Key Democratic Principles
The word ‘democracy’ has its origins in the Greek language. It combines two shorter words: ‘demos’ meaning whole citizen living within a particular city-state and ‘kratos’ meaning power or rule. See this ABC discussion paper on teaching democracy in the primary school.
It is generally agreed that liberal democracies are based on four main principles:
- A belief in the individual: since the individual is believed to be both moral and rational;
- A belief in reason and progress: based on the belief that growth and development is the natural condition of mankind and politics the art of compromise;
- A belief in a society that is consensual: based on a desire for order and co-operation not disorder and conflict;
- A belief in shared power: based on a suspicion of concentrated power (whether by individuals, groups or governments).
See Playing Fair, a website by the Parliamentary Education Office.
The Democratic Framework
A liberal democracy (that is, one that champions the development and well-being of the individual) is organised in such a way as to define and limit power so as to promote legitimate government within a framework of justice and freedom. There are four critical elements to the framework:
- freedom; and
A legitimate government is one that has the appropriate mandate/authority to rule. This usually means a high degree of popular support as demonstrated by a free electorate and frequent elections.
- For example, the government is chosen by a popular vote in which a majority of officials in a majority of electoral regions receive the majority vote; and
- For example, rules are framed to maximize the well-being of all or most citizens.
Justice is achieved when citizens live in an environment in which all citizens are treated equally and accorded dignity and respect. This may occur in a representative democracy that is tempered by constitutionalism, free elections and restraints on power.
- For example, the demands made by vested interest groups seeking special privileges are questioned; and
- for example, society is encouraging of talent and rewards citizens on merit, rather than on rank, privilege or status.
If freedom is to exist, there must be:
- self-determination such that citizens may make decisions, learn from them and accept responsibility for them;
- the capacity to choose between alternatives;
- the autonomy to do what the law does not forbid; and where prohibitions do exist, they should be for the common good; and
- respect for political and civil liberties. For example, government intervention in political, economic and moral matters affecting the citizenry is limited or regulated; and the scope for religious, political and intellectual freedom of citizens is not limited.
In a liberal democracy efforts are made to define and limit power, often by means of a written constitution. Checks and balances, such as the separation of the Parliament, senior government and judicial power, are instituted. In addition, there are conventions of behaviour and a legal system that complements the political system.
- For example, civil liberties are defended and increased against the encroachment of governments, institutions and powerful forces in society.
There is no absolute definition of democracy. The term is elastic and expands and contracts according to the time, place and circumstances of its use. What follows is a short list of definitions provided by field experts.
But first, what does democracy mean? In Ancient Greece some cities were democracies, others were oligarchies. Democracy meant rule by the people, oligarchy meant rule by the few. So a city was a democracy if:
- city affairs were subject to an Assembly;
- to which all male citizens belonged;
- and in which decisions were made by simple majority vote.
Rule by the people; democracy implies both popular participation and government in the public interest, and can take a wide variety of forms.
Dr John Hirst
Democracy: A democracy is a society in which the citizens are sovereign and control the government.
The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.
Schumpeter adds that ‘the classical theory of democracy attributed to the electorate an altogether unrealistic degree of initiative which practically amounted to ignoring leadership.’
Further, Schumpeter claimed that,
… the purpose of democratic method [is] not to select representatives who carry out the will of the people, but to choose individuals who [will] govern on their behalf.
- Who are ‘the people’? Who is not? Are young people included?
- How is it possible for ‘the people’ to rule in largely differentiated societies? and
- How do we classify systems in which leaders are not elected but are nevertheless supported by the majority of people?
Key democratic practices
As proposed by Robert Dahl, Schmitter and Karl, and Larry Diamond.
- Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.
- Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon.
- Practically all adults have the right to vote in the election of officials.
- Practically all adults have te right to run for elective offices in the government.
- Citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined.
- Citizens have a right to seek out alternative sources of information. Moreover, alternative sources of information exist and are protected by law.
- Citizens also have the right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.
- Elected officials are able to exercise their powers without fear of being overridden.
- The polity is self-governing; and able to act independently of constraints imposed by others.
- People have the freedom to speak and publish dissenting views.
Different types of democracies
- Direct democracy
- Representative democracy
- Constitutional democracy
- Monitory democracy
In a direct democracy, such as ancient Athens, all citizens (only adult males who had completed their military training; women, slaves and plebs were not citizens) are invited to participate in all political decisions. This form of democracy is no longer practiced. In this form of democracy citizens are continuously involved in the exercise of power and decision is by majority rule.
In a representative democracy, representatives are elected by the people and entrusted to carry out the business of governance. Australia is a representative democracy.
In a constitutional democracy a constitution outlines who will represent the people and how. Australia is also a constitutional democracy.
Political scientist John Keane suggests that a new form of democracy is evolving in which government is constantly monitored in its exercise of power by a vast array of public and private agencies, commissions and regulatory mechanisms. See Life and Death of Democracy by John Keane, published by Simon and Schuster UK in 2009.