What is democracy?

Democracy is not a simple idea. Therefore, it cannot be encompassed in a simple definition. The seven parts of this framework, taken together, provide an explanation of democracy as an idea and a portrayal of the various ways in which this idea is implemented in the world. The framework begins with a basic explanation of some of the elemental attributes of democracy and each succeeding part builds upon and extends this initial understanding of the concept of democracy.


What does "democracy" mean? Understanding democracy as a form of political system requires a knowledge of the basic concept of democracy and of the common misuses and abuses of the term, liberal and non-liberal types of democracy, and the kinds of democracy that are observable as systems of workable government.

1. Basic concept of democracy and common misuses and abuses of the term

a. Basic concept of democracy. The word democracy is derived from the Greek words demos or "people" and kratia meaning "authority" or "rule." Thus "democracy" may be defined simply as "rule of the people." Classically the term demos referred to the lower classes which constituted most of the population of a society. Over time the "people" has come to mean the entire population or the citizenry of a country.

However, the concept of "democracy" is more complex than the definition of a word. Building on the earliest origins of the word, the concept of democracy as "popular government" rests on the principle that the people as a whole are considered as the foundation of political life. They are the ultimate source of authority and their interests and welfare are the principal ends of government.

In a democracy, political power is legitimized (becomes authorized) only when it arises from the people. It can arise from the free decisions of the people as a whole only when each person has the liberty to make fundamental political choices. Thus, liberty is the fundamental precondition for the very concept of self-government. This liberty embraces both individual and collective aspects of self-rule or "autonomy"-a word derived from the Greek auto (self) and nomos (law or binding custom).

There are two ways in which this legitimization must take place. First, the people never give up their inherent authority to make and remake their form of government. Second, the people continuously authorize the use of political power in their name by officials and institutions that remain accountable to them. Thus, in a democracy the people

  • authorize ("author") the fundamental plan of the political system at its beginning and approve the subsequent design of its institutions and
  • consent (agree to) to the conduct of the offices of government established as part of that system, including the actions and policies of those institutions.

  • Therefore, the concept of democracy is centered on the principle of the sovereignty of the people or "popular sovereignty." In democratic theory, the people cannot give up their sovereign power nor can they give up their liberty to give and withhold their consent to government. In effect, they have inalienable ownership of their government. Even in a representative democracy the people do not surrender their power; rather they delegate power to representatives, who serve as the people's trustees.

    Thus, according to the principle of popular sovereignty, authority flows upward from people to those in positions of political power, not downward from rulers to the people. Essential to the operation of democracy are free, fair, and regular elections with universal adult suffrage, but free elections alone are not sufficient for a political system to be democratic. A democratic system must be characterized by the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions. At its best, a democracy achieves domestic peace in the context of persistent conflict of interests and views.

    The concept of democracy, in its most basic sense, includes majority rule and respect for those in the minority because they are a part of the people as a whole. Therefore, in its status as a part of the people, a minority can never be treated unfairly. To the degree that any part of the people of a political community (whether individuals or groups) is excluded from full participation in political life or is unfairly targeted for negative treatment, a country is less democratic. Thus, elements of individual liberty are inherent in the practice of any democracy.

    However, this basic concept of democracy does not include the protection of a full range of individual rights or the right of minorities to be treated differently from everyone else (liberalism). Nor does it include the principle of a full range of limits on government (constitutionalism).

    Because this basic concept of democracy is formulated as an ideal, no existing or historical political order realizes it fully. But the concept can be used as a standard by which knowledgeable persons can evaluate a country as being more or less democratic.

    b. Common misuses and abuses of the term "democracy." Many countries claiming to be democracies do not meet the criteria of the basic concept outlined above. Such claims may arise from a misunderstanding of the concept or from the intentional misuse of it. To understand the concept of democracy, it is important to understand how the terms "democracy" and "democratic" have been corrupted and misused. These terms have been invoked to
  • cloak despotic regimes which manipulate and appeal to popular sentiment but which trample upon fundamental rights of the people, e.g., demagoguery.
  • disguise a despotism in which political participation and elections are mere showpieces rigged by government to accomplish predetermined outcomes, e.g., sham democracies.
  • incorporate only some elements of democracy in a distorted fashion, e.g., majority rule that becomes a tyranny of the majority, electoral dictatorships or autocracy.
  • invoke the rhetoric of the "people's will" without using democratic procedures to determine that will, e.g., mob rule, "dictatorship of the proletariat".
  • misrepresent a partial interest which may have substantial public support as if it were the equivalent of the common good

  • 2. Basic theoretical types of democracy.

    Any political system must structure the relationship between the individual and the community. But democracy must attempt to organize this relationship in such a way so that the integrity of the individual and the well-being of the community are protected or realized. Nonetheless because practical political arrangements require choices of emphasis on the behalf of the individual or the community, functioning democratic political systems will distinguish themselves on the basis of the emphasis they place on one or the other. Even when they do reflect one emphasis, awareness and recognition of the alternative emphasis continues to provide a necessary balance. For where either emphasis is taken to an extreme, democracy loses the moderation necessary for its durability and stability. To deny the importance of the integrity of the individual or the well-being of the community is to attack the foundation of a democratic political order.

    While acknowledging the need to accommodate the integrity of the person as an individual and the unity of the people as a whole, the fundamental commitments or animating spirit of any functioning democracy will be oriented more toward the individual or toward the community. Further, a given political system may reflect different choices of emphasis at different times.

    Democratic political systems reflecting these different orientations may be categorized as individual-centered or community-centered. These two categories reflect a distinction between what has been called "private liberty" and "public liberty." Private liberty refers to the capacity of the individual, as an independent agent, to act autonomously. Public liberty refers to the capacity of the people, as an independent polity, to govern themselves. The more modern understanding of the concepts of "personal liberties" and "political liberties" has its origins in this distinction.

    Any particular democracy that can exist in practice will be a mixture of these two theoretical emphases. These emphases are in fundamental tension, which cannot be completely resolved in a democracy without undermining the liberty of the individual or the sovereignty of the people as a whole, both of which are essential to democracy. Democracy must be committed to the self-determination of the person as well as to the self-determination of the whole people. Inevitably, one of these commitments will predominate, but it must not do so to the exclusion of the other. Therefore, any particular type of democracy that can exist in practice must be a mixture of individual-centered and community-centered theories. Thus, there will be a particular configuration of attributes from individual and community-centered theories that reflects the ethos of a society and its institutions. (For example, a particular democracy might emphasize individual freedom over social equality.) Even within a given democracy, in the course of its history, the emphasis on the status of the individual or the community might change.

    To the extent that the status and liberty of the individual predominates in a democracy, it may be categorized as "liberal" type of democracy. To the extent that the status of the community predominates, it may be categorized as "non-liberal" type of democracy, or in more extreme cases an "ill-liberal" type of democracy.

    a. Individual-centered theory. This theory holds that all political authority should be derived from the free individual acting in concert with other free individuals. When a political association is based upon the priority of the individual, the resulting political system is characterized as "liberal." The term "liberal" is derived from the Latin word "liber," meaning "free." Liberalism refers to a political theory that the principal purpose of government and politics is the protection of the autonomy and rights of the individual beginning with the individual's right to life itself. In a liberal political system, the common good would be understood as the aggregation of individual goods and interests rather than having an independent collective character. Authority is based upon the need to establish governmental power primarily to protect the life and liberty of individuals.

    In a liberal type of democracy the individual is primary, and the rights of the individual are emphasized. The rights of the individual typically take precedence over the interests of the people as a whole or the community. Thus, the institutions and processes of liberal democracy must be designed to protect the political, economic, civil, and personal rights of the individual as fundamental to the very nature of the political system (e.g., freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of personal expression, a right to property, a right to privacy, or a right to be let alone). The activities in the private sphere of a liberal democracy are protected from interference by government unless government can provide compelling, overriding reasons.

    b. Community-centered theory. This theory holds that all political authority should originate in the collective acts of the people as a whole or the acts of founders serving on their behalf. These founding acts must be validated by the community. When a political body is organized around the priority of the community and the pursuit of a collective way of life, the resulting political system may be characterized as "non-liberal" and in some cases "social." In systems like this, the primary purpose of government is to serve the collective interest of the community or the general welfare of the society. The well-being of the people as a whole is foremost and may take precedence over certain rights and interests of particular individuals.

    A non-liberal type of democracy does recognize and protect the public rights and interests of persons to participate in the decision-making processes and political life of the community as fundamental to the very nature of the political system (e.g., right to vote, right to associate for political purposes, freedom of the press, freedom of political assembly, the right to seek and hold public office). It may not, however, recognize certain rights regarded as fundamental by liberal democracies such as freedom of conscience and religion, personal expression, and the right to a private sphere.

    Thus, non-liberal democracy is designed to serve the interests of the community or the rights of the people as a whole. The emphasis in this type of democracy includes the right to establish and enforce community values over the protests of individuals and in conflict with their interests. The scope of the public domain may preempt the right to privacy.

    Within non-liberal democracy in practice there may be a wider range of examples and greater divergence among instances of political systems than in liberal democracy. The category of non-liberal democracies includes:

  • classical republics*, in which there were democratic elements such as popular participation and representation but where civic virtue* and an emphasis on the common good were primary
  • social democracies, in which providing for the welfare of the constituent groups of the society (e.g., children, workers, the aged) is paramount as opposed to maximizing individual liberty
  • "communal commonwealths," in which the political system is understood as the common property of all of its citizens and the status of the citizen is derived entirely from membership in the common association. Thus, the identity and standing of the person is subsumed in the common mores of the community.
  • modern "electoral democracies," in which a single component of democracy-elections assessed to be essentially free-is held to be sufficient to qualify a political system as democratic. So long as officials have been chosen by the electorate, the daily practices of government do not need to meet standards derived from democratic values or principles.

  • c.Combining individual- and community-centered theories of democracy.

  • Range of instances of democracy within liberal and non-liberal types of democracy. Mixtures of liberal and non-liberal types of democracy. Neither real liberty nor true authority can exist in extreme conditions of unalloyed individualism or collectivism. Unless a political system reflects a hybrid of individual-centered and community-centered theories it will not meet the criteria of the concept of democracy, because by definition democracy is committed to both individual and collective self-determination. Unless a political system reflects a well-composed mixture of liberal and non-liberal types, it will not be a stable democracy because it will not have moderated extreme individualism and collectivism, neither of which is compatible with democratic self-governance. Therefore, democracies cannot be pure versions of individual or collective theories. They must be mixtures of these theories, and they must combine elements of both liberal and non-liberal types of democracy.
  • Gradations within liberal and non-liberal types of democracy. Even within the two analytical types of democracy, there are elements of political practices and institutions that reflect values that would be consistent to a greater or lesser degree with the animating spirit of individual- or community-centered theories.
  • Any political system will have political practices, laws, and institutions that reflect individual-centered or community-centered theories. For example, parliamentary systems may be seen as reflecting community-centered theory in that without a sufficient consensus in both the community and parliament, the existing governmental administration falls. In contrast, coordinate-powers systems may be seen as reflecting individual-centered theory in that they are designed to accommodate conflict among individuals and among group interests, within society and among governmental institutions and political leaders, without requiring consensus for the government to continue to operate.
  • Any democratic political system will contain elements from both individual- and community-centered theories. The number and preponderance of the elements reflecting each theory may vary from system to system. And, each element within a political system may display greater or lesser consistency with each theory. For example, within an individual-centered theory, freedom of expression will be understood as the right of the individual to communicate his or her distinctive identity or point of view. This may be extended to forms of expression that are novel or even repugnant to prevailing social sentiment. By contrast, within a community-centered theory, freedom of expression might be restricted to freedom of speech on matters of official governmental policy. Or this freedom might extend to expression on all aspects of the public domain including the advocacy of ideas that threaten the foundations of the political order.
  • A democratic political system may also contain one or more elements that each reflects both theories. For example, economic rights may sustain the individual's security while at the same time contributing to the community's prosperity. Nevertheless, the particular way an element, such as economic rights, is manifest in a political system reflects the influence of either individual- or community-centered theories. Thus, in the first theory, economic rights might be geared more to individual initiative; in the second theory, they may be geared more to egalitarian distribution.
  • The combination of individual- and community-centered elements existing in any democratic political system imparts a distinctive character to that system. The various elements will be configured so that they reinforce, counter-balance, compensate for, and even conflict with each other, e.g., a democracy that operates by majority rule, counter-balanced by the power of the judiciary to protect the rights of individuals; the right to self-determination of the individual who, for religious reasons, chooses to avoid inoculation against contagious disease versus the right of the community to promote public health.

  • 3. Observable kinds of democracy.

    The basic concept of democracy sets forth certain characteristics of a political system. Liberal or non-liberal systems are "types" of democracies. But this concept and these types do not include all of the choices of elements needed to create a workable political system, e.g., the choice of direct or representative democracy. Depending upon which elements are chosen, different "kinds" of democracy will emerge historically or be established deliberately.

    In any political system, power must be organized and channeled. In a democratic system, the power of the people may be organized and channeled in a number of fundamentally different ways, but the sovereign people always retain the ultimate authority even if they do not always exercise it directly.

    The following are alternative kinds of democracy which represent different political configurations of the people's delegation of their authority. (In practice, elements of the following kinds of democracy are mixed and their combination may vary over time within a country.)

    a. Direct or representative democracy
  • direct democracy - citizens rule directly, usually through popular assemblies.
  • representative democracy - citizens choose individuals to rule in their place or on their behalf, and delegate power to one or more legislative bodies.

  • b. Majoritarian or consociational democracy
  • majoritarian - most or all laws are passed by simple majority vote either by the people or by legislative assemblies.
  • consociational or supermajoritarian - laws cannot be passed without the approval either of a legislative supermajority (such as two-thirds or three-quarters) or of defined communal groups, e.g., ethnic groups. In some cases these arrangements amount to power-sharing by two or more ethnic or cultural groups.

  • c. Competitive or consensual democracies
  • competitive - the processes of deciding political issues are designed to accommodate a struggle among divergent interests and goals in which there may be winners and losers.
  • consensual - the processes of deciding political issues are designed to harmonize divergent interests and goals into a mutually acceptable agreement.

  • d. Centralized or decentralized democracies
  • centralized - a single government is paramount and can overrule its subservient local or regional components or can dispense with them and rule localities directly.
  • decentralized - each of two or more governments (or levels of government) has sufficient power for some ends, but neither is paramount in all spheres. In some cases they must share responsibilities (e.g., a federal system).

  • B.

    What are major forms of political systems other than democracy? Before elaborating on the concept of democracy, it is helpful to examine fundamental conceptual alternatives. In addition to knowledge of the basic choices that shape particular democracies, one must examine basic choices and justifications underlying other political systems.

    1. The foundations and justifications of alternatives to democracy.

    a. The identity of the rulers. Political systems may be ruled by the one, the few, or the many.

    b. Membership in the political system can be based upon:
  • ethnicity or "blood"
  • civic identity predicated on an attachment to certain common political values and principles
  • a "cosmopolitan" idea in which membership is potentially open to anyone

  • c. The relationship between the rulers and the ruled may be based on forms of
  • paternalism (including natural/familial forms)
  • domination (including conquest or subjugation)
  • consent or agreement (including covenantal forms)

  • d. The justification for a political system-whether authority is exercised by one, few, or many persons-may be based upon:
  • claims that individuals have liberty in nature that must be recognized and preserved by any legitimate political authority
  • claims to power derived from inheritance, including the authority of tradition
  • the "right of conquest"
  • claims to power based on one's stake in society, e.g., wealth and social standing, property
  • "divine right" bestowed upon an individual, family, clan, or religious people
  • special knowledge or virtue, such as knowledge of "God's will" or "the laws of history"
  • the consent of the governed

  • 2. Classification of forms of political systems other than democracy. A number of political systems exist, or have existed, which rely upon the foundations and justifications (described above) or upon combinations of them. Aspects of these forms of political systems may also appear in existing functioning democratic systems. In some cases, this mixture may strengthen or moderate the democratic form of government and other cases they may contradict and undermine its foundation. These systems include:

    a. Monarchy ("rule of the one") is usually represented by a single individual (called king, queen, czar, emperor, chief, emir or other title, implying hierarchical preeminence). Monarchy is based upon the principle that the people have a unity and commonality that can be personified by a single ruler. That ruler is obligated to have the best interests of the community at heart. One of the attributes of monarchy, especially hereditary monarchy, is that the monarch represents the community over time. Several types of monarchy have existed historically.
  • Traditional monarchy is a system in which power is held by a ruler whose legitimacy is usually based upon inheritance. There have been instances, however, of elective monarchy, and such monarchies may trace their authority back to an original election. In traditional monarchy, the ruler is considered to be sovereign but is constrained by the power and influence of an aristocracy as well as by custom.
  • Absolute monarchy is a system in which the ruler's power is unrestrained, e.g., by an aristocracy or custom. One type of absolute monarchy is enlightened despotism in which a ruler claims to use absolute power for the good of society, on the basis of superior knowledge, wisdom, and personal virtue.

  • b. Constitutional "monarchy" is a system in which authority is either symbolically embodied in or focused upon a monarch. But political power, with few exceptions, is exercised by other institutions, especially legislative bodies, or by an aristocracy. In a constitutional monarchy the monarch does not exercise power directly, but only through other institutions which may be representative of the society. Most contemporary instances of constitutional monarchy exhibit aspects of liberal democracy such as protection of individual rights and free elections.

    c. Aristocracy is the rule of the few who are understood to have the wisdom, knowledge, and character to act on behalf of the fundamental interests of a society as a whole. Historically, the authority of the aristocrat has been based on merit arising from the cultivation of intellect and character which develops a deep seated concern for the well-being of the community and a capacity to ascertain it and act on the behalf of the common good. In this regard, the aristocracy may devote a particular solicitude for the weakest members of the society. Classically conceived, an aristocracy is composed of the "best" members of society or the "elect" who rule for the public good, and not just in their own interest.

    d. "Liberal" regimes are political systems that are built upon the principles of liberalism. They are structured to protect the autonomy of the person conceived of as a rational being capable of exercising liberty. The nature of community is considered solely as the accumulation of discrete individuals. The idea of a community as having a collective interest separate from and superior to the interests of the individuals that make it up is denied. To the extent that majority rule endangers individual liberty, liberal systems are anti-majoritarian in their political processes. Thus they provide for free and fair elections but they do not include all of the people in the electorate for fear that all persons are not sufficiently qualified to make judgments affecting the liberty and welfare of others. As a consequence of limited participation and commitment to individual liberty, there is a narrowed domain in which government can legitimately make policy.

    e. Oligarchy is rule by a small number of persons who rule in the interests of themselves or their class rather than for the common good. They may claim that the interests of their class are equivalent to the interests of the country. In times of crisis, in the absence of an effective, duly constituted authority, a small group may assume power claiming a capacity to restore and maintain order. They may uses crises as devices for seeking their own advantage and attempt to maintain their power in order to preserve their advantage.
    One form of oligarchy is "plutocracy," the rule of the wealthy in a system where protecting the interests of those with money may be purported to protect the long-term interests of the country. It may be claimed that if one has the capacity to acquire and keep wealth, one has the right and the capacity to rule.

    f. Authoritarian systems tend to be paternalistic in which those in power are seen as capable of making decisions that ordinary persons are incapable of making. In these cases authority, the legitimate use of power, gives way to a system which is focused on command, decisiveness, and obedience where those in power do not have to provide reasons for their actions or to be held accountable to anyone. In authoritarian governments, political power is concentrated in one person or a small group, and all other individuals and groups are entirely excluded from the exercise of political power. Nevertheless, a range of activity in non-political affairs is permissible. Authoritarian governments may even be welcomed when people are frustrated because of disorder, intractable problems, and inefficiency of government.
    Authoritarian political systems include dictatorships by a single individual or by groups, especially military governments. Such dictatorships may use the form of the "one-party state" as a mask for the absence of free political choice

    g. Totalitarian systems (not found before the twentieth century) are conceived as systems in which the entire range of human activity is subject to government direction and control. Society is conceived of ideally as a complete unity where individuality and deviation from a comprehensive ideology must be suppressed as a way of defending against threats to social order. The entire resources of the society, including the thoughts of its members, are mobilized to preserve the security of the system. Thus totalitarian systems are absolute dictatorships identified by features such as:
  • unlimited scope of political domination and direction over society and the individual, including all forms of culture.
  • complete suppression of civil society through prohibition of all forms of independent associational life and individual action.
  • use of terror by secret police as a means of control, including extensive imprisonment and/or large-scale executions.
  • extensive use of modern technology as an instrument of control.
  • all-encompassing ideology from which the regime tolerates no dissent and which is reinforced by the educational system and mass media.
  • mandated overt expressions of loyalty by the population, such as voting in sham elections, and participating in demonstrations, community service, and political rallies.

  • C.

    What are power and authority and what is their place in a democracy? Like all political systems, democracies include arrangements of power and authority that respond to the need of human societies for governance. An understanding of democracy cannot be achieved without an understanding of the concepts of power and authority that are fundamental building blocks of politics and government.

    1. Power may be defined as the capacity to effect outcomes by controlling, directing, or exerting influence, whether or not there is a right to do so. Power can be exercised by such means as persuasion, force or threat of force, coercion, or manipulation. The possession or use of power in and of itself does not justify such power. To be justified, power must be derived from a source that is widely seen as legitimate and it must be used in accordance with the purposes for which it was created.

    2. Authority may be defined as justified power or the legitimate right to act on behalf of someone or something else. Political authority is therefore the legitimized and institutionalized right of officials to exercise power in the name of, for example, a divine being, the state, the constitution, or the people.
    The exercise of authority carries with it an expectation of deference, that is, an implicit acceptance of the right to exercise it. Such authority, however, is always constrained by the principles that make it legitimate. Actions of those in authority that violate such constraints constitute a misuse or abuse of authority and are consequently not legitimate.
    The idea of authority does not mean that the ends sought by the authority or the means used to attain them are morally sound. Authority may be granted to use immoral means and/or seek immoral ends, e.g., an unjust war.

    3. Characteristics of political authority include:
    a. Legitimacy: the belief that those in positions of authority have the right to claim and exercise power.
    b. Stability: the idea of authority usually implies that it continues over an extended period of time. Although authority may need to be confirmed by the people from time to time, it tends to disintegrate when those who exercise it are changed with great frequency.
    c. Deference: assent and respect habitually given to the exercise of power seen as legitimate.
    d. Conditionality: the use of authority must remain true to the purposes that make it legitimate.

    4. Sources of political authority. Historically, typical sources of political authority include:
    a. A Supreme Being - Rulers may claim that their right to rule derives from a Supreme Being. Such rulers may include prophets and other religious figures as well as monarchs claiming a divine mandate for their authority. Democracy may claim that the will of God is reflected in the voice of the people.
    b. Birth - Rulers have claimed authority as a right of birth, sometimes rooted in an original divine mandate, passed on through generations by inheritance and sanctioned by tradition. Such rulers include monarchs and aristocrats.
    c. Conquest or superior force - Rulers have claimed authority over a people after they have conquered them ("right of conquest").
    d. Inherent or natural strength - Rulers or dominant groups have claimed authority over other groups with the justification that they have superior moral, racial, or cultural traits and abilities.
    e. Moral obligation - Rulers have claimed that because of the status and attributes bestowed upon them by birth (e.g., class, religion, family, gender), they have a duty to aid those less fortunate by using their superior gifts to govern on their behalf.
    f. Virtue - Rulers have claimed authority as a consequence of their own virtue. The idea is that this goodness enables the virtuous to transcend human foibles and rise above personal conflicts.
    g. Knowledge - Rulers have claimed authority based in superior knowledge that legitimized their rule. Sometimes this was philosophical or ethical knowledge or knowledge of the "laws of history."
    h. Wisdom - Rulers have claimed authority on the basis of wisdom that includes deep understanding of, and superior judgment in, dealing with human affairs.
    i. Consent or covenant - Rulers have claimed that their authority is legitimized by the consent of those they rule or as a result of a compact of individuals to make common cause. In democracies, the power of government is delegated by the people who consent to its use to serve the purposes for which the government was established.

    5. Power and authority in a democracy. Democracy and power are not antithetical. But democratic government can use power only when is has been transformed into authority. Like any form of government, democracy requires authority in order to accomplish the purposes of the body politic. Democracy also enhances authority by providing a widespread and stable source of its legitimacy and by focusing its use on specific purposes.
    Because democracy recognizes the ultimate power of the whole people in the conduct of public affairs, it necessitates a separation of political authority from any authority that has a source different from human beings.

    a. Generation of power. Democracy is a means of generating and sustaining power. By harnessing the dispersed power of individuals in a society, democracy concentrates this power so it can be used, as authority, on behalf of society.
    b. Transformation of power into authority. Authority in a democracy is derived from the people as a whole who are intended to be the focus of the beneficial use of that authority. Thus the source of authority in a democracy establishes the ends for which authority is to be used. So long as authority is used to achieve these established ends it will be considered legitimate by those it governs.
    c. Purposes for which democracies generate and use authority. Democracies have a large capacity for generating power. But, the justification for generating such power and transforming it into authority must limit its reach or extent. Purposes for which democracies use authority include:
  • establishing and maintaining order and security
  • peacefully accommodating conflict
  • focusing diverse interests and resources to achieve a unified objective
  • protecting fundamental rights and freedoms
  • determining the distribution of burdens and benefits

  • d. Division of human and divine authority. The very possibility of human governance based on the will of the people requires that political power be separate from and not controlled or superceded by religious authority. This does not mean that political authority controls the religious realm in the conduct of religious affairs, nor does it mean that religious beliefs and values have no place in political deliberation or in public life.


    How do civic life, politics, and government provide spheres for the practices of democracy? A commitment to democracy potentially affects and transforms all aspects of human life, especially those that pertain to the relationships of persons in any community. These may include the workplace, the arts, and even the mentality of a people. Democratic practices take place in a number of spheres ranging from the most extensive sphere (civic life), to the narrower sphere (politics), and to the most intensively focused sphere (government). Both politics and government are contained within the sphere of civic life and government is contained within the sphere of politics. Distinguishing among these three spheres clarifies the domains in which democratic practices can take place.

    1. Civic life. Civic life is the public life of citizens concerned with the common affairs and mutual interests of the community and nation. Civic life is distinguished from private life, the personal life of the individual devoted to the pursuit of particular interests.

    2. Politics. Politics is found in all human societies. Politics enables people to accomplish goals they could not achieve as individuals. Politics is chosen as a means for reaching decisions by a group of persons in order to prevent or avoid violence. In this view, violence constitutes a breakdown of politics and results in its negation. Therefore, politics may be understood as a process by which persons or groups, whose opinions or interests may be divergent or in conflict:

    a. reach collective decisions, through non-violent struggle and/or accommodation, generally regarded as binding and enforced as common policy or rules
    b. seek the power to make decisions about such matters as the distribution of scarce resources, allocation of benefits and burdens, management of conflicts, and the aspirations of the community as a whole
    c. engage in competitive struggle to determine who gets what from scarce resources.

    3. Government. The term government refers to the authoritative and institutionalized direction or control exercised over the people of a community, its territory, and its resources. This control is exercised through the making, implementing, enforcing, and adjudicating of rules and policies.

    4. Necessity and desirability of politics and government. Politics and government are a necessity in any society. The conduct of politics and the establishment of government also may reflect the aspirations of people in their desire to live together. Among the arguments supporting this proposition are the following:
    a. The development of a political association is a natural process evolving from more rudimentary forms of association such as the family. Furthermore, human beings cannot fulfill their potential without politics and government. (Aristotle)
    b. Human beings are incomplete, sinful, or depraved by nature and would therefore be insecure or endangered without government. (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, other religions, some ancient Chinese philosophers, and modern skeptics.)
    c. Because some individuals threaten the lives and welfare of others, people feel compelled to protect themselves by forming a common association (civitas or commonwealth) for their security and common defense. (Thomas Hobbes)
    d. Politics necessarily arises whenever groups of people live together, since they must always reach collective decisions of one kind or another; in addition, organized political life enables people to accomplish goals they could not realize alone. (John Locke)

    5. The purposes of politics and government. Differing ideas about the purposes of government have profound consequences for individuals and society.
    a. Purposes. Among competing purposes of politics and government that have existed historically are:
  • providing for a people's security
  • improving the moral character of citizens
  • furthering the interests of a particular class or ethnic group
  • realizing a set of religious prescriptions or aspirations
  • glorifying the state
  • promoting individual security and public order
  • integrating diversity into a unified enterprise
  • enhancing economic prosperity
  • protecting individual rights
  • promoting the common good
  • achieving social equality

  • b. Consequences. The primary objectives sought by a government affect relationships between the individual and government and between government and society as a whole. For example:
  • Promoting a religious or secular vision of what society should be like may require a government to restrict individual thought, expression, actions, and behavior, as well as place strict controls on the whole of society.
  • Limiting the activities of government to protecting the security and property of the citizens may require restricting the power of government to intrude into their private or personal lives.

  • E.

    What is the relationship of constitutionalism to democracy? Every political system has a "constitution." Such a "constitution" is a description of the "makeup" or composition of a political system. It portrays the way a polity is constituted, that is how its foundation is set forth, its first principles are articulated, its character is shaped, and its government is organized and operated. However, the mere fact that a political system has a constitution does not mean it meets the standards of constitutionalism.
    Any constitution must be matched to its people. This is the fundamentally democratic aspect of constitutionalism. Thus, there is no definite set of political institutions that can be used everywhere. Nor can the constitution of a given people be designed by experts from outside.
    Democracies not only have constitutions that define their characteristics, they also include the additional principles of limitations on power that have arisen through the evolution of constitutionalism. In nations with unlimited governments, constitutions have often served as cloaks to misrule, disguising the unconstrained behavior of those in power.

    1. Concept of "constitution." A "constitution" embodies or sets forth the purposes and organization of political power and government for a society. The concept of constitution may be a plan for a political system set forth in advance of its establishment, or it may be a derivation of principles that are embedded in an existing political system. A constitution may also set forth or reflect the fundamental values and public character of a people as a political community. The concept of a constitution has at least the following variants: a "covenant" or "social compact" in which individuals agree among themselves to be a political people; a "contract" between a political people and their government; and a "basic law" that forms the foundation for a system of a rule of law. The term "constitution" may refer to a
    a. description of a form of government
    b. document or collection of documents that set forth basic law
    c. written document or series of documents, possibly with procedures for amendment, augmented over time by custom, legislation, and court decisions
    d. set of settled understandings accepted as convention
    e. higher, fundamental, or basic law that limits the powers of government, provides a standard to which all legislation and other activities of government must adhere, and sets the formal aspirations of a society
    f. set of principles, values, and traits that characterize a political people

    2. Purposes and uses of constitutions in democracies. Constitutions are used to
    a. create the powers of a political system and the functions of a government
    b. prescribe the power and authority of the government as granted by the people
    c. set forth a framework for the structure of government, empower the government, specify the offices of government and how they are to be filled, and establish the relationship between the people and their government
    d. limit government's power in order to protect individual rights and promote the common good
    e. creates space for the autonomous functioning of civil society and personal privacy
    f. establishes the preconditions and the basic rules for an economic system
    g. allocate power among components of the polity, such as constituent provinces or states
    h. establish the rule of law and set the rules for the resolution of disputes in a peaceful manner
    i. embody the core values and principles of a political system, as well as the aspirations of a society and directions for the future
    j. serve as vehicles for change and for resolving social issues
    k. provide a reference point or standard by which citizens can evaluate the actions of their government

    3. The concept of constitutionalism. There is a distinction between a government with a constitution and constitutionalism (or constitutional government). Constitutionalism historically arose from the view that there is a higher authority than human authority. According to this view, one's obligations to that higher authority transcend one's obligations to government. Therefore, the rightful demands of government for obedience are necessarily limited. These limitations are grounded in a concept of a higher law that derives from a Supreme Being that rules earthly rulers.
    Maintaining this understanding that government itself is bound by rules, in modern nations with limited governments, a constitution is considered a "higher law" that establishes and limits government in order to protect individual rights as well as to promote the common good. Constitutionalism realizes the abstract principle of the "rule of law" by translating its precepts into a more explicit set of rules and provisions that can be interpreted and applied by institutions of government and by the people in public discussion and debate.
    a. Constitutionalism. Under the theory of constitutionalism, a political system takes on a defined form and character that obligate it to operate in a manner consistent with a set of established purposes and limits.
    The form and character of a political system may be set forth deliberately in fundamental documents that both describe and prescribe the shape and limitations of its power. Constitutionalism is both descriptive and normative; it thus lays out what can be done, what ought to be done, as well as what may not be done. In establishing the form and character of a political system, constitution-making can be a profoundly democratic act. The process of public deliberation which leads to the endorsement of a constitution by the people has become an instrument for the creation of democracy. The very process of this deliberation seems to anticipate substantial participation of the people in the resulting political system.
    b. Principles of constitutionalism. According to constitutionalism:
  • power must be exercised in accordance with established standards
  • governments must be limited in the ends they may seek and in the means they may use to pursue legitimate ends
  • ordinary laws must be made to comport with the "rule of law" by being evaluated according to a set of fundamental standards
  • the sovereign people of a democracy, in consenting to a constitutional system, agree to limit not only their government but also themselves, e.g., they are bound by the provisions of their constitution until they are formally changed.
  • the rights of individuals may be protected not only by limitations on the power of government, but also by guarantees of specific rights beyond the control of government, or by specific grants of powers to governmental institutions to protect rights
  • there are some aspects of life that are not the proper business of politics and government and are accordingly placed beyond the reach of its authority.

  • c. Constitutional government. A constitutional government is one in which the constitution sets forth the extent of a government's powers. The constitution also provides effective means for limiting those powers and a means of moving towards a correspondence between the principles and values set forth in the constitution and the reality of political life. A constitutional government is one in which those in power must and do obey the limitations placed upon them by the constitution.
    d. "Sham constitutions." In the guise of honoring constitutions or constitutionalism, some governments set forth misleading or "sham constitutions." These so-called "constitutions" bear little relationship to actual institutions and practices nor do they reflect a commitment to the limitations of constitutional government. In contrast to constitutional governments, unlimited governments are those in which there are no regularized and effective means of restraining power.
    4. The relationship between constitutionalism and the concept of "rule of law." The concept of a rule of law includes the ideas that rules are set forth in advance and are widely known, that they are of general application, and that they are applied impartially. Rule of law applies both to governmental officials and to all other persons in a country. The rule of law, therefore, means more than simply having laws or passing legislation. This principle contrasts with capricious rule based on arbitrary will and inclination, when persons who rule impose their own personal preferences that are invented for the occasion, applied with favoritism, and/or not made clear to those who are subject to them.
    The rule of law can be used to restrict the actions of citizens and governmental officials alike in order to protect the rights of individuals and to promote the common good. The rule of law is one of the most effective ways to establish limited government. Because it is conducive to a regular and predictable political system, rule of law can enhance political power through a capacity to coordinate the expectations of large numbers of individuals and organizations.
    5. Political, economic, and personal freedom as means of limiting government. There is a reinforcing relationship between constitutionalism and political, economic, and personal freedom. Political and economic freedoms serve as a way of limiting government. In turn, limited government is essential to the protection of political, economic, and personal freedom.
    a. Political freedom involves people's right to control and influence governance. Its existence inhibits governmental encroachment upon the spheres in which people exercise this freedom including their right to express their opinions about public affairs. In exercising their political freedom the people assert their sovereignty over government.
    b. Economic freedom refers to a sphere of enterprise, organization, and activity independent of direct control by government. It involves the acquisition, use, enhancement, transfer, and disposal of property. Because economic freedom involves people's right to conduct certain fundamental aspects of their lives and activities independently of unreasonable governmental supervision and intrusion, its existence creates independent centers of power that compete with and limit the scope of governmental power.
    c. Personal freedom refers to an autonomous zone where individuals or groups of individuals pursue ways of life and courses of action that do not require the sanction of political or governmental authority. It may involve, for example,
    d. the creation of families and friendships, the practice of religion, participation in associational activities, and the pursuit of artistic endeavors. These activities exemplify the self-determination of the individual and represent a source of independence and choice separating the person from direct control by government.


    What is the relationship between law, constitutionalism, and democracy? In any society there is an ultimate source of the authority to make law. Law is a principal way that the decisions and actions of any political system are revealed and communicated. In a democracy, the people are the source of government's authority to make decisions for the public benefit. Law is the means by which these decisions are formulated as rules and implemented as public policy. Law can thus be seen as the language of public policy. Public policies can be implemented because they have been formulated in law.
    Law provides an essential link between constitutionalism and democracy by translating fundamental principles into rules which government is obliged to enforce. While law may be conceived of as channeling and limiting human activity, it also supplies the chief medium for furthering the interests and purposes of a community. The more deliberative a society, the more it will rely on law and its interpretation to guide the activities of its governmental institutions and public scrutiny of them. Because a society's decisions have been reflected in law, widespread knowledge of the content of law may lead to holding government accountable for its fidelity to law. To the extent that law facilitates both deliberation and accountability, it promotes democracy.
    1. Constituent character of law. Law provides the primary means for structuring organizations and establishing relationships in a society. In this sense law sets forth those basic arrangements and connections that give order to human life. In addition, because formally enacted law can be read and scrutinized, it need not be conceived of as immutable but as subject to reconsideration and change.
    2. Public policy. If the essence of the political process is making public policy, that is the making of public decisions and choices, law is the instrument through which these decisions are expressed, implemented, enforced, and adjudicated.
    3. Continuity. Law is the primary means of providing order, predictability, security, and survival for society. To the extent that law relies on precedent or a tradition of experience for its meaning, law enables a community to achieve self-consistency and reliability over time.
    4. Aspirations. Law is a primary means by which society expresses and codifies its values, goals, and mores. In this regard, law may serve to shape as well as to reflect the aspirations of society. Law can also bridge social divisions and compensate for a lack of personal trust by creating formal obligations that can be enforced among parties who otherwise may be wary or suspicious of one another.


    What is the relationship between democracy and human rights?

    1. Defining and explaining human rights. A right is a justifiable claim to have or obtain something, to act or be treated in a certain way, or not to be interfered with. Human rights are rights said to be held by all human beings simply in virtue of their humanity. They exist regardless of a person's status or membership in any society or nation.
    The legitimacy of human rights is thus thought to be independent of the consent or agreement of governments, which are conceived as recognizing rather than creating these rights.
    Human rights should be distinguished from rights that arise solely from enactment by a legal system (positive rights) such as a right to a particular minimum wage. The idea of "human rights" has evolved from the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century concept of "natural rights." This concept arises from the idea of rights inhering in nature and, in particular, rights that are attributes of human nature.
    Natural rights are said to derive from two possible sources. The first is from nature itself understood as the fundamental "natural order of things." The second is from the nature of the human being. The idea of natural rights implies the view that each human personality has independent moral value and is to be respected. This proposition implies that all individuals are of equal fundamental worth. The idea of natural rights may also include a belief that they are derived from a Creator. An understanding of natural or human rights is considered to be available to all reasoning people, a latent democratic idea. If human rights are understood to be natural to the human being, they are inherent; these rights are not bestowed as privileges by a constitution, a political system, or by government but pre-exist the creation of society itself. In this respect they are "inalienable." As a result, human beings cannot give up these rights, and these rights cannot be taken away. Therefore all legitimate forms of government are obligated to protect them.
    The philosophical foundation for these views is controversial. One alternative is that there are no inherent rights, there are only rights that are specifically established by common consent or stipulation as the explicit basis on which persons agree to be governed.
    Regardless of differing views about the sources and character of these rights, the movement for human rights is a potent force in the world providing a basis for demands that governments respect rights fundamental to political and personal liberty and to fair and humane treatment.

    2. Categories of human rights. Three categories of human rights have evolved historically. In each case, arguments are raised that human rights are inherent in human nature, essential to human need, or fundamental to human purposes. Some might regard these rights having a validity independent of any form of government. Others may regard them as rights to be established by government. And others regard some or all of them as not properly rights at all. In this latter sense, they may yet be regarded as needs or aspirations or they may be considered as desires only. In any case, the panoply of rights arising from all these sources may produce entitlements or expectations that are mutually incompatible. Some of the following rights may require subordinating individual liberty to other commitments arising from an understanding of human needs.
    a. Fundamental individual, civil, and political rights. These include human rights such as the right to life and to property; to freedom of religious expression, speech, and association; the right to participate and the right to be treated fairly by government.
    b. Fundamental economic and social rights. These are considered human rights because they are essential to human life and human dignity. They may include rights to social equality and to a basic standard of living adequate to protect health, security, and well-being.
    c. Cultural and solidarity rights. These are considered human rights because they are essential to respecting the values and traditions of groups of people throughout the world. They include rights to collective self-determination and language, religion, and culture.

    3. Human rights as implying standards for government and politics. The values associated with human rights imply standards for the way government is to be formed, the purposes it is to serve, and the manner in which it conducts its activities. Thus the ends of government and the means used to attain them are constrained by the necessity not to violate basic human rights but to support and protect them.

    4. Democracy and human rights. If human rights derive from a broad-based understanding of the nature and purpose of human beings, (i.e., what qualities all human beings share in common), it may follow that the form of government most likely to effectively honor these rights is one in which political power is broadly based. Thus the concept of human rights finds its political parallel in democracy; and the connection between rights and democracy promotes the evolution of both. Regardless of the source of rights, governments chosen and controlled by democratic majorities are more likely to respect rights that are held in common by the population. Those whose rights and interests are at stake can be expected to judge best whether they are well protected.


    What are the essential characteristics of democracy? Based on the concept of democracy and its implications along with the attributes shared by individual- and community-centered theories, there are certain indicators that may be used to determine the degree to which a political system is democratic. In any democratic system, these indicators may be evident to a greater or lesser degree and some may be more salient than others. Additional indicators may be used to determine the degree to which a political system emphasizes liberal or non-liberal traits.

    1. Democratic indices. In its way of life and institutions, democracy embodies certain fundamental values and principles. These include:
    a. Popular sovereignty: all legitimate power ultimately resides in the people and the consent of the people is necessary for powers of government to be just. Thus, authority flows upward from people to rulers, not downward from a deity or monarch to the people.
    b. The common good: the promotion of what is good for the polity as a whole and not the interests of a portion of the polity to the exclusion and at the expense of the rest of society.
    c. Constitutionalism: the empowerment and limitation of government by an enforceable written or unwritten constitution. Constitutionalism includes the idea of the rule of law. Many constitutional governments respect the principle that laws are void if they are in conflict with the constitution.
    d. Equality: the right to be treated equally to every other person in society as embodied in such rights as equal justice and the equality of individuals under law notwithstanding their gender, ethnicity, race, religion.
    e. Majority rule/minority rights: the right of the majority to rule, constrained by the right of individuals in the minority to enjoy the same benefits and share the same burdens as the majority; the majority must live by the same laws as the minority. Nor may a majority strip a minority of its political rights.
    f. Justice and fairness: governmental decisions about burdens and benefits should be based on impartial criteria, derived through procedures that reflect "fair play," or basic ideas of fairness
    g. Political rights for citizens: the power of participation and control of government embodied in certain political rights, for example, freedom of speech and the press and the right to vote in open, free, fair, regular elections.
    h. Independent judiciary and juries: the judicial system (including juries) makes decisions on an impartial basis in accordance with the law as the supreme criterion of judgment. As such, the judicial system must operate independently of any other agency of government, social organization, or corrupting influence.
    i. Civilian control of the military and police: the military and police should be subject to the control of civilian authority and the military's supreme commander should be a civilian because military commanders are not elected by the people and must therefore be under the control of those who are.
    j. Supremacy of secular over religious authority: purely secular law and authority, which are subject to the consent of the people, take precedence in secular matters over religious law and authority, which are not subject to popular decision-making and revision.
    k. Education of the public. A widespread system of common education including schools and other avenues of instruction that prepare citizens to exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities.

    2. Liberal indices. Liberal types of democracy place paramount value on the fundamental rights of the individual, and their institutions are designed to achieve this goal. There are certain indicators that distinguish the liberal type of democracy. Although these individual-centered indicators may exist in the non-liberal type of democracy, to the extent that they predominate in a political system, it may be characterized as liberal.
    a. Private rights for all individuals: an emphasis on protecting an autonomous sphere which, within reason, is none of the state's business, including freedom of religion, expression, and association for all individuals.
    b. Honoring individuality: an emphasis on the right to be different insofar as one's actions do not interfere with a similar and equal right of others, even to the extent that this difference runs contrary to the values of the rest of society, e.g., the right to alternative lifestyles.
    c. Constitutionalism extended: emphasis on the affirmative protection of individual liberty through the guarantee of rights beyond the limitations on the power of government inherent in constitutionalism itself. Also, there must be institutions capable of securing these limitations (e.g., an independent judiciary and/or ombudsman responsible for protecting the rights of individuals).
    d. Judicial protections: an emphasis on using the judicial system to enforce the values inherent in the concept of limited government. Thus it will focus not only on the democratic rights of the people to be represented in their government, but also upon the individual rights of persons against governmental intrusion. These rights of individuals may conflict with the rights of the people to rule themselves through majorities, e.g., the right of the community to set standards of behavior versus the right of individuals to express themselves as they please.
    e. Separation of state and religion: an emphasis on freedom of belief and religious association and expression so that the political authority and government are prohibited from prescribing or supporting a religious orthodoxy.
    f. Accommodation of individual differences: an emphasis on respecting the legitimacy of individual differences and on responding to them appropriately by making exceptions to general rules; e.g., accrediting religious beliefs as a justification for differential treatment.
    g. Market-based economy (economic rights/freedom): an emphasis on providing for a large degree of non-governmental economic ownership, market freedom, and decentralization of economic decision-making that provides an economic basis for political and personal freedom and legal protection for property rights of individuals.

    3. Non-liberal indices. Non-liberal types of democracy place paramount value on the fundamental rights of the community, and their institutions are designed to achieve this goal. There are certain indicators that distinguish the non-liberal type of democracy. Although these community-centered indicators may exist in the liberal type of democracy, to the extent that they predominate in a political system, it may be characterized as non-liberal.
    a. Social solidarity: a sense of a common identity, cohesion, harmony, and shared purpose among members of a community; the absence of fundamental social conflicts; and widespread conformity and inclusiveness.
    b. Public morality: an emphasis on adherence to pervasive social norms that government inculcates and may enforce and which are extended to become the standard for private virtue.
    c. Economic equality and market regulation: an emphasis upon the regulation of the market in order to achieve economic equality. This may be extended to include government ownership of economic resources.
    d. Protecting the commons: an emphasis on the necessity of preserving the common inheritance of the physical environment, the earth and its resources.
    e. Security of social well-being: an emphasis on insuring public health and safety.
    f. Regulation of the private sphere for the benefit of the community as a whole: an emphasis on directing or controlling individual behavior that may be seen as undermining the welfare of the public.
    g. Emphasis on civility and temperance: an emphasis on moderating individual actions and attitudes to promote adherence to commonly accepted standards of civil behavior; and the avoidance of conspicuous and excessive acquisition and consumption.
    h. Constitutionalism extended to social welfare: an emphasis on constitutional provisions that mandate the widespread enjoyment of entitlements such as employment, housing, health and retirement benefits, income security, education, and leisure.
    i. Perpetuation of tradition: an emphasis on reverence for inherited values, institutions, and practices.

    A Seven-Part Framework

    I. What is democracy?
    II. Who belongs and who governs in a democracy?
    III. Why choose democracy?
    IV. What conditions support democracy?
    V. How does democracy work?
    VI. How do democracies emerge, develop, survive, and improve?
    VII. How does democracy shape the world and the world shape democracy?

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