Democracy is always named and used in the liberal discursive process. But if we refer to history, democracy of these days is not the same as democracy decades ago. Thus, it is important that democracy is understood as an evolution and not as a static concept. Similarly it is necessary to understand democracy by its principles and not by its practitioners in power.
Liberal democracy can be briefly defined as a system of government in which the people rule themselves, either directly or indirectly but in either case subject to constitutional restraints on the power of the majority (Dickerson and Flanagan 239).
If we analyze democracy by the principles extracted from the definition: equality of political rights, majority rule, political participation, and political freedom, we can ask ourselves if the present formal democracy represents its own principles.
Dickerson and Flanagan say that equality of political rights mean that every individual has the right to vote, run for office, serve on a jury, speak on public issues and carry out other public functions. Furthermore, political rights are a matter of degree because they have been evolving during the last century. But it is not possible to know how much political equality is enough for democracy, because it seems to change every time and under different circumstances. An important example of how political rights can vary is the United States, because since 1787 until 1960 the franchise was extended to a majority of its citizens.
In Canada the franchise was first extended by the provinces and these would include the participation on federal elections. But due to the Act of 1885 the qualifications to vote in provincial and federal elections were uniform. After 1898 Canadian citizens would be able to vote for provincial and federal elections under the same franchise controlled by the provinces. In 1920 the Dominion Elections Act gave the federal government control of qualifications of voting. The last advance in Canadian democracy was in 1993 when prisoners were allowed to vote.
Another principle would be Majority Rule that is derived from the prior principle of political equality. Hence each vote counted equally will give a clear majority that must be respected and accepted. The decisions will reflect the majority’s will.
However there is certain plurality in Britain, Canada, and the US, because the candidate that has the majority of votes will be elected, even though this majority is less than 50% plus one. The reason for this is a budgetary constraint on elections; however this constraint may vary because of the differences between economies.
In the same way a qualified majority that can be a smaller proportion than the majority. This way the Minorities Rights will be protected from majorities and there will be equilibrium between powers within the rule of law. This is a common practice, in formal democracies, for amendments to the constitution. In Canada, the ratification of the Senate, House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of at least two thirds of the provinces, is needed, and this should represent at least fifty percent of the population.
Current Majority, in Canada, means that some specific cases need the majority of votes from representatives of two regions, so none of them would be oppressed by the other. In contrast Bicameralism is another practice that gives power to two chambers, representatives and senate, to analyse and correct legislations. Finally unanimity is a requirement that would be the last resource for minorities to promote legislation.
Political Participation is another principle of liberal democracy that is classified by its participation. Direct democracy and Representative democracy are the two main classifications. In Direct Democracy the people make their own legislations, not having to use intermediation by a representative. In representative Democracy there is intermediation and it is a representative elected by a majority in a determined area. In deed representative democracy is predominant in formal democracies in modern times.
Also it is necessary to realize that the level in which direct democracy is applied depends on the rest of the liberal democracy’s principles: equality of political rights, majority rule, and political freedom.
Greece was a practitioner of direct democracy. Citizens would gather in the Agora, which was a coliseum, to deliberate and make legislations. This was not very difficult because cities would not be larger enough to be an organizational problem. In the other hand, a problem with the Agora was the imposition of rhetoric and demagoguery legislation that ended up being negative to the state.
Due to critics on representative democracy, questioning the impartiality of representatives and their acts to represent people’s demands, the ideas of referendum, initiative, and recall have been proposed to be active in liberal democracy.
In a referendum, citizens vote on a single question or several questions on a constitutional amendment or a policy proposal. Referendums can be classified by binding referendums or nonbinding referendum or plebiscite. Several countries use referendums as a way to get closer to a popular decision and avoid unpopular decision making. However in a nonbinding referendum only makes a suggestion that legislators may use to make a law or legislation. In Canada binding referendums are not consider by the constitution because it would be a restriction on the authority of the Crown.
In an Initiative if a proportion or a determined number of the adult population of a state sign a petition on a particular issue the government should act on it in a legislative way or make a referendum before making any legislation. Dickerson and Flanagan state that several standard arguments are made against referendums and initiatives – legislation is too complex, that voters become fatigued when asked to decide too many issues, and that there is a danger of whipping up antagonism against unpopular minorities (245).
In a Recall, voters are able to remove an elected representative, or in some case the head of the government. In Canada the only province that has recall legislation is British Columbia, however this legislation is difficult to use. This is because, due to its characteristics, Canadian legislators are supposed to have more political discipline.
It is really common for people to confuse democracy with elections, but democracy includes another variety of political acts that can be made to improve participation. However it is precise that these are within the rule of law context.
The last, but not least, principle of democracy is Political Freedom. Political freedom ensures meaningful participation in democratic actions. Basically this concept makes the difference between totalitarian pseudo-democracy and a real democracy. In a democracy mobilizations or acts of opposition to the government are not against the rule of law because these are included in the constitution as legitimate acts and they should be protected by the government. Political freedom can be understood by several rights: the right to speak freely, even to criticize the government, the right to form associations, including political parties that may oppose the government; the right to run fro office, and the right to vote without intimidation and to chose from a slate of at least two candidates.
The principles are very important and following them is essential for the success of a democracy. Furthermore it is vital to understand that they are part of an evolution and not the opposite. Trying to keep them static would be going against logic and an understanding. History has taught man that it is necessary to improve human relations and power relations. This way we need to look at the problems of democracy these days if we want to improve as a global society.
Equality of rights has been an important issue and it still is. One of the failures with equality of rights, in present days, is that speaking on public issues has become harder because we don’t have the necessary means to do it. Public opinion just simply does not exist because media is privatized and only represents an elite group. It is necessary to look at the case of North America from the outside. Comparing North America with Europe we can observe the big difference in the independent media.
Independent media is not common in the US and it has to keep a low profile if it wants to exist. The majority of Television Networks have to be associated with corporations, if they want to survive taxes. Corporations only want to protect their minority interest and can take over any Network through the stock market.
Another problem with equality of rights is that it is practically impossible to run for office without having to make a big investment. This way an independent candidate will have to finance its campaign with corporation’s money and then will have to repay with a favourable legislation; with doing this the candidate could betray the electorate’s interests that are clearly opposite to the corporate interest.
These problems are common in the United States, which once had been the first democracy of modern times, now is a totally fragmented society where the individual is only one against the political apparatus where there are not more than two significant parties: Democrats and Republicans. In this environment there are not enough alternatives to choose and the individual losses its political nature due to the fragmented medium in which he lives. People, in these circumstances, are only able to transmit their constrained will during elections and after the electoral time has finished those who were chosen forget about the implicit agreement that they made and replace it with elite interests that had a prior agreement with them.
Canada is different from the US, because there is a moderate equilibrium between minorities and majorities and it is not such a fragmented society. In Canada citizens have better social relations within their communities and this is an important factor in the equilibrium between people an oligarchy. The Canadian elite has not taken over the media in a total way yet, and this makes a significant difference in the political and democratic every day living.
Another problem with the principles of democracy is the corruption that derives from the Majority of Rule. When a majority is needed it is necessary to negotiate support with other parties and these negotiations could easily derive in corruption within the chambers.
The argument to not have a run off is that it may be expensive and it may take time. But the practice has demonstrated that even small third world countries can pay run offs where the country as a whole can make a majority to choose who is going to be the head of the government. To consider this, in a better way, it is necessary to look at the opportunity cost of not having a run off which is corruption. Elites can easily buy representatives, in order to obtain favourable environment to make money. It is better not to trade the electorate’s interest as they were commodities because this can destroy the electorate trust and can attempt with political stability.
Referendums have been used in an attempt to achieve a more direct democracy, but they don’t truly affect legislations. Non binding referendums do not ensure that a legislation is going to be made and they can be used to simple relax political troubles and not solve them. On the other hand binding referendums can be influenced by oligarchy through in the representative’s chamber or senate. There have been several cases, especially in Latin America, of referendums which questions were modified and did not represent the peoples will, using the foolish argument that legislation may be too complex, that voters can get exhausted with deciding if they should vote yes or no.
Initiatives are an important democratic instrument to promote a referendum, but the problem that they face is the high level of fragmentation in present societies. If an initiative can be made, its means that society is not atomized and there is a civil or natural society.
In formal democracies, where the principle of majority rule is abused, democracy’s inertia can create political segregation. Although the majority choice is not always reflected in legislations, it is possible that a decision made on the majority choice could affect some minorities in either milled or strong way. These decisions derive in a social misidentification as a national unity and could produce secession. Dickerson and Flanagan state that in those countries, where liberal democracy has been successful, society has not been polarized into extremes of wealthy and poverty (249).
If it was not efficient, torture would not exist in our Countries; and formal democracy would be continuous if we could guarantee that it would be on the power owner’s hands…When crisis’ shadow is coming over, it is necessary to multiply plunder to poor countries to guarantee full employment, public freedoms, and high growth rates for rich countries (E. Galeano, 452).
Democracy is a wide conceptual field, however, some other conceptions and alternatives are open to enrich democracy and get it closer to a direct democracy. It is so that some conceptions like minimalist, pluralist, and deliberative have been elaborated.
The minimalist conception of democracy is the least inspiring one, because it shows democracy as an institutional arrangement to make political decisions in which individuals obtain decision power by means of a competitive vote fight. Even if this conception recognizes competition as important it denies the democratic process value. Bobbio and Dahl would accept minimal democracy only as a stage between authoritarianism or totalitarianism to democracy. Bobbio understands totalitarianism or dictatorship as a political regime that differs from a democratic liberal way due to the suppression of political rights and freedoms. A small group or elite monopolizes power and the result of this is an abusive regime.
The traditional concept of democracy becomes muddled when government by the people is confused with government for the people (Bobbio, 89).
Bobbio tells us that democracy should be identified by a set of rules that accomplish two objectives: 1) the rules tell us who is in charge and authorized to make collective decisions, and 2) what are the procedures. If it is possible to answer these questions with the rules, there is no doubt that democracy exists.
A wider conception of democracy is Pluralism. Pluralist democracy shows the problems of the traditionalist and modernist view of democracy and suggests that democracy should be analyzed as a plural polity. This plural polity is called Polyarchy and it is characterized by: a government in which elected citizens have power protected by the constitution, peaceful elections where coercion is uncommon or null, equal and universal franchise, the majority of the adult population have the right to run for office, the right to free speech without being punished (get fired), persecution or any other threat; the right to have alternative media that is not monopolized by the government or any other group, the right to make, relatively independent, associations or organizations that can be parallel elections by peaceful ways, and where the minority rights are guaranteed against majorities abuse.
A modern democratic pluralist society is obviously a not sufficient for polyarchy, since not all modern democratic pluralist countries have become polyarchies (Dahl 254).
An even wider conception of democracy is the deliberative one. This notion has been presented by authors like J. Cohen and Jürgen Habermas to face the misunderstanding between the defense of human rights primacy and those of people’s sovereignty. So, deliberative democracy focuses on people’s discursive power and on representative democracy and their need to make a consensus. A consensus should be reach by means of negotiation and it would avoid an unfair political decision. Communicative power can only be made in unreformed public places where a non-distorted communication can be achieved. Political opinion is a fundamental factor of this kind of process, because everyone can use of his own reasoning, and gives value to a wider thinking process. Political power overcomes when communicative power has been reached . On the other hand Habermas sates that some historic and social conditions are necessary to use deliberative democracy
Democracy is a very wide topic and deserves to be studied from an unbiased perspective. Liberal democracy has shown to be evolutionary and revolutionary at the same time. We can not deny that democracy is fundamental for the common good and it is necessary for society. But we should not be conformist and let formal democracy go against its own principles. Criticism is important to build a better political environment, and in democracy it is its fundamental factor.
North American democracy is no longer the most evolved one, because of the disequilibrium between Oligarchy and People. Civil society is weaker in occident than in Europe because of the presence of an atomized society. The principles of liberal democracy are being violated by a corporate society that undermines the meaning of the word democracy. This way, present formal democracy does not represent liberal democracy’s principles because the majority has no power on the political arena and oligarchy uses the democratic process for its own good.
Capitalism Socialism and Democracy. Jaseph A. Schumpeter. Harper & Row Publishers. New York, Third Edition
Eduardo Galeano. Open Veins of Latin America. America Latina, Sixth Edition
Mark O. Dickerson and Thomas Flanagan. An introduction to Government and Politics. Thomson Nelson, Seventh Edition
Norberto Bobbio. Which Socialism?; University of Minnesota Press
Robert A. Dahl. Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press,1989
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