Attempting to understand what democracy is and isn't, why we should strive for it, and how we can achieve it

Real Democracy

What Is Democracy?

When someone uses the term “democracy,” we generally have to use context to try to figure out which connotation of that word is actually intended. And some of the possible meanings are more-or-less contradictions of other connotations, so it’s important that we get it right; otherwise, the word becomes meaningless.

I believe it is an important word, that its meaning should be clear, and that contradictory and other uses of it where clearly distinct concepts are being discussed should be renamed, or at least properly modified to demarcate the different meanings.

Ultimately, I believe that the “correct” use of democracy should be to indicate the condition of “rule by the people.” I base this on its etymological roots: demos (people) + kratos (rule,power). While etymologies often don’t align with contemporary meanings due to the natural evolution of language, in this case, we need to retain a word that means “rule by the people,” and the other uses of democracy that have evolved or been adopted can easily be indicated with other extant words or phrases.

To begin to clarify what democracy is, let’s first go over what democracy is not. First and foremost, democracy is not holding elections to determine governmental offices. While elections might be used within democracy, it is not the defining feature, and more importantly, electing government officials is common in many nations, none of which are democracies. For the most part, I would describe those nations that elect their governments as oligarchies (rule by a minority faction). The one with which I am most familiar, the United States, along with many others that fall under this umbrella, should more specifically be called plutocracies (rule by the wealthiest faction, which is thus a specific type of oligarchy).

One might assume by discarding the above conception that I must mean that only a direct democracy can be truly called democracy. There may be a variety of methods for trying to realize a direct democracy in a large polity, and these will be discussed in more detail later. However, for the moment, let’s just say this focus on formal process is also an all too common diversion from what is important. When I refer to democracy, I believe it must be substantive rather than merely formal.

Another common understanding of “democracy” which is not what I mean by it is rule by the majority. Some may understand this as a consistent majority faction or coalition, although I think most who hold this notion think of it more as a shifting majority-of-the-moment and/or a variety of issue-based coalitions that form majorities on those issues while not forming a comprehensive ruling faction. The problem with the former is that the minority factions effectively have no agency in their own conditions and destinies. The problem with the latter is that it is essentially an illusion. In fact, this latter conception, if realized, would be very close to a substantive democracy, but I still think we need to look beyond mere majority if what we seek is democracy.

(2018-03-26 This is a work in progress, to be continued…)

 

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