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The Concepts and Fundamental Principles of Democracy

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Democracy is a concept with a variety of potential meanings, and it is not simple to grasp or define (Rusell J.Dolton, 2007). Democracy is by far the most challenging form of government – both for politicians and for the people. The term democracy comes from the Greek language and means “rule by the (simple) people”. (John Stuart Mill, 1859 p.7) Democracy is a political form of government in which governing power is derived from the people, either by direct referendum (direct democracy) or by means of elected representatives of the people (representative democracy). In a direct democracy, all citizens, without the intermediary of elected or appointed officials, can participate in making public decisions. Such a system is clearly only practical with relatively small numbers of people–in a community organization or tribal council. Ancient Athens, the world’s first democracy, managed to practice direct democracy with an assembly that may have numbered as many as 5,000 to 6,000 persons–perhaps the maximum number that can physically gather in one place and practice direct democracy. Today, the most common form of democracy, whether for a town of 50,000 or nations of 50 million, is representative democracy, in which citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programs for the public good. In the name of the people, such officials can deliberate on complex public issues in a thoughtful and systematic manner that requires an investment of time and energy that is often impractical for the vast majority of private citizens.

Democracy is more than a set of constitutional rules and procedures that determine how a government functions. In a democracy, government is only one element coexisting in a social fabric of many and varied institutions, political parties, organizations, and associations. This diversity is called pluralism, and it assumes that the many organized groups and institutions in a democratic society do not depend upon government for their existence, legitimacy, or authority. Thousands of private organizations operate in a democratic society, some local, some national. Many of them serve a mediating role between individuals and the complex social and governmental institutions of which they are a part, filling roles not given to the government and offering individuals opportunities to exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. These groups represent the interests of their members in a variety of ways–by supporting candidates for public office, debating issues, and trying to influence policy decisions. Through such groups, individuals have an avenue for meaningful participation both in government and in their own communities. The examples are many and varied: charitable organizations and churches, environmental and neighbourhood groups, business associations and labour unions.

In an authoritarian society, virtually all such organizations would be controlled, licensed, watched, or otherwise accountable to the government. In a democracy, the powers of the government are, by law, clearly defined and sharply limited. As a result, private organizations are free of government control; on the contrary, many of them lobby the government and seek to hold it accountable for its actions. Other groups, concerned with the arts, the practice of religious faith, scholarly research, or other interests, may choose to have little or no contact with the government at all.

The pillars of democracy

  • Sovereignty of the people.
  • Government based upon consent of the governed.
  • Majority rule.
  • Minority rights.
  • Guarantee of basic human rights.
  • Free and fair elections.
  • Equality before the law.
  • Due process of law.
  • Constitutional limits on government.
  • Social, economic, and political pluralism.
  • Values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation, and compromise.

All democracies are systems in which citizens freely make political decisions by majority rule. But rule by the majority is not necessarily democratic: No one, for example, would call a system fair or just that permitted 51 percent of the population to oppress the remaining 49 percent in the name of the majority. In a democratic society, majority rule must be coupled with guarantees of individual human rights that, in turn, serve to protect the rights of minorities–whether ethnic, religious, or political, or simply the losers in the debate over a piece of controversial legislation. (James David Barber, 1995: p.32) The rights of minorities do not depend upon the goodwill of the majority and cannot be eliminated by majority vote. The rights of minorities are protected because democratic laws and institutions protect the rights of all citizens.

Diane Ravitch, scholar, author, and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, wrote in a paper for an educational seminar in Poland: “When a representative democracy operates in accordance with a constitution that limits the powers of the government and guarantees fundamental rights to all citizens, this form of government is a constitutional democracy. In such a society, the majority rules, and the rights of minorities are protected by law and through the institutionalization of law”.

There are four main theories of democracy considered central to democratic governments. These theories focus on individual engagement in the political process, the rationale for governmental involvement and how it connects with societal needs. These are protective, pluralist, developmental and participatory. Protective democracy Rooted in liberalism, the protective theory believes government exists to protect the rights of individual citizens. Governmental involvement in the lives of citizens should be focused on protecting material wealth and maintaining a free market. A protective democracy acknowledges there will be an imbalance in wealth and assumes the elite will be in power. Broad-based civic engagement is discouraged unless it is related to protecting civil liberties. The pluralist theory connects democracy to power held by special interests. Pluralists believe that citizens are disinterested in becoming involved. Those who are engaged do so through smaller political groups. Governmental leadership rests in the hands of those who are elected, and they are generally considered elite. Special interest groups play an important role and jockey for power in areas related to specific issues and values. According to developmental theory, citizens are engaged in civic issues and focused on what is best for society as a whole. Democracy is connected to morality. This theory acknowledges the need for elected officials but believes the people are responsible for selection and oversight of their work. Participatory democracy emerged in the 1960s and focuses on retooling government to encourage more citizen involvement. The main idea of this theory is to provide more involvement and control over all governmental laws and non-governmental rules pertaining to citizens. (Kelly S. Meier, 2009)

Except that four there are different types of democracy such as deliberative democracy, social democracy, liberal democracy, sovereign democracy and managed democracy. Liberal democracy is about limited government, the rule of law, political rights and freedom, common citizenship, equality under the law, social inclusion, accountable governance, free and fair elections and widespread participation. The prospects of liberal democracy understood as a political morality and as a system of representational institutions operating within a constitutional framework of civil liberties (Dworkin, 1978).The debate on the social democratization of capitalism has naturally centred on equality, either in terms of the distributive end-result, or in terms of the institutional commitments of welfare states, such as universalism, solidarity, the generosity of social rights, and their capacity to “de-commodify” workers (Esping-Andersen 1990, Western 1989).

Democracy may be a word familiar to most, but it is a concept still misunderstood and misused in a time when totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships alike have attempted to claim popular support by pinning democratic labels upon themselves. Yet the power of the democratic idea has also evoked some of history’s most profound and moving expressions of human will and intellect: from Pericles in ancient Athens to Vaclav Havel in the modern Czech Republic, from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 to Andrei Sakharov’s last speeches in 1989.

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