This is funny. It's from the fortune file, so I suppose a pinch of salt is required:

Democracy, n.:
A government of the masses. Authority derived through mass meeting or any other form of direct expression. Results in mobocracy. Attitude toward property is communistic... negating property rights. Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it is based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences. Result is demagogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy.

-- U. S. Army Training Manual No. 2000-25 (1928-1932),
since withdrawn.

Democracy is the only game in town. There's no other ethically viable way to have a country governed. Democracy is based on the idea that a people should govern themselves, basically, but that doesn't mean that a mob will rule, because no decent democracy does without a basic set of rules that cannot be changed by anyone. In the German constitution, the very first articles containing the Rights of Man and the Civil Rights are thus guaranteed to last eternally.

The only working kind of democracy we know is representative democracy, where every adult citizen of a country is regularly allowed to vote for representatives in common, equal, free and secret elections. These representatives then make laws, enforce them, nominate delegate officials and institutions to enforce them, and implement 'standards control' by manning or installing courts of law.

To prevent a democracy from being corrupted somehow, many techniques have been devised by wise men such as Montesquieu (Montesquieu is my hero, by the way). Those techniques include:

  • Horizontal division of powers: There's an executive power, a legislative power and a jurisdictive power.
  • Vertical division of powers a/k/a federalism: In Germany, we've got the federation, the federal states, then there are governmental districts, counties, townships -- you get the picture. Every administrational layer has adequate competencies and a say in the affairs of the layers sitting on top of it.
  • Checks and balances: An intricate network between the powers to make sure that their competencies remain equally distributed, that they've got an equal say.
  • Immunity and indemnity: Makes sure that a representative (say, a senator) cannot be legally held responsible for decisions he made in his political role. Also makes sure that he cannot be jailed for some mushy reason during the term for which he's elected. This ensures absolute independence for government officials.
  • Expenses: Ideally, the state should pay for any expense of any elected official and make it a crime for them to accept money from anyone else. This prevents corruption.
  • Codified law: Every administrational procedure should be specified in a sufficiently exact way, to prevent people bending the law and/or constitution out of shape.

A modern democracy is a very delicate and complex machinery. Democracy is characterised by the fact that people always complain the loudest when it works best, and that there is no police terror ensuring peaceful and quiet streets. Democracy has helped increase both the material and the ethical standard of living in any country where it was ever effectively implemented. A working democracy leads to prolific intellectual, scientific and industrial output in a country.

"Ignorant participation is not democratic." - attributed to Thomas Jefferson

"Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated." - G. K. Chesterton, New York Times, February 1, 1931

"Democracy means government by discussion but it is only effective if you can stop people talking." - Clement Attlee, in Anatomy of Britain (Anthony Sampson, 1962)

"Man's capacity for evil makes democracy necessary and man's capacity for good makes democracy possible." - Reinhold Niebuhr, quoted by Anthony Wedgwood Benn in The Times, July 18, 1977

"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting." - Tom Stoppard, Jumpers, 1972

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." - Winston Churchill

"Democracy is a State which recognizes the subjection of the minority to the majority, that is, an organization for the systematic use of force by one class against the other, by one part of the population against another." - Lenin, State and Revolution

As others here have pointed out, the United States is not a democracy, it is a republic. People seem to think that the fact that they can vote means that they're participating in a democratic process. If you take time to look at how elections, or any other kind of voting work, you'll notice that it is based solely on persuasion in better cases, or corruption in worst cases.

Take for example the whole election industry, those election advisers which can win or lose presidential elections, or the system of lobbying. These institutions commoditize the persons or legislation which they support, in an attempt to produce demand for these commodities. This, of course, is just another extension of imperialist capitalism. But please don't infer that i am a communist. Communism simply wishes to replace the dictatorship of capital with that of the proletariat.

Do you really think you have a say in what your government is doing? Do you think your government is listening to you? Do you think you'll be able to read and understand the text of one law, any law? (If you have the money to pay to aquire the text, as some laws are copyrighted by private organizations.) Because the republic works by persuasion, it is in its interests to keep the masses uninformed and uneducated.

But there is an alternative. Let me quote here from Lou Harrison's Political Primer:

'...The offices of a Democracy are filled by lottery from among the eligible citizens. There exists no democracy of any size in 1958 as far as I know. The jury system of the government of Americans is democratic, but it is not a government. However matters of profound and often complex justice, including matters of life and death, are confidently entrusted to it...
'The advantages of a Democracy are obvious: simplicity of laws and transactions so that all would know them, for it might fall to anyone to fill an office, respect for knowledge and consequently for education; friendliness, the pleasure of chance (almost like "chance of birth"), and also, importantly, privacy...'

Yes, Utopia!!!

Written for Political Science 101 last term at the University of Waterloo. Node your homework they said...

Democracy is more than an election every few years, a familiar process removed from the daily grind until it comes time to tick a small box on a larger piece of paper. It is instead more about people than protocol, more magical and less mechanical. We should see it in terms of an ideal to which our institutions and practices strive towards, rather than the view that these infrastructures come about as a result of this intangible juggernaut of democracy. Democracy is not a construct of man, it is instead a set of ideals and values we seek.

The typical citizen of a liberal democratic society does not have much to say about democracy except when confronted by “man on the street” interviews or whenever your particular national holiday rolls around. This apathy is not a result of genuine malice, but more a testament to the fact that our particular implementation of the idea of democracy works so well it is almost transparent. No mobs run loose through his streets at night, no men dressed in black come to “talk” to him in the early hours of the morning. His roads, sewer, electricity and television hum day and night without losing a beat. In a more direct sense, his government functions properly and does not become a burden to him. The pleasant life he leads is a direct result of a democratic society functioning properly, and it is his very right as a citizen of this society to ignore it on a daily basis.

This individualistic view of democracy cannot hold in all situations. It works for general day to day circumstances, however even the most right-wing of individualist thinkers holds a belief that under certain circumstances, citizens have a duty to perform certain tasks for the state. These duties may be mundane, such as paying taxes or voting, or extreme, such as defending one’s nation. All have a common thread, that which citizens as a member of a state have certain natural duties. Democracy cannot exist without its members participating in it, this is a fundamental requirement. These natural duties may vary from time to time but the constant is that they always exist in some capacity or another. Democracy is based upon many citizens performing small duties, instead of a small group of citizens controlling many responsibilities.

The concept of working together is one that democracy builds itself upon. Democracy is the rule of the people, not a person. It fulfills the innate human need to guide one’s destiny, through even such a small part as filling out a ballot. The fact that democracy is based on such emotionally appealing ideas should give you some conception as to the reasons for its success. Hobbes may have argued that we need someone to control us, but in the end, what we all really want is to control ourselves. The fact that democracy is able to take a selfish desire, such as the want to control the state, and turn it into a government which acts for the good of all is further evidence as to the robustness of the democratic ideal.

Democracy is an enduring dream, contrary to the doomed wunderkinds of communism and other governments based on theory not practice. While superior in their vision of a utopia on paper, they come against one fundamental flaw, namely people tend to run toward the jerk side of the personality scale. Communism without greed would indeed be utopia but the real world runs up against tangible problems with this. You cannot remove greed from a man by political posturing no more than you can paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra. It may pass on first inspection, but when it comes down to the most basic of things, you tend to run into a few problems. The reason democracy works in the physical realm is it engages in political judo, in that it takes men’s selfishness and desires, parries them into another direction unpredicted by the man, all with the full momentum of his swing still behind him. It has survived from the ancient Greeks to this present day for this very reason.

The initial view of democracy as we know it was conceived by the Greeks, however the practical application of democracy we have today is drastically different from their view. Initially it was the concept that every citizen (citizens being of course aristocratic males) would have a say in the management of the state. Today however we have a different conception of this democratic ideal. Pure practicality dictates that we cannot have the entire community attempt to come to a conclusion on issues addressed by the state. This was practical in the Greek age where a manageable number would discuss the issues of the day, but this is not feasible in this day and age where our world population is measured in billions. The fundamental thing to remember however is that the ideal of democracy survives between this gulf of years and culture.

This romanticism of democracy is the root of its power. The society we live in values the ideals held by the democratic system, and as such we accept it as a ruling influence in our lives. An example of this is the Prime Minister being a “public servant”. Only in the strictest most idealistic sense is he a genuine servant of the people; however we call him such without a hint of irony as we value the democratic ideal so highly. All politicians are crooks we tell each other, yet we keep on voting. Why, when we so enthusiastically hate the dictators and Marcos of the world who embezzle funds? The answer lies in that we see democracy as striving toward an ideal. No man is perfect, but they’re working on it. This contradiction between reality and the psyche is at the heart of any power, and in Western countries it is what tells us that democracy is the cure for all that ills a state.

Contradiction is fundamental to democracy. Democracy brings us together we are told, it is the great equalizer. All men are born equal, none shall be held in higher esteem than another. One citizen shall have one vote. All say that the members of a democratic state are inherently equal. On the other hand we have Canada, a liberal democratic society, in which multiculturalism is not only encouraged but has an official policy to address it. Differences are encouraged, and any attempt to insinuate that we should all become equal is dismissed as right-wing xenophobia. Where then is the balance? Democracy gives us equality, but it also gives us the right to be different. It is the fine line between the two, a tightrope act of titanic proportions. The balance must not swing too far one way or the other, lest the acrobat be unset and come crashing down. The democratic ideal allows us to weigh multiculturalism and its variants against solidarity and never find a clear winner. It allows us to value them equally, as this is the ultimate measure of equality.

Equality can lead to problems however, if democracy becomes the rule of the “most equal”. A tyranny of the majority is completely democratic in the most literal sense of the word in that the majority chooses for it to be so, however it is unpalatable to many in our society. This is due to the fact that we see democracy in more than just the literal sense, we see it as a shining ideal. This ideal would not allow trampling of minority rights, and as discussed before, the ideal of democracy is the fine balance between differences and solidarity. As such we cannot allow this tyranny, permitted as it is in a literal interpretation of a democratic society. The democratic ideal implies compassion and empathy, more than just cold cruel statistics of fifty percent plus one.

The democratic ideal hinges on this idea of not allowing technicalities and numbers to become the ruling force instead of a vision of participation by all. Common occurrences such as majority governments being elected by a minority as seen as undemocratic, even though in the strictest sense they follow literal democracy. If your system is built upon the philosophy that a leader is elected indirectly through grouping voters into regions, this is particularly apparent. The recent Florida fiasco in the American elections is a particularly apt example of this. Counting non-participating voters and the popular vote, a leader was elected who received far less support from his citizens than a majority. While seen as undemocratic and a travesty, at the same time it is completely by the book.

Unfortunately, there is no book of democracy. We instead view democracy as an ideal not a construct. It is not a point by point leaflet we can airdrop over dictatorships, but instead an attitude that results from culture and history. It is a result of directing people’s desires toward solidarity, and at the same time respecting differences. While at time contradictory and awkward, it endures. It endures due to the fact that democracy is a dream not a document, and dreams are not easily lost.

Democracy is often defined as a system of government where the people are in control of how the government operates, what laws it passes, and how things get done. In modern times, however, we must look at how the definition of democracy has changed, and in which ways things are done differently in today’s era than in historic times.

The concept of Democracy first began in ancient Greece. At that time, the ruling body of most countries consisted of rich nobles and a royal family made up of a king, queen, and their children. The city-states of Greece were set up in a different fashion, however. Each citizen of the city (excluding slaves) was a member of the general assembly. When it was time for something to be decided, the assembly was called together, and the issue was presented to the entire present population. There would then be discussion about the issue, and a vote would be called. This type of government was a true democracy, as the day to day affairs of the city-state were controlled directly by the citizens. This system works well, as long as the number of citizens is relatively low. As population grew, the system became impractical (there were too many people for the government to hold effective meetings), and eventually the Greek democratic system collapsed and was replace with an imperial system, placing it on par with the other European countries.

Direct democracy was also tried in New England before the United States was formed. The New England town meetings were a form of direct democracy. Each year, the entire town would come together and vote on issues such as the tax rate and who the government officials for the year would be. In order for business to be conducted during a town meeting, it had to be on the “warrant” for the meeting. In order for a citizen to get their idea onto the warrant for discussion and a vote at the next meeting, they were required to form a petition and have it signed by at least one hundred registered voters in the community. Once the discussion topics for the meeting were decided, a date would be set and the meeting would be advertised. In order for there to be any votes, there had to be a quorum of voters present. These meetings are still held each year in some parts of New England; however it is not a common form of government today.

Over time, democracy gradually changed to become similar in definition to a republic. In a republic, the people do not vote directly on the issues, they instead vote for representatives to make those choices for them. This is a representative form of government, where there is a small group of people who wield the power of the government, but they are chosen by the people, not by a royal blood-line. This form of government encourages the representatives to do as their constituents wish, or they will likely not be reelected. For example, if a congressman decides to vote ‘No’ on a particular legal bill, but many of the people that originally voted for him disagree with that position, when it comes time for re-election, they may think twice before re-electing him. Perhaps they will vote for a different candidate who agrees with their viewpoints.

The term democracy can also be used to describe a societal state where all people are treated equally. By this definition, even the original Greek democracies were not true democracies, as all people were not treated equally (the slaves could not vote). This form of the definition is often used today by countries that are by no means democratic, but want to appear as such. One example of this is the People’s Republic of China. While they may claim to be a democratic state (hence their name, The People’s Republic), they are actually a Communist dictatorship. Communism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A theory which advocates a state of society in which there should be no private ownership, all property being vested in the community and labour organized for the common benefit of all members; the professed principle being that each should work according to his capacity, and receive according to his wants.” Communism is a system of government that is designed in such a way that everybody has what they need to live, and are expected to work at a set task within their capabilities. In its pure form, it seems like a good idea; however it never works out as such. Because of the way communism works, all people are treated more or less equally (the state gives you what you need, and you work where they tell you to). However, people are not treated equally completely, and there is a strong ruling class above the citizens that they often have little or no control over. Those people that are wealthy end up with their voice heard more in the government, and the less fortunate have no say whatsoever in the operation of the government. In any dictatorship that claims to be a democracy, yearly elections may be held, but often times there will be only one political party running (usually Communist or Socialist). A voter’s only choice may be to either vote or not vote, they don’t actually get to chose what they are voting for. This is a far cry from a democracy, as the people have no real choice as to how the government is run. If other political parties were allowed to run, giving the people a chance to change how the government was managed, maybe then these countries could be called true democracies, at least in some respects.

In conclusion, while democracy does define a system in which the people can run the government, it is infeasible to implement that definition fully. Unless the body being governed is very small, it is necessary to find other ways to get things done, such as having a republic system. So, while the definition of what people believe that democracy is has changed over the years, the definition itself is still the same. Different systems of government have varying amounts of similarity to a true democratic system, and thus call themselves democracies; however it is very rare for a government to be a “true” democracy.

De*moc"ra*cy (de*mok"ra*sy), n.; pl. Democracies (- siz). [F. démocratie, fr. Gr. δημοκρατὶα ; δημος the people + κρατειν to be strong, to rule, κρὰτος strength.]


Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is retained and directly exercised by the people.


Government by popular representation; a form of government in which the supreme power is retained by the people, but is indirectly exercised through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed; a constitutional representative government; a republic.


Collectively, the people, regarded as the source of government.



The principles and policy of the Democratic party, so called. [U.S.]


© Webster 1913.

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