Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

How Do You Define Democracy?

Written by johnleemk on 12:20:14 am Jan 3, 2008.
Categories: ,

Democracy is a very dubious concept. It is hard to define simply, and yet we toss it around as if we all agree on and understand its meaning. Everyone claims to support and love democracy — claiming the democratic mantle is practically a fundamental requirement for any totalitarian dictatorship these days — but it does not seem that there is any consensus about what it means.

Complicating matters are issues such as the rule of law and tyranny of the majority — to what degree must liberal features be present in a country for it to qualify as democratic? Some argue that a country which holds decently representative elections is good enough to count as a democracy; I cannot think that to be the case.

Of course, there is good and sound reasoning behind this idea. After all, there are so many complicating variables when we try to define what is a democracy. Sticking to representative elections seems to adequately sum up the fundamental nature of a democracy.

But if we really want to go back to basics, why not define a democratic country as one where the government has the popular support of the majority? Is that not the defining aspect of a democracy? Isn't that the thinking at the heart of the democratic philosophy, most famously advocated by Jean-Jacques Rosseau's Social Contract — that governments derive their mandate and authority from their people?

This also sounds perfectly reasonable — but it is simply a textbook application of reductio ad absurdum (loosely, reducing the argument to an absurdity). If we apply this definition, it follows that most governments in the world, including some of the most illiberal and undemocratic, qualify as democracies. (A particularly ironic application would be the argument that since none of the present governments in the world have been overthrown by their people, they are all backed by popular support, and are thus all democratic.) If North Korea is conceivably a democracy under this definition, it does not seem like a particularly helpful one.

So, let us return to the representative elections argument. Why is this apparently a satisfying definition? I think the answer lies in how it attempts to grasp the true nature of meaningful democracy: democracy is about change.

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are innately opposed to any sort of change. Change is bad. It undermines the authorities' grip on power. The status quo is virtually always satisfying to these governments.

But democracy is ultimately predicated on the idea that in a changing world, the country and its government must likewise change. That is why democracies have elections. As the economist Friedrich Hayek observed:

Whenever it is necessary that one of several conflicting opinions should prevail and when one would have to be made to prevail by force if need be, it is less wasteful to determine which has the stronger support by counting numbers than by fighting. Democracy is the only method of peaceful change that man has yet been discovered.
But it is because change is in its nature that democracy cannot be reduced to elections alone. I contend that what we might call "liberal democracy" is probably the only real kind of democracy, because of the mechanisms built into it that allow for peaceful and structured change.

After all, what do we need to have a meaningful election? There must be some element of choice — a freedom to choose between different, competing ideas. When one of those ideas is suppressed, when the authorities refuse to treat it as equally worthy of voters' attention as any other idea, when we refuse to let these ideas fly or fall on their own merits, we have undermined the very foundation of democracy: the ability to choose and the ability to change.

A tyranny of the majority is fundamentally undemocratic, because although it bears resemblance in some basic respects to democracy, it has about as much in common with democracy as Kim Jong-Il's regime. Both forms of government suppress change; the difference merely is that in North Korea's case, it is at the behest of one man, while in a majoritarian state, it is at the behest of the majority. When the majority refuses to hear the case of the minority, when it suppresses the minority from disseminating their message, it loses all but the most superficial resemblance to a real democracy.

A democracy is about the freedom to choose, and the freedom to change. That the change and choice, the exercise of these freedoms, is an act of the majority already goes unsaid. Idolising elections as the symbol of democracy makes a fundamental mistake about the nature of democracy, because democracy is not about the majority alone; it is about the majority choosing how the country should be changed.

A democracy, then, is not merely a country where elections somewhat representative of the people's will are held from time to time. A democracy is a country where every individual has a chance to participate in deciding the direction of his country, and the ultimate decision is made on the basis of popular support. If you take away one half of this recipe, you invalidate the other half.

Let us not debase democracy by absurdly reducing it to elections, or some vague notion of popular support for whatever government may happen to be in power in the time. Democracy is so much more than this deceptively misleading definition would have it.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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