What Is Democracy?

'Every man to count for one and no one to count for more than one.' This formula... seems to me to form the heart of the doctrine of equality or of equal rights, and has colored much liberal and democratic thought. Like many familiar phrases of political philosophy it is vague, ambiguous, and has changed in connotation from one thinker and society to another. Nevertheless it appears, more than any other formula, to constitute the irreducible minimum of the ideal of equality.

- Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins of democracy. In the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln called it “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”, but the word democracy appears nowhere in the American Constitution; the French Revolution was fought for Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and the most that Churchill claimed for it was that it was “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The Athenian city state famously practised participatory democracy, but neither Plato nor Socrates approved, the Romans turned their back on the idea of ‘mob rule’ and it is not until the nineteenth century that it becomes even moderately respectable to call oneself a democrat. So how did democracy rise to become the most cherished form of government in the world? In this programme we hope to trace the history of an idea across the cultures and centuries of Europe and the Middle East. And at a time when ideals of democracy are being thrown into stark relief by world events, we hope to gain a greater understanding of where democratic ideals have come from.

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Democracy on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

Americans strongly support democracy both at home and abroad.  But we are ambivalent about referendums (often in California, recently in Mississippi and in Greece), which put major decisions to the people as a whole.  We don’t fully trust “the people” to make legislative decisions.   Those who remember their civics classes will note that we have not a direct but a representative democracy (or a republic).  But many Americans don’t think we are really “represented” by the people we elect, and, recently, the suspicion has grown that we in fact live in a plutocracy — a nation governed by the wealthy.  But there are clearly also other elements that exercise  political power over us...

Continue reading Gary Gutting's article: Are We a Democracy?

Further Reading

...A vexing problem of democratic theory has been to determine whether ordinary citizens are up to the task of governing a large society. There are three distinct problems here. First, Plato (Republic, Book VI) argued that some people are more intelligent and more moral than others and that those persons ought to rule. Second, others have argued that a society must have a division of labor. If everyone were engaged in the complex and difficult task of politics, little time or energy would be left for the other essential tasks of a society. Conversely, if we expect most people to engage in other difficult and complex tasks, how can we expect them to have the time and resources sufficient to devote themselves intelligently to politics?

Third, since individuals have so little impact on the outcomes of political decision making in large societies, they have little sense of responsibility for the outcomes. Some have argued that it is not rational to vote since the chances that a vote will affect the outcome of an election are nearly indistinguishable from zero. Worse still, Anthony Downs has argued (1957, chap. 13) that almost all of those who do vote have little reason to become informed about how best to vote...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Democracy

Related Topics

Equality | Freedom | JusticeSociology | Voting

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