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Different nations, organization and people often have different perspectives or ideologies on the meaning of democracy. Former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) defined democracy as: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The word “democracy” originates from the Greek language and means “rule by the people”. In the eighteenth century, democracy is defined as “institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble to carry out its will” (Dahl, Shapiro & Cheibub, 2003, p.5). The most essential meaning of democracy is that people in a state, of whatever sex, race, ethnicity and age, shall have a right to participate in and comment on the executive and legislative of the state, and importantly, people have the power to affect the actions taken by the state. In modern democracies, people play a more general role. They choose the leaders to represent them and rule for the interest of the community. This political setting of democracy is called representative democracy. There are some fundamental elements of representative democracy.
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Elements of representative democracy
Popular Accountability of Government
Policymakers are accountable to citizens. According to Reuven and Gideon (2010), “representatives are responsive to their constituents when they support policies that are consistent with the platform on which they were elected” (p.108).When they cannot perform their responsibilities well, people can to vote them out. Policymakers need to consider the opinions of the majority when they are to decide any policies related to the state. Popularity is the key element and the government has to gain support from the majority in order to administer and execute its policies.
Democracy cannot survive without competitions. Bara and Weale (2006) described that “the modern theory of political democracy is built upon the practice of party competition” (p.24). In democracies, officials must be elected by the people. A minimum of two choices are a must. For instance, in America’s presidential elections, people can often choose from at least two candidates whom they support. Competitions are important because “the prospect of future elections keeps parties in the government and legislature accountable to the electorate, whose interests they are supposed to be serving” (Bara and Weale, 2006, p.24) and they “not only create positive things but also liquidates negative things” (Elgar, 2005, p.195). Politics is dynamic while changes are inevitable and necessary, political competitions can bring some incentives for parties to change to suit the needs of the people.
Alternation of power
A state cannot be genuinely democratic if the ruling political party stays in power for many decades. For example, Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has been the city-state’s ruling party since 1959. In 2006, it won its tenth election in a row, winning 45 of 47 of the contested seats. However, it has been criticized for enacting laws that suppress freedom of speech and other civil liberties. Without alternation of power, states often become corrupt because opposition parties are a powerful corrective to the ruling party’s tendency to misuse public resources. A democratic state, at least, provides the favorable environment for alternation of power.
It is axiomatic that in a democratic state, the opinions of the majority must be abided by. The winners of elections represent the opinions of the majority and are vested with the power to execute policies which the majority favors. However, minority views are important. A more modern and practical concept of democracy is that the majority decides with respect for the rights of the minority. This notion has given an extension to the meaning of democracy. Democracy is not just “decided by the majority”, but also “considering and not overlooking the rights and views of the minority”.
Right of Dissent and Disobedience
Democratic states offer people with the right of dissent and disobedience. This right is an important indicator of democracy. When people find the state unsatisfactory, they have the right to voice their dissent through disobedience peacefully. Voicing dissent through disobedience could be a source of inspiration for the state because the minorities are often the ones who stand out to voice their dissent. The non-violent actions taken by the minorities permitted by the state can be an alternative way for the state to listen to the voice of the minority. Democracies ought to provide a platform for the minority to voice their needs or discontent but not to suppress the right of the minority.
All people should be politically equal in democratic states. Every adult has to be able to participate in politics. Each of them has the right to vote, right to voice and right to run for public office. Political equality has to be guaranteed in democratic states so as to ensure every person is treated fairly notwithstanding his race, sex, age etc. and the voice of the minorities will also be heard without any prejudice.
Hendriks (2010) has stated that “the democratic process is an interactive one, both in the consideration and in the implementation of plans” (p.107). Policymakers must listen to the opinions of the general public. They must know what the people want and respond to their demands. The leader has to consult the public to collect opinions from the public and act upon them. This process is important because it is not only a way for the leaders to know the demands of the people but it is also a way for the people to voice their opinions in a non-violent and legitimate way.
Democracies allow free press. Free and critical mass media provide people with truthful facts so that people can know what the rulers do and determine whether the rulers go too far. Rulers cannot disguise any wrongdoing or corruption because the press is allowed, to an acceptable extent, to report any suspicious acts of the rulers to the general public. A free press thus provides a medium for people to check against the rulers. To determine the degree of democracy in a country, one way is to see how free its press is.
One important element of representative democracy is that the leaders are the ones elected to represent the voters. In theory, representatives act as trustees to carry out the wishes of the voters when appropriate in a legitimate way and act for the best interests of the general public. The general public participates to give the general direction of the government policy while the government listens and acts. This demonstrates how the leaders can communicate with the people and act upon their needs and demands. The people are not directly involved in the policymaking but their opinions are considered by the leaders who act as their trustees, deciding what is good for the public.
Virtues of democracy
Viewed from different perspectives, democracy has different virtues. It is difficult to list all the virtues of democracy because democracy can exist in many forms in many countries demonstrating many different virtues. Here are some common and important virtues of democracy.
Broader interests to be considered
Democracies encourage elections and “electoral democracy is a civilian, constitutional system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular, competitive, multiparty elections with universal suffrage” (Dahl et al., 2003, p.34). In order to gain support from the general public, parties must consider the needs of the people and act for the interests of the people. In a democratic state, it has been suggested that “in contrast to most autocratic governments, a broader range of interests are considered on a more regular basis. This increases the likelihood that the priorities of the general public will be weighed” (Halperin, Siegle & Weinstein, 2005, p.12). Thus, in democracies the demands of the general public would have a higher chance to be achieved because of regular election period. Political competitions would then encourage different parties to consider the needs of the general public more regularly.
Steadiness and stability
As mentioned, policymakers are accountable to the people. The process of making the decisions to benefit the most people is the duty of the leaders. As a result, “the multiplicity of influences on the decision-making process in democracies leads to more moderate and nuanced policies” (Halperin et al., 2005, p.13). As long as the policies proposed and implemented by the leaders are more moderate, it is conceivable that “the ups and downs of economic growth in low-income countries are smaller in democracies” (Halperin et al., 2005, p.13). Chan (2004) also suggested that “the democratic system promotes social stability by being able to incorporate divisive elements and issues into the democratic process” (p.141). This sort of steadiness is vital for the development of countries, especially the poor countries because under democracies they are more likely to be able to avoid any economic or humanitarian catastrophes than those who live in countries ruled by dictators.
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Emphasis of individual rights
In democracies, states put much emphasis on guaranteeing basic individual rights and freedom, “democracies generally guarantee basic civil liberties like freedom of speech and association” (Halperin et al., 2005, p.13). It has to be noted that the emphasis on such rights is “necessary to lasting democracy and for secure rights to both property and the enforcement of contracts” (Dahl et al., 2003, p.34). According to Amartya (2001), “political and civil rights are central to the processes of generating informed and reflected choices” (p.153). In democracies the individual rights of people are well protected. People prefer to live in a place where their rights are guaranteed. Nurturing an environment with emphasis on individual rights, talents would feel more confident to stay in or move into the states. The supply of able talents thus ensures the states can make continuous progress.
Greater versatility, timeliness and capacity for adjustment
“Democracies are learning organizations” (Halperin et al., 2005, p.14), as suggested, people who live in democracies are often engaged in gathering information and making adjustments to their positions. Development of a country needs radical and reasonable changes in respect to the conditions of the countries. People in democracies are able to make adjustments when the majority favors. It is possible in democracies to observe that “through trial and error, democracies find the most suitable route forward” (Halperin et al., 2005, p.14). As the leaders need to consider the opinions of the majority in democratic states, people are guaranteed the right to make adjustments when they find it appropriate, whereas in authoritarian states, according to Magstadt (2001), “rulers often impose strict press censorship, outlaw opposition parties, and exert firm control over the legal system” (p.77), changes and adjustments seem less probable for the people even when they are dissatisfied with the leaders.
Ability to depose the corrupt or ineffective leaders
Unlike authoritarian states in which leaders are often the ultimate ones to make decisions, in democratic states people are the ones to decide the general direction of policies. Leaders are accountable to the people. With such adaptability, people are able to get rid of any corrupt or ineffective leaders in legitimate ways. This feature of democracies can “reduce the amount of long-term damage they (the leaders) can inflict and provide a process of perpetual renewal” (Halperin et al., 2005, p.14). When new leaders come into power, issues can be approached from fresh perspectives. Consequently under this political climate, innovation flourishes and new ways to solve the problem emerge. The process of deposing the leaders is deemed legitimate and civil conflicts are avoided. Energies can then be saved and spent on other matters, such as economic development.
Harmony and peace amongst nations
Democracy is not perfect. We frequency see democracies resort to violence in their relations with authoritarian states owing to conflicts arising from the differences between them. However, it can be observed that “democracies are unlikely to engage in any kind of militarized disputes with each other or to let any such disputes escalate into war”(Dahl et al., 2003, p.493). The afore-mentioned virtues of democracy are mainly pertinent to the internal political structure of a democratic state but this virtue concerns the harmonious relationship between democratic states. It has also been suggested that “pairs of democratic states have been only one-eighth as likely as other kinds of states to threaten to use force against each, and only one-tenth as likely actually to do so” (Dahl et al., 2003, p.493) because democracies are more likely to adopt democratic and peaceful means to resolve conflicts. By adopting a rather democratic approach to cope with diplomatic conflicts, states are restrained to act recklessly. This can help maintain the relationship between democratic states more stable and peaceful.
Potential Dangers that a democratic society has to face
Similar to the virtues of democracy, the potential dangers that a democratic society has to face are multifarious and vary in countries. Again, only the most vital and common potential dangers faced by the democratic states will be mentioned.
Power corrupts, so does the power from democratic states. For instance, Spain, which is considered democratic since 1982, saw accusations of personal enrichment from public office against the ex-governor of the Bank of Spain and the former Director-General of Police in 1994. The process of elections in democracies is one of the sources of corruption. In elections, parties and their candidates have to gain popularity through campaigns or access to the mass media which cost much money. According to Gay and Alekseeva (2004), “this put tremendous pressure on candidates and parties in large democracies to raise money: to offer political goods for political resources” (p.23). In 1993, an accusation of direct payment for votes was made in the governor’s race in the state of New Jersey. This incident demonstrates how the election process may have contributed to corruption. In these days, the mass media play a more important role than before. Gay and Alekseeva (2004) noted that “in the age of mass media, each vote is worth less, but the total process is incomparably more expensive, and tensions over funding continue”. The continual tensions increase the possibility of corruption amongst democratic states.
People may make the wrong choice
According to Goebel (2002), people are “the conscious creation of a virtuous citizenry united in the pursuit of the common good”. This shows that the people, as the ones who decide the direction of policy making and implementation, are influential to the overall political atmosphere of the states. The decisions of the people directly influence the state. The majority may be wrong. One obvious example is the presidential elections in Taiwan in 2000 and 2004. Chen Shui Bian won in both elections. However, Chen and his family were indeed involved in corruption and abuse of power. The instance of Chen shows that even the majority choose the one to lead the state, they may have made a wrong decision and chosen the wrong leaders. In democracies, the opinions of the majority are often acted upon. If the majority is not able to make the right decisions as to the vital aspects, such as the choice of presidents and direction of policies, the development of the state will be seriously affected.
Too much freedom may not be good
In democracies, people enjoy more freedom than others who are in some authoritarian states because they have freedom of speech, right to elections, etc. However, too much freedom seldom does any good to the people in democratic states. Take America in the past as an example, at around the beginning of the 20th century, America was democratic and free. Goebel (2002) argued that some people would suggest “nevertheless, we as Americans must now face the fact that the great freedom which the individual property-owner has enjoyed in the past has produced evils which were inevitable from its unrestrained exercise” (p.117) and “it is this freedom that had tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men whose chief object is to hold and increase their power” (p.117). It can be concluded that states will not be able to act for the people in need if there is too much freedom given to them and no restraints as to the behavior of the people because this will somehow benefit only a small class of extremely wealthy and economically powerful people while the less wealthy ones do not share the fruits of the progress made by the democratic states.
Difficulty in gaining consent
According to Hiskes (1998), “today most liberal theorists and political scientists agree that only the ‘consent of the governed’ can legitimate the power to enforce obedience and to recognize political obligation” (p.33). Consent of the general public is vital for states to implement any policies, especially in democratic ones, because people in democracies have the legitimate power to disagree with the leaders’ decisions. However, democracies are often unable or find it difficult to “incorporate enough acts of participation with their governing process that would count as actual consent” (Hiskes, 1998, p.43). Without consent, the leaders will find it difficult to implement any policies. Without consent, conflicts easily arise. Conflicts even arise in the process of gaining consent from the people. In democracies, people are entitled more freedom and right to speak, to voice their dissent. When people are given such legitimate rights and freedom, more people will stand out to fight for their own needs and benefits. When their opinions are at odds, conflicts arise, making the aim of gaining consent more difficult to accomplish.
In short, democracies are states where the rights of the people are concerned, guaranteed and protected. Democracy entitles people with a choice. People also have a choice as to whether to adopt a democratic approach in their own states. Different nations have different aims which would have been achieved through different political setting. Democracy has its own virtues and vices. Provided that people are able to make the right choice, it may be good for the development of the democratic states. After all, the effects of implementing democracy vary in countries and the right of decisions lies upon the people.
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