The Progressive Living Glossary

Definition: Democracy

Domain: Politics
Context: Forms of governance




Democracy Defined

A good, basic definition of democracy might be "government by the people governed."

Two primary forms of democracy exist: direct democracy, in which people themselves directly manage the affairs of government; and representative democracy, in which those governed elect representatives to govern on their behalf.

Some Key Issues in Democracy

The nature of decision-making in a genuine Democracy has been much debated: is a simple majority rule sufficient, or is some other form of consensus to be preferred?

The relationship between democracy and various economic systems such as capitalism and socialism has also been a subject of vigorous debate. However, most of this debate is badly confused, as the essential nature of these economic systems is poorly understood.

The Outlook for Democracy

Even as it is widely celebrated, there are many who would now consider American representative democracy to have failed, overcome by


rampant political corruption. This diagnosis might be premature: the reformers of the Progressive Era were able to make considerable inroads against corruption and set American on a better course. On the other hand, however, in that earlier era the media were far more reform-minded, and much less corrupt themselves. The media of the time were also much less sophisticated with respect to propaganda techniques. Modern corporate propaganda, coupled with such tools as the focus group, and armed with an understanding of human psychology culled from advertising, has reached unprecedented levels of sophistication. Moreover, the Progressive Era was inaugurated by particularly grievous moral and criminal offenses which made the need for reform painfully obvious, and difficult for the plutocracy to defend.

Some have said that direct democracy is well-suited only to very small states, such as Switzerland; however, it isn't clear in what sense smallness is prerequisite. In the past, certainly, there were insurmountable technological obstacles to the participation of large numbers of people. Arguably, these obstacles no


longer exist. A more practical consideration, however, is whether large numbers of people could successfully assume the dual burdens of becoming sufficently well-informed and being sufficiently responsible to master the details of legislating.

To meet these objections, various forms of mixed representative and direct governance might be architected. For example, ordinary people might be called upon at random to govern in a third house of Congress, in much the same way that they are currently called upon to serve in jury duty. Alternatively, some percentage of ordinary citizens might be appointed to the existing houses. One variant of this approach is known as demarchy.

Historical Roots of Democracy

While many people have at least a vague sense of the meaning of democracy, very few indeed have any understanding of its Ancient Greek origins. Prior to the establishment of democracy in Ancient Greece, wealthy oligarchs had ruled for centuries. Unfortunately, it seems to be one of the few rules of history that rule by the wealthy inevitably becomes corrupt; certainly,


this was the case in Attica. Ordinary people were crushed under the heel of the wealthy, through such instruments as corrupt courts, until they neared the point of violent revolution. At this point, a pivotal figure in Western history, Solon, successfully intervened, striking a compromise acceptable to everyone—and to no one, as neither side was entirely satisfied. Nevertheless, his reforms resulted in prosperity for all, if not a true democracy. Solon's successor, Peisistratus, was a dictator, though on the whole a benevolent one. When his successors, his sons, were deposed, they were eventually replaced by the first substantially democratic government in human history, as architected by one Kleisthenes. It is Kleisthenes who deserves, perhaps more than any other single individual in history, to be called the father of democracy. Curiously, however, Kleisthenes' role in the establishment of democracy is virtually unknown today, as is the evolution of democracy as a response to oligarchic and plutocratic rule. This is itself, perhaps, instructive.

See also: progressivism, plutocracy, oligarchy.