What Is a Democracy?

Author's Note
This article is reprinted with some edits from LocalCommentary.com, where I first posted it in 2010.

An American Thing?

In its simplest definition, democracy is rule by the people — in Greek, the demos. On the face of it, you’d think that this would be not only a very good thing, but also a very American thing. The famous first three words of the Preamble to the United States Constitution are a statement of the people’s authority to establish a government and its Constitution. “We the People” sounds very democratic.

Then there’s that short, most celebrated speech by President Abraham Lincoln. In the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, delivered at the famous battlefield on November 19, 1863, he speaks of “a new birth of freedom,” and the desire “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” That sounds pretty democratic too, doesn’t it, especially the words “by the people”?

So democracy must be a good thing. Or maybe not . . .

Practically anyone who has studied the American founding carefully understands that democracy was something the founders feared and tried to avoid. Lately, there’s a movement afoot — notably but not exclusively in Utah and its Alpine School District — which is horrified that the word democracy is sometimes mentioned as a desirable thing in a school district’s official statement of goals and values. And let’s not forget those German communists. They called their country the German Democratic Republic, and they did it with a straight face.

Obviously, the word democracy means different things to different people. In fact, it means different things to me — some of which I ardently support, and some of which I vehemently oppose.

Some folks try to exploit this wide range of definitions to sell the people something substantially different from what the people envision when they hear the word democracy. Some people are simply confused by or oblivious to the differences. The distinctions don’t seem very subtle to me, but I’ve been steeped in political theory for decades. Maybe they seem small and insignificant to others.

Some other folks are incensed by the differences. For them, democracy is a byword, in the most negative sense of that word, and has one clear, precise meaning, not more. Anyone who speaks of it in serious discourse without hissing or snarling sufficiently is at least an opponent, and quite possibly an enemy, of freedom.

All of these responses are understandable to a degree, and all of them suggest the need to understand clearly the word’s range of actual, legitimate meanings. That’s where we’re headed here today.

Before we set off, let’s pause for a moment to celebrate the fact that I may be about to offend every faction with an opinion on the subject. Then we’ll venture into the fire swamp. Truly, “it’s not that bad. . . . I’m not saying I’d like to build a summer home [there], but the trees are actually quite lovely.” (Credit where credit is due.)


An Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Thing

The ancient Athenian democracy is the most famous, perhaps, but may not have been the first. There is evidence of earlier democratic institutions among the Sumerians, in India, and elsewhere. But the Western democratic tradition begins in Athens.

About 380 BC Plato described democracy as rule by those who are governed. He also described three other, contrasting types of government: monarchy (rule by one person), oligarchy or aristocracy (rule by a small elite class), and timocracy (rule by property owners). Other thinkers often omitted the last of those and spoke of only three general types of government, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. (I confess I myself haven’t used the work timocracy since I studied Plato at college.) In any case, for Plato democracy was already a little more than simply popular rule. It allowed individuals to live in the freedom nature intended. And, while he did not belabor the point in Republic, he conceived of democracy as involving the election of magistrates.

This brings us to a crucial point: The word democracy is commonly used to describe two different kinds of democratic system. One is direct democracy, in which citizens vote on all issues directly. Athenian democracy is often said to have been direct democracy, but it was not completely so. There was a governing assembly of all citizens, but there were also government and court officials selected from among the citizens by lot, which is edging in the general direction of democratic representation. Similar, mostly-direct democracy recurred for some centuries in the Roman Republic and later in medieval Swiss towns, among other places. A degree of direct democracy exists in most of the states of the United States and in local governments, where laws can be made and overturned by referendum. There is no direct referendum in the US national government.

The second form, representative democracy, is much more widely observed both in history and in the modern world. It generally — sometimes completely — avoids direct democracy, preferring the rule of democratically elected representatives. Some such governments preceded the American representative democracy by centuries, in places as diverse as Iceland and medieval Russia. In most of these earlier cases, only a small minority had a voice or vote in the “democracy.” Another form, parliamentary democracy, as practiced in England and elsewhere, might be considered a variation of representative democracy.

A Multifaceted Thing

There are kinds of democracy we have yet to name here, and other useful adjectives to attach to the noun, but the existence of direct democracy and representative democracy is sufficient to raise some questions about the current debate. Is one of these forms the  true or real democracy, and the other a distortion or a fraud? More precisely, is it legitimate to use the word democracy to refer to a representative democracy, or must the word be reserved by all right-thinking people for direct democracies only? Should every patriotic American bristle at the use of the word democracy to describe our republic? Is every American who thinks we live in a democracy either a part of, or duped by, a conspiracy to overthrow our republic?

Hold that thought. We still need to add a few more adjectives. As we do so, let’s keep assuming something we haven’t yet asserted, that the definition of democracy includes rule by a majority of those participating (that is, of actual votes). A particularly important modern variant of democracy lacks that feature, but we can assume it for the moment.

A host of thinkers, from Plato to to Montesquieu to James Madison, have prudently shied away from direct democracy, in the sense of direct majority rule. Popular majorities can be exceedingly fickle. They tend to be swayed by passion more than reason. Worst of all, they are prone to tyranny. In representative democracy, the democratic election of legislators and other leaders to fixed terms of office partially addresses the first two of these problems, by providing some stability and some insulation against inflamed but fleeting public passions. The third problem, the opportunity for democratic tyranny, brings us to the idea of liberal democracy, where individual rights — especially the minority’s rights — are protected. A partial synonym of liberal democracy is constitutional democracy, because those protections tend to be secured by constitutions, as in the United States. However, it is only a partial synonym, because it is easy to conceive of a constitution which describes and establishes a representative democracy, but does not protect the individual rights of the minority.

There are another two dozen or so adjectives which are commonly and reasonably applied to the noun democracy. Life is really too short for us to belabor most of the rest of them. We’ll add one or two more later, but we have enough now to allow us to address the questions I mentioned.

Overlapping Things

The United States government is a republic, as I discussed in the previous article in this series, but it is a particular sort of republic, a constitutional, democratic republic. This might be the best kind of republic, but would it make any sense for someone arbitrarily to declare that only the constitutional, democratic republic is truly a republic, and that all other republics are perversions or abuses of that concept and should not be called republics? I can’t speak for you, but I don’t claim the right to erase large pieces of political thought accumulated over 24 centuries, just because I want to use its vocabulary in my own narrow way.

In that same spirit, try this on for size: The United States government is also a democracy. It is not a direct democracy, but that’s not the only kind or the most common kind. It is a liberal, constitutional, representative democracy. To insist that it is not a democracy, because it is not a direct democracy, is, again, to assert the right to erase large bodies of political thought, in the name of using that discipline’s careful vocabulary in an unjustifiably narrow way. It’s still a relatively free country, so I suppose people have the right to invent their own language in this manner. But they haven’t the authority to declare every other proper and long-established usage of a word invalid, because it isn’t their preferred usage. To the extent that they insist on detaching themselves in this way from millennia of serious discussion, they abdicate what might otherwise be their influential role in the public discourse.

Republic and democracy are not opposites. They mostly overlap. In their American incarnations (and some others), they are the institutionalization of Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people.” In these words, note first that government of the people is no distinction; every sort of regime governs the people. But government by the people — that’s a democracy, whether the people govern themselves directly (as in some states’ referenda) or indirectly, through democratically-elected representatives.

I drive an aging Japanese four-door sedan, which is only a little bit sporty. A friend drives a late-model Corvette, an American sportscar. Would it advance our occasional discussion of cars at all, if I insisted that only sedans are really cars, and we must therefore find another word for all other motor vehicles, including his Corvette? Would his views on automobiles be any more persuasive if he insisted that I cannot be allowed to call my Honda a car, because only sportscars are really cars? If you think this would be silly, imagine forbidding people to use the word car in referring to cattle cars and box cars. Yet this is essentially the argument that some presumably well-meaning zealots are making, when they insist that only direct democracy should be called democracy, and that the United States cannot be a representative democracy and a democratic republic at the same time.

A Mostly Modern Thing

You’ve noted, perhaps, that I’ve said nothing so far of equality or, for that matter, of the third part of Lincoln’s formula, government for the people. A central feature of the American liberal, constitutional democracy is that all voters have an equal vote, and all citizens are, at least in a legal sense, equal before the law. This formal equality is an essential feature of the liberal democracy, but it is not a point of consensus, and it is not a feature of every sort of democracy.

I suspect, but have not tried to prove, that a major reason some people are so upset by the suggestion that the American government is a democracy is not their very sensible conviction of the perils of direct democracy. I suspect that it is their sense — fed by instinct or analysis or both — that the term democracy is not always used to describe a system which values individual freedom and self-determination. This instinct or analysis, whichever it is, is spot on.

There is a type of democracy which values government of the people and for the people, but studiously avoids being government by the people in any practical and ongoing sense. In some types of socialism and communism, the departure from Lincoln is quite overt. These are governments of the people and for the people, but by a revolutionary, aristocratic, meritocratic, or bureaucratic elite — not by the people as a whole. Equality of some outcomes (such as wealth) is enforced at the price of freedom; sometimes this is called social justice. In this usage, democracy emphasizes two things. First, the system exists essentially for the benefit of the people — so it claims, and so the revolutionaries or voters who chose it believed. Second, a premium is placed on equality, and unequal outcomes — such as in education or in economics — are considered to be undemocratic. Notably, freedom and self-government, which breed inequality, are largely absent in such systems. There may be elections and some other choices to make, but they rarely are allowed to include alternatives which are hostile to the prevailing philosophy, power, or interests of the state.

On an emotional level I would be tempted to declare that this usage of democracy is illegitimate, a perversion. But I cannot. It is a long-established, much-discussed, and legitimate branch of political thought. (Please understand, I did not just say that tyrannical government is fine with me.) To reject the usage of the word democracy in this context would accomplish no useful end, and it would detach me, to some degree, from serious discussion of political theory. This doesn’t mean that I have to embrace this sort of democracy and declare that it is just as good as any other. It does mean that I have to qualify my usage of the term democracy, so it is clear that, when I advocate democracy, I don’t mean that sort; and, when I decry the evils of that sort of democracy, or even of direct democracy, I don’t mean every sort.

In short, both democratic and republic are properly used when we speak of the German Democratic Republic or of the American democratic republic. But one refers to a great tyranny, and the other names the best thing going in the real political world.

One More Adjective

Governments which profess to be democratic, but which do not value individual rights and do not allow for self-government, are the the subject of the fourth and last article in this series, in which I will describe three theoretical routes to socialism: Marxism, democratic socialism, and — are you ready? — social democracy.

As heavily as the word democracy relies on context and clarification, when you put the adjective social in front of it, as the Alpine School District has done in official statements of its mission, goals, and values, you have nailed down the concept quite precisely. Social democracy is an enemy of liberal democracy and deserves all the hostility local partisans have directed at the term democracy generally. Anyone who has studied it seriously for at least a few minutes, and who loves freedom, knows that social democracy it is a soft road to socialism, not a desirable advance or refinement in the government of a free people.

. . . Of which more .