Can We Define Democracy?

Define Democracy
November 4, 2020. Day Two of the 2020 Presidential Election. Several hundred people gathered at the Wayne Lyman Morse Federal Courthouse, in Eugene. Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe from Eugene, Oregon.

By Justin Kempf

How Should We Define Democracy?

Democracy is an elusive idea. It means many different things for many different people. The blog and the podcast often exploit the various interpretations of democracy to showcase ideas or even make arguments that might leave some readers or listeners unclear about the precise meaning of democracy from week to week. Of course, many followers expect some caginess, because the project refers to democracy as a paradox. Nonetheless, I still get asked about my own definition of democracy.

Most people simplify forms of government into democracies and dictatorships. It’s a useful binary, however political scientists argue most countries belong somewhere between them. The idea of hybrid regimes that combine elements of authoritarianism and democracy is difficult for many to comprehend. The notion of competitive authoritarianism is even more complicated because it argues environments where elections remain competitive are still not quite democratic. Most political scientists think of regimes falling onto a scale with democracy and autocracy at the extreme ends. It helps explain how countries that fall in the middle can combine traits into hybrid regimes. It also explains how democracies have become less democratic.

Nonetheless, the notion of a democracy as more or less democratic than another disentangles the idea of democracy from the form of government known as democracy. In other words, democracy exists as both an idea and as a form of government or regime. The two are connected but distinct. We consider a government democratic because it resembles our collective idea of a democracy. But we recognize something even more purely democratic in our minds. Unfortunately, we find it difficult to bring about its physical manifestation without some flaws or inconsistencies.

Democracy as an Idea

Political scientists incorporate many different characteristics and features into what they describe as democracy. The Varieties of Democracy considers 473 unique indicators for democracy. Their method measures democracy through behaviors and characteristics of governments. However, it doesn’t really answer the question of what is democratic. Moreover, some common characteristics of modern democracy can even contradict our idealized vision of democracy. Part of the problem is the idea of democracy itself is not consistent. The most common tension in democratic circles is between liberty and equality. Democracy is widely described as political liberty, but it also requires political equality. Yet the imposition of radical equality may require limitations on important liberties.

Still, an even more existential crisis for democracy is the tension between individualism and collective action. Democracy implies some form of collective decision making and action. But it also implies a sense of independence from its participants. Each person deserves the respect as an individual citizen. As a result, democracies find they must serve the interests of the widest group possible, but make reasonable accommodations for different interests and perspectives. In other words, it’s something more than simple majoritarianism. But it’s never clear where to draw the line between majority will and the concerns or interests of the opposition.

Nonetheless, at its most basic level democracy involves a form of government where the influence of the people is its foundation. Dictatorship or autocracy isolates decisions from the people. But this emphasizes the process of governance rather than its outcomes. People argue public policy is undemocratic when it does not reflect public opinion. In contrast, Russia and China claim broad public support for many of their policies. It’s not democratic to impose popular policies. Citizens must have meaningful influence in their formation.

Is Real Democracy Possible?

Many democratic reformers believe modern democracies fall far short of the ideal. Some argue for what is known as direct democracy where people vote for legislation in regular elections. Others believe sortition is an answer to the problems of representative democracy. Still, others debate the different forms of democracy such as parliamentarianism and presidentialism. Sometimes it’s a lot to take in and makes some question whether the current incarnation of democracy falls so far from expectations it is not really democratic at all. I think this nihilistic assessment goes a bit too far. Part of the problem is people think democracy has some commonly agreed endpoint. Francis Fukuyama, for example, spoke of an end to history as though liberal democracy was already perfected.

The idea of democracy has many different aspects. It looks different from different perspectives. This means the idea will fuel contestation for quite some time. Still, it does not mean societies do not make progress towards democracy. Indeed, democratization is an ongoing process even for what many describe as consolidated democracies. Democracies do exist already, but it doesn’t mean they cannot strive to become more democratic in the future. Samuel Huntington described democratic waves as the proliferation of democracy throughout the world. But Robert Dahl saw democratic waves differently. He saw them as an intensification of democracy within existing democratic governments. In others words, he believed democracies would continue to undergo periods of further democratization.

The podcast and the blog think about democracy from many different perspectives and angles. Sometimes democracy faces setbacks. At other times, it makes meaningful progress. Still, democracy may also require limitations of some aspects to allow others to flourish. Moreover, democracy is not easy. It’s difficult to achieve. But it’s always worth pursuing.

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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