The former American president Thomas Jefferson remarked, “I know of no safer repository of the ultimate powers of society, than the people themselves”. (www. Peoplefirstindia. org) These sentiments are been reiterated by politicians the world over in contemporary times, all preaching about their will to ensure democracy for their citizens. This term ‘democracy’ was introduced into the English language in the sixteenth century, translated from the French word ‘democratie’.
However, its origins lie in ancient Greece, having been derived from the words demos meaning ‘people’ and kratos meaning ‘rule’. (Heywood 99:221) The Athenian approach towards government, was to set up a forum of wealthy citizens to decide issues by means of a discussion followed by a vote, and this is generally considered as the birth of democracy. Democracy can therefore be defined as ‘government by the people, in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected representatives by way of a free, electoral system. ‘(www. usinfo. state. gov)
There exists little doubt that the world surrounding us today can accurately be described as a democratic one, since between 1975 and 1995, the number of democracies present underwent a significant increase from thirty-six to seventy-eight. No less than half the countries of the world are now democratic and at least half the world’s inhabitants reside in democracies. Both of these figures are higher than ever previous and in the present rush toward democracy which we are witnessing, democracy has expanded further than its central hub of Western Europe and former colonies of Western European countries.
In the 1980’s, an astonishing trend towards the establishment of democratic institutions was noticeable throughout numerous areas of the world. In Latin American nations like Argentina, the generals and colonels were returning to their barracks, while the end of the cold war witnessed the surfacing of fledgling democracies in large parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It now can also be observed in, Southern European countries like Spain, other Eastern European states such as The Czech Republic and even some Asian countries like Taiwan.
(Hague 98:20) Democracy is a stimulating concept, and the rise in the figure of states assigning to democratic practice has heralded a different life for many who now live liberated from political coercion or authoritarian rule. (www. aceproject. org) Today, democracy seems to have become somewhat of a ‘buzz’ word, with many political regimes claiming to be democracies, yet none behaving in the same manner as the next. It is not surprising then, that the majority of political thinkers since ancient Greece have been highly critical of the theory and practice of democracy.
The united commitment towards it, is a very recent phenomenon indeed. (Held 96:1) In fact, up to and including much of the twentieth century, democracy was considered a negative term. It was thought of as a type of ‘mob rule’. ( Heywood 99:221) Fears of the unwealthy and uneducated population exerting too much influence on society, were commonplace. Democracy is a very difficult form of government to create and sustain. To look at twentieth century Western Europe alone proves this point, since one can vividly recall how Nazism came extremely close to shattering the democratic ideal.
(Held 96:1) However, much of the carnage in the Second World War might have been avoided if the democracies had been more decisive about confronting Nazi Germany at an earlier stage. (www. un. org) Surely the democracies of today have learned their lesson from this. Democracies have varied significantly from region to region and from one era to the next, in Ancient Greece the people had a direct input into government decisions while today we witness representative democracies, whereby the people select individuals who represent them in government.
This was a natural progression when one considers how nowadays, what with population growth as it is, it simply wouldn’t be appropriate or feasible for everybody to have their own say on any topic they desire. For example, direct democracy worked well in ancient Athens between 461 and 322 B. C. , because it had a population of approximately 40,000 people all within a small geographical region, this is not characteristic of the world of the 21st century.
(Hague 98:21) So modern conditions dictate that to try and emulate the direct democratic method of ancient Greece would be highly impracticable. Democracy does come in many forms, however, the two predominant ones historically have been democracy in its original form (direct) and liberal democracy. As mentioned, democracy was direct in ancient Greece, involving the citizens making decisions without representative institutions leading to much public discussion, which was considered essential, both for the quality of the decision as well as for the need to feel involved amongst the citizens.
However, as time has passed, it’s become glaringly obvious that conferring with the general public on each and every issue, threatens to paralyse the decision-making process and thereby make a country unmanageable. (Heywood 99:226) This is because it’s so often the case that the general public don’t take a fully extended interest in what is actually going on. Direct democracy is used so rarely now that when it is, the public are usually slow to take a major interest in the topic and this can allow those in power to quickly carry through radical changes to a constitutional system without any rules.
For example, if one looks at the recent turnout for referendums in this country, one of the few forms of direct democracy left, it’s terribly low, averaging at under 50% in the last decade. This leads many writers to suspect that ‘direct democracy’ is often a cover-up. Democracy has developed now into a new form, so to suit the contemporary world. After a lengthy period of dormancy, democracy has re-emerged. This new form of democracy which has come to the fore, especially in the industrialised West, is called liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy is a form of democratic rule that balances the principles of limited government with those of popular consent, and elite rule with popular authority. Here in Ireland, we can certainly be regarded as a liberal democracy. Our society is considered liberal because specific fundamental rights are preserved in our Constitution and therefore subject to the protection of the courts. Ireland can be considered to be democratic because the government of the day are chosen by the electorate by way of open and free elections.