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What is democracy?

Bernard Crick noted that democracy is 'perhaps the most promiscous word' in political discourse. Therefore, establishing precisely what is meant by 'democracy' is a difficult task. 

The word finds its roots in the Greek 'Demokratia'; which translates to 'rule' (kratos) by 'the people' (demos). This Ancient Greek conception of democracy was 'direct' in that the people themselves participated in the decision making. Whereas, modern 'representational' democracy sees people elect politicians to do that decision making for them. 

The former model of democracy is more faithful to the idea of 'rule by the people', whereas, the latter 'representational' model perhaps provides a more practical method of government. 

Beyond this distinction between direct and representational democracy there are a host of other questions that can be raised. Is democracy merely the existence of free elections, or does it entail a wider provision of rights and freedoms? If so, at what point can we define a state as being truly democratic? Are there degrees of democracy, or is it a binary state?

Therefore, it is clear that the concept of democracy is perhaps more difficult to establish than one might imagine. Perhaps a better way to establish the nature of democracy, is to establish what it isnt. Democracy isnt a dictatorship or an absolute monarchy. Power should not be entirely vested in an individual or a small elite. In a democracy citizens must have a level of control over their leaders. Abraham Lincoln's proclamation that representative democracy should be 'of the people, by the people and for the people' is perhaps the most succint encapsulation of this idea.

Angus H.

11 months ago

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