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What is a democracy, and why is it important?

What is Democracy

What is Democracy

According to Winston Churchhill, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time “. So, whatever you may think of him, you may agree that the mere existence of democratic states is no magic cure for all societal problems. Even figures that had further-reaching ambitions, like Marx and Engels (whatever you may think of them), did not see ‚ burgeois’ democracy as an end in itself, but honoured it none the less as a step towards something further, once the majority would come to see its common interest through the democratic forms.

What are the democratic forms?

Despite common misconceptions that democracy would have to rely on a positive human nature, many views on democracy are fully compatible with negative or agnostic views on‚ human nature ‘(whatever that may mean). Both the separation of powers (legislature, executive management, judiciary) envisioned by Montesquieu and the populace’s indivisible power as sovereign envisioned by Rousseau aims to negate consolidation of power by special interests and thereby the undermining of the majorities interests by powerful (and possibly sinister) elites.

However, more often than not, there will be conflict about what these common interests are. In these conflicts, a concept like Rousseau’s General Will (volonté générale) as the given objective interests and different from the aggregated existing will of all of the population (volonté de tous), could easily be used to justify unpopular decisions. But this argument is turned on its head if you consider the people as the most excellent experts in their interests and thus can recognise their objective interests (which does not involve morality).

So, while there are also other arguments for democracy (e.g. the absence of a generational genetical lottery as in a hereditary monarchy and the high likelihood for peaceful transitions of power), the most important is this one: most other forms of government that have been tried from time to time either lead to or are the pure expression of oligarchical concentration of power in the interest of said oligarchies. Democracy, at least, gives you the chance to fight back.

The Minimum of Democracy

It follows that these forms have to be considered a democratic minimum:

  • All executive actions have to conform to the law.
  • All rules must be decreed by the expression of the will of the majority of the population.
  • All positions of power must be elected and controlled as closely as possible by most people. An often ignored form of this control is the election to said positions with an explicit mandate and the deselection if that mandate remains unfulfilled. One could also expand the definition of power positions in this sense: Why, for example, is economic power exempt?
  • To rationally find the solution best fitting the common interest, an extensive discussion must be possible and encouraged. No infringement on free speech, assembly, publication and so on is legitimate (as long as the said speech does not openly call for murder or the like).

Following exceptions may be made (which involve morality):

  • For the guarantee of fundamental human rights and minority protections, there may be laws on how to pass laws (commonly called constitutions), which enshrine said rights as unchangeable even by the majority. For example, the German constitution has enshrined its first articles, the catalogue of fundamental rights and liberties, under an unchangeable ‚eternity clause ‘.
  • For the same reasons, specific procedures may require a higher threshold than a simple majority (most commonly two thirds).
  • While civil rights are often reserved for citizens, individual rights can not only be extended to non-citizens but also be issued explicitly for them, like the right to asylum.
  • One could even argue that since a) everyone affected by a decision should have a say in it, and b) in an increasingly globalised world, more and more decisions tend to affect everyone, one world-wide democracy, either federated or unitary, should be established.

The next question is: What is democratic substance, that exceeds its mere forms?

What is democratic substance?

Despite the democratic forms being (mostly) observed, the spirit of democracy may be violated. The examples that immediately come to mind is the formally correct election of anti-democratic, right-wing populists like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (1994) or Donald Trump in the USA (2016). But this goes deeper. For example, in 2014, Martin Gillens and Benjamin Page published a study that showed for the time between 1981 and 2002 that in cases in which the surveyed preferences of the poor or a middle-class majority of the US differed from the choices of an affluent minority, the minority always won.

Results like these find their theoretical expression in authors like a) Collin Crouch, who claims that we are living in a ‚Post-democracy ‘, in which the formal rules of democracy remain observed while being hollowed out, and b) Johannes Agnoli, who diagnoses a general devolution of democracy. According to him, this is the result of an attempt to prevent a ‚revolution by consent ‘by registering popular dissent but depoliticising it through a lack of oversight and participation.

So, democracy is not merely something to be enjoyed. Democracy also raises demands towards you. It offers a chance to fight back, but you have to take it. It demands involvement, education, being informed, vigilance, organisation, solidarity.

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