By Andre Lopes Massa
Democracy is a form of government that can trace its roots to the forms seen in Ancient Athens. The basic principle of democracy is the belief in decision-making by the citizenry and the involvement of the masses in government through the right of citizenship. Over time, democracy would begin to take different forms and different meanings, as philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle voiced their concerns over the protection of the rights of minorities and room for corruption by the rich, which threatened to turn Athenian direct democracy into a perverted form of government, an oligarchy. Since the time of the Roman Republic to the renaissance of democracy during the Enlightenment driven late 18th and 19th centuries, a representative democracy has been the standard for modern democracies today, with an emphasis on individual rights and liberty being the standard bearer for the moral bounds of modern democracy. With forms of democracy evolving today and brining about new forms to govern and bringing new meaning to the word “citizen”, new strengths and weaknesses of this remarkable form of government are bought about and dealt with. This discussion will mainly concentrate on the on the strength of representative democracies with regards to protection of human rights, stability, and personal freedoms while concentrating on weaknesses such as corruption, representation issues, and civic involvement.
Democratic forms of government of all kind have been the only form of government that has been shown to incorporate the people in the day-to-day activities of the state. As such, democracies have always been the most stable forms of government, but why is this? John Locke believed that it was because democracy is the only form of government that is built upon the consent of the people. Locke writes, “No one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living.” (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ch. 8, pg. 52). This is the key to modern democracy; stability through consent. While other forms of government, such as monarchies, plutocracies, and dictatorships are arbitrary forms of government that see their people merely as subjects and a run solely for the self-interest of their monarch or ruling class, democracy is a founded because people want this form of government, they want to be given that voice. As such, revolutionary attitudes are often non-existent in democracies because it is the government the people want. With no threat of violence or revolution, stability is creates the breeding ground for strong associations among democratic institutions.
Democracies, being founded on the consent of the people, have proven themselves to be quite competent at providing stability; the potential is there for the forming of strong, democratic institutions. Because of democracies being based on the consent of the people, who, in the state of nature are equal in condition (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ch.2, pg.3), the formation of associations produces a better-directed public administration. Alexis De Tocqueville noticed this on his visit to America when he writes, “Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. I readily discovered the prodigious influence that this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society; it gives a peculiar direction to public opinion and a peculiar tenor to the laws; it imparts new maxims to the governing authorities and peculiar habits to the governed.” (Tocqueville, Excerpt 1, Line 1). Associations, according to Tocqueville, seem to create connections among people, which in turn, gives rise to vastly different opinions among different coalitions that creates a breeding ground for much more heated debate in the public sphere. But this, according to Tocqueville, seems to be a good thing about democracies in general because it transforms the very idea of citizenship when Tocqueville writes, “I soon perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less effect on civil society than on the government; it creates opinions, gives birth to new sentiments, founds novel customs, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that this equality of condition is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” (Tocqueville, Excerpt 1, Line 2). Because of associations encouraging more opinion and debate, the citizen is encouraged to educate himself because he wants to play more of a part in his government rather than mindlessly obey the arbitrary rule of government without actually knowing he was only enriching those who rule him by his actions. It is through education that the citizen is separated from the subject.
With associations encouraging education within a democratic society, new forms of philosophy, mostly anti-totalitarian philosophy, are prevalent in democratic societies. Among this influx of new philosophy comes the belief in human rights. Human rights, according to Langlois, are a legitimate concept because of democracy when he writes, “As seen above, respect for human rights and democracy and their implementation as practical political programs have increased their reach around the globe over the course of the last half century. There are however, some very important differences in the status ascribed to human rights and democracy, to the institutions which fashion and support the spread of their influence as ideas and action programs.” (Langlois, Human Rights Without Democracy?, Excerpt 3, paragraph 1). Human Rights are a concept that can only arise out of an educated society and democracy is the only form of government that is capable of breeding the associations required to bring about an educated citizen. Democracy, therefore, finds its strength because it is an institution based on the concepts of human rights made possible by an educated citizenry. As such, as stability allows democracy to become the standard in modern government, human rights have become an international concept because democracy as a form of government has created the necessary conditions for the idea of human rights to flourish as an international standard bearer for organizations such as the United Nations.
With democracies proving to be the best form of government for the recognition of human rights, this has allowed for democracies to also prove to be the best form of government for the protection of minority rights as well. Democracies, according to John Stuart Mill, prove to be the best at protecting minority rights because of the various limitations and checks and balances representative democracies have. Mill writes, “First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit.” (Mill, On Liberty, Paragraph 2). Documents such as the Bill of Rights and the various checks and balances on the branches of democratic government impose a moral boundary on what the majority can and can’t do with regards to legislation. These checks and balances as well as the recognition of rights, according to Mill, are what ultimately protect minorities from any form of tyranny or infringement of their rights by the majority. With a moral commitment to the protection of minority rights, democracies give minorities the impetus to innovate and add a new dynamic of social capital to a diverse community. However, more importantly, the moral commitment to minority rights also provides an even greater benefit; the ability for personal liberties to flourish.
While democracies have proven themselves to be the best form of government to protect the rights of minorities, it is the moral boundaries that this precedent sets that allows for democracy to be the form of government that allows personal liberties to flourish. As the majority is limited by what they can do with regards to legislation by a supreme document or precedent, individuals in a democratic state are free to innovate according to the limit of their talent and cannot be hindered by any arbitrary government rule. John Stuart Mill acknowledges this concept when he writes, “No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom, which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” (Mill, On Liberty, Paragraph 13). The acknowledgement of human rights and liberties and a moral limit placed on government allows for the free, unhindered development of social convention necessary for not only the survival of society itself, but also the conditions necessary for it to flourish. In a democracy, according to Mills, as long as an individual’s action does not harm another, than no government should prohibit that individual in any way because it is part of their unalienable human right to liberty. With a commitment to maximizing liberty to its fullest extent without harming others based on the acknowledgment of human rights and the rights of minorities, democracies have allowed for the development of strong middle classes throughout history.
In the absence of arbitrary rule and tyranny, democratic citizens have proven themselves to be able to produce and accumulate mind-boggling amounts of wealth that would have been unthinkable under a monarchy or dictatorship. Why is this? It is because democracies, having educated citizens and moral limits, recognize human rights to life, liberty, and property, thus creating the free conditions necessary for economic innovation. This freedom creates a strong middle class, which somewhat reduces the power the rich could have on a democracy while reducing the majoritarian influence the poor could also have. The middle class in a democratic is like the glue that holds the democratic state, and Aristotle acknowledged this when he writes, “But a city ought to be composed, as far as possible, of equals and similars; and these are generally the middle classes. Wherefore the city which is composed of middle-class citizens is necessarily best constituted in respect of the elements of which we say the fabric of the state naturally consists. And this is the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors’ goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich.” (Aristotle, Excerpts From The Politics, Part 6). While the middle class in the democratic state has proven to be the force that subsides tensions between the rich and the poor, they have also proven to be the engine, through the creation of small businesses that drive the economy of the democratic state forward.
The marvels of how the middle class subdues class conflict in the democratic state can best be found in the example of Sweden. According to James Fulcher, “Class cooperation came out of class conflict. Thus it was the very intensity of class conflict in Sweden that created the conditions for organized class cooperation and peaceful industrial relations.” (Fulcher, Capitalism, ch. 4, pg. 59). It is clear that the rich and the poor in Sweden do not have any animosity between them, but why is this? It is because the middle class in Sweden owns a number of small businesses, which have lowered any negative impacts or potential class conflicts that could arise with too many of a state’s resources from being in the few hands of the rich. Sweden’s middle class driven economy has yielded remarkable results, such as a 4% unemployment rate in 2001 (Fulcher, Capitalism, ch. 4, pg. 64) but this was only made possible because Sweden is a democratic state, a state that allows its citizens to freely form associations and educate themselves so that human rights become a universal concept and create the perfect conditions based on the principle of liberty so that a middle class can rise up and form small businesses to create a successful capitalist system.
Perhaps the greatest strength of democratic forms of government do not lie in its capacity to protect and enrich liberty, but in its ability to evolve and adapt to the changing times and provide new rights to fit the changing times. One only has to look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as proof that democracy is truly capable of establishing human rights as a universal concept. As the global economy begins to transition towards a tertiary sector economy, education becomes even more of an important necessity that is vital if an individual is to exercise his right to property and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration asserts this reality by stating “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Line 1). Years before, the belief that education was a right was absolutely ludicrous, with public schools considered a hindrance rather than a necessity. However, as democracies have spread the belief in human rights across the globe and healthy debate among different associations of people has led to the realization among the global community that education is an absolute necessity towards fulfilling ones right to a life and the accumulation of property. It is through this belief in education that is a product of democracy that keeps the middle class educated so that they may continue to be the driving force behind every democracy. However, democracies have been known to have their shortcomings, mainly in the forms of issues regarding representation, efficiency, corruption, and lack of civic duty.
Perhaps one of the biggest flaws in a representative democracy remains in the tendency of its representatives to indulge in the self-interests of the corporate elite and fail to represent the beliefs of those who voted them into office. Jean Jacques Rousseau addresses this issue regarding democracy with his analysis of how the will of all, which is the will of the rich, can corrupt and ultimately silence the general will, or the will of the people. (Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 4, ch, 1). Aristotle also shared similar concerns of wealth corrupting democracy when he wrote “But they leave out the capital point. For if men met and associated out of regard to wealth only, their share in the state would be proportioned to their property, and the oligarchical doctrine would then seem to carry the day. It would not be just that he who paid one mina should have the same share of a hundred mina, whether of the principal or of the profits, as he who paid the remaining ninety-nine.” (Aristotle, Politics, Part 4). Without any way to limit the actions of their representatives, democracies leave themselves open to corruption, whereby the rich and powerful corporations often swing legislation and the day-to-day operations of the democratic state in their favor, leaving behind the rest of the population. In various ways, this creates a “tyranny of the rich” and democracy becomes a perverted oligarchy where the poor have no voice and government becomes solely arbitrary and a tool for the rich to fulfill their self-interests. When this happens, a huge wealth gap can often form, closing off opportunity to many families and leading to distrust in democratic institutions.
When democracies allow themselves to be corrupted by wealth and the voice of the “general will” of the people is silenced, then huge gaps in wealth between the rich and the poor can often arise. As Meizhui Lu notes, for every dollar a typical white family has in wealth, the average family of color only has 12 cents. (Lu, The Wealth Gap). Corporate lobbying has resulted in the lowest tax rates for the wealthy in the U.S, contributing to an even larger wealth gap in the U.S. (Fukayama, Left Out). This wealth gap creates intense class conflict that can only generate distrust and negative attitudes towards the democratic state, resulting in lower civic participation. But, even more worrying, the growing wealth gap can often close out educational opportunities for the poor, and, without education, the door is open for government to become even more arbitrary for the rich, who will often even distort representation to fulfill their own political agenda.
Gerrymandering has proven to be a useful tool for arbitrary government and an incredible weakness in democracy over the years, especially with regards to fair representation. In November 2012, congressional districts in Maryland were put on the state ballot for a referendum after incredible backlash from lawmakers in the state. (Thornton, Lawmakers Oppose New Congressional Districts). Gerrymandering has skewed congressional districts in many states towards the Republican Party, a party that usually supports policies that benefit the rich. This is a direct result of corruption in the democratic state by wealth, whereby the rich skew representation to match their own political agenda. The Electoral College is also another example of unfair representation is democracies. As George C Edwards III notes, the Electoral College often places too much importance on swing states like Ohio and Florida during the presidential election, which creates no incentive for candidates to campaign in any other state, effectively silencing the voices of the people in states that are not deemed “swing states” and giving states like Texas or California no influence or representation in presidential elections. (Edwards III, Myths About the Electoral College, Paragraph 1). Both the Electoral College and Gerrymandering are examples of systematic failures within a democratic state to ensure fair representation, but these weaknesses of democracy, together with corruption by wealth, often have a negative effect on social capital within a democracy.
Over the years, democratic societies have been able to generate an incredible amount of trust among its people that has allowed their citizens to make connections and form associations among each other to encourage debate and education within a democratic society. This is the result of a phenomenon known as social capital, which Robert Putnam described as “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” (Putnam, Social Capital, Paragraph 3). Social capital is the result of bonds of trust forming among communities in a democratic state and the associations required to keep the democratic state running are based on trust among its citizens. However, Putnam notes that social capital is declining in the U.S when he writes “In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure (1998) is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining. Tolerance and trust. Although Americans are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, they trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators.” (Putnam, Social Capital, Paragraph 5). While it is clear that social capital and trust are directly related, the question is why is social capital declining in a democratic state like the U.S? It is because arbitrary government, corruption, and gerrymandering have contributed to a growing distrust of democratic institutions in the U.S, while a diverse community has created animosity among people of different ethnic groups, making them less likely to form their own associations and make their own connections, leading to an overall decline in the quality of democratic institutions and the state itself.
Perhaps the most concerning weakness regarding the democratic state does not lie with how democracy can be corrupted by wealth or how representation can often be skewed to benefit arbitrary government, but how unwilling the people of a democratic state are to use engage in civic involvement to change the democratic state. Corruption and skewed representation, along with increasing diversity has created a worrying distrust in democratic institutions and a decline in social capital which Robert Putnam connects to a decline in civic involvement by saying “on a range indicators of civic engagement including voting, political participation, newspaper readership, and participation in local associations that there were serious grounds for concern. It appeared that America’s social capital was in decline. He concluded: The concept of “civil society” has played a central role in the recent global debate about the preconditions for democracy and democratization. In the newer democracies this phrase has properly focused attention on the need to foster a vibrant civic life in soils traditionally inhospitable to self-government. In the established democracies, ironically, growing numbers of citizens are questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions at the very moment when liberal democracy has swept the battlefield, both ideologically and geopolitically. In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter-century ago.” (Putnam, Social Capital, Paragraph 4). Americans just aren’t getting involved because they don’t trust their fellow citizens or government. This has led to a decline in civic involvement because people have become more self-interested and will be discouraged from engaging in something they don’t trust, in this case the U.S government, as long as their own personal lives are going on well. When the people choose not to use their voices because they don’t trust their fellow citizens or government, the road becomes open for democracy to turn into an oligarchy because it is the citizens of democracy who not only give the democratic state its power, but defend it from those who will only wish to use government to fulfill their self-interests.
While democracy has been shown to have its blinding weakness, there is no question that democracy is the best form of government for protecting rights, liberties, and unleashing the massive potential of the human mind. Education has proven to be the glue that holds the democratic society together and though the democratic state may be suffering from a sever decline in social capital and civic involvement, education remains the key to reversing these worrying social trends. As long as the democratic citizens themselves are willing to educate themselves and others, the influence wealth can have on a democratic state will lessen and the middle class can continue to remain the driving force behind its progression. Democracy, after all, is a government by the people for the people.
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