The word democracy comes from the Greek work Kratos which means ‘power’. The word demos is understood to mean ‘people’ or ‘many’ therefore the joining of these two words would equate to the meaning of democracy – ‘power to the people’. There are many different versions of democracy so there is not one specific model to measure by. The main strand of democracy is Liberal Democracy. This in itself is two-stemmed, one stem being of a liberal nature defined by the idea of a confined government and the other stem being of a democratic nature defined by the pledge to favoured rule.
Rather than being a static entity, democracy is in fact an ongoing struggle to build and lengthen its ideology. Though in general it is assumed that a nation is ‘democratic’ since its government is accountable to the people through election into public posts and all adults of a certain age have the right to vote and stand for election themselves, in fact, no nation actually delivers those notions to their full capability in practice.
Over the last few years, democracy has been mistaken for many things especially with the heightened understanding of Globalisation. Some have called democracy Capitalism, Westernisation, American colonialism, Americanisation and economic slavery just to name a few. What follows is an exploration of democracy to discover its positive and negative attributes and determine its true nature.
The first positive characteristic is equality of citizenship. This principle is based on the premise that people are capable of acting in a responsible manner when required to do so. Therefore all people are treated equally and their views and ideas are to be treated equally by government policy. The second positive characteristic is meeting popular needs. This encourages the expression of opinions as the more say people have, the more government can keep in touch with the concerns and aspirations of its people.
Pluralism and compromise make up that third positive element of democracy. A society that includes both of these attributes is hugely reliant on open debate, persuasion and compromise which also mean that any differences that occur are also resolved through these means. Naturally, there will always be differing opinions and within a democratic society, opposing opinion has the right to be heard. In doing this there is an acknowledgement of diversity and plurality within the society.
The fourth element that highlights a positive aspect of democracy is the guarantee of basic freedoms. In this the government recognises that the protection of the rights of free speech and expression, association with others, movement, security and civil and political prerogative lead to the personal development and growth of an individual. The final positive attribute to be mentioned is societal renewal. This demands that there is a regular and peaceful removal of policies and politicians that have neglected the people or outlived usefulness. This maintains societal and generational renewal causing little disruption.
So after this multitude of positive characteristics, is it possible that there are also negatives? Does democracy, with its political, social and cultural freedoms and equalities have any remnants of the harmful? Unfortunately, as in all things man-made, yes. Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” The reason being that more often than not, public office holders are not affected society’s demands and influence so their policies are inappropriate to people’s needs, self-serving and corrupt. A good example of this is Tony Blair’s first act after his election in 1997. This act was the reduction of time spent on ‘Prime Ministers Questions’ in the house of commons from two days to one day. This action shouted ‘access denied’ to any public and parliamentary scrutiny that should be allowed in a democratic government.
In his book ‘The Future of Freedom’, Fareed Zakaria analyses freedom within democracy. He insists there are features of democracy that only apply to certain cultures and if applied in cultures not originally defined by liberty can lead to oppressive regimes such as tyranny, or illiberal democracy such as Russia or retrogressive such as fascism or populist authoritarianism such as Germany and Italy between the world wars. Zakaria also suggests that if free elections were to take place in areas such as North Africa or the Middle East they would be won by fundamentalist groups who would destroy any idea of liberty that had been visible.
Another negative point pertaining to democracy is power and its ability to corrupt. Power tends to encourage political representatives to feel differently and have different interests than voters do. Using The USA as an example, politicians are under constant pressure from lobbyists of special-interest groups to support a particular public policy. As a politician’s futures depends on winning elections and elections are won by attracting marginal voters, politicians seek out these type of voters by promising to vote for the policy they favour. So it would seem. As John Mueller suggests, ‘actual democracy is often found to be disappointingly wanting – notable chiefly for discord, inequality, apathy, hasty compromise, political and policy ignorance, an manipulative scrambling by “special interests”‘. (Mueller, 2002).
Complete Orderliness, certainty, equality, security and fairness cannot be supplied by democracy says Mueller human beings, he says, are a flawed bunch, so any institution that’s going to be successful had better be able to work with human imperfections. Democracy has is definite flaws, but in the end as Winston Churchill stated, “‘Democracy is the worst form of government, with the exception of all others.” “Democracy leaves individuals free to pursue their interests, recognising that some will simply do better in the pursuit than others.” (Mueller, 2002)