Introduction Defining Democracy

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Defining Democracy
The Rule of Law
The Culture of Democracy
Democratic Government
Politics, Economics, and Pluralism

Editor: Howard Cincotta

Internet Editor/Designer: Barbara Morgan
Illustrations: Robert Banks
Photos: Scheré Johnson

The staff is indebted to the following individuals and organizations, whose advice and papers were instrumental in organizing and shaping many of the ideas presented in the text:

Eric Chenoweth
John P. Crisp, Jr.
Matthew Gandal
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Andrew Forsaith
John O. Frank
Diane Ravitch
Theodore Rebarber
Educational Excellence Network
American Federation of Teachers' Education for Democracy/International


We live in a time when the call for freedom and democracy echoes across the globe. Eastern Europe has cast off the totalitarian governments of almost half a century, and the republics of the former Soviet Union are struggling to replace the Communist regime of almost 75 years with a new democratic order, something they could never before experience. But the drama surrounding the extraordinary political changes in Europe obscures the remarkable degree to which the promise of democracy has mobilized peoples throughout the world. North and South America are now virtually a hemisphere of democracy; Africa is experiencing an unprecedented era of democratic reform; and new, dynamic democracies have taken root in Asia.

This worldwide phenomenon belies the skeptics who have contended that modern liberal democracy is a uniquely Western artifact that can never be successfully replicated in non-Western cultures. In a world where democracy is practiced in nations as different as Japan, Italy, and Venezuela, the institutions of democracy can legitimately claim to address universal human aspirations for freedom and self-government.

Yet freedom's apparent surge during the last decade by no means ensures its ultimate success. Chester E. Finn, Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and director of the Educational Excellence Network, said in remarks before a group of educators and government officials in Managua, Nicaragua: "That people naturally prefer freedom to oppression can indeed be taken for granted. But that is not the same as saying that democratic political systems can be expected to create and maintain themselves over time. On the contrary. The idea of democracy is durable, but its practice is precarious."

Democratic values may be resurgent today, but viewed over the long course of human history, from the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century to the rise of one-party regimes in the mid-20th century, most democracies have been few and short-lived. This fact is cause for neither pessimism nor despair; instead, it serves as a challenge. While the desire for freedom may be innate, the practice of democracy must be learned. Whether the hinge of history will continue to open the doors of freedom and opportunity depends on the dedication and collective wisdom of the people themselves--not upon any of history's iron laws and certainly not on the imagined benevolence of self- appointed leaders.

Contrary to some perceptions, a healthy democratic society is not simply an arena in which individuals pursue their own personal goals. Democracies flourish when they are tended by citizens willing to use their hard-won freedom to participate in the life of their society--adding their voices to the public debate, electing representatives who are held accountable for their actions, and accepting the need for tolerance and compromise in public life. The citizens of a democracy enjoy the right of individual freedom, but they also share the responsibility of joining with others to shape a future that will continue to embrace the fundamental values of freedom and self-government.


Government of the People
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.

In the dictionary definition, democracy "is government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system." In the phrase of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. Democracy is indeed a set of ideas and principles about freedom, but it also consists of a set of practices and procedures that have been molded through a long, often tortuous history. In short, democracy is the institutionalization of freedom. For this reason, it is possible to identify the time-tested fundamentals of constitutional government, human rights, and equality before the law that any society must possess to be properly called democratic.

Democracies fall into two basic categories, direct and representative. 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, for example, or the local unit of a labor union, where members can meet in a single room to discuss issues and arrive at decisions by consensus or majority vote. 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.

Modern society, with its size and complexity, offers few opportunities for direct democracy. Even in the northeastern United States, where the New England town meeting is a hallowed tradition, most communities have grown too large for all the residents to gather in a single location and vote directly on issues that affect their lives.

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.

How such officials are elected can vary enormously. On the national level, for example, legislators can be chosen from districts that each elect a single representative. Alternatively, under a system of proportional representation, each political party is represented in the legislature according to its percentage of the total vote nationwide. Provincial and local elections can mirror these national models, or choose their representatives more informally through group consensus instead of elections. Whatever the method used, public officials in a representative democracy hold office in the name of the people and remain accountable to the people for their actions.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights
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. 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."

These elements define the fundamental elements of all modern democracies, no matter how varied in history, culture, and economy. Despite their enormous differences as nations and societies, the essential elements of constitutional government--majority rule coupled with individual and minority rights, and the rule of law--can be found in Canada and Costa Rica, France and Botswana, Japan and India.

Democratic Society
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 neighborhood groups, business associations and labor 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.

In this busy private realm of democratic society, citizens can explore the possibilities of freedom and the responsibilities of self-government--unpressured by the potentially heavy hand of the state.


  • 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.


Inalienable Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In these memorable words of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson set forth a fundamental principle upon which democratic government is founded. Governments in a democracy do not grant the fundamental freedoms enumerated by Jefferson; governments are created to protect those freedoms that every individual possesses by virtue of his or her existence.

In their formulation by the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, inalienable rights are God-given natural rights. These rights are not destroyed when civil society is created, and neither society nor government can remove or "alienate" them.

Inalienable rights include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of assembly, and the right to equal protection before the law. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the rights that citizens enjoy in a democracy--democratic societies also assert such civil rights as the right to a fair trial--but it does constitute the core rights that any democratic government must uphold. Since they exist independently of government, these rights cannot be legislated away, nor are they subject to the momentary whim of an electoral majority. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, does not give freedom of religion or of the press to the people; it prohibits the Congress from passing any law interfering with freedom of speech, religion, and peaceful assembly. A historian, Leonard Levy, has said, "Individuals may be free when their government is not."

The detailed formulation of laws and procedures concerning these basic human rights will necessarily vary from society to society, but every democracy is charged with the task of building the constitutional, legal, and social structures that will ensure their protection.

Freedom of speech and expression is the lifeblood of any democracy. To debate and vote, to assemble and protest, to worship, to ensure justice for all--these all rely upon the unrestricted flow of speech and information. Canadian Patrick Wilson, creator of the television series The Struggle for Democracy, observes: "Democracy is communication: people talking to one another about their common problems and forging a common destiny. Before people can govern themselves, they must be free to express themselves."

Citizens of a democracy live with the conviction that through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will eventually win out over falsehood, the values of others will be better understood, areas of compromise more clearly defined, and the path of progress opened. The greater the volume of such exchanges, the better. American essayist E.B. White put it this way: "The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and dwell in the light....There is safety in numbers."

In contrast to authoritarian states, democratic governments do not control, dictate, or judge the content of written and verbal speech. Democracy depends upon a literate, knowledgeable citizenry whose access to the broadest possible range of information enables them to participate as fully as possible in the public life of their society. Ignorance breeds apathy. Democracy thrives upon the energy of citizens who are sustained by the unimpeded flow of ideas, data, opinions, and speculation.

But what should the government do in cases where the news media or other organizations abuse freedom of speech with information that, in the opinion of the majority, is false, repugnant, irresponsible, or simply in bad taste? The answer, by and large, is nothing. It is simply not the business of government to judge such matters. In general, the cure for free speech is more free speech. It may seem a paradox, but in the name of free speech, a democracy must sometimes defend the rights of individuals and groups who themselves advocate such non- democratic policies as repressing free speech. Citizens in a democratic society defend this right out of the conviction that, in the end, open debate will lead to greater truth and wiser public actions than if speech and dissent are stifled.

Furthermore, the advocate of free speech argues, the suppression of speech that I find offensive today is potentially a threat to my exercise of free speech tomorrow--which perhaps you or someone else might find offensive. One of the classic defenses of this view is that of English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued in his 1859 essay "On Liberty" that all people are harmed when speech is repressed. "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth," Mill wrote, "if wrong, they lose...the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error."

The corollary to freedom of speech is the right of the people to assemble and peacefully demand that the government hear their grievances. Without this right to gather and be heard, freedom of speech would be devalued. For this reason, freedom of speech is considered closely linked to, if not inseparable from, the right to gather, protest, and demand change. Democratic governments can legitimately regulate the time and place of political rallies and marches to maintain the peace, but they cannot use that authority to suppress protest or to prevent dissident groups from making their voices heard.

Freedom and Faith
Freedom of religion, or more broadly freedom of conscience, means that no person should be required to profess any religion or other belief against his or her desires. Additionally, no one should be punished or penalized in any way because he or she chooses one religion over another or, indeed, opts for no religion at all. The democratic state recognizes that a person's religious faith is a profoundly personal matter.

In a related sense, freedom of religion means that no one can be compelled by government to recognize an official church or faith. Children cannot be compelled to go to a particular religious school, and no one can be required to attend religious services, to pray, or to participate in religious activities against his or her will. By reason of long history or tradition, many democratic nations have officially established churches or religions that receive state support. This fact, however, does not relieve the government of the responsibility for protecting the freedom of individuals whose beliefs differ from that of the officially sanctioned religion.

Citizenship: Rights and Responsibilities
Democracies rest upon the principle that government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve the government. In other words, the people are citizens of the democratic state, not its subjects. While the state protects the rights of its citizens, in return, the citizens give the state their loyalty. Under an authoritarian system, on the other hand, the state, as an entity separate from the society, demands loyalty and service from its people without any reciprocal obligation to secure their consent for its actions.

When citizens in a democracy vote, for example, they are exercising their right and responsibility to determine who shall rule in their name. In an authoritarian state, by contrast, the act of voting serves only to legitimize selections already made by the regime. Voting in such a society involves neither rights nor responsibilities exercised by citizens--only a coerced show of public support for the government.

Similarly, citizens in a democracy enjoy the right to join organizations of their choosing that are independent of government and to participate freely in the public life of their society. At the same time, citizens must accept the responsibility that such participation entails: educating themselves about the issues, demonstrating tolerance in dealing with those holding opposing views, and compromising when necessary to reach agreement.

In an authoritarian state, however, private voluntary groups are few or nonexistent. They do not serve as vehicles for individuals to debate issues or run their own affairs, but only as another arm of the state that holds its subjects in positions of obedience.

Military service provides a different but equally contrasting example of rights and responsibilities in democratic and non-democratic societies. Two different nations may both require a period of peacetime military service by their young men. In the authoritarian state, this obligation is imposed unilaterally. In the democratic state, such a period of military service is a duty that the citizens of the society have undertaken through laws passed by a government they themselves have elected. In each society, peacetime military service may be unwelcome for individuals. But the citizen-soldier in a democracy serves with the knowledge that he is discharging an obligation that his society has freely undertaken. The members of a democratic society, moreover, have it within their power to act collectively and change this obligation: to eliminate mandatory military service and create an all-volunteer army, as the United States and other countries have done; change the period of military service, as happened in Germany; or, as in the case of Switzerland, maintain reserve military service for men as an essential part of citizenship.

Citizenship in these examples entails a broad definition of rights and responsibilities, since they are opposite sides of the same coin. An individual's exercise of his rights is also his responsibility to protect and enhance those rights--for himself and for others. Even citizens of well-established democracies often misunderstand this equation, and too often take advantage of rights while ignoring responsibilities. As political scientist Benjamin Barber notes, "Democracy is often understood as the rule of the majority, and rights are understood more and more as the private possessions of individuals and thus as necessarily antagonistic to majoritarian democracy. But this is to misunderstand both rights and democracy."

It is certainly true that individuals exercise basic, or inalienable, rights--such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion--which thereby constitute limits on any democratically based government. In this sense, individual rights are a bulwark against abuses of power by the government or a momentary political majority.

But in another sense, rights, like individuals, do not function in isolation. Rights are not the private possession of individuals but exist only insofar as they are recognized by other citizens of the society. The electorate, as the American philosopher Sidney Hook expressed it, is "the ultimate custodian of its own freedom." From this perspective, democratic government, which is elected by and accountable to its citizens, is not the antagonist of individual rights, but their protector. It is to enhance their rights that citizens in a democracy undertake their civic obligations and responsibilities.

Broadly speaking, these responsibilities entail participating in the democratic process to ensure its functioning. At a minimum, citizens should educate themselves about the critical issues confronting their society--if only to vote intelligently for candidates running for high office. Other obligations, such as serving juries in civil or criminal trials, may be required by law, but most are voluntary.

The essence of democratic action is the active, freely chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy will begin to wither and become the preserve of a small, select number of groups and organizations. But with the active engagement of individuals across the spectrum of society, democracies can weather the inevitable economic and political storms that sweep over every society, without sacrificing the freedoms and rights that they are sworn to uphold.

Active involvement in public life is often narrowly defined as the struggle for political office. But citizen participation in a democratic society is much broader than just taking part in election contests. At the neighborhood or municipal level, citizens may serve on school committees or form community groups, as well as run for local office. At the state, provincial, or national level, citizens can add their voices and pens to the continuing debate over public issues, or they can join political parties, labor unions, or other voluntary organizations. Whatever the level of their contribution, a healthy democracy depends upon the continuing, informed participation of the broad range of its citizens.

Democracy, Diane Ravitch writes, "is a process, a way of living and working together. It is evolutionary, not static. It requires cooperation, compromise, and tolerance among all citizens. Making it work is hard, not easy. Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility."

Democracy embodies ideals of freedom and self-expression, but it is also clear-eyed about human nature. It does not demand that citizens be universally virtuous, only that they will be responsible. As American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

Human Rights and Political Goals
As a principle, the protection of basic human rights is accepted widely: It is embodied in written constitutions throughout the world as well as in the Charter of the United Nations and in such international agreements as the Helsinki Final Act (the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe--CSCE).

Distinguishing among different categories of rights is another matter. In recent times, there has been a tendency, especially among international organizations, to expand the list of basic human rights. To fundamental freedoms of speech and equal treatment before the law, these groups have added rights to employment, to education, to one's own culture or nationality, and to adequate standards of living.

These are all worthwhile undertakings, but when such entitlements proliferate as rights, they tend to devalue the meaning of basic civic and human rights. Furthermore, they blur the distinction between rights that all individuals possess and goals toward which individuals, organizations, and governments may reasonably be expected to strive.

Governments protect inalienable rights, such as freedom of speech, through restraint, by limiting their own actions. Funding education, providing health care, or guaranteeing employment demand the opposite: the active involvement of government in promoting certain policies and programs. Adequate health care and educational opportunities should be the birthright of every child. The sad fact is that they are not, and the ability of societies to achieve such goals will vary widely from country to country. By transforming every human aspiration into a right, however, governments run the risk of increasing cynicism and inviting a disregard of all human rights.


  • Freedom of speech, expression, and the press.

  • Freedom of religion.

  • Freedom of assembly and association.

  • Right to equal protection of the law.

  • Right to due process and fair trial.


Equality and the Law
The right to equality before the law, or equal protection of the law as it is often phrased, is fundamental to any just and democratic society. Whether rich or poor, ethnic majority or religious minority, political ally of the state or opponent--all are entitled to equal protection before the law.

The democratic state cannot guarantee that life will treat everyone equally, and it has no responsibility to do so. However, writes constitutional law expert John P. Frank, "Under no circumstances should the state impose additional inequalities; it should be required to deal evenly and equally with all of its people."

No one is above the law, which is, after all, the creation of the people, not something imposed upon them. The citizens of a democracy submit to the law because they recognize that, however indirectly, they are submitting to themselves as makers of the law. When laws are established by the people who then have to obey them, both law and democracy are served.

Due Process
In every society throughout history, Frank points out, those who administer the criminal justice system hold power with the potential for abuse and tyranny. In the name of the state, individuals have been imprisoned, had their property seized, and been tortured, exiled and executed without legal justification--and often without any formal charges ever being brought. No democratic society can tolerate such abuses.

Every state must have the power to maintain order and punish criminal acts, but the rules and procedures by which the state enforces its laws must be public and explicit, not secret, arbitrary, or subject to political manipulation by the state.

What are the essential requirements of due process of law in a democracy?

  • No one's home can be broken into and searched by the police without a court order showing that there is good cause for such a search. The midnight knock of the secret police has no place in a democracy.

  • No person shall be held under arrest without explicit, written charges that specify the alleged violation. Not only are persons entitled to know the exact nature of the charge against them, they also must be released immediately, under the doctrine known as habeas corpus, if the court finds that the charge is without justification or the arrest is invalid.

  • Persons charged with crimes should not be held for protracted periods in prison. They are entitled to a speedy and public trial, and to confront and question their accusers.

  • The authorities are required to grant bail, or conditional release, to the accused pending trial if there is little likelihood that the suspect will flee or commit other crimes. "Cruel and unusual" punishment, as determined by the traditions and laws of the society, is prohibited.

  • Persons cannot be compelled to be witnesses against themselves. This prohibition against involuntary self- incrimination must be absolute. As a corollary, the police may not use torture or physical or psychological abuse against suspects under any circumstances. A legal system that bans forced confessions immediately reduces the incentives of the police to use torture, threats, or other forms of abuse to obtain information, since the court will not allow such information to be placed into evidence at the time of trial.

  • Persons shall not be subject to double jeopardy; that is, they cannot be charged with the same crime twice. Any person tried by a court and found not guilty can never be charged with that same crime again.

  • Because of their potential for abuse by the authorities, so-called ex post facto laws are also proscribed. These are laws made after the fact so that someone can be charged with a crime even though the act was not illegal at the time it occurred.

  • Defendants may possess additional protections against coercive acts by the state. In the United States, for example, the accused have a right to a lawyer who represents them in all stages of a criminal proceeding, even if they cannot pay for such legal representation themselves. The police must also inform suspects of their rights at the time of their arrest, including the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent (to avoid self- incrimination).

A common tactic of tyranny is to charge opponents of the government with treason. For this reason, the crime of treason must be carefully limited in definition so that it cannot be used as a weapon to stifle criticism of the government.

None of these restrictions means that the state lacks the necessary power to enforce the law and punish offenders. On the contrary, the criminal justice system in a democratic society will be effective to the degree that its administration is judged by the population to be fair and protective of individual rights, as well as of the public interest.

Judges may be either appointed or elected to office, and hold office for specified terms or for life. However they are chosen, it is vital that they be independent of the nation's political authority to ensure their impartiality. Judges cannot be removed for trivial or merely political reasons, but only for serious crimes or misdeeds--and then only through a formal procedure, such as impeachment (the bringing of charges) and trial in the legislature.

The rock upon which a democratic government rests is its constitution--the formal statement of its fundamental obligations, limitations, procedures, and institutions. The constitution of the country is the supreme law of the land, and all citizens, prime ministers to peasants alike, are subject to its provisions. At a minimum, the constitution, which is usually codified in a single written document, establishes the authority of the national government, provides guarantees for fundamental human rights, and sets forth the government's basic operating procedures.

Despite their enduring, monumental qualities, constitutions must be capable of change and adaptation if they are to be more than admirable fossils. The world's oldest written constitution, that of the United States, consists of seven brief articles and 27 amendments. This written document, however, is only the foundation for a vast structure of judicial decisions, statutes, presidential actions, and traditional practices that has been erected over the past 200 years--and kept the U.S. Constitution alive and relevant.

This pattern of constitutional evolution takes place in every democracy. In general, there are two schools of thought about the process of amending, or changing, a nation's constitution. One is to adopt a difficult procedure, requiring many steps and large majorities. As a result, the constitution is changed infrequently, and then only for compelling reasons that receive substantial public support. This is the model of the United States, whose Constitution is a brief statement of the general principles, powers, and limits of government, together with a more specific listing of duties, procedures, and, in the Bill of Rights, the fundamental rights of individual citizens.

A much simpler method of amendment, which many nations use, is to provide that any amendment may be adopted by approval of the legislature and passed by the voters at the next election. Constitutions able to be changed in this fashion can be quite lengthy, with specific provisions that differ little from the general body of legislation.

No constitution like America's, written in the 18th century, could have survived unchanged into the late 20th century. Similarly, no constitution in force today will survive into the next century without the capacity for change--while still holding fast to principles of individual rights, due process, and government through the consent of the governed.


The Benchmark of Elections
Elections are the central institution of democratic representative governments. Why? Because, in a democracy, the authority of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed. The principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections.

All modern democracies hold elections, but not all elections are democratic. Right-wing dictatorships, Marxist regimes, and single-party governments also stage elections to give their rule the aura of legitimacy. In such elections, there may be only one candidate or a list of candidates, with no alternative choices. Such elections may offer several candidates for each office, but ensure through intimidation or rigging that only the government-approved candidate is chosen. Other elections may offer genuine choices--but only within the incumbent party. These are not democratic elections.

What Are Democratic Elections?
Jeane Kirkpatrick, scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has offered this definition: "Democratic elections are not merely symbolic....They are competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens who enjoy broad freedom to criticize government, to publish their criticism and to present alternatives."

What do Kirkpatrick's criteria mean? Democratic elections are competitive. Opposition parties and candidates must enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters. Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Elections in which the opposition is barred from the airwaves, has its rallies harassed or its newspapers censored, are not democratic. The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair.

Democratic elections are periodic. Democracies do not elect dictators or presidents-for-life. Elected officials are accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office. This means that officials in a democracy must accept the risk of being voted out of office. The one exception is judges who, to insulate them against popular pressure and help ensure their impartiality, may be appointed for life and removed only for serious improprieties.

Democratic elections are inclusive. The definition of citizen and voter must be large enough to include a large proportion of the adult population. A government chosen by a small, exclusive group is not a democracy--no matter how democratic its internal workings may appear. One of the great dramas of democracy throughout history has been the struggle of excluded groups--whether racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, or women--to win full citizenship, and with it the right to vote and hold office. In the United States, for example, only white male property holders enjoyed the right to elect and be elected when the Constitution was signed in 1787. The property qualification disappeared by the early 19th century, and women won the right to vote in 1920. Black Americans, however, did not enjoy full voting rights in the southern United States until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And finally, in 1971, younger citizens were given the right to vote when the United States lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

Democratic elections are definitive. They determine the leadership of the government. Subject to the laws and constitution of the country, popularly elected representatives hold the reins of power. They are not simply figureheads or symbolic leaders.

Finally, democratic elections are not limited to selecting candidates. Voters can also be asked to decide policy issues directly through referendums and initiatives that are placed on the ballot. In the United States, for example, state legislatures can decide to "refer," or place, an issue directly before the voters. In the case of an initiative, citizens themselves can gather a prescribed number of signatures (usually a percentage of the number of registered voters in that state) and require that an issue be placed on the next ballot--even over the objections of the state legislature or governor. In a state such as California, voters confront dozens of legislative initiatives each time they vote--on issues ranging from environmental pollution to automobile insurance costs.

Democratic Ethics and the Loyal Opposition
Democracies thrive on openness and accountability, with one very important exception: the act of voting itself. To cast a free ballot and minimize the opportunity for intimidation, voters in a democracy must be permitted to cast their ballots in secret. At the same time, the protection of the ballot box and tallying of vote totals must be conducted as openly as possible, so that citizens are confident that the results are accurate and that the government does, indeed, rest upon their "consent."

One of the most difficult concepts for some to accept, especially in nations where the transition of power has historically taken place at the point of a gun, is that of the "loyal opposition." This idea is a vital one, however. It means, in essence, that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values. Political competitors don't necessarily have to like each other, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge that each has a legitimate and important role to play. Moreover, the ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate.

When the election is over, the losers accept the judgment of the voters. If the incumbent party loses, it turns over power peacefully. No matter who wins, both sides agree to cooperate in solving the common problems of the society. The losers, now in the political opposition, know that they will not lose their lives or go to jail. On the contrary, the opposition, whether it consists of one party or many, can continue to participate in public life with the knowledge that its role is essential in any democracy worthy of the name. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.

As the next election comes around, opposition parties will again have the opportunity to compete for power. In addition, a pluralistic society, one in which the reach of government is limited, tends to offer election losers alternatives for public service outside government. Those defeated at the polls may choose to continue as a formal opposition party, but they may also decide to participate in the wider political process and debate through writing, teaching, or joining one of many private organizations concerned with public policy issues. Democratic elections, after all, are not a fight for survival but a competition to serve.


A Civic Culture
Democracy is more than the sum of its institutions. A healthy democracy depends in large part on the development of a democratic civic culture. Culture in this sense, points out Diane Ravitch, does not refer to art, literature, or music, but to "the behaviors, practices, and norms that define the ability of a people to govern themselves.

"A totalitarian political system," she writes, "encourages a culture of passivity and apathy. The regime seeks to mold an obedient and docile citizenry. By contrast, the civic culture of a democratic society is shaped by the freely chosen activities of individuals and groups. Citizens in a free society pursue their interests, exercise their rights, and take responsibility for their own lives. They make their own decisions about where they will work, what kind of work they will do, where they will live, whether to join a political party, what to read, and so on. These are personal decisions, not political decisions."

Literature, art, drama, and film--the artistic expression of a society's culture--also exist independently of government. A democratic society may support or otherwise encourage artists and writers, but it does not set artistic standards, pass judgment on the worth of artistic endeavors, or censor artistic expression. Artists are not employees or servants of the state. The primary contribution of a democracy to art is freedom--to create, to experiment, to explore the world of the human mind and spirit.

Democracy and Education
Education is a vital component of any society, but especially of a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be."

In contrast to authoritarian societies that seek to inculcate an attitude of passive acceptance, the object of democratic education is to produce citizens who are independent, questioning, and analytical in their outlook, yet deeply familiar with the precepts and practices of democracy. Vanderbilt professor Chester E. Finn, Jr., said in his address to educators in Nicaragua: "People may be born with an appetite for personal freedom, but they are not born with knowledge about the social and political arrangements that make freedom possible over time for themselves and their children....Such things must be acquired. They must be learned."

From this perspective, it is not enough to say that the task of education in a democracy is simply to avoid the indoctrination of authoritarian regimes and provide instruction that is neutral concerning political values. That is impossible: All education transmits values, intended or not. Students can indeed be taught the principles of democracy in a spirit of open inquiry that is itself an important democratic value. At the same time, students are encouraged to challenge conventional thinking with reasoned arguments and careful research. There may be vigorous debate, but democracy's textbooks should not simply ignore events or facts that are unpleasant or controversial.

"Education plays a singular role in free societies," Finn states. "While the education systems of other regimes are tools of those regimes, in a democracy the regime is the servant of the people, people whose capacity to create, sustain, and improve that regime depends in large measure on the quality and effectiveness of the educational arrangements through which they pass. In a democracy, it can fairly be said, education enables freedom itself to flourish over time."

Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus
Human beings possess a variety of sometimes contradictory desires. People want safety yet relish adventure; they aspire to individual freedom yet demand social equality.

Democracy is no different, and it is important to recognize that many of these tensions, even paradoxes, are present in every democratic society. According to Larry Diamond, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a central paradox exists between conflict and consensus. Democracy is in many ways nothing more than a set of rules for managing conflict. At the same time, this conflict must be managed within certain limits and result in compromises, consensus, or other agreements that all sides accept as legitimate. An overemphasis on one side of the equation can threaten the entire undertaking. If groups perceive democracy as nothing more than a forum in which they can press their demands, the society can shatter from within. If the government exerts excessive pressure to achieve consensus, stifling the voices of the people, the society can be crushed from above.

The answer is that there is no single or easy answer. Democracy is not a machine that runs by itself once the proper principles and procedures are inserted. A democratic society needs the commitment of citizens who accept the inevitability of conflict as well as the necessity for tolerance.

It is important to recognize that many conflicts in a democratic society are not between clear-cut "right" and "wrong" but between differing interpretations of democratic rights and social priorities. In the United States, there are many such debates. Is it proper, for example, to allocate a certain percentage of jobs to minority groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination? Does the state have the right to expropriate someone's home for a badly needed road? Whose rights prevail when the society seeks to prohibit logging in the name of wilderness preservation, but at the cost of job losses and economic devastation to small communities dependent upon the lumber industry? Are the rights of citizens violated, or are those of the community protected, if the police stop people at random to curtail drug trafficking?

These are not easy questions, and the broad precepts of democracy only provide guidelines for addressing and analyzing these issues. Indeed, the answers may change over time. It is for this reason that the culture of democracy is so important to develop. Individuals and groups must be willing, at a minimum, to tolerate each other's differences, recognizing that the other side has valid rights and a legitimate point of view. The various sides to a dispute, whether in a local neighborhood or national parliament, can then meet in a spirit of compromise and seek a specific solution that builds on the general principle of majority rule and minority rights. In some instances, a formal vote may be necessary, but often groups can reach an informal consensus or accommodation through debate and compromise. These processes have the added benefit of building the trust necessary to resolve future problems.

"Coalition-building," Diane Ravitch observes, "is the essence of democratic action. It teaches interest groups to negotiate with others, to compromise and to work within the constitutional system. By working to establish coalition, groups with differences learn how to argue peaceably, how to pursue their goals in a democratic manner, and ultimately how to live in a world of diversity."

Democracy is not a set of revealed, unchanging truths but the mechanism by which, through the clash and compromise of ideas, individuals and institutions, the people can, however imperfectly, reach for truth. Democracy is pragmatic. Ideas and solutions to problems are not tested against a rigid ideology but tried in the real world where they can be argued over and changed, accepted or discarded.

Self-government cannot protect against mistakes, end ethnic strife, or guarantee economic prosperity. It does, however, allow for the debate and examination that can identify mistakes, permit groups to meet and resolve differences, and offer opportunities for innovation and investment that are the engines of economic growth.


Democracy and Power
For authoritarians and other critics, a common misapprehension is that democracies, lacking the power to oppress, also lack the authority to govern. This view is fundamentally wrong: Democracies require that their governments be limited, not that they be weak. Viewed over the long course of history, democracies do indeed appear fragile and few, even from the vantage point of a decade of democratic resurgence. Democracies have by no means been immune to the tides of history; they have collapsed from political failure, succumbed to internal division, or been destroyed by foreign invasion. But democracies have also demonstrated remarkable resiliency over time and have shown that, with the commitment and informed dedication of their citizens, they can overcome severe economic hardship, reconcile social and ethnic division, and, when necessary, prevail in time of war.

It is the very aspects of democracy cited most frequently by its critics that give it resiliency. The processes of debate, dissent, and compromise that some point to as weaknesses are, in fact, democracy's underlying strength. Certainly, no one has ever accused democracies of being particularly efficient in their deliberations: Democratic decision-making in a large, complex society can be a messy, grueling, and time-consuming process. But in the end, a government resting upon the consent of the governed can speak and act with a confidence and authority lacking in a regime whose power is perched uneasily on the narrow ledge of military force or an unelected party apparatus.

Checks and Balances
One of the most important contributions to democratic practice has been the development of a system of checks and balances to ensure that political power is dispersed and decentralized. It is a system founded on the deeply held belief that government is best when its potential for abuse is curbed and when it is held as close to the people as possible.

As a general term, checks and balances has two meanings: federalism and separation of powers.

Federalism is the division of government between the national, state or provincial, and local levels. The United States, for example, is a federal republic with states that have their own legal standing and authority independent of the federal government. Unlike the political subdivisions in nations such as Britain and France, which have a unitary political structure, American states cannot be abolished or changed by the federal government. Although power at the national level in the United States has grown significantly in relation to state authority in the 20th century, states still possess significant responsibilities in such fields as education, health, transportation, and law enforcement. In centralized, or "unitary," systems, these functions are administered by the national government. For their part, the individual states in the United States have generally followed the federalist model by delegating many functions, such as the operation of schools and police departments, to local communities. The divisions of power and authority in a federal system are never neat and tidy--federal, state, and local agencies can all have overlapping and even conflicting agendas in such areas as education, for example--but federalism does maximize opportunities for the citizen involvement so vital to the functioning of democratic society.

In its second sense, checks and balances refer to the separation of powers that the framers of the American Constitution in 1789 so painstakingly established to ensure that political power would not be concentrated within a single branch of the national government. James Madison, perhaps the central figure in the drafting of the Constitution and later fourth president of the United States, wrote: "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands...may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

Separation of powers is in some ways a misleading term, because the system devised by Madison and the other framers of the Constitution is more one of shared rather than separate powers. Legislative authority, for example, belongs to the Congress, but laws passed by Congress can be vetoed by the president. The Congress, in turn, must assemble a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to override a presidential veto. The president nominates ambassadors and members of the cabinet, and negotiates international treaties--but all are subject to approval by the Senate. So is the selection of federal judges. As another example, the Constitution specifies that only the Congress has the power to declare war, although the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces--a source of tension between the two branches that was apparent during the protracted Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s and in the brief Gulf conflict of 1990- 91. Because of the need for congressional approval to enact a political program, political scientist Richard Neustadt has described presidential power in the United States as "not the power to command, but the power to persuade."

Not all the checks and balances within the federal government are specified in the Constitution. Some have developed with practice and precedent. Perhaps the most important is the doctrine of judicial review, established in an 1803 court case, which gives the U.S. Supreme Court the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional.

The separation of powers in the American system is often inefficient, but it provides an important safeguard against the potential abuse of power by government--an issue that every democracy must confront.

Prime Ministers and Presidents
Among a democracy's most important decisions is the method of electing its leaders and representatives. In general, there are two choices. In a parliamentary system, the majority party in the legislature, or a coalition of parties, forms a government headed by a prime minister. This system of parliamentary government, which first evolved in Great Britain, is today practiced in most of Europe, the Caribbean, Canada, India, and many countries in Africa and Asia (often former British colonies). The other major method is direct election of a president independently of the legislature. This presidential system is practiced today in much of Latin America, the Philippines, France, Poland, and the United States.

The chief difference between parliamentary and presidential systems is the relationship between the legislature and the executive. In a parliamentary system, they are essentially one and the same, since the prime minister and members of the cabinet are drawn from the parliament. Typically, the government's term of office will run for a specified period--four or five years, for example--unless the prime minister loses a majority in parliament. In that case the government falls and new elections are held. Alternatively, another party leader is offered a chance to form a government by the head of state, either a president or constitutional monarch, whose role is chiefly symbolic.

The separation of powers characteristic of the American-style presidential system is lacking, since parliament is the preeminent governing institution. Instead, parliamentary systems must rely much more heavily on the internal political dynamics of the parliament itself to provide checks and balances on the power of the government. These usually take the form of a single organized opposition party that "shadows" the government, or of competition among multiple opposition parties.

In a presidential system, both the head of government and the head of state are fused in the office of the president. The president is elected for a specified period directly by the people, as are the members of the congress. As one element of the separation of powers, members of the president's cabinet are usually not members of congress. Presidents normally can be removed from office before finishing their terms only for serious crimes or malfeasance in office. A legislative majority for the president's party can ease passage of his political program, but unlike prime ministers, presidents do not depend on such majorities to remain in office.

Another important decision of any democracy is how to organize elections. The fundamental choices are again two: plurality elections or proportional representation. Plurality elections, sometimes referred to as "winner-take-all," simply mean that the candidate with the most votes in a given district wins--whether a plurality (less than 50 percent but more than any rival) or a majority (more than 50 percent). Presidents are elected in a similar fashion, but on a nationwide basis. Some systems provide for runoff elections between the top two candidates if no one receives an outright majority in the first round. Plurality systems tend to encourage two broadly based political parties that dominate the political scene.

By contrast, voters in a system of proportional representation, such as that employed in much of Europe, usually cast ballots for political parties, not for individual candidates. Party representation in the national legislature is determined by the percentage, or proportion, of votes received by each party in the election. In a parliamentary system, the leader of the majority party becomes the prime minister and selects the cabinet from the parliament. If no party has received a majority, the parties engage in intensive negotiations to form a ruling coalition of parties. Proportional representation tends to encourage multiple parties that, even though each commands the loyalty of only a relatively small percentage of voters, often find themselves negotiating for a place in a coalition government.

Parliaments and Presidents
A principal claim for parliamentary systems, which today make up the majority of democracies, is their responsiveness and flexibility. Parliamentary governments, especially if elected through proportional representation, tend toward multiparty systems where even relatively small political groupings are represented in the legislature. As a result, distinct minorities can still participate in the political process at the highest levels of government. This diversity encourages dialogue and compromise as parties struggle to form a ruling coalition. Should the coalition collapse or the party lose its mandate, the prime minister resigns and a new government forms or new elections take place--all without a crisis threatening the democratic system itself.

The major drawback to parliaments is the dark side of flexibility and power sharing: instability. Multiparty coalitions may be fragile and collapse at the first sign of political crisis, resulting in governments that are in office for relatively short periods of time. The government may also find itself at the mercy of small extremist parties that, by threatening to withdraw from the ruling coalition and forcing the government to resign, can make special policy demands upon the government. Moreover, prime ministers are only party leaders and lack the authority that comes from being directly elected by the people.

Another concern is the lack of formal institutional checks on parliamentary supremacy. A political party with a large enough majority in parliament, for example, could enact a far-reaching, even anti-democratic political program without any effective limits to its actions, raising the prospect of a tyranny of the majority.

For presidential systems, on the other hand, the principal claims are direct accountability, continuity, and strength. Presidents, elected for fixed periods by the people, can claim the authority deriving from direct election, whatever the standing of their political party in the Congress. By creating separate but theoretically equal branches of government, a presidential system seeks to establish strong executive and legislative institutions, each able to claim its electoral mandate from the people and each capable of checking and balancing the other. Those who fear the potential for executive tyranny will tend to emphasize the role of the Congress; those concerned with the potential abuse of a transient majority in the legislature will assert the authority of the president.

The weakness of separately elected presidents and legislatures is potential stalemate. Presidents may not possess the votes to enact their program, but by employing their veto power, they can prevent the congress from substituting its own legislative program.

Presidents, by virtue of their direct election, may appear more powerful than prime ministers. But they must contend with legislatures that, whether or not controlled by the opposition, possess an election base independent of the president's. Party discipline, therefore, is considerably weaker than in a parliamentary system. The president cannot, for example, dismiss or discipline rebellious party members as a prime minister usually can. A prime minister with a firm parliamentary majority is assured of passage of the government's legislative program; a president dealing with a congress jealous of its own prerogatives must often engage in protracted negotiations to ensure a bill's passage.

Which system best meets the requirements of a constitutional democracy: parliamentary or presidential? The answer is the subject of continuing debate among political scientists and politicians, in part because each system has unique strengths and weaknesses. It should be noted, however, that both are compatible with constitutional democracy, although neither guarantees it.


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