A democracy is a governmental system where the authority of the state is based on the will of the people. While this definition has fairly widespread agreement, a more explicit and concrete definition is elusive. It is even more elusive in practice. In , Robert Dahl suggests that a democracy should meet the following criteria:

  • Effective participation. Citizens must have equal and effective opportunities to make known their views about new policies.
  • Voting equality. All citizens should have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal.
  • Enlightened understanding. Each citizen must have suitable opportunities and a reasonable amount of time to learn about relevant alternative policies and their implications.
  • Control of the agenda. Citizens must have the ability to control the agenda of discussion and to modify it continually to include relevant items.
  • Inclusion of all adults. All adults living under the authority of the government should have full rights to participate in the decision-making process, regardless of race, age, gender, or ethnicity.

Rights of Citizens

One of the defining aspects of democracy is that people have certain inviolable rights, and it is it the protection of those rights that counterbalances the potential for a “tyranny of the majority.” In the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas described three basic sets of rights.

  • Human rights. An individual’s basic rights as a human and as a citizen. Elements of the set include the right to have a conjugal family and the familiar rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Rights of rational-critical debate. To support effective monitoring of the state apparatus by the citizenry, democracies must protect rights to freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly and association. These include the political functions of the right to petition and the equality of voting.
  • Property ownership. This right gives citizens a stake in what happens in society. Thus, individuals in a democracy normally have equal right to the ownership of private property, which is supported by laws protecting the fair exchange of property.

Responsibilities of Citizens

Beyond having rights by virtue of being citizens, Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, in Democracy and Disagreement, emphasize that citizens also have civic responsibilities. Of course, most people recognize that conforming to laws and voting are part of their civic duty. However, for democracy to function well and for citizens to fulfill their role as a counterbalance to governmental power, citizens must stay abreast, at least to some degree, of current affairs and social issues, political candidates, and governmental policies.

The formation of public opinion is not just an aggregation of votes. No person can decide an issue in isolation. Rather, we all participate in a continuous stream of information from various sources and communities, in which views are exchanged, explored, and shaped. The quality of this discourse process significantly affects the quality of the resulting collective will. Thus, Gutmann and Thompson offer principles that citizens should abide to protect the quality of deliberation, as follows:

  • Sense of reciprocity. The sense of reciprocity asks discussants to “put themselves in the shoes” of others who represent contrary positions and to seek to appeal to shared reasons. This is similar to Habermas’ principle of discourse ethics, but seems to stress a more empathetic attitude toward considering the situation from the other’s viewpoint beyond rational argumentation.
  • Value of publicity. Valuing publicity asks the participants in deliberation, including both public officials and citizens, to justify publicly their actions and positions by supporting them with reasons.
  • Scope of accountability. Managing the scope of accountability asks participants to be accountable to parties whom they represent in deliberation and to ensure that voices that should be included are in fact included.

Is Democracy the Best Form of Government?

Well, of course it depends on what criteria you use. However, my belief is that democracy is the best realizable form of government currently known. Certainly, it has its flaws in theory and practice, but it is the best of what we have.

  • Democracies do not go to war with each other
  • The standards of living are the highest in democracies
  • Individual rights are most protected in a democracy
  • Justice, fairness, and the voice of the citizens are held as ideals

Stages of Democracy

In Democracy and its Critic’s, Robert Dahl suggested that democracy has an evolutionary progression. Athenian democracy was the first stage of democracy, and the current representative form is the second stage. We may now be moving into a third stage of democracy, which I call networked democracy.