Democracy – Everywhere? Nowhere?

Commentary No. 289, Sept. 15, 2010

Democracy is a very popular word these days. There is virtually no country in the world today whose government does not claim to be the government of a democracy. But at the same time, there is virtually no country in the world today about which others – both inside the country and in other countries – do not denounce the government as being undemocratic.

There seems to be very little agreement about what we mean when we say a country is democratic. The problem is clear in the very etymology of the word. Democracy comes from two Greek roots – demos, or people, and kratia, or rule, the authority to decide. But what do we mean by rule? And what do we mean by the people?

Lucien Febvre told us it is always important to look at the history of a word. The word, democracy, was not always so universally popular. The word first came into common modern political usage in the first half of the nineteenth century, primarily in western Europe. At that time, it had the tonality of terrorism today.

The idea that the “people” might actually “rule” was considered by all respectable people as a political nightmare, dreamed up by irresponsible radicals. In fact, the principal objective of respectable people was how to make sure that it was not the majority of the people who had the authority to decide. This authority had to be left in the hands of people who had interests in preserving the world as it was, or as it should be. These were people with property and wisdom, who were considered competent to make decisions.

After the revolutions of 1848, in which the “people” rose up in social and national revolutions, men of property and competence grew frightened. They responded first with repression, and then with calculated concessions. The concessions were to admit people, slowly and bit by bit, to the ballot. They thought that the ballot might satisfy the demands of the “people” and in effect co-opt them into sustaining the existing system.

Over the next 150 years, this concession (and others) worked to a considerable degree. Radicalism was muted. And after 1945, the very word, democracy, was co-opted. Everyone now claimed to be in favor of democracy, which is where we are today.

The problem, however, is that not everyone is convinced that we are all living in truly democratic countries, in which the people – all the people – are truly the ones who are ruling, that is, making the decisions.

Once the representatives are chosen, they quite often do not fulfill the demands of the majority, or they oppress important minorities. The “people” often react – by protest, by strikes, by violent uprisings. Is it “democratic” when the demonstrations are ignored? Or is it “democratic” when the government backs down and submits to the will of the “people”?

And who are the people? Are they the numerical majority? Or do major groups have rights that should be guaranteed? Should important groups have some relative autonomy? And what kinds of compromises between the “majority” and important “minorities” constitute “democratic” results?

Finally, we must not neglect the ways in which the rhetoric about democracy is used as a geopolitical instrument. Denouncing other countries as undemocratic is regularly used as a justification for intrusion into politically weaker countries. The results of such intrusions are not necessarily that more democratic governments come to power, just different ones with perhaps different foreign policies.

Perhaps we should think of democracy as a claim and an aspiration that has not been realized anywhere yet. Some countries may seem to be more undemocratic than others. But are any countries demonstrably more democratic than others?