For thousands of years, philosophers and scholars have tried to give us a definition of democracy. Some argue that it can only exist on paper; it is a perfect philosophy that cannot be implemented, like communist ideals. Some, however, feel that it can exist and that it perhaps does today. By discussing philosopher’s ideals and ideas, we can see which seem most accurate for today and if democracy can be achieved or if it is merely something we aspire to.
Robert Dahl, a contemporary author and former professor at Yale University, lays out a definition for democracy. He gives us six criteria which a society must achieve before the government can be considered such. The first of these criteria is leadership by elected officials. This means, “control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in officials elected by citizens. Thus, large-scale democratic governments are representative”.
The second criterion is that a government must have free, fair, and frequent elections and the third is freedom of expression. Dahl explains that this is when, “citizens have a right to express themselves without danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined, including criticism of officials, the government, the regime, the socioeconomic order, and the prevailing ideology.” The fourth criterion is that citizens must have access to alternative sources of information. This means that “citizens have a right to seek out alternative and independent sources of information from other citizens, experts, newspapers, magazines, books, telecommunications, and the like.” The fifth criterion is the existence of an associational autonomy. This means that, “to achieve their various rights, including those required for the effective operation of democratic and political institutions, citizens also have a right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.” The sixth and final criterion for a democracy is inclusive citizenship. On this, Dahl says, “No adult permanently residing in the country and subject to its laws can be denied the rights that are available to others and are necessary to the five political institutions just listed.”
With these criteria in mind, we can start to see that democracy is indeed something that can be achieved. While it will not be easy, especially on a large scale, in Dahl’s eyes it can exist. But how do we define modern democracy? This question has been asked time and time again throughout the ages while arguing over whether or not democracy can exist. In his work Politics and English Language, George Orwell argues that democracy can’t exist because “it is hardly defined.” But I feel this point should be disregarded. Can we define beauty? Some would argue that we can, but most would argue that we can’t. Yes, there are some standards of what human beings find beautiful, but that doesn’t mean no one has even been truly awestruck by the beauty of something in nature, but indeed beauty exists.
So while this same case can be argued for democracy (existence without definition), we can try and define it based on more of Dahl’s writing. He argues that we can define democracy and sets forth trying to do so. He gives us five criteria for the democratic process that we can base this definition on.
The first and perhaps most important is effective participation. He says that, “Before a policy is adopted by the association, all the members must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to the other members as to what the policy should be.” The second criterion is voting equality. The third is an enlightened understanding. This means, “Within reasonable limits as to time, each member must have equal and effective opportunities for learning about the relevant alternative policies and their likely consequences.” The fourth criterion is a control over the agenda. This means, “The members must have the exclusive opportunity to decide how and, if they choose, what matters to be placed on the agenda. Thus the democratic process required by the three preceding criteria is never closed.” The final criterion is the inclusion of adults. Dahl says that, “all, or at any rate most, adult permanent residents should have the full rights of of citizens that are implied by the first four criteria. Before the twentieth century this criterion was unacceptable to most advocates of democracy. To justify it will require us to examine why we should treat others as our political equals.”
These criteria are, in a less organized way, laid out by other philosophers of the past but it is much easier to take Dahl’s word for it. He lives in the present day and has been able to synthesize the successes and failures of governments of the past. He’s gotten to see who was right and who was wrong and come up with the most current and, in my opinion, most accurate criteria for democracy that we have yet to see.
Two of the most well known political philosophers, Aristotle and Rousseau, have differing opinions on the existence of democracy. In Aristotle’s The Politics, he offers us a definition of democracy. He argues that, “The proper application of the term ‘democracy’ is to a constitution in which the free-born and poor control the government— being at the same time a majority; and similarly the term ‘oligarchy’ is properly applied to a constitution in which the rich and better-born control the government— being at the same time a minority.” This would lead to the conclusion that democracy cannot be achieved, but merely exist as an oligarchy in disguise.
Rousseau however, would argue that democracy could indeed exist, but merely in small communities. In The Social Contract, he lays out four criteria that must be met before democracy can exist.
First, a very small State, where the people can readily be got together and where each citizen can with ease know all the rest; secondly, great simplicity of manners, to prevent business from multiplying and raising thorny problems; next, a large measure of equality in rank and fortune, without which equality of rights and authority cannot long subsist; lastly, little or no luxury— for luxury either comes of riches or makes them necessary; it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the State all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion.
These four necessities, especially the last, are what keep this philosopher’s definition of democracy from actual existence. Today’s societies have grown all too large and often times too luxurious to constitute democracy in Rousseau’s terms.
From Rousseau to Dahl and Aristotle to Orwell, everyone has their own opinions on democracy. I would argue that democracy, in some form or another, exists. It is not simply something to aspire to, but a set of ideals set in motion by the policy makers of yesterday and today. It may not exist in a pure form, and it may not be considered fair by all, but it certainly is a realistic system that works for today’s modern society.
On Democracy: Robert Dhal
Democracy: A Reader edited by Blaug and Schwartzmantel
Politics and English Language: George Orwell
The Politics: Aristotle
The Social Contract: Rousseau
Additional help from Erik Cooke (former professor at American University, Theories of
Democracy and Human Rights)