Democracy: what it is, isn’t, and what it should be


In 431 BCE, while commemorating the city’s war dead, Pericles, the Athenian leader, spoke some of the most glorious words I have ever read: “Our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters;…and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling block in the way of action, we think it an indispensible preliminary to any wise action at all.” [1]

Pericles was making a reference to one of the most interesting ideas to ever come out of ancient Greece: democracy.

While I would love to write an expose on democracy during ancient times, I would rather limit this article to a discussion on what democracy is, isn’t, and what it should be. Specifically, I’d like to explain how our recent mid-term elections, or most elections for that matter, do not hold up to the idea of actual democracy.

Let’s start with the American constitution, arguably, one of the most important works to come out of the 18th century. My question is this: How democratic was a document produced more than two centuries by a group of fifty-five mortal men, actually signed by 39, a fair number of whom were slaveholders, and adopted by only 13 states by votes of fewer than 2,000 men? [2]

A better question might be: Just how democratic were any governments for that matter before the 20th century (just a hundred years ago)?

In all “democracies” and republics throughout twenty-centuries the rights to engage fully in political life were restricted to a minority of adults. “Democratic” government was government by males only. Until only fairly recent, half of the adult population has always been excluded from political life. The representatives of “the people” did not really represent the whole people; just the free men. Women had no voice in these so-called democratic institutions.

Free men, were, after all, free. This brings me to my next point: slavery. It doesn’t take much effort to realize that it took three-quarters of a century and a civil war before slavery was abolished and the black man was given a voice in political matters. In fact, it would take another 100 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, lifting many of the barriers for a African-American to effectively participate in his/her government.

Even free men were highly unequal in status, wealth, work, obligations, knowledge, freedom, influence, and power. Then as always and everywhere the logic of equality ran head-on into the brute facts of inequality. These facts are, of course, in direct conflict with out ideas of democracy.

The points mentioned above should at least make us doubt whether the document of the framers of America ought to be regarded as holy writ. Wise as the framers were, they were necessarily limited by their profound ignorance. I say this with no disrespect, for like many others I believe that among the framers were many men of exceptional talent and public virtue.

However, to call anything “democratic” before the 20th century is to rob the term of all meaning. There never existed such a thing.

Democracy today:

Contrary to popular belief, no state has ever possessed a government that fully measured up to the criteria of a democratic process. None are likely to.

According to Robert Dahl, Sterling Professor emeritus of political science at Yale University, to reach democracy (or the ideal democracy) requires meeting five criteria:

1) Effective participation – Citizens must have adequate and equal opportunities to form their preference and place questions on the public agenda and express reasons for one outcome over the other.

This, unfortunately, barely takes place in today’s society. What reasons have we been given for our continuous state of warfare? The official reasons are silly at best. Has the public ever been asked if we should engage in war? The answer is no. Before a policy is adopted, all participants must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to other participants as to what the policy should be. These opportunities, are unfortunately, only afforded to representatives of the people, a select number of individuals who’s commitments to democracy are very questionable. This leads to the next criteria:

2) Voting equality – Each citizen must be assured his or her judgments will be counted as equal in weights to the judgments of others. When the moment arrives at which the decision about policy will finally be made, every member must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal.

Ask yourself: is your vote and the vote of corporate shareholder equal? Just how many of our policies are dictated by national and international corporate institutions? When your representative votes on a policy, how much weight is he/she giving to these institutions? How much money does a seat in Congress cost? When these seats are going for roughly $4 million, the reality of voting inequality becomes hardly debatable. [3]

Citizens that are economically unequal are unlikely to be politically equal. In a country with a market-capitalism economy, it appears; full political equality is impossible to achieve. Consequently, there is a permanent tension between democracy and a market-capitalist economy.

3) Enlightened understanding – Citizens must enjoy ample and equal opportunities for discovering and affirming what choice would best serve their interests. Within reasonable limits as to time, each member must have equal and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences.

To acquire an enlightened understanding of possible government actions and policies also requires freedom of expression. To acquire civic competence, citizens need opportunities to express their own views; learn from one another; engage in discussion and deliberation; read, hear, and question experts, political candidates, and persons whose judgments they trust.

With the overwhelming role of today’s popular media, it’s often very difficult to see if the public is engaging in real thought or are they just repeating what the television says? How many uninformed (or malicious) opinions are constantly being shoved down our throats by the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly? Why do political ads engage mostly in malicious attacks on their opponents?

Asking these kinds of question will lead to the simple conclusion that public enlightenment in the political world is not too far from public manipulation. Another term for this is Manufacturing Consent, you can learn more about this here.

We need facts, not opinions. We need all sides of the story, not just one or two sides. We need to question more, which leads to the next criteria.

4) Control of the agenda – The people must have the opportunity to decide what political matters actually are and what should be brought up for deliberation. The people must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how and, if they choose, what matters are to be placed on the agenda.

How much longer will we continue to vote for persons instead of issues/ideas? Why vote for persons at all? Am I wrong to say that the issues/ideas are what’s important and not the person who supports/rejects their deliberation? If the majority of the country is opposed to a policy, such as constant warfare, should the people be allowed to question their leaders? How about a referendum on such matters? Give us [the people] better control of the agenda.

5) Inclusiveness – Equality must extend to all citizens within the state. Everyone has legitimate stake within the political process. Fortunately we are getting closer and closer to meeting this criteria. There have been and still are some setbacks, but by allowing women and certain ethnic minorities to participate in the political process we have taken great leaps forward. There’s still work to be done, though. For example, millions U.S. citizens residing in the U.S. territories (such as Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) are excluded from participating in the election of any voting-member of Congress, which are the political bodies that hold ultimate sovereignty over them.

Now we must ask the question: If we have yet to attain the democratic criteria listed above, are we living a democracy?

No, we live in a Polyarchy. A polyarchy is a state ruled by more than one person, as opposed to monarchy. The word is derived from Greek — poly which means “many” and kratos which means “rule” or “strength”.

Polyarchies have elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, rights to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy. However, polyarchies create multiple centers of political power and its procedures by itself are insufficient for achieving full democracy.

Please note that the rule of the many does not signify rule of the majority nor the entire population. This is a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites. Please see Thomas Ferguson’s Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Politics for a better explanation on political competitions.

Make no mistake, when our leaders preach about “spreading democracy” abroad, they really mean spreading polyarchy.

I think we are now ready to ask the last and most important question:

I voted, now what?

Unfortunately, if you think that by voting you have done your civic duty, you are very mistaken. Democracy is more than voting every so often for a party candidate. Democracy takes work and we have much to do.

Democratization did not proceed on an ascending path to the present. There were ups and downs, resistance movements, rebellions, civil wars, and revolutions. Looking back on the rise and decline of democracy, it is dear that we cannot count on historical forces to insure that democracy will always advance-or even survive.

It’s almost ironic that the only way for democracy to survive is for the people, who truly believe in it, to fight for it. No government, corporate, religious, military, and/or state institution has any incentive to become more democratic.

Stealing from Mr. Lincoln, democracy truly is an idea of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Start by becoming more educated on political matters. Read both mainstream and non-mainstream media. I recommend Google FastFlip for those with a busy schedule: It’s fast and easy to use. I will follow this article with a list of progressive sites and organizations to help you get news not fit for the mainstream.

If you are interested on political theory or the history of democracy, Robert Dahl is a good start. He writes extremely well and to the point.

If you feel confident in your knowledge of political affairs then it’s time to get the information about government that you want – and maybe even some you didn’t know you were looking for. Here are some VERY serious tools for the politically minded:

Follow the Money:

Sunlight Foundation

Lastly, take the democratic criteria mentioned here and demand that they be applied universally. It should be the standard by which all so-called democratic states are measured. In almost all, perhaps all, organizations everywhere there is some room for some democracy; and in all democratic countries there is considerable room for more democracy. No undemocratic aspect of any government should go unchallenged.

Our leaders should be kept on tap, not on top.

Thomas Jefferson once asserted that a revolution about every generation would be a good thing. The romantic idea was shot down during the 20th century by numerous revolutions that failed tragically or pathetically or, worse, produced despotic regimes. Yet it might not be a bad idea if a democratic country, about once every 20 years or so, assembled a group of constitutional scholars, political leaders, and informed citizens to evaluate its constitution in the light not only of its own experience but also of the rapidly expanding body of knowledge gained from the experiences of other democratic countries. [4]

Food for thought.

Thanks for reading,

  1. Thucydides, Complete Writings: The Peloponnesia War, unabridged Crawley translation. New York, Random House, 1951.
  2. Dahl, Robert, How Democratic is the American Constitution?, Yale University Press, 2001
  3. Records broken for fundraising, by Dan Eggen, Washington Post, October 26, 2010:
  4. Dahl, Robert, On Democracy, Yale University Press, 1998
  5. Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky:
  6. Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Politics:

4 responses to “Democracy: what it is, isn’t, and what it should be”

  1. KenLugosi - Hepcat Of Horror Avatar
    KenLugosi – Hepcat Of Horror

    Very well, done, my friend. Remember though, the founding fathers were not infallible and even they realized that their purpose was to attempt to form “…a more perfect union.” That’s why they enabled the Constitution to be amended. It is still a living document; a work in progress. Also, I think we live in more of a plutocracy: rule by the wealthy.

    1. Thanks, you have no idea how long it took me to gather all that information and formulate it in an easy to read format. I appreciate the feedback.

      Here is an interesting excerpt from one of Dahl’s books that you might find interesting:

      Why should we bound today by a document a document produced more than two centuries by a group of fifty-five mortal men, actually signed by 39, a fair number of whom were slaveholders, and adopted by only 13 states by votes of fewer than 2,000 men, all of whom are long since dead and mainly forgotten?

      Our citizen might respond that we Americans are free, after all, to alter out constitution by amendment and have often done so. Therefore our present constitution is ultimately based on the consent of those of us living today.

      Before we accept this reply, let me pose another question: Have we Americans ever had an opportunity to express our considered will on our constitution? For example, how many readers of these lines have ever participated in a referendum that asked them whether they wished to continue to be governed under the existing constitution? The answer is, of course, none.

      Our citizen might now fall back on another line of argument: Why should we change a constitution that has served and continues to serve us well?

      Although this a sure a reasonable line of argument, it does suggest still another question: By what standards does out constitution serve us well? In particular, how well does our constitutional system meet democratic standards?

      And if our constitution is as goos as most Americans seem to think it is, why haven’t other democratic countries copied it?

      If our constitutional system turns out to be unique among the constitutions of other advanced democratic countries, is it any better for its differences, or is worse? Or don’t the differences matter?

      Suppose we find little to no evidence to support the view that out constitutional system is superior to the systems of other comparable democratic countries, and it some respects it may actually perform rather worse. What should we conclude?

      Pretty interesting questions, don’t you think? Dahl’s aim is not so much to suggest changes in the existing constitution as to encourage to change the way we think about it, whether it be the existing one, an amended version of it, or a new and more democratic constitution.

      As to your comment on Plutocracy, I shall limit my comments to these links:

      …they should make for some rather interesting reading.


  2. I read some essay on how this is supposed to be a republic, not democracy, and differences between these. Weimar Republic was a democracy hehe. I believe in some form of voting restrictions, property rights maybe? There is Central European folk proverb “why are you poor? Cause you are stupid. Why are you stupid? Cause you are poor”. I don’t want idiots to be allowed to vote. Democracy is a bad idea. Democracy by individuals who cannot reign over their own minds and lives, that’s scary. That’s dictatorship of proletariat, of masses skillfully manipulated by elite, corporate or whatever. Seems elite is usually without much conscience or mercy for the masses, needing the said masses to rule over them. Wasn’t Soviet Union founded by anticorporate intellectuals? I remember something about Lenin being a scholar philosopher and what not. In the end, to the top of any political system will rise those who crave the power the most and the more power concentrated in the government, the more abuse there will be. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi,

      Surprisingly, you and Plato have something in common. Plato was also very against democracy for almost the same reasons. Remarkable, don’t you think?

      Your views on voting restrictions are disturbing. Given full information, ordinary people can govern themselves and live a truly free and peaceful existence. We must all become human participants in our social and political system and work to make a difference.

      Lenin was a complete hypocrite and any attempts to link him to socialist movements are absurd. Contrary to popular belief, he was an anti-socialist and a corporate elite. He basically tried to create a worker-slave society to prop up the masters of his nation. Forget what he wrote, focus on his actions and it all becomes clear.

      I once read a very interesting quote by an English explorer, I think you might like it: “The dearest ambition of a slave is not liberty, but to have a slave of his own”. Kind up sums up society, doesn’t it?

      While I understand why you would have such convictions, I don’t necessarily agree with them. If we are to take freedom seriously, then all questions of power are rendered obsolete. That is, we can either have for freedom or not, It’s a simple as that. Everything that we know of today that restricts our freedoms can easily be done away with. It’s just a matter of doing. That’s all.

      I tend to side with Anarchist philosophy here. They explain it very simply: Ask all the power systems in the world to provide a justification for such power. If it cannot be justified, then power is removed. Do it over and over again and you’ll quickly see the power systems wither away. Interesting thought, don’t you think?

Leave a Reply