Sunday, January 09, 2005

Democracy Defined

Democratic indoctrination begins early and persists through our school years and beyond. However, as I reflect back on my younger days, I cannot recall ever engaging in a serious attempt to define democracy beyond the level of cliché and platitude. The overwhelming approval of democracy is part of what limits the analysis: if we all agree that we like something, who cares what it really is? However, if we as a nation are going to be in the business of installing democracies in societies across the globe, we'd better make sure that we know what it looks like. Doctors have to understand anatomy. Auto mechanics have to be able to identify the components of an engine. And as we export democracy far and wide, our obligation to understand its central features is no less.

In an earlier discussion, I identified two critical aspects of any democratic society: democratic process and cultural acceptance of said process’ legitimacy. For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to focus exclusively on process, as that must be completely described before any meaningful discussion of cultural acceptance can occur.

With that mind, let's explore the democratic process.

The most elemental component of democracy is the election. It is through this process that representatives are granted authority to exercise power within the society. Power acquired in this fashion has a legitimacy that is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain through any other means. The more legitimacy the government has in the eyes of the governed, the less force is required to ensure their capitulation. This inverse relationship between legitimacy and coercion is what establishes the general benevolence of democratic systems, which is ultimately democracy's most attractive characteristic.

However, for this grant of authority to be authentic, the election process must take a very specific shape. First and foremost the selection of representatives must be made freely and without coercion. Ensuring that it be so requires that certain other elements be present within the society. For example, a truly free choice cannot be made in the absence of information. Thus, restrictions on information access must be minimal. Likewise, free choice cannot be made under the threat of force. Therefore, there must be limits placed on the government and other interests within the society that prevent them from compelling agreement through force.

With free choice assured, we can itemize the remaining necessary components of a legitimate election. First, the representatives selected ultimately must wield real power. The authority granted to them must be real and unchallenged by other, more powerful institutions. Second, participation in the selection process must be enjoyed by a substantial portion of the population. Third, each vote cast must be of equal value. And finally, the outcome of elections must be governed by, at least, the plurality principle.

Once all of these factors are present, the outcome of an election will approximate the will of the people. In a sense, a theoretical democracy is established at this point. The next trick is making sure that democracy lasts.

All enduring democracies are characterized by the presence of the following two features. First, elections as described above reliably repeat. They don't necessarily have to repeat on a regular schedule, but they have to occur with a fair degree of frequency. If a regular schedule is not defined, then there must be an upper limit to the amount of time between them. Second, all of these requirements, from free choice to election schedule, must be immutable. Generally this is accomplished through the establishment of a Constitution. Without it those in power might simply dismantle the entire structure at their first opportunity.

And that is a democracy. Of course, in the real world these components can appear in varying degrees. Some democracies enfranchise more or less people. Others restrict information more than others. Therefore, the term democracy is most accurately a measure of degree rather than a binary description. But, within limits, governments so structured can fairly be characterized as democratic.

What does all this say about the "democracies" we have been attempting to install of late? A fair amount, I would contend. But, I will leave that analysis for a (near) future entry.

PostScript: In writing this entry, I came across this resource provided by Indiana University. Without it certain features of this post would have been markedly different.

Click here to read Part III
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