Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Representative Regime


Sidney Hook*, revised by Jean Bethke Elshtain
Encyclopedia Americana
January 1, 1989
Web article

Democracy. The word democracy has many meanings, but in the modern world its use signifies that the ultimate authority in political affairs rightfully belongs to citizens. There was a time when democrat was a term of abuse, virtually synonymous with mob rule or anarchy. Today democracy's connotations are honorable. This is especially true given the growth of democratic trends in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet empire. Dissidents in these societies evoked democracy as the ideal alternative to a bureaucratic, authoritarian state. A transition to democratic regimes appears to be a dominant political pattern at the end of the 20th century.

Whereas in centuries past there were principled opponents to democratic political rule, such antidemocrats are rarer today in nearly all societies. Democracy's opponents tend to be fundamentalists who favor theocratic regimes or adversaries who find democracy wanting because it seems not to meet certain abstract standards of justice or perfect freedom. Because democracy is so much in favor, even dictators and authoritarians embrace the democratic idiom to characterize their regimes and their actions. As a result, the 20th century has seen a proliferation in the meanings of democracy, though not all evocations of democracy, past or present, are credible. The leaders of the Soviet-dominated authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe called themselves "worker's republics" and wrapped themselves in the mantle of democracy. The People's Republic of China proclaims itself democratic even as protestors demanding freedom of speech and of the press, hallmarks of democratic polities, are routinely imprisoned. No one, it seems, wants to be called "antidemocratic."

In view of the variety of ways in which the term democracy is used, the only way to distinguish between arbitrary definitions and coherent ones is to observe under what circumstances positive or negative judgments are made concerning the absence or presence of democratic institutions. For example, when communists classified the former Soviet Union as a socialist democracy and denied that Spain under the regime of Gen. Francisco Franco had an organic democracy, the reasons listed for denying the democratic nature of the Spanish state would also apply to the communist states these advocates had labeled democratic.

The converse is also true. Defenders of Franco's authoritarian order characterized Spain as a democracy in some sense and scornfully rejected the view that communist countries were democracies in any sense. But the reasons they gave for refusing to describe communist regimes as democratic largely invalidated their ascription of a democratic character to Spain during the years of Franco's reign.

Concept of Democracy.

Proceeding in this way, and using the historical context to control specific applications of the term, a central or basic concept of democracy may be presented that will approximate most nonarbitrary uses. Democracy is a form of government in which the major decisions of governmentor the direction of policy behind these decisions rests directly or indirectly on the freely given consent of the majority of the adults governed. This makes democracy essentially a political concept even when it is used and sometimes misused to characterize nonpolitical institutions.

Democracy as a political process is obviously a matter of degree depending on the areas of society open to political debate and adjudication and the number of adults qualifying as citizens within the political system. The differences between nondemocratic and democratic states are sometimes characterized as being "merely" one of degree. But this rhetorical ploy is used to minimize and confuse the difference between democratic and nondemocratic states.

Freely Given Consent. It becomes necessary, therefore, to supplement the above definition with a working conception that will enable us to distinguish democratic regimes from others. One such working conception is the view that a democratic government is one in which the minority or its representatives may peacefully become the majority or the representatives of the majority. The presupposition is, of course, that this transition is made possible by, and expresses the freely given consent of, the majority of the adults governed. The implications of the presence of freely given consent call attention to the difference between ancient democracies, which stressed only majority rule as a validating principle, and modern democracies, which since the birth of the American republic have stressed the operating presence of inalienable rights.

Direct and Indirect Democracy. Before developing the implications of this distinction, it is necessary to dissolve certain misconceptions that have often plagued discussions of democracy. The first is the view that the only genuine democracy is "direct" democracy in which all citizens of the community are present and collectively pass on all legislation, as was practiced in ancient Athens or as is the case in a New England town meeting. From this point of view an "indirect" or "representative" democracy is not a democracy but a constitutional republic or commonwealth. This distinction breaks down because, literally construed, there can be no direct democracy if laws are defined not only in terms of their adoption but also in terms of their execution. Delegation of authority is inescapable in any political assemblage unless all citizens are in continuous service at all times, not only legislating but also executing the laws together. The basic question is whether the delegation of authority is reversiblecontrolled by those who delegated it.

Democracy versus Republic. The second misconception is the identification of, or confusion between, the terms democracy and republic. Strictly speaking, a republican form of government is one in which the position of the chief titular head of government is not hereditary. A republic can have an undemocratic form of government, whereas a monarchy can be a democracy. There is no necessary connection between the two terms, although particular regimes usually embody a complex mingling of republican and democratic principles.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights. Any community in which a majority of the adult population are slaves cannot be considered democratic. Nonetheless, there is a valid distinction between the kinds of government that existed in antiquity in which the freemen however limited in numbers were the source of ultimate political authority and governments in which the authority of government was vested in a dictator or an absolute monarch. The former were democracies, even though the free citizenry or its representatives recognized no limitation on the nature and exercise of their rule and others enjoyed no political rights. The result of elections in the ancient democracies often was the civil equivalent of a military victory, and vae victis ("woe to the vanquished") often described the fate of the defeated. Under such circumstances democratic rule was bloody, disorderly, and frequently a preface to the emergence of a strongman or dictator. Even where power was in the hands of the majority, there was no democracy in the modern sense, for minority rights were not considered.

With the emergence of a theory of human rights beginning in the 17th century and its explicit development in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and, above all, John Locke, the way was prepared for a conception of democracy in which the principle of majority rule was a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The will of the majority was to enjoy democratic legitimacy only if it was an expression of freely given consent. The specific provisions of the U.S. Bill of Rights and the unwritten, but not unspoken, assumptions of the British constitution after the Cromwellian revolution expressed the limits set by human rights on the power of ruling majorities, minorities, or monarchs.

Majorities could do everything except deprive minorities of their civil rights, including freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly and the right to a fair trial, the exercise of which might enable the minority to win over the electorate and come to power. Minorities might do everything within the context of these human rights to present their case, but so long as they accepted the principles of democratic organization, they were bound by the outcome of the give and take of free discussion until another opportunity for persuasion might present itself. Since unanimity among human beings about matters of great concern is impossible, the majority principle, insofar as it truly respects human rights, is the only one that makes democracy a viable alternative to tyranny, whether ancient or modern.

Conditions for Democratic Rule

What are the signs of freely given consent, or under what conditions is it present? Briefly, freely given consent exists when there is no physical coercion or threat of coercion employed against expression of opinion; when there is no arbitrary restriction placed on freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly; where there is no monopoly of propaganda by the ruling party; and where there is no institutional control over the instruments or facilities of communication. These are minimal conditions for the existence of freely given consent. In their absence a plebiscite, even if unanimous, is not democratically valid.

These may be considered negative conditions for the presence of democratic rule. But it may be necessary for a government to take positive measures to ensure that different groups in the population have access to the means by which public opinion is swayed. If, for example, an individual or a group had a monopoly of newsprint or television channels and barred those with contrary views from using them, both the spirit and letter of democracy would be violated.

Informed Citizenry. Philosophers of democracy, especially Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and John Dewey, have called attention to certain positive conditions the presence of which quickens and strengthens the democratic process. Foremost among these is the availability of education, allowing for an informed and critical awareness of the issues and problems of the times. If the avenues of communication are open, an educated electorate can become aware of the consequences and costs of past policies and of the present alternatives.

If, as the 17th-century philosopher Barukh Spinoza declared, men and women may be enslaved by their ignorance, uninformed freedom of choice may lead to disaster. It is this fear of mass ignorance or the excitability and gullibility of "the herd" that is one root of opposition to democracy. The more informed and better educated the electorate, the healthier the democracy is. This, at least, has been the nearly universal claim of most democratic theorists. But modern means of mass communication and persuasion, especially political advertising, present challenges to this fondly held dictum of democratic faith. How does one distinguish between unacceptable manipulation of the citizenry and wholly legitimate efforts to persuade? There is no consensus on these matters, and the debate promises to grow more intense given the explosion in information technology in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Citizen Participation. A second positive condition for the existence of an effective democracy is the active participation of the citizens in the processes of government. Participation is all the more essential as government grows in size and complexity and as individual citizens may be tempted to succumb to a feeling of ineffectiveness in the face of anonymous forces controlling their destiny. The result may be wide-scale apathy and a decay in democratic vitality, even when democratic forms are preserved. "The food of feeling," observed Mill, "is action. Let a person have nothing to do for his country, and he will not care for it."

It was Dewey and Jane Addams, however, who stressed the importance of participation in the day-to-day political affairs of the street, the borough, the city, the region, the state, and the nation, to a point where the whole concept of democracy acquired a new dimension. By involving the greatest number of citizens in different ways and on different levels in political action, plural centers are developed to counteract the tendency to expansion and centralization of government, and the conditions of "a Great Community" are established. "Democracy," Dewey wrote, "is a name for a free and enriching communion." Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., evoking religious language, described American democracy as an ideal of a "beloved community." However, this generous conception of a participatory democracy can be misunderstood and vulgarized. Some have interpreted it to mean that there is no place for expertise in a democracy, that all citizens are capable of administering all things, and that all opinions not only have a right to be heard but also are entitled to receive equal weight. This denies Jefferson's insistence that one of the fruits of democracy is the emergence of an "aristocracy of virtue and talent."

Delegation of Power. This reinforces the third positive condition for effective democracy. Intelligent delegation of power and responsibility is essential because no community can sit in continuous legislative session, and not everybody can do everything equally well. In addition, it is necessary during periods of crisis to entrust certain institutions and persons with emergency powers to ensure the defense and preservation of the community.

Skepticism and Judgment. The possibility of abuse of the delegation of power both in ordinary and extraordinary times reinforces the fourth positive condition for a healthy democracy. This is an intelligent skepticism concerning claims to absolute truth, the possession of charisma among leaders, or the infallibility of experts. As indispensable as experts are, the assumption of both democratic thought and common sense is that one does not have to be an expert to evaluate the work of experts. One does not have to be a cook to judge the claims of great cooks, a general to know when the war has been won or lost, or a civil servant to discover whether the policy of bureaucracy leads to well-being or woe. In a democracy the citizen is and should be king.

Democratic Way of Life

In recent years the concept of democracy has been expanded so that it may be used both as a political and as an ethical term. Is the expression "the democratic way of life" merely rhetorical? Dewey perhaps did the most to extend the ethical connotations of the term democratic. The justification of the extension is implicit in the actual use of the term. We regard a community as progressively more democratic if the base of its citizenship is expanded from white men of property to all men of property to men and women of property, until finally it is open to all adults regardless of race, gender, religion, or property. Further, even when an action is approved by a democracy we sometimes say that it violates the spirit if not the form of democracy. The only ethical concept of democracy that makes sense of these distinctions is that it is a form of organization in which the institutions of society are geared to manifest an equality of concern and respect for all human beings. No one is to be denied political standing on the grounds of an ascriptive or unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender.

Decision Making. The democratic way of life presupposes another principle that has broad application to nonpolitical as well as political institutions. This is that human beings who are affected by decisions should have some say in influencing those decisions.

The democratic approach, as distinct from the authoritarian approach, invites open expression and discussion of needs, options, and alternatives. But it would be ridiculous to permit small children to make the major decisions in family life or even to decide what should constitute the minimum requirements of an adequate education. There may be a difference in morale between the army of a democratic nation and that of a nondemocratic nation, but to assume that the same mechanisms that operate in the political sphere of a democracy should operate in its military affairs would be folly.

Kinds of Democracy. Although the use of the expression "the democratic way of life" is legitimate, the primacy of the meaning of democracy as a political form of rule should be kept firmly in mind. Otherwise confusion may result from claims that there are different kinds of democracy such as economic democracy or ethnic democracy, either of which may be present when political democracy is absent. For example, throughout the 45 years of the Cold War, a period of geopolitical, economic, and ethical contestation between Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and the Western coalition led by the United States, some political partisans and theorists asserted that the difference between the Soviet state and the United States lay in the fact that in the Soviet Union economic democracy prevailed while political democracy was absent, whereas in the Western political democracies, especially the United States, political democracy was present but not economic democracy.

This argument rests on some basic confusions, as dissidents in the former Soviet-dominated societies and most Western democratic theorists long contended. Economic democracy is often identified with economic equality, which is an entirely different concept. A people may be equally poor or equally affluent. Or great disparities may persist despite the claim to equality. Even if something approaching economic equality did in fact exist in a given society, this by itself would not establish the presence or absence of democracy. Economic democracy, by contrast to economic leveling, exists when those who are affected by the economic institutions of society have a meaningful right to determine the conditions, the nature, and, in significant measure, the rewards of work. Normally, this right is dependent on the flourishing of free and independent trade unions or other effective organizations of the workers, whether blue collar or professional, independent of the state and responsible to their members. The functioning of economic democracy in this sense depends on the free exercise of speech, the press, and assembly. Consequently, although political democracy can exist without economic democracy, economic democracy cannot exist without political democracy. This is a point that has been subscribed to by the democratic successor regimes in the Baltic states and the Czech, Hungarian, and Polish republics and by their most important spokespersons.

Democracy and Freedom

The problems and challenges of democracy are many. Some flow from the tension between the emphasis on equality in the democratic outlook and the desire to preserve individual variation and freedom. Alexis de Tocqueville and other critical observers of democracy, as well as friends of democracy such as Mill, feared that its extension would lead to the erosion of personal freedom by imposing legal restrictions on the use of property and on personal behavior.

Individual Liberties. To some extent restrictions on individual freedom in a democratic society flow not from the theory and practice of democracy but from the complexity of social relations in a growing community. So long as there is recognition of the area of personal privacy that may not be invaded by public power, freedom faces no intolerable threats. Despite the fears of Tocqueville and Mill, there is far greater allowance for, and tolerance of, deviant ideas and practices in all areas of personal life in contemporary democratic society than was the case in the less democratic world of these scholars. According to some latter-day voices, the sphere of personal freedom has been extended to a point where law and order seem threatened. This is particularly true in the United States, where the proliferation of weapons of deadly force in private hands, under the constitutional right to bear arms, is implicated in dangerously high rates of homicide and assault in large urban areas. Many critics claim that this right has been extended to the point where public safety, the most basic right of all, is increasingly jeopardized. Balancing individual rights against one another in light of the legitimate need of communities for safety and security promises to be one of the great democratic challenges of the 21st century.

Inviolable Rights for Minorities. The acceptance of the inviolable rights of minorities reduces the danger of dictatorship by the majority in a democracy. However, the rights of minorities cannot be construed as absolute; rather, these rights depend, in part, on the consequences of the actions of minorities, on the freedom and safety of majorities, or on society as a whole. In addition, rights may conflict. Freedom of speech may interfere with a person's right to a fair trial and sometimes, as when an orator is inciting a lynching mob, with the victim's right to life. In such circumstances the rights of a minority may have to be abridged. What, then, is the difference between democratic and nondemocratic governments? Do not the latter also abridge the rights of citizens in the alleged interests of the common good?

The first distinction is that democratic government recognizes the intrinsic as well as the instrumental value of civil rights. When it moves to restrict or abridge civil rights, it does so slowly and reluctantly. Second, if and when the exercise of a civil right creates a clear and present danger of a social evil that threatens other human rights, it is abridged only for a limited period of time and is restored as soon as normalcy returns. Finally, the restrictions imposed by government agencies on every level in a democracy are subject to appeal, review, and check by an independent judiciary.

Compatibility of Economic Systems

The relation between democracy and forms of property is extremely tangled. It is sometimes argued that the collective ownership of the means of production is incompatible with democratic government, because the monopoly of control and the necessities of a totally planned economy necessarily result in dictatorship over the lives and movement of citizens.

Socialism. It is true that in societies where the economic system was centralized and socialized, as in the Soviet Union, or where it was brought under complete political control, as in Nazi Germany, democracy could not exist. In these situations political democracy was destroyed, and control of all aspects of economic life was a central feature of the overall assault on democracy. Measures of partial economic socialization adopted in Britain and the Scandinavian countries in the post World War II era did not erode democratic political processes. Nonetheless, although economic centralization and democracy are not incompatible in principle, there is an antidemocratic thrust to a completely socialized and state-dominated economy. Concentrations of power of this magnitude will always pose a threat to political democracy even as democracy must challenge excessive centralization of power; hence political democracy is either destroyed first as a prelude to such centralization, or concentrating economic power foreshadows the assault on democratic political forms.

Capitalism. Some have argued that capitalism is incompatible with democracy because private ownership of the means of production gives entrepreneurs control over the lives of those who earn their living by using those means of production. Such ownership, it is claimed, gives a disproportionate influence over the electorate to those who command great wealth. Though not without merit, these contentions overlook the fact that political processes in a democracy make possible the limitation of economic power not only by establishing free trade unions or other solidaristic organizations as countervailing forces to capital but also by the use of taxation and the regulation of elections. Laws protecting civil liberties guarantee a dramatic extension of free expression and keep open the free marketplace in ideas. Furthermore, new information-technologies have decentralized political power, making it less likely that a narrow elite will exert disproportionate control. This by no means eliminates the disparity between social classes, but it does complicate any simplistic picture of "haves" versus "have nots" as characteristic of capitalist regimes.

Furthermore, once we distinguish between personal property home, land, tools, books and property in the large social instruments of production mines, factories, plantations we can appreciate the insight of Locke and Jefferson that ownership of the former actually may be a source and guarantee of individual freedom.

The Welfare State. The origins of modern democracy are rooted in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and in the industrial and technological revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. These upheavals enlarged the imaginations of citizens and would-be citizens by making what seemed merely possible probable. Thus they transformed social relations to a point where persons whose status was one of relative powerlessness appendages of machines began to demand first suffrage and then their fair share of the social product. The growth of political democracy depended more heavily on the activities of trade unions, dissident religions, and social reform movements than on the actions of traditionally established institutions. Because power limits power, the landowning and capitalist classes, in their struggles with each other, sought allies among the lower classes and therewith extended the scope of political suffrage and recognition in dramatic and irreversible ways.

With the extension of political suffrage, the middle and lower classes acquired the strength and opportunity to carry democratic principles into other dimensions of the social system. As a result, a massive system of social security developed in most democratic countries, and educational facilities and a higher standard of living became available to greater numbers of citizens. The welfare state emerged as a consequence of the influence of political democracy on other areas of social life, particularly through the redistribution of wealth.

Some Problems of a Democratic Society

The complexity of modern democratic societies, the free flow of ideas, and the need to balance competing interests all introduced new challenges to these contemporary democracies as they approached the 21st century.

Communication. It is especially difficult to define the role of the press and other mass media in a democratic society. Everyone believes that the press should be free within the confines of laws against personal libel, the scope and severity of which vary from country to country. But beyond this, the issue of ownership of the press is crucial to determining its degree of freedom and its responsibilities to the society in which it functions. For obvious reasons a free press cannot be a government-owned press. In democratic countries the press is usually privately owned; yet the very nature of this ownership sometimes shapes its news or may result in the exploitation of stories for sensational purposes. Ideally, a free press should be a "responsible" press, responsible to truth, balanced, fair, and careful to distinguish between reports of fact and statements of political opinion, but these terms are difficult to define let alone realize to everyone's satisfaction.

In some countries large institutions, such as political parties, trade unions, churches, interest groups, and social movements, are encouraged to publish their own newspapers, so that a free press consists in the freedom to publish newspapers with plural commitments. To get their message across, autonomous sectors of democratic social systems also take advantage of other forms of media, particularly community-access television. This revolution in technology is especially evident in the United States but is spreading rapidly to all developed societies.

Devices for increasing both the number and the responsibility of newspapers and public-interest media outlets remain to be discovered. No single formula can be applied universally. What is possible in Britain, whose government-owned broadcasting system is considered a model of objectivity, is apparently not possible in France, whose television system tends to support the government in power, a scenario most frequently encountered. Perhaps the best defense of a free mass communications system in a democratic society lies in the plurality of media and channels, public and private, jealously evaluating their performances under codes of professional ethics voluntarily developed.

Education. The role of the press in a democracy is one facet of the role of education in a democratic society. If one takes seriously the democratic ethical ideal of equality of concern for all individuals to develop themselves, the community must accept the responsibility of providing educational opportunity to all of its members who can profit from it. This goes beyond the necessity of providing education on which the exercise of intelligent citizenship depends. It extends to preparing individuals for the careers appropriate to their potential talents. This means that education in a democracy cannot be merely education of an elite whether of blood, money, or brains. Not all can be chosen, but all must be called; therefore equality of educational opportunity must be provided.

Strictly and literally, equality of educational opportunity is impossible because of differences in families and in home environments; nevertheless, this principle is extremely far-reaching in its implications. It points to the necessity of progressively removing deprivations in housing, health, and economic welfare that inhibit individual growth. Ways must be found to diversify educational experiences so that individual needs of students can be met. Once the ethical ideal of democracy is accepted, it becomes possible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate, relevant and irrelevant forms of discrimination in school and in society.

There is no place in democratic society for discrimination that prevents the emergence of respect and recognition for all persons. Equality of educational opportunity cannot and should not result in sameness of treatment or result. There will always be differences in power, prestige, income, and achievement no matter how narrow the distance between the upper and lower limits. But to the extent that these differences are a function not of race, class, gender, ethnicity, or religion but of merit and social contribution and the unfolding of individual capacities, the situation is more equitable than in systems based on inherited privilege or administrative and bureaucratic domination by a self-perpetuating managerial elite.

Indigenous Antidemocratic Groups. The presence of political groups that advocate the overthrow of the democratic system poses a particularly sensitive theoretical and practical problem of recurrent significance in democracies. Such groups may exploit the institutions of a free and open society with the intent of destroying that society. Insofar as the subversive group may be so closely identified with a foreign power that it functions as a fifth column, the problem can be met by invoking a law requiring registration of agents of foreign powers, providing such groups willingly admit to their affiliation. But the theoretical problem remains in relation to the emergence of indigenous antidemocratic groups that invoke constitutional freedoms and privileges in pursuit of a program devoted to abolishing these rights and to denying to future dissenters and minorities the opportunities they enjoyed.

Two fundamental positions on this issue have been held by representative spokespersons of democratic thought. The first argues that a democracy is under no obligation to commit suicide by permitting a transient majority to destroy the principle of democratic majority rule that defines the very nature of democracy. Walter Lippman asserted, "The right of free speech belongs to those who mean to transmit that right to their successors. The rule of majority is morally justified only if another majority is free to reverse that rule." In this view, democratic regimes should tolerate antidemocratic political groups so long as they are feeble and have only nuisance value; once they constitute a formidable threat, they should be outlawed.

The second position asserts that so long as the enemies of democracy engage in peaceful propaganda to destroy democracy, they should be permitted to present their point of view. Theoretically, if a community is truly dedicated to the democratic process it will not entrust power to any group sworn to destroy it. Historically, there is a great deal of evidence to support this view. Furthermore, those who defend tolerance of antidemocratic parties contend that a people cannot be forced to be free or kept in tutelage to prevent them from destroying democratic institutions. Finally, they argue that if and when the people of a country vote democratically to abolish the principles of democratic rule, they prove themselves unfit for self-government. In the interest of freedom it may then become necessary to resist the decision, but this could not be consistently done on the basis of allegiance to democracy. As a political system, democracy would have to be morally condemned as an unviable form of government.

The practical problem is complicated by the fact that antidemocratic groups frequently profess to seek to extend and strengthen democratic institutions. The public must therefore develop a critical consciousness and must carefully examine the promises and programs of political contenders. Such attention makes it less likely that a democracy can be transformed into a "mobocracy," intolerant of dissent and vulnerable to demagogues who may seek to establish a dictatorship "for the good of the country."

Allegiance to democratic institutions becomes firm only when there is a realization that the integrity of the processes of democratic decision is more important than any particular measure won by reliance on such processes. Just as due process of law is more central than any specific legal judgment that results from it, just as the scientific method of establishing conclusions retains its validity in the face of failure to solve a specific problem, so must one value the procedures of democracy over and above any particular product.

Democracy and Nationalism

Nationalism in its present form is a comparatively recent movement inspired by the revolutions of the 18th century, especially the French Revolution, and by reactions to attempts to spread liberating ideals by force. National self-determination is a legitimate ideal that coincides with the democratic principle that those affected by decisions should have a voice and, when mature, a vote in determining the policies that affect them. It is intolerable that the national destiny of a people should be decided by representatives of a foreign nation whose interests usually conflict with those of the people whom they hold in colonial subjection.

Where nationalism developed among subject or colonial peoples, it tended to take a democratic form. But in many cases these democratic forms were regarded merely as instruments for achieving national independence; once that was attained the ideology of nationalism became of overriding importance, and democratic processes eroded. The consequence has been that in some newly independent countries dissenting and opposition elements enjoy less freedom than they had under hated colonial rule. Historical evidence seems to confirm the proposition that people prefer to live under nondemocratic forms of government if they enjoy a sense of national independence rather than to benefit from the less repressive forms of political life under relatively benign versions of colonialism. The experiments in democracy under way in the successor states in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states show varying degrees of commitment to democracy coupled with national self-determination. Where ethnic nationalism triumphs, as in the former state of Yugoslavia, individual rights are violated and authentically democratic regimes seem a distant prospect. This, perhaps, should not be too surprising. For colonial and imperial domination negates the principle of respect and recognition for particular cultural traditions and identities. Nationalism, it must be said, has vied with democracy as the dominant political passion of the last half of the 20th century, which saw dozens of new nation-states, some democratic, some not, created out of the wreckage of old empires.

In some Asian and African nations that became independent after World War II, democratic forms were abandoned in favor of one-party, militarized dictatorships. This has been variously justified or rationalized on the grounds that conditions were not ripe for democracy or that democracy is simply a luxury for highly literate and industrialized peoples.

These arguments overlook the fact that it is hard to know when a country is ready for democracy. There were times when observers of civil wars and regicides in England and France would undoubtedly have declared those nations unready. A case can be made for establishing a strong nondemocratic government to replace a corrupt feudal monarchy or dictatorship when there are no democratic forces on the horizon, in the expectation that democratic forms may be introduced after stability has been established.

But where embryonic democratic forms do operate, as was the case in most African and Asian states when independence was won, the burden of proof rests on those who argue that the sacrifice of these democratic institutions was required to preserve national unity and economic prosperity. So far this proof has rarely, if ever, been furnished.

Justification of Democracy

One of the most difficult theoretical and ethical problems faced by democrats is the question of how democracy is to be justified. Some thinkers who subscribe to the emotive school even deny that the question of justification is cognitively meaningful, that is, that it makes sense to say that one political system is better or worse than another. However, unless one believes that all political decisions and judgments are completely conditioned by antecedent physical or social causes, it must be acknowledged that reasons or grounds for acceptance or rejection of democratic government can be adduced and indeed have been since the time of Plato. The chief types of justification have been religious, metaphysical, and empirical.

It is important to distinguish between the historical question of the causal influence of religious, metaphysical, and empirical beliefs on the growth of democracy and the analytical question of whether belief in the validity of democracy logically depends on the acceptance of the truth of any religious, metaphysical, and empirical propositions.

Religious Argument. A typical illustration of the religious justification of democracy is the argument that because all persons are equal in the sight of God, they should therefore enjoy political dignity and respect and share in the power that defines the democratic community. This dictum of faith has played a powerful role in shaping democratic political and social commitments in the West. This does not mean that a belief in equality in the sight of God entails in any automatic sense a commitment to equality before the law, as those who pleaded for the divine right of kings well realized. Belief or disbelief in democracy does not turn on the truth or falsity of any theological dogma; nevertheless, much of the moral passion of democratic struggles historically derives from a prior set of commitments to principles of ontological equality in God's eyes. This mingling of religious and democratic influences has been observed by many democratic theorists. Certainly some of the most important democratizing social movements abolitionism, women's suffrage, civil rights were deeply shaped by religious beliefs and commitments. One of the great songs of abolitionism, Oh Freedom, ties the yearning of slaves to be free and to reject slavery to faith. The formative influence of Judeo-Christian principles of a community established by covenant surely helps to account for the fact that modern democracy first emerged and was secured within Western societies.

Metaphysical Argument. The metaphysical justification for democracy is typified by the argument that belief in natural law and natural rights is a necessary and sufficient condition of belief in democracy. One of the most notable defenders of this view is Jacques Maritain. The difficulties it faces are many. The notion of natural law is highly ambiguous. If it is a law like the laws of natural science, it cannot be violated; if it is a law that states what should be done, it requires a justification itself. Nor is it clear that belief in natural law is incompatible with belief in nondemocratic systems of government. Some of the most stalwart defenders of natural law in history were not noteworthy for the strength of their democratic beliefs. Yet natural law ideas, universal in scope and application, helped to give rise to the current notion of human rights. Although human rights emerged as a political commitment within Western democracies, the concept of human rights is a force worldwide. Many international organizations exist exclusively for the purpose of protecting human rights and protesting violations of such rights.

Empirical Arguments. The empirical justifications of democracy are of two generic types. One seeks to find in some facts of the natural or physical order or in some facts of human nature truths that could substantiate or invalidate belief in democratic society. The other more modestly asserts that the validity of democratic society over all other viable alternatives can be established only by their relative fruits in experience. The first type of empirical justification seeks to derive ethical or political conclusions from physics or from specific features of human nature. But physical truths are compatible with all or no forms of political government, and anthropological and psychological accounts can establish, at best, only which kinds of human association are possible, not which one is desirable.

The second type of empirical justification is the one most human beings employ in concrete historical situations in which they must choose between democratic and nondemocratic alternatives. Which form of government is more likely to produce and preserve peace, freedom, prosperity, justice, absence of cruelty and fear, growth of material and human resources, and so forth? From Plato to the present, it is these considerations, whatever other arguments they have been buttressed with, that have agitated those who make political choices and determine their allegiance.

Ideology and Philosophy. The decay of absolutist and authoritarian systems of philosophy has certainly contributed to the triumph of the ideology of democracy. Democracies are put under pressure where some specific dogma is held with fanatical zeal, where the spirit of tolerance is regarded as an expression of moral weakness and compromise as an act of opportunism or outright chicanery. That is why a strong democracy tolerates all ideologies, provided only that their adherents play according to the democratic rules of the game.

Some have argued that the philosophical temper of empiricism is more congenial to democracy than is any other theory of knowledge. But this is contestable. Many philosophical positions can be squared with sufficient ingenuity with a variety of political faiths. Thomas Hobbes and David Hume were empiricists but unfriendly to democracy, whereas the empiricist John Locke was a democratic constitutionalist. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was committed to a paradoxical set of beliefs about human beings, nature, and civil society. The English utilitarians and the American pragmatists, key players in much democratic social reform, embraced empirical approaches with ingenious modifications that recognized the active and selective character of human thought. But other reformers brought theistic and ontological commitments to bear in shaping their democratic faith.

Nonetheless, to the extent that democratic social movements are movements of social reform, they often embrace an empirical philosophical attitude to values and conflicts of values in order to reveal the interests at their source. The English utilitarians and the American pragmatists who were in the forefront of democratic social reform adopted the empirical approach of Hobbes and Hume with modifications that recognized the active and selective character of human thought. In the American pragmatic tradition thought does not limp after events but redetermines them.

Arguments against Democracy. The most powerful arguments against democratic government have been formulated by its honest opponents from Plato to George Santayana, not by modern authoritarians professing to be democrats. The nub of these arguments is that most human beings are either too stupid or too vicious, or both, to be entrusted with self-government, that the upshot of majority rule therefore is tyranny and terror, and that the nature of the public good which is the end of government is so complex, so largely a matter of philosophical wisdom and administrative skill that only an elite of the intellectually gifted and spiritually elect can discover and implement it. "Knowledge, and knowledge alone," writes Santayana, "gives divine right to rule."

The weakness in these arguments was exposed by Plato himself. If most human beings are vicious, who is to control the guardians? Who can guarantee the benevolence of the benevolent despot? In his account of the inevitable decline from the ideal aristocracy of his Republic to the depths of the irresponsible tyrant, Plato admits that rule of the philosophers is also flawed. And although he uses the analogy of the ship to argue that just as it makes no sense to elect the pilot of a ship, who must be specifically trained for the task, so it makes no sense to elect the pilot of the ship of state, he overlooks the fact that the destination of the ship is not within the competence of the pilot. Indeed, his other analogies reinforce the argument for democracy. For example, he eloquently points out that it is not the cobbler who knows best what a good pair of shoes is, but the wearer. The whole philosophy of democracy may be expressed in the implications of the homely maxim that he who wears the shoes knows best where they pinch. Despite all the drawbacks and limitations of democracy, there is considerable point to Winston Churchill's declaration: "Democracy is the worst possible form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Twentieth-Century Critics. Something should be said of some early-20th-century critics of democracy who argued on the basis of their analysis of the nature of political organization that democracy is impossible. The most sophisticated expressions of this position are found in the writings of three Italian sociologists: Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Roberto Michels. Mosca denied that majority rule is possible and claimed that in effect every government, no matter how democratic, is run by a minority of insiders. Pareto developed the doctrine of "the circulation of the elite," which held that because of variations in native endowment that make most individuals dolts and a minority shrewd, and because of the aggressive or selfish nature of humankind, all societies are ruled by interlocking elites or, in modern parlance, the establishment. Revolutions simply replace one establishment with another.

Michels argued that political success depends on organization. To be efficient in the modern world, organization has to be hierarchically and nondemocratically run. One organization can be successfully replaced only by another organization. The leaders of successful organizations and their cadres constitute the ruling class and live on a level and style of life illustrating the maxim that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Michels based his conclusion that "socialists [democrats] can be victorious but socialism [democracy] never" on an examination of the structure and functioning of the largest democratic organization of its time in the world, the pre World War I German Social Democratic party.

As critiques of democracy these writings suffer from at least two fatal difficulties. First, the authors define democracy in such a way that it is impossible of realization, because for them democracy is direct democracy, and any representative democracy or system of delegated authority is ipso facto proof of a class society. Second, they systematically underplay the advances made possible for the masses when elites must compete with each other under democratic rules of the game. They ignore the extent to which politics is the art of choosing the lesser evil or the greater good. Although they assert that, at bottom, all societies are political class societies in which minorities exploit majorities and that what changes is only the composition of successive elites who uniformly live on the backs of the masses, all of them lived to experience, either directly or vicariously and to condemn bitterly the dictatorship of Mussolini that replaced political democracy in pre World War II Italy. The differences turned out to be far more than mere changes of elites.

So long as the voting masses of the population are free to reject or repudiate the rule of the elite, they exercise a genuine power over it, which may extend even to changing the lines of advancement within the elite. The history of Western democracies may be written in terms of the succession of different establishments, but the impressive fact is that both the standards of living and the degree of political influence of the voting masses have risen.

Faith in Democracy. The faith in democracy ultimately rests not in the belief in the natural goodness of human beings but in the belief that most human beings are open to democratic responsibility and possibility. This faith derives from a notion of the human person as deserving of recognition and respect. It is true that democracies are imperfect and democratic citizens may do foolish or dangerous things. But the democrat holds that the solution to such dilemmas is more informed democratic action rather than salvation in a dictatorship, whether of a single leader or of the proletariat. Those who have moved down this latter path are responsible for much of the horror of 20th-century politics, with its millions of human beings lost to political terror and millions others displaced, tortured, or tormented to varying degrees.

Democracy, as we have seen, is not indivisible — all or nothing — in the sense that its political form necessitates the extension of the democratic principle to other areas of experience. It only makes an extension possible to those who have the vision, courage, and intelligence to struggle for it. Nor is democracy indivisible on the international scene in the sense that the world must soon become one democratic community. Democratic regimes are compelled to coexist with nondemocratic regimes for the sake of peace and security.

What can be expected is that the ideals of freedom in flourishing democratic cultures still struggling to solve problems of poverty, ignorance, and violence have functioned and will continue to function as an aspiration to the subjects of nondemocratic regimes. Having secured and extended democracy throughout the years of the Cold War, the citizens of democratic states face new and daunting challenges. Freedom may be infectious, but so are nationalism and intolerance. "Eternal vigilance," in Jefferson's memorable phrase, is the continuing price citizens of a democracy pay to sustain and secure freedom for future generations.

Sidney Hook*, New York University

Revised by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Vanderbilt University


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