The Nature of Democracy

All democrats agree that democracy implies a form of government elected by and responsible to the people in free and fair elections. They would also agree that democracy requires the rule of law, the protection of civil liberties, the separation of legislative and judicial powers, the freedom of the media, and the upholding of human rights. A major point of disagreement, however, concerns the extent to which personal liberties should be constrained by social responsibilities. This has led to the distinction between liberal and social democracy, and more radical anarchist versions of both. Anarchism is a rejection of any tendency toward statism or totalitarianism. As such it provides an enduring critique of any tendency within democracy which leads away from the voluntary participation and cooperation of people in governing themselves.1

While all democrats profess a commitment to the will of the people and the common good, liberal democracy stresses the importance of personal liberties and generally supports a free-market economic system. Such an understanding of democracy is currently dominant in the West, where it is regarded as normative for all societies claiming to be democratic. However, many committed to democracy believe that some form of social democracy is vital to deal not only with the demands of their own contexts but also with those facing global society, especially the growing gap between rich and poor. For social democrats, the equitable distribution of resources and equal opportunities for all are essential ingredients of a genuinely democratic order. The struggle for a global democratic order, then, is not simply a matter of extending liberal Western democracy to places where this does not exist, but of developing a genuinely democratic world order that is rooted in the particularities of different contexts. Such an order would have the capacity to protect human rights and promote the common good. This would apply equally to countries which have a long tradition of democracy, but where its development has come to a standstill.

The liberal tradition has undoubtedly contributed enormously to the development of democracy, especially through its insistence on protecting individual rights and liberties. But without the more egalitarian vision of social democrats and their concern for social responsibility, democracy easily becomes a means of protecting individual self-interest rather than pursuing the common good. For example, the linking of democracy and the free-market system is often stressed to the advantage of the economically powerful and to the detriment of developing countries. Indeed, the trade policies of the United States of America and other "first world" countries are often protectionist rather than open to others. So finding the balance between the liberal and social democratic traditions is not easy, given the constraints placed upon democratically elected government by political and economic interests. The struggle to enable both individual freedom and social responsibility to flourish amid the realities of particular historical contexts is at the heart of the continuing debate about democracy's ability to provide political stability and achieve its goals of justice and equity.

A further area of disagreement among democrats concerns the way in which "popular power" should be structured and exercised. Such differences have led to distinctions being made between direct, participatory democracy, and representative democracy. Participatory democracy heightens the involvement of the people as a whole in the democratic process, but is often impractical even though desirable. Representative democracy, whereby the people elect others to make decisions and act on their behalf, has become necessary at regional, national, and global levels. This requires parliamentary structures and procedures, as well as the development of political parties and organizations that are able to govern democratically. But representative democracy always runs the danger of becoming detached from grassroots needs and developing an unwieldy and self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Hence the need for a strong civil society that is able to keep a check on the way in which those elected to office exercise their power. This cannot be done simply through an electorate exercising its right to vote every four or five years. Hence, too, the need for political maturity within party political structures and especially the eschewing of any resort to violence in settling differences.

Civil society is comprised of a range of institutions and structures (e.g. organized labor, educational bodies, the media, faith communities) which are not controlled by government or political parties. If political society refers to the structures of government or the state, including the civil service, then civil society is that network of nongovernmental organizations that provides the means whereby people can participate in pursuing social goals and protecting particular interests. Civil society is important not only for the sake of critically monitoring the exercise of power; it also provides the framework within which many people can participate in shaping the structures and values of society. A government that begins to oppose the organs of civil society has begun to attack one of the pillars of democracy. It is therefore in danger of undermining both its own legitimacy and the future of democratic rule.

Globalization and contemporary struggles for democracy, along with the theoretical debates they have evoked - particularly with regard to gender, culture, and economic issues - have made it necessary to go beyond the debate between liberalism and socialism, or participatory and representative government. They have also highlighted the need for democracy to be contextually understood, embodied, and developed. What has become evident is that if democracy is to flourish it has to be constructed and sustained in ways that serve the cause of justice, equality, and freedom today rather than remain trapped in past formulations and embodiments. This suggests the need for a further distinction in democratic theory between system and vision: that is, the recognition that democracy is a system of government built on those constitutional principles and procedures, symbols and convictions, which have developed over the centuries in order to embody the unfolding democratic vision of what a just and equitable society requires. If we regard democracy simply as a system of governance, we fail to appreciate its character as an open-ended process that is ever seeking to become more inclusive, more just, and more global in response to the needs and hopes of society. This democratic vision resonates with fundamental elements within the Christian tradition even though Christianity has not always been supportive of democracy as such.

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