to?

Obviously, democracy is impossible to define to everyone’s satisfaction. But if our society operated to your liking, what would it look like? Or how can we make our republic truly work for “the good of the American people”? Or how can we make “justice for all” more than just nice words we mindlessly recite?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Adams, John. [1814] 1856. Letter to John Taylor on Apr. 15. In The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams. 1856. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Edwards, David D. 1982. The American Political Experience: An Introduction to Government. USA: Prentice-Hall.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1801. “First Inaugural Address”. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/first-inaugural-address-0 (Accessed Jul. 9, 2017)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1762] 1913. The Social Contract. Trans. G.D.H. Cole. University College Cork. http://www.ucc.ie/archive/hdsp/Rousseau_contrat-social.pdf (Accessed July 8, 2017)

Wood, Gordon S. [1970] 1998. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. 1998 edition. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Chapel Hill and London: Copyright © 1970 by the University of North Carolina Press; new preface copyright © 1998 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org

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