An Introduction to the Story of Democratic Government
Which is the greatest word in the English language? 'Love'? 'Peace'? 'God'? Everyone will have their own opinion but I would make a case for 'Democracy'.
If it is the greatest word in the English language, 'democracy' is certainly not English in origin. Democracy derives from the Greek 'demos' (people) and 'kratos' (power), and was coined in the 4th or 5th centuries BC to describe those city states such as Athens in which citizens (common men, but not women or slaves) could have a free say without censorship in the conduct of the state's affairs.
After this promising start, democracy did not have an easy time of it. The baser instincts of mankind - ambition, jealousy, mistrust, and above all the love of power - meant that it seemed not to be in the interests of leaders to submit to the will of the people. It was a long time before democracy took off, but the past 60 years has seen a flourishing of this principle of freedom which has been quite remarkable.
In this page I attempt a brief overview of the key principles of democracy, the advantages (and disadvantages), and the current state of democracy in the world today. It is by no means an authoritative view, as it is just one ordinary person's individual opinion to be agreed with or rejected. But I am exercising my right to express that opinion - that, after all, is what the concept of democracy is all about.
- An introduction to the story of democratic government
- Why write this page?
- What is democracy?
- Democracy is not a political system
- The two fundamental principles of democracy
- Democracy - the most basic of human rights
- The right to dictate?
- The right to vote / the right not to vote
- The disadvantages of democracy
- The advantages of democracy
- The mechanisms of democratic election
- To fight for king and country, or democracy?
- Western policy towards democracy
- Complacency in democracies and respect for other peoples rights to democratic government
- Any country can embrace democracy
- Differentiating between failings of democracy and failings of leaders
- Accuracy of statistics - a note of caution
- History of democratic change - prior to the 20th century
- History of democratic change in the 20th century
- The ever-rising tide of democratic change in the 21st century?
- At the time of writing...
- Links you may like to read
Why Write This Page?
In this piece there are few statistics, but many generalisations, and to be honest, they are generalisations which to some will seem to be common sense, self-evident and unnecessary. So is there any point in writing this page? Sadly, and to my mind quite astonishingly, so many people seem not to understand or appreciate the principle of democracy for what it is.
In the developing world, it has long been a difficult problem for people living under dictatorial regimes to appreciate all the liberties and civil rights which people in democracies enjoy, or to understand the restrictions on excesses of authority under which democratic leaders operate. (I well remember the mystification of some who live under oppressive regimes that a powerful president such as Richard Nixon could be removed from office peacefully - that he could not simply dismiss the courts and clamp down on the free press during the time of the Watergate scandal).
It is much more surprising how many people who have lived all their lives in democracies so often trivialise the merits of these liberties, bracketing together democratic moralities with those of totalitarian states as if they are equally demanding of respect. It is surprising how many would rather utter words of condemnation against a democratic nation such as America or Britain for its actions, than against a dictatorship, for its actions. Startlingly according to one poll, one in seven French people do not believe that democracy is any better than other forms of government . It seems that many who live under democracy fail to appreciate the fundamental virtues and benefits of the freedoms they enjoy - freedoms which others are willing to die for, and for which many are dying today in totalitarian states.
These are the reasons I would like to state the seemingly obvious - everyone should understand what democracy is really all about, and support it.
What is Democracy?
To explain 'what is democracy?' is not quite as easy as it may seem to be. Does it involve everybody having a direct say in all political actions, or does it involve citizens electing an administration. And should any such administration then be charged to carry out in entirety the consensus of the peoples' wishes on all issues, or should it be granted autonomy to act upon its own initiative, to employ all the expertise at its disposal to govern in the best way it sees fit? Every political thinker has their own views and uses their own particular slant on the definition to condemn or to eulogise the administration which interests them.
Some have suggested that in a pure democracy, all adult citizens should have an equal say in the decision making process on every issue of consequence; by such a definition, there would never be any need for a Government to exercise its own judgement, as every citizen would vote in a referendum on every issue. In practice, how this may be achievable, is difficult to imagine. In such a society there would be no sense of direction, no expertise, no deep knowledge to harness, and no cohesion of policy making. What's more, every decision would be subject to interminable delays as referendum after referendum is called.
In practice, therefore, for democracy to work, delegation of decision making on the majority of matters has to be transferred to an appointed or elected body - and as long as this process is conducted openly as the result of a popular vote, then the resultant legislative body or Government still has democratic legitimacy.
If precise definitions are debatable, we are on more certain ground when we consider what qualities a democracy should embrace. It should embrace reasonable freedom to express one's views without fear of recrimination, equality under the law, and above all freedom to have a say, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the country, and the reasonable right of any individual to seek a role in government.
Sadly, the term 'democracy' has been more abused than almost any other. So many nations' leaders have employed the word 'democratic' in their titles, in an attempt to bestow self-respect upon their illiberal regimes, and yet in reality they have been anything but - the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) being obvious examples.
In the following three sections 'Democracy is not a Political System', 'The Two Fundamental Principles of Democracy' and 'Democracy - the most Basic of Human Rights' I seek to explore further what sets democracy apart from all other political concepts, what is most fundamentally distinctive about any democratic process, and why democracy is the most important of all human rights. These three sections should also make clear why such regimes as the 'Democratic' People's Republic of Korea have nothing whatsoever to do with democracy.
Democracy is Not a Political System
It is a common mistake to bracket democracy together with capitalism and socialism, liberalism, communism and fascism, theocracy, and dictatorship, as just one of many kinds of political system. It is not. All of these other concepts are political systems - ways of managing the economy or society to reward the industrious, or to help the weak, to favour a religious belief, or just to preserve the lifestyle of the person in charge. Democracy is not a political system - it is a fundamental human right to express an opinion and have a say in one's future. It is a social freedom whereby in theory at least, almost any of these other political systems can exist and flourish. Under sound democratic principles it should be possible to vote into power capitalists or socialists, liberals, republicans, or even Islamic fundamentalists, if that is what the people of the nation want, and if the government so elected is prepared to respect the principles of democracy outlined below.
This, I think is the single most important message of this article. Democracy is a social freedom and a human right; it is not a political system.
The Two Fundamental Principles of Democracy
1) The Right of the People to Elect a Government of Their Choice
One statement I made in the previous section 'Democracy is not a Political System' requires some qualification. I wrote that democracy 'is a social freedom whereby in theory almost any other political systems can exist and flourish'. Certainly it is a truism (in my opinion) that in a democracy, the people should be free to elect almost any government of whatever political complexion they wish, including the most extreme groupings or individuals. That is the peoples' right, and it is the reason for a free ballot. This is what I would call the First Fundamental Principle of Democracy.
2) The Right of the People to Change Their Minds
But the people must also be free to change their minds and remove that government, and - even more importantly - the next generation must be free to make their own decisions, voice a different view, and take the country in a different direction. That's why in a democracy the leadership must submit to another popular vote every 4, 5 or 10 years (within reason the period is academic and shorter or longer terms each have their merits - the important point here is that the life of the government is limited). This is what I would call the Second Fundamental Principle of Democracy.
This second principle of democracy is the reason why I believe that whilst it may be acceptable for extremist, even reprehensible, groups, to stand in an election and attract votes if they can, the one thing the people should NOT be allowed to vote for, is the demise of democracy itself. Any party or individual standing in an election should be obliged under the constitution of the country to submit for re-election after a set number of years, and the basics of this should not be alterable.
(In Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis actually gained power in a fairly legitimate democratic election. Although there were undoubted flaws and some intimidation in the election, there was, it seems, some popular support for the 'strong government' Hitler offered at a time of great national crisis, and thus the First Principle of Democracy was upheld with some reservation. However Hitler's party, under the pretext of a State of Emergency, then discarded the Second Principle of Democracy, by making political opposition illegal and abandoning the electoral process. At that point the Nazis lost any moral legitimacy to govern).
Basic Freedoms and Rights 2005 - (Freedom House)
Democracy - the Most Basic of Human Rights
Human rights are the most basic of rights and freedoms to which we should all be entitled. A charter of such rights was originally formulated and agreed by the united Nations in 1948 as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . The charter lays out thirty clauses or articles of rights, and I suggest that it is well worth reading. Most of the thirty clauses are worthy aspirations, and all are more likely to be respected in a democracy than in any authoritarian regime. However some of them, I would suggest, are perhaps more fundamental and achievable than others. The term 'human right' is liberally bandied around these days, and diminished as a consequence, because many concepts which activists would wish to promote as basic human rights are - however laudable - nothing of the sort. They are better described as aspirations, which cannot always be guaranteed. For example:
- The right to life (article 3) is not a right, because it is not always in the hands of mere mortals to guarantee this. Flooding, earthquakes, incurable disease, even accidents, may see to that. And sometimes it may prove necessary for society to take human life in time of war or to counteract lethal violence by anti-social individuals. Even in peacetime, the value of life or indeed even the meaning of life is a subject for legitimate reasoned debate on issues such as abortion or euthanasia on which two people can hold different, yet respectable, points of view. One's view will be based upon the values placed upon such elements as religious belief, scientific evidence, social practicalities and human compassion, and will often be strongly and passionately held, but I think more than one view is legitimate among decent thinking people.
- The right to a job and an adequate standard of living (articles 23-25) are not fundamental human rights. If there isn't the money or demand then there isn't a job to go to. It's as simple as that. A third world country which is stricken with devastating natural disaster, can scarcely be accused of denying its people their basic human rights, if it cannot afford to create jobs and pay citizens to take those jobs. Full employment and an adequate standard of living are merely laudible objectives which all societies should prioritise and strive to achieve.
- The right to free education (article 26) or a free health service. There is a very basic morality which suggests any humane, caring society must safeguard the educational interests of its children, and offer care for those who are sick. Therefore no civilised government should neglect its responsibilities in these areas. However whether all education and health care need to be free or whether they should only be free for the least fortunate in society is something for the government - with a democratic mandate - to decide. Some believe that such vital services as these should be freely available to all - rich and poor - in a fair society. Others believe that capitalism and payment for such services drives competition and improvement in standards, which is ultimately of benefit to all. You can argue the case for either point of view, but the point is that there is a case to be argued, and there is no fundamental human rights issue.
Some of these concepts are therefore best described as social or cultural aspirations and economic goals which any government should strive for - not quite the same thing as fundamental human rights. There are indeed very few things which are 'human rights' in the sense that any Government under any circumstances, should necessarily be obliged to provide them, but democracy - the right to participate in the election of the people who govern - is one right which should be guaranteeable by all reasonably stable nations.
I would mention at this stage two subsidiary and genuine human rights which serve to protect democracy. These are the right of free speech, and the right to a free and independent law enforcement body and judiciary.
- Without the right of free speech, it is almost impossible to ensure that ordinary citizens have the ability to make informed decisions when they vote.
- Without the right to a free and independent law enforcement body and judiciary, it is almost impossible to ensure citizens will be free from persecution when voting.
Finally, it is one thing to have rights to free speech and justice written down on paper; it is quite another to ensure that these rights can be made truly available to all. Press monopolies, Government run media and extortionate legal fees, may ensure that although equality for all is to be desired, money or power may still talk loudest. This is a major concern in democracies, and all people - citizens and politicians - need to safeguard the principals behind these rights. Failure to safeguard these principles is perhaps the biggest concern to be aired by citizens of democracies.
Basic Freedoms and Rights 2003 - (Polity IV)
The Right to Vote / the Right Not to Vote
In some countries the belief in the need to strengthen a democratic mandate has led to a requirement in law to vote; it is against the law not to vote. I cannot personally agree with that, even though the intention may be good. I believe an individual should have the freedom not to vote just as much as they should have the right to vote. To be obliged to vote if one has no clear viewpoint is a wasted vote anyway, as such a forced vote is not really supportive of the party or person who receives it.
The Right to Dictate ?
'All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'
There is a clear truism about the above statement. Whichever rights are human rights, I would say the right to dictate is most certainly not one of them. And yet undoubtedly there is an appeal for anybody in a position of power to take actions, and to issue decrees, without the tiresome bother of having to answer to other people. Such behaviour will often be carried out for entirely selfish reasons (to line one's pockets and nurture one's ego), though in some cases the reasons may initially be quite well-intentioned; for example, if one believes one's policies are for the good of the country or the people, then the thinking may be that anyone questioning or opposing those policies can only be a hindrance to effective governance).
However what gives someone the right to lay down laws telling other people - grown adult people - how to run their lives, without their consent? In too many countries some individual or some group, be it a political organisation, a religious faith, or the military, still believe they have a right to tell other people what to do.
One party states : Political parties will sometimes have the audacity to believe that they represent the majority or all of the people, so why in their mindset should other groups or parties be allowed a voice? If your party can represent all the people, then any other party with a different point of view must be against the people. It is an arrogant point of view, but it is the point of view of the old Communist one party states, now thankfully largely discredited and reformed. One party states - usually communist or socialist - still exist in China, North Korea, Cuba and several other countries. (Though in some, such as North Korea, monarchy-like dynastic influences may be even more important than party ideals).
Fundamentalist theocracies : These believe they are on even surer ground. They believe they represent not merely the people, but the Word of God, and the Word of God takes precedence over anything mere mortals want. So if they are doing God's work, why on Earth should they accept a contrary human view? Again, it is utter arrogance in their own self-righteousness which prevents them from acknowledging any alternative philosophy. Despite Western paranoia very few such states exist. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran is perhaps the closest to a theocracy today, as an elected president is answerable to a theocratic council.
Absolute monarchies : An absolute Monarch is in a similar position, as he believes he has a divine right to rule over everyone else. He has Royal Blood, and his rule is decreed by God. Again, what arrogance (which ignores that most have acquired their positions as a result of their ancestors employing force of might in battle to found the dynasty). Absolute monarchies are thankfully rapidly becoming a thing of the past, but a few still exist. Saudi Arabia remains essentially an absolute monarchy.
Absolute dictatorships : An absolute dictator is something different. The phrase 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' can certainly be applied to such people. There's something in all of us which likes the idea of being able to do what we like, simply because we can. If we have that power, then we no longer have to worry about other people's concerns, because they can't stop us. An absolute dictator is freed from the constraints of social conformity, because they have put themselves above society. They can indulge their natural greed for power or aggrandisement. It is difficult to quantify the number of absolute dictatorships today, because many exist under the guise of party systems with seemingly independent parliamentary and legal systems. However the leader in these countries remains unaccountable to either parliament or the law, which can be changed at the leader's whim. The most infamous examples of dictators in the past century include the Fascist leaders of Europe, notably Hitler, whilst Africa has produced the likes of Idi Amin and Emperor Bokassa. More recently we have seen the demise of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.
Military dictatorships : A military dictatorship is one in which a General or Colonel believes that law and order justifies the army taking control. The end - an organised, law abiding society - justifies the means. Put simply, if you have a gun, you can make everyone else do what you think is right. A system traditionally associated with the old military juntas of South America, but in recent times best typified by Burma.
Disadvantages of Democracy
In this section and the next I weigh up the pros and cons of democracy. It is only fair to try to present both sides, so first I will point out some of the drawbacks of a democratic system.
1) Short term benefit at the expense of long term progress. Foremost among the disadvantages perhaps is the fact that politicians and citizens are human beings prone to normal human weaknesses. If democratic elections have to be held on a regular and frequent basis, then those politicians' jobs are on the line on a regular basis. No one likes losing a position of power, and no one likes losing their jobs, and it is in a politician's interest to try to hang on to theirs. Sadly, human nature also decrees that the electorate have their own selfish interests - like it or not, most people will vote for a better standard of living today, rather than an end to global warming or increased prosperity thirty years down the line. Politicians in a democracy tend to pander to that selfishness. They tend to instigate short term policies for short term gain. Long term policies to benefit the planet or our children's children will usually cost the politicians their jobs if it leads to hardships for the population today. A strong dictator is not subject to such worries for his own job, and could ignore his people and theoretically carry out long term policies for the greater good of the country and the world.
(In practice of course dictators - even more so than democratic leaders - are usually more interested in their own self-interest than in the future of their nation or planet).
2) The disruptive inconvenience of elections. A related issue in democracies, is that every election year the business of governing the country effectively comes to a halt. Little practical can be achieved as politicians fight their own battles for survival. The election may bring about a change of government, and new personnel at the top, fresh faces inexperienced in the highly responsible jobs which they are now taking on. Policies may be reversed from one government to the next - hardly good news for the idea of stable progressive development of a package of policies.
(But perhaps better than the continuous promulgation of bad policies - an affliction which served the totalitarian Soviet Union poorly for 70 years).
3) The disadvantage of non-free thinking party politics. In most democracies, too many of the politicians are a waste of intellect, as loyalty to the party is deemed all-important. Too many politicians don't think for themselves or vote according to their beliefs - instead they vote according to the way the party tells them to vote.
(I could of course point out that free-thinking is also not necessarily encouraged in undemocratic regimes either!)
4) The disadvantage of adversarial party systems. A second party related issue (particularly in my country) is the adversarial system whereby rival parties feel duty-bound to oppose each other and condemn each other's point of view at every opportunity. So much time is wasted in parliament with stupid sniping, taunting and bickering, when constructive analytical debate would be more helpful. A compulsion to oppose rivals seems irresistible - if Party A develops a policy with ten advantages and one small drawback, you can bet your bottom dollar that Party B will focus on the drawback, and so try to discredit the whole package.
(Dictators are free from adversarial politics - they imprison or execute adversaries).
Advantages of Democracy
1) Democracy provides for changes in government and policy without violence. This is quite remarkable when you think about it. In democratic elections, huge levels of power can be transferred from one group or from one individual to another by peaceful means. In a non-democratic system, it is almost impossible for a very radical change of direction to occur without major civil unrest or civil war, military coup, or assassination.
2) Democracy prevents arrogant monopoly by the ruling regime. Democratic government is bound by an election term after which it has to submit itself to a popular vote to retain authority. The ruling regime has to make sure it works for its people. It cannot ignore the people if it is to remain in power.
3) Democracy lends authority to the government. A president or prime minister who has won victory in a free election retains a moral authority to speak which no unelected leader possesses. Even if the leader is not universally liked and no longer supported, the majority of the population will at least respect his/her right to govern until the end of his term of office.
4) Democracy ensures a sense of belonging to a society. One important facet of democracy is that the people feel a sense of participation in the process of choosing their government, and the making of decisions. Even in true democracies, people may complain about feeling ostracised in society, and of their voices remaining unheard, because unfortunately not everyone can have their views acted upon favourably, but at least in a democracy there is the opportunity to be heard - try openly criticising the government in an authoritarian one party state or dictatorship and see what happens.
5) Democracy ensures freedom of the press and judiciary. Press freedom and independence of the police and judiciary is only truly possible in a democracy. Even here, governments may seek to limit such freedoms, sometimes with reasonable justification (for example to secure the nation against acts of terrorism or espionage), but at least in a democracy, the level of freedom in society can be openly debated. The pressure group 'Reporters Without Borders' which campaigns for the journalistic freedom to report without censorship, publishes an annual list of countries ranked according to restrictions on freedom of information. (See  for latest report, or  for 2010 figures). Comparing this list of 179 nations to a table of democracy published by the Economist Intelligence Unit , and illustrated on Wikipedia's Democracy Index page , all of the 20 freest countries are described as democracies or 'flawed democracies'. Almost all the bottom 20 - the least free - are authoritarian regimes.
6) Democracy is a fundamental right. Finally, I return to the main theme of this piece. Although there are undoubted disadvantages to the democratic process, as well as advantages, one single point outweighs all others:
It is unarguably, unquestionably wrong that one person or one group of human beings should by sheer force of might or accident of birth, dominate all other human beings and dictate without constraint, how they should lead their lives.
Mechanisms and Procedures of Democratic Election
How a democratic government may be constituted, and how rights and ideals are exercised and regulated, is a matter for each individual nation to determine, as unfortunately there can be no perfect electoral system which will always produce the result which exactly mirrors the wishes of all the people.
In truth there are a great many ways of practising democracy and very many ways of electing democratic governments ranging from 'direct democracy' (full public participation in decision making via referendums and similar devices) to 'parliamentary democracy' (citizens elect politicians to represent them in a legislative assembly, and these politicians then decide who will govern) to 'presidential democracy' (in which the public directly elect the nation's head of state, and possibly a separate and independent legislature).
My country - the United Kingdom - is a parliamentary democracy in which there has long been an impassioned debate concerning the best system by which to elect a government. Arguments have raged for decades over whether 'first past the post ' or 'majority election' (the system currently employed) or 'proportional representation', is the most effective and democratic method. Without wishing to enter into that debate here, there are clear plusses and minuses for both systems relating to the fairness of political representation, the accountability of individual Members of Parliament to the people who elect them, and the stability of the resulting Government (See  for assessment of the pros and cons). The important point is that both systems are genuine attempts to produce effective and fair government through the will of the people, and as such both are democratic.
Many other issues remain perennially open for discussion. How long should the term of office of an elected parliament be? Both short term government of four years as in the case of America, and a longer term of seven years - until recently the norm for the French presidency - have their advantages and disadvantages. And who should have the vote? Ordinary law abiding men and women certainly. What about young people? Aged 21? Or 18? Or 16? What about criminals? Petty thieves or violent offenders? What about people with learning difficulties? Should the right to vote be open to all, or just a major part of the population? How should majority rule be regulated to avoid the oppression of the minority? Or should it be regulated at all? Conflicts of interest abound ; one man's right to be free from racial abuse is another man's restriction on freedom of speech. There are a multitude of issues and for most there is no clear right or wrong answer. All modern democracies continue to search for the magic formula, which - rather like the philosphopher's stone - does not exist.
The purpose of this little discourse is to make clear that whilst individual nations may differ over how best to exercise the right of the people to determine the governance of their country, the important point is that the fundamental principles of democracy should not be compromised. Whatever system is employed, the intent must be democratic - to produce a Government or leadership or a system of establishing laws and policies which involves, and has the support or at least the acceptance of, the majority of the people.
Freedom of the Press - (Reporters Without Borders)
To Fight for King and Country, or Democracy?
The cllchéd defence of the people implicated in Nazi atrocities in World War Two, was that they were 'only obeying orders'. Should one fight for one's national leader in time of war? Or for one's country? Or for some other reason? (Note, this is not a question of pacifism, which is another issue entirely - we are assuming a case for war may on occasion exist.)
No one should feel obliged to fight for their leader if the said leader is not democratically elected. Why should they? A man or party which has gained power through force of military might, who has ruthlessly suppressed all dissent, and who has not allowed opposition to their rule by peaceful means, has no moral legitimacy whatsoever, and there is no reason to respect their decrees.
And it follows that one should also not feel obliged to fight for their country, if the country is ruled by such a man or such a party. Frankly it is better by far to be deemed unpatriotic than to fight for a cause which is evil. But would it really have been unpatriotic for Germans in the 1930s and 40s to have refused to fight for a nation led by a tyrant who was set on violent overthrow of sovereign democracies and racial annihilation? I think not.
Of course, the reality of the situation frequently conflicts with the ethics. To refuse to fight may well risk denunciation and severe punishment as a traitor or a deserter, as well as persecution of one's family. So one cannot necessarily condemn those who fight in the cause of an evil regime, but one can at least state that patriotism is most definitely not a justifiable excuse for fighting.
To sum up, one should not feel obliged to fight for an unelected leader, and one should not feel obliged to fight for a country if the cause is wrong and is advocated by a leader with no legitimacy. Fighting for a democracy is different. I am well aware that many condemn Western governments which 'meddle' in the affairs of other nations, such as has happened all too frequently in recent years, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, but whatever one's views on the rights and wrongs of those wars, at least they were conducted by governments with the legitimacy of being elected by popular vote, subject to a free exchange of opinions and criticisms, and open to subsequent rejection by the people.