Democracy: The Meaningful Word That Means Nothing at All?

I’ve lost count of the amount of times political commentators have uttered the phrase ‘Libya and the Middle East need democracy’.

Democracy, many of us would agree, is a popular and good thing due to the fact it is considered the moral and right way for a nation to be governed. Stemming from the Greek meaning ‘rule of the people’ the word democracy has been thrown around within political discourse to mean a variety of things and the simple fact is ‘rule of the people’ does not get us very far in truly understanding what democracy means in the 21st century.

The problem with democracy is, ironically, its popularity. The concept of democracy is under threat from its sheer popularity and is slowly being undone as a meaningfulness political concept. Democracy has come to be used as little more than a ‘hurrah!’ word implying nothing more than acceptance for a vague collection of ideas and governmental organisation.

It is funny to think that up until 100 years ago democracy was viewed in a relatively negative light. Even in Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, philosophers such as Plato viewed democracy as a system of ‘mob rule’ at the expense of philosophical wisdom and property. Now we are all democrats, as Andrew Heywood stated. All ideologies throughout history have been keen to democratic their democratic mandate and even with the movement away from ideology after the Cold War, the flames of democracy shine ever brighter in a world of more pragmatic politics – but what does it really mean?

Democracy as we know it today is known within modern political discourse as ‘liberal democracy’ and is the system of rule in most advanced nations. Despite this link with advanced and often prosperous nations, this style of government democracy has been questioned by political philosophers. Liberal democracy, for those who may not be familiar with the term, is a theory of democracy by which democracy is indirect and representative with regular elections of candidates to a parliament. It operates through party competition and freedom of choice by voters and importantly sees a difference between the state and society meaning that autonomous groups and private property can prosper.

However this system relies on the representation of the average man, yet we only have to look at the people in governments around the world to question this assertion liberal democracy makes. Take the UK for example; a large proportion of the UK cabinet is made up of middle-class men who were privately educated with an Oxford PPE degree. Usually they have done nothing but go straight into the battlefield of party politics. There is a definite question over whether these people in government actually represent the average working man in his daily life when the life of a politician and a working man seem to be at polar opposites.

Another problem with liberal democracy could be that the average man is too apathetic towards politics to keep an effective watch over the people they have elected to represent them. Many people feel that we have elected these people and that is our only role within the democratic system, however every citizen who voted upholds the right to follow and question government action. There is also a philosophical problem with voting as it seems to only benefits the majority who voted with the government at the expense of the minority who didn’t and this raises questions as to how government should be ‘fair’ to the minority who didn’t vote with the government. (This is a massive topic in itself and I will do an article on minorities and majorities in politics in the future.)

One way of combating this apathy could be to develop forms of citizen participation. This could either be at a local level or through selecting members of the public at random to sit in on local council meetings or similar government bodies. This would give everyone the experience of being a political active citizen in much the same way as the Athenian system of government operated. Experience that is gained in this way raises peoples political awareness and competence and makes them more likely to take a continuing interest in political affairs, for example it may encourage them to join a political party or be on the floor of political TV show. Democracy it can therefore be concluded is not an all-or-nothing matter as political commentators would have us believe, but is a continual struggle to give people final authority over the affairs of the state – especially the state that they have elected.

Now to come back to the comment I made earlier on democracy in the Middle East. It is clear that when commentators speak of ‘democracy’ in the Middle East they are referring to liberal democracy. Yet one of the assumptions of liberal democracy is freedom of choice. It seems an ironic nicety that NATO seems to be pushing through their view of what is ‘good and proper’ on the people of Libya and other areas in the Middle East. I’m not for one minute defending the regime of Gaddafi and the like, but it seems that it should be down to the people of Libya and no one else to decide what direction to take their country politically, after all it is the people of Libya who have spilt so much blood for such an important course. Whenever an autocratic regime falls through people power, democracy is thrown around by external commentators as a word to mean a ‘good’ governmental system. But to blanket statement democracy as ‘good government’ is the miss the point of an important concept (‘what is good government?’) within political philosophy.

I hope I haven’t come across as being anti-democracy or this article really hasn’t served it purpose. I am firmly pro-democracy and despite the questionable nature of liberal democracy I believe it to be the best system of rule in the 21st century. Democracy however to me can only be true democracy when it is the thing the Greeks and many right-wing political theorists argue against – direct democracy. Only under a system of direct democracy do I feel we have achieved ‘rule of the people’ and I would strongly recommend reading up on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opinion on democracy for more information on direct democracy.

The point of this article was to show how democracy is not a static concept meaning anything good about politics. As a word it is used in regard to serious issues such as those in the Middle East, yet the way it has been used over the past 100 years seems to have watered down the true meaning and resulted in the word being nothing more than a ‘meaningful word that means nothing at all.’

I would like to finish on an interesting quote that I hope will provoke you as the reader to read into the massive political and philosophical debate behind democracy:

“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing. Thus, by the use they make of their brief moments of liberty, they deserve to lose it.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

October 5, 2011 / Matthew Beebee 

3 thoughts on “Democracy: The Meaningful Word That Means Nothing at All?

  1. I like the reasoning behind your article. The word democracy IS indeed thrown about quite frequently in modern discourse, yet it does not even exist in the proper sense. The “democratic” systems of today are actually republics modeled after the Roman school of government.

  2. Pingback: Opinion: Democracy – The Meaningful Word That Means Nothing At All? | The Open Wall

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