In-Depth Democracy

Democracy is an idea that envisions a method of decision making characterized by the equal participation of members of the collective group. As a form of government, democracy is often thought of as a political system where citizens have the power to create and amend laws, elect and impeach leaders and retain ultimate control of important policy matters. But the idea of democracy rarely corresponds with the practical elements of modern nation-states, even those that claim to be democratic.

The word democracy is derived from the Greek words demos which means “the people” and kratos which means “to rule.” A good literal translation may be, “the rule of the people.” But in terms of governance, different forms of democracy tend to dilute the rule of the people. For example, in a representative democracy, citizens elect representatives to act on their behalf when it comes to making decisions that affect the collective group. The United States is governed by a representative democracy whereby the people elect congressional representatives and an executive to carry out the respective powers granted to them by the Constitution.

The United States has often touted itself as the most advanced expression of democracy. While this may be true to some degree, the U.S. experiment with democracy has also illustrated the complexity of a representative democracy. The health of a functioning democracy is dependent upon the participation of the people—if the people are to rule, then they must participate. In the U.S., voter turnout is on average a little more than 50 percent for Presidential elections and substantially less for non-Presidential elections. When people do not vote, they are not participating fully in the democratic process.

Another issue that affects a democracy is the information and education available to the participating citizenry. As Thomas Jefferson explained, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.” It is not hard to see that without the proper information, citizens cannot effectively oversee their elected representatives. Thus, a free and independent press is indispensable to a properly functioning democracy. But no matter how much information may be available, it is ultimately the will of the people to be adequately informed that determines the effectiveness of democracy.

Like any idea, democracy is one that continually evolves. Each experiment with democracy is dependent upon the participation of the people in the decision making process. A well-informed and active citizenry makes for a healthy and dynamic democracy. But an unenlightened and indifferent citizenry cannot hope to participate in a functioning democracy. If democracy is—at its core—the rule of the people, then it is the people who must define the characteristics of their democracy.

– Daniel Bonasso

Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, United Nations, The Guardian
Photo: Pixar Planet