Reflecting on democracy
Table of Contents
“…A government of the people, for the people, and by the people….”
This is perhaps the most famous all-encompassing definition of democracy. It depicts that central to the concept of democratic government are the people. Tracing the etymology of the word, democracy originates form the Greek word demokratia, the components of which are demos, the people, and kratia, to rule (“Wikipedia). Given this, our forefather Abraham Lincoln has truly captured the very essence of democracy where people are placed at the core of any statutory activity.
This paper discusses democracy based on personal views and experiences. It analyzes the existence of democracy in various nations and how this valuable concept is portrayed in the United States.
Basic Characteristics of Democracy
For democracy to exist, political scientists deem the presence of the demos or the people undertaking political decisions through a collective procedure, such as a referendum or other forms of assembly, to be essential. These people should occupy a specific territory or nation-state where the said decisions are applied and considered legitimate such that the population accept and abide by the decisions made. Moreover, the nation-state must be sovereign, i.e. there is no outside authority that can overrule the result of the procedures undertaken. (“Wikipedia”)
Another procedure, which is often used to determine the existence of democracy, is the voting ritual. This procedure is usually carried out for the election of representatives and other state leaders. (“Wikipedia”)
Aside from the political aspect, democracy may also be characterized in terms of economics. Democratization is commonly associated with the free market or laissez faire economy. In this type of economic system, private ownership and business enterprise are allowed under the guidance of the government. (“Wikipedia”)
The above are the ideal characteristics and pre-conditions of democracy enumerated by the experts. However, these elements may be problematic when applied in real life. For instance, with the establishment of the European Union (EU), laws ratified by each Member State for implementation in their respective country are subject to the scrutiny of the European Council and European Parliament. This is done to ensure that these directives are in line with the EU provisions stipulated in the EU Treaty. With this, the autonomy of Member States is diminished to some extent. Given that there is a violation of sovereignty, a fundamental element of democracy, would it be valid to conclude that democracy fails to exist in European countries?
Another example would be the holding of elections in nations ruled by tyrants. Most people regard voting as a vital component of democracy. However, despots like Saddam Hussein and Ferdinand Marcos have exploited this procedure to give their constituents a false sense of democracy. In this regard, voting becomes an insufficient condition for the existence of democracy. (“Wikipedia”)
In the same way, the economic system adopted by a country may not be adequate criteria for ascertaining democracy. For example, China now has a free market economy as it continues to implement policies that would foster foreign trade. However, China’s economic stance does not make it a democratic country (“Wikipedia”). The country, hitherto, is under the communist rule.
Rights and Freedom
In view of the above, what remain as the unquestionable criteria of democracy are the rights granted by the state to all people regardless of race, gender, religion or economic status. The heart of democracy is in the freedom of the demos. The rights and freedoms go beyond the nation’s form of government or decision-making process. In this regard, a country which does not hold elections but upholds its Constitution and ensures the civil rights and political freedoms of the people would still be considered a democracy (“Wikipedia”).
Primary democratic rights include the freedom of expression – the right to speak, assemble and protest; and freedom of the press – the right to access alternative information sources. Furthermore, in a democracy, equality before the law and due process or the writ of habeas corpus are practiced. These mean that all people regardless of physical attributes, economic status or social affiliations are considered equal under the rule of law. Should anyone be alleged of committing a crime or violating these laws, the concept of “you-can-strike-but-hear-me-first” applies, i.e. the suspect would stand trial in the proper courts.
It should be noted, though, that all freedoms are accompanied by restrictions, in same way as all rights entail responsibilities. For example, although people are granted the freedom of expression, many nations prohibit anti-democratic expressions, slander, libel and public obscenity. Another is the restriction on the freedom of association which specifically applies for groups deemed to be a threat to the society or suspected of terrorism (“Wikipedia”). These boundaries are set to ensure that one’s freedoms and rights do not infringe on another’s.
Democracy in the United States
The US is often dubbed as “the land of the free,” indicative of its role as the world’s bastion of democracy. But is this country truly a democracy or just a tyranny of majority where the “majority” and not the “people” actually rules and enjoys the rights and freedoms?
Ironically, albeit the US has been known as a stronghold of democracy, its history has been plagued with issues on curtailing of freedom and violation of human rights. For instance, it was reported that the US holds certain categories of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and in other secret prisons without trial or particular grounds in domestic and international law (“Wikipedia”). Similarly, government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have been accused of myriad crimes for the violation of human rights such as imprisoning political activists without due process.
As much as the US government is “the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” this may also seem to be inapplicable to the cultural minorities of the country. Between the whites, and the blacks and ethnic minorities, there is an apparent gap in the levels of access to social infrastructure such as education and health care. This is evidenced by the recent desolation of New Orleans where majority of the calamity victims are blacks. It is clearly seen how slowly the government has reacted to address the needs of these people. Would the government have reacted more expediently if a white community were devastated? One cannot help but wonder.
This may stem from the fact that the whites comprise the majority of the country’s population. Therefore, in terms of legislations, they have greater chances of getting the favorable end. In this regard, democracy in the US may as well be classified as a tyranny of the majority, where the number is the primary consideration for any state activity. Many people argue that a tyranny of majority is an improvement from a tyranny of the minority, where only a certain class or group rules. But then again democracy, where all people enjoy equal rights and representation, is by far still the best option.
To some degree, there is democracy in the US as far as the majority of the population is concerned. Most of the people reap the benefits of their rights and freedoms. However, there is still the voice of the minority that has to be heard.
When Abraham Lincoln used the term “people” to define the type of government the US offered, he most probably referred to all the people. He did not use “majority” or “whites” or “Christians” or what have you. The word “people” was used, because in a country with democracy, everyone regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin or religion, is given the chance to have representation in the government.
A democratic government hears and addresses the concerns of its people despite their number. It attends primarily to the welfare of all its constituents regardless of whether such action would have a bearing on the next election or not. A democratic state cradles its people and is blind to any form of economic, social or political classification. It upholds the rights and freedoms of all people.
To attain true democracy, the US government should establish a rule, which ensures that all the “people” enjoy equality in the administration of law as well as in the provision of government aid and services. It should put the well being of all the people on top of personal interests and gains.
The fate of democracy is also in the hands of the people, the demos. All must remain vigilant that the quality of democracy in the country is not compromised. For true democracy to prevail, the public should take advantage of the rights and freedoms granted to them to ensure that their voices and cry for equality before the law and access to state services are heard.
- Wikipedia. 2005. 10 September 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org>.