These notes capture the author’s thoughts that were originally prepared and presented for a philosophical discussion of democracy and autocracy. The author notes that there is a wide range of interpretation as to what exactly comprises the concept of democracy, especially with regards to human rights and the concept of a republic.
The intent is not for these notes to be fully comprehensive, but simply to capture my thoughts and words at the time of a recent discussion.
The need to clarify interpretations of the concept of democracy came up as I prepared to participate in a philosophy discussion of a philosophy discussion group, Cafe Philo, here in Washington, DC. The topic to be discussed was:
- Is messy democracy necessarily better than orderly autocracy?
The reference to democracy being messy is fairly common these days, even to the point that people are now saying that the messiness of democracy is a feature rather than a bug.
So this brought up the question of what exactly a democracy really is, at a reasonably high and abstract level.
Range of interpretations of Democracy
Oversimplifying, some of the common interpretations of the meaning of the concept of a democracy are:
- All of a free society. We live in a democracy, every aspect of every day.
- The government of a free society.
- Synonym for a republic. Unfortunate conflation of what should be distinct terms.
- Synonym for the freedoms and rights of a free society. Focus on human rights. Another unfortunate conflation of what should be distinct terms.
- Citizen participation in governance. A central aspect of democracy.
- Citizens vote for leaders and representatives. Another central aspect of democracy.
- One person, one vote. Another central aspect of democracy.
- Government based first and foremost on recognition of and commitment to human rights. Another unfortunate conflation of what should be distinct terms.
Spectrum of interpretations of democracy ranging from broad to narrow
- All of society. Everything is part of democracy. The broadest interpretation. Generally a single country, but groups of like-minded countries can collectively be considered “a” democracy.
- Government. Still relatively broad, but somewhat less broad.
- The aspects of government focused most directly on the freedoms, rights, interests, and services of the people. Somewhat less broad than all of government.
- Abraham Lincoln. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Central focus is on the people, but still focused on government, which is still fairly broad.
- In a single word. Two primary choices: voting or freedom. As well as an obvious third choice: people, as said by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. The narrowest interpretation.
In a single word
As messy and complicated as democracy can be, in many cases it can be described with a single word, although different people will gravitate between three choices:
- People. The average citizen, in contrast with leaders and those in positions of power, whether in government or businesses and various organizations.
- Voting. From a functional perspective. This is what gives the people a sense of power.
- Freedom. This is the end objective, what people are really after. Democracy is pointless unless it leaves people feeling free to pursue their life, liberty, and happiness.
Twin aspects of voting
Voting has two aspects:
- Casting your ballot. Who do you want to vote for for each office, each leader and representative. And at the state and local level, even voting for functional offices other than leaders and representatives alone.
- Running for office yourself. This is where the real power of a democracy comes from. We each have an opportunity to be leaders or representatives in government.
There is a third aspect of voting, or another pair of aspects, at least at the state level:
- Voting on ballot initiatives. An opportunity to influence or veto public policy.
- Proposing your own ballot initiatives. Now that’s real power.
Structure of a democracy
To get a handle on the breadth of an interpretation of what constitutes democracy, it’s helpful to look at the structure of democracy, or even the structure of all of society.
Here we identify a number of components of democracy, or at least components of government and overall society which might be considered under an umbrella considered to be democracy. Interpretations as to exactly which components should be considered under the umbrella of democracy can vary and be the subject of debate. Again, some take a narrow view while others take a broader view. The point here in these notes is not to take sides in such debates, but to highlight and elaborate on the possibilities.
There are three main components of democracy:
- Human rights. Valid even separate from democracy, as exemplified by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which don’t even mention democracy.
- Concept of a republic. The organs of power. The overall structure of government, with three branches (legislature, executive or administration as well as law enforcement, and judiciary) as described by Montesquieu. Also includes the concept of the rule of law.
- Democracy. The mechanics of voting, running for office, and enabling and supporting elections to select citizens for roles in the republic.
Some people might choose to lump human rights and democracy together. I would simply note that human rights can exist separate from democracy per se. In fact, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t even mention democracy per se. I would also note that it is very common to see even official government writings refer to “democracy and human rights” or “human rights and democracy”, as if human rights was not implicit in democracy. Certainly, it is extremely desirable to have both together, but we still have this conundrum that it feels necessary to explicitly mention human rights and that saying democracy alone just doesn’t seem sufficient. In fact, there is official writing referring to the “trinity” of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, as if even the rule of law, as well as human rights were not implicit with democracy.
In truth, many of the trappings of typical democracies are actually more properly considered characteristics of the concept of a republic. Republics may tend to be democratic, but that’s not mandatory. In fact, many authoritarian countries are in fact republics, or at least superficially organized to appear as if they were republics, but without the strong emphasis on democracy and human rights.
In short, one could consider democracy as merely that third component, more concerned with voting, or with all three components together, the trinity.
Some people might consider rule of law as a distinct component of democracy, but I see it as being covered under the concept of a republic. Some countries, such as dictatorships and autocracies might be lacking in the rule of law, but that’s a deficit in their implementation of the concept of a republic, as would be corruption.
Plus an important additional component:
- Public policy. Includes statutory law and administrative rules, processes, and regulations. Separate from the relatively static structure of a republic, typically detailed in its constitution, public policies reflect the relatively dynamic give and take of the shifting priorities and policies of the republic. Typically set by legislation and administrative process, but not voted on individually in a democratic manner. We get to vote on the leaders and representatives who will set or at least guide public policy, but we don’t get to vote on the policies themselves, except in the case of so-called ballot initiatives at the state level.
Public policy could be included in the concept of a republic, except that public policy can vary significantly between republics even if the overall structure of a republic does not vary so much. And, we have democratic election of leaders and representatives as a method for the people to influence public policy.
As well as an obvious component:
- The people. Can’t have a democracy without the people. And the people exist independent of the government and whether the government is democratic. People exist even in the most totalitarian of states.
Separate from the people alone, we can look at society as three sectors:
- Government. The public sector.
- Business or commerce. The private sector. Includes free and open markets.
- Civil society. The so-called third sector. Religions, unions, media, organizations such as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or the Red Cross. Environmental and social justice organizations. All forms of associations, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville as the spirit of association in his book Democracy in America.
Some people might not be so comfortable with including business and commerce under the umbrella of democracy, while others might consider it essential to democracy.
And whether civil society organizations are considered as part of democracy or merely that they tend to thrive under democracy is a matter of interpretation as well.
As well as some additional components regarding international relations since no country exists in a vacuum or bubble fully separated from the rest of the world:
- Bilateral relations. Relations with and between individual countries.
- Multilateral relations. Relations with and within groups of like-minded countries. Typically under treaties.
- Liberal World Order. Or the rules-based world order. A collection of institutions and treaties which express the common interests of all countries.
- Blocs of countries. Groups of countries with a strong affinity. Such as The West and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.) Also the countries of a continent. And notable major treaty organizations, such as NATO or the European Union (EU).
Indeed, one could consider democracy as spread between any number of countries which all share the same democratic principles, human rights, and the rule of law.
One could consider democracy more narrowly, as within the confines of a single country, focused on its national government, or as a global concept spread across all people who share the same sense of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Is the United States a democracy or a republic?
That’s an interesting and debatable question, somewhat beyond the scope of these notes, but a few key points are worth noting:
- There is no mention of democracy in the Declaration of Independence.
- There is no mention of democracy in the U.S. Constitution.
- The Pledge of Allegiance does not mention democracy but does mention republic. As in “and to the republic for which it stands.”
- Some of the Founding Fathers of the U.S. were skeptical of democracy as being mob rule. Jefferson was a proponent of democracy. Madison was skeptical about democracy as being mob rule.
- In the modern era, everyone refers to democracy and rarely to republic.
Personal preference of messiness or order
Back to the question of messy democracy versus orderly autocracy, ultimately it can come down to simply personal preference:
- Some people prefer a rigid social order even if it means giving up a lot of freedoms. Some people will give anything just for their trains to run on time. And to know and expect that values are stable.
- Some people prefer maximal freedom even if it means giving up the predictable sense of social and political order.
Some of my other writings relevant to this topic:
- Elements of Society
- Elements of Government
- What is Civil Society?
- Elements of the Liberal World Order
- What Is The West?