Liberal democracy has its problems, including the fact that in trying to build consensus, it often ends up oppressing minorities or those who dissent.
Like most words for powerful ideas, “democracy,” is a bit ambiguous, a bit blurry around the edges; the word itself is a contested item in our democracy and others. It would help if we have a preliminary definition. I like Lincoln’s. “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But now we have to ask what that means. Here’s my take on it.
Government of the people means that all the people are subject to the laws; the rights don’t just apply to the rich or noble; the duties don’t just fall on the poor and hard-working. We all get traffic tickets; we all pay taxes.
Government by the people includes, I think, two important ideas. First it means that the governors, ---Presidents, Prime ministers, senators, governors, mayors, whatever-- are citizens of the very entities they rule; no distant kings, no colonial rulers. No Guams, no Puerto Ricos, no Flints.
Second, and probably the most central part of our conception of democracy, the government is chosen, in a fair and equal way, not only from among the governed citizens, but by the governed citizens. In a pure democracy, as in Ancient Athens was for a while, all the citizens are part of the governing assembly. Well, Ancient Athens wasn’t that pure, if you take account of the fact that only men were citizens. Women were excluded, and they also had slaves. At any rate, in a representative democracy, all the citizens have equal votes in choosing who governs.
It’s worth noting that the U.S. falls short. We do have colonies. So much for “by the people”. Delaware has two senators, a Vice-President, and less than a million people. California has two senators and thirty-five million people. So much for equal votes.
Still, we are closer to being a real democracy than Trump University was to being a real University, just to get in a gratuitous swipe at the Donald.
But now, what does “for the people” mean? “For” suggests purpose, what the whole thing is about; the government of the people and by the people is instituted for a purpose; it should benefit “the people”. But --- each person? Every person? Society as a whole?
It seems that you could have a government of the people and by the people, but for the purpose of exalting Jehovah, or Allah, or insuring that the flora and the fauna of the region flourish. So this idea, of for the people, seems like a further and important step. But what does it amount to?
At least in the case of the U.S., we’ve got the preamble of the constitution to go on, which I happen to still know by heart from third grade:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
It really does say, “promote the general welfare”! Sounds like socialism. The Founding Father’s were already feeling the Bern, perhaps. The general welfare part even comes before securing the blessings of liberty.
But what is the general welfare, and how much do we expect a democratic government to do about it?
Does democracy, as envisaged by the Founding Fathers, require that we aim at the material equality? At eliminating poverty, and grotesque wealth? Or is it consistent with the idea that as long as the GNP stays up there, the rich can get richer while the middle class gets poorer? Where does democracy end, and socialism and the welfare state begin?