Democracy | Sociology for CUET by Vikash Ranjan | Sociology Guru


(Relevant for Sociology optional for UPSC CSE)
Paper-1 ,Unit-7 : Democracy


The Term ‘Democracy’ has been in use in the tradition of Western political thought since ancient times. It is derived form the Greek root ‘demos which means ‘the people’; ‘cracy’ stands for ‘rule’ or ‘government’. Thus, literally, democracy signifies ‘the rule of the people’. Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy is very close to its literal meaning. It reads; ‘Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ In short, democracy as a form of government implies that the ultimate authority of government is vested in the common people so that public policy is made to conform to the will of the people and to serve the interests of the people.

Democracy in its basic meaning is therefore a political system in which the people, not monarch or aristocracies, rule. This sounds straightforward enough, but it is not. Democratic rule has taken contrasting forms at varying periods and in different societies, depending on how the concept is interpreted……. For example, ‘the people’ has been variously understood to mean all men, owners of property, white men, educated men, and adult men and women. In some societies the officially accepted version of democracy is limited to the political sphere, whereas in others it is extended to broader areas of social life.

The form that democracy takes in a given context is largely an outcome of how its values and goals are understood and prioritized. Democracy is generally seen as the political system which is most able to ensure political equality, protect liberty and freedom, defend the common interest, meet citizens’ needs, promote moral self-development and enable effective decision-making which takes everyone’s interests into account (Held). The weight that is granted to these various goals may influence whether democracy is regarded first and foremost as a form of popular power (self-government and self regulation) or whether it is seen as a framework for supporting decision-making by others (such as a group of elected representatives.)

Participatory democracy:

  1. In participatory democracy (or direct democracy), decision are made communally by those affected by themThis was the original type of democracy practiced in ancient Greece. Those who were citizens, a small minority of the society, regularly assembled to consider policies and make major decision, Participatory democracy is of limited importance in modern societies, where the mass of the population have political rights, and it would be impossible for everyone actively to participate in the making of all the decisions that affect them.
  2. Yet some aspects of participatory democracy do play a part in modern societies. Small communities in New England, in the north-eastern part of the United States, continue the traditional practice of annual ‘town meetings’.
  3. Another example of participatory democracy is the holding of referenda, when the people express their views on a particular issue. Direct consultation of large numbers of people is made possible by simplifying the issue down to one or two questions to be answered. Referenda are regularly used at the national level in some European countries to inform important policy decisions. There were referenda in several European countries in 2005 over whether they should sign up to the proposed European Constitution.

Representative democracy:

  1. Practicalities render participatory democracy unwieldy on a large scale, except in specific instances such as a special referendum More common today is representative democracy, political system in which decisions affecting a community are taken, not by its members as a whole, but by people they have elected for this purpose. In the area of national government, representative democracy takes the form of election to congresses, parliaments of similar national bodies. Representative democracy also exists at other levels where collective decisions are taken, such as in provinces or states within an overall national community, cities, counties, boroughs and other regions. Many large organizations chose to run their affairs using representative democracy by elective a small executive committee to take key decisions.
  2. Countries in which voters can choose between two or more parties and in which the mass of the adult population has the right to vote are usually called liberal democracies. Britain and the other Western European countries, the USA, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and fall into this category. Many countries, in the developing world, such as India, also have liberal democratic systems, and, as we shall see, this number is growing.

Classical notion of democracy:

Democracy has a long tradition. But the notions regarding its essence and grounds of its justification have been revised from time to time. Plato and Aristotle saw democracy at work in some of ancient Greek city-state, especially at Athens. Its salient features were:

  1. Equal participation by all freemen in the common affairs of the polis (city-state) which was regarded as an essential instrument of good life;
  2. Arriving at public decisions in an atmosphere of free discussion; and
  3. General respect for law and for the established procedures of the community. The Greeks took pride in their customary law and admiringly distinguished it from the ‘arbitrary rule’ prevalent among the ‘barbarians’.

However, the form of democracy prevalent in ancient Greek city-states was by no means regarded as an ideal rule. Plato decried democracy because the people were not properly equipped with education ‘to select the best rulers and the wisest courses’. Democracy enabled the men with the gift of eloquence and oratory to get votes of the people and secure public office, but such men were thoroughly selfish and incompetent who ruined the state. Then, Aristotle identified democracy as ‘the rule of the many’, that is, of the more numerous members of the community, particularly, the poor ones. In his classification of governments into normal and perverted forms, Aristotle placed democracy among perverted forms since it signified the rule of the mediocre seeking their selfish interests, not the interests of the state. Aristotle observed that no form of government prevalent during his times was stable and this led to frequent upheavals. In his search for a stable form of government.

Concept of liberal democracy:

Liberal democracy today is distinguished from other forms of political system by certain principles and characteristics, that is, its procedure and institutional arrangements. Institutions are necessary for the realization of principles; without principles, the institutions might be reduced to a mere formality. The two must go together. Liberal democracy works on certain principles and certain mechanisms. Broadly speaking, principles of liberal democracy include;

  • Government by consent;
  • Public accountability;
  • Majority rule;
  • Recognition of minority rights; and
  • Constitutional Government.
  1. Government by Consent: Democracy is government by consent of the people. Rational consent can be obtained by persuasion for which an atmosphere of free discussion is essential. Any regime where the consent of the people is sought to be obtained without freedom expression of divergent opinions, does not qualify for being called a ‘democracy’ even if it maintains certain democratic institutions. In view of the highly technical nature, the large volume and urgency of governmental decision, it is impractical to consult the people on every detail of every policy. However, discussion of the broad issues is indispensable. Discussion is usually held at two levels
    • Among the representatives of the people in the legislative assemblies where members of the opposition have their full say; and
    • At the public level where there is direct communication between the leadership and the people. Democratic lines of policy as the ruling parties are bound to seek a fresh mandate of the people at regular intervals.
  2. Public Accountability: Liberal democracy, based on the consent of the people, must constantly, remains answerable to the people who created it.
    • John Locke who thought of governments as a ‘trustee’ of the power vested in it by the people for the protection of their natural right of life, liberty and property, nevertheless, felt that it could. not be fully trusted. He wanted the people to remain constantly vigilant. He thought of the people as a householder who appoints a watchman for protecting his house, and then, he himself keeps awake to keep a watch on the watchman’.
    • Jeremy Bentham envisaged liberal democracy as a political apparatus that would erasure the accountability of the governors to the governed. For Bentham both governors and the governed, as human beings, want to maximize their happiness. Then governors, who are endowed with power, may tend to abuse it in their self-interest. Hence, in order to prevent the abuse of their power. Governors should be directly accountable to an electorate who will frequently check whether their objectives have been reasonably net.
    • John Stuart Mill significantly observed that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. Mill identified the appropriate region of human liberty as including liberty of thought, feeling, discussion and publication, liberty of tastes and pursuits, and liberty of association or combination, provided it causes no harm to others. He asserted that liberty and democracy, taken together, create the possibility of ‘human excellence’.
    • Jean-Jaques Rousseau the exponent of popular sovereignty postulated public accountability of government in a different way. In his concept of the ‘social contract’, sovereignty not only originates in the people, it continues to stay with the people in the civil society. People give their consent to vest their sovereignty in the ‘general will’ which represents their own higher self. As a votary of ‘direct democracy’ Rousseau is convinced that sovereignty cannot be represented. In his words, “the people’s deputies are not, and could not be, its representatives; they are merely its agents; and they cannot decide anything finally.” Rousseau commended an active, involved citizenry in the process of government and law-making.
  3. Majority Rule: In Modern representative democracies, decisions are taken in several, bodies – legislatures, committees, cabinets and executive or regulative bodies. Majority rule means that in all these decision-making bodies, from the electorate to the last committee, the issues are to be resolved by voting. Political equality is secured by the principle of ‘one man, one vote’, which implies that there will be no privileged section whose voice is ignored. No discrimination is allowed on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, ownership of property, and even educational qualifications. Any restriction of suffrage should be based on sound reason, that is, where the ballot cannot be used in a rational and responsible manner, such as, in the case of convicted criminals, mental patients, and person below a legally fixed age. The principle of majority rule relies on the wisdom of the majority. Minority opinion has the option to enlist the support of larger numbers by persuasion in an atmosphere off free discussion.
  4. Recognition of Minority Rights: The principles of majority rule by no means implies the suppression of minorities. In modern nation-states, there may be several racial, religious, linguistic or cultural minorities who fear discrimination or the tyranny of the majority. Minority grievances may take many forms ranging from psychological insults over discrimination in housing, education and employment to physical persecution and genocide. Legal safeguards are, therefore, considered essential for the realization of the democratic principles because their presence helps to raise the level of awareness of both majority and minority and thus promote a favourable climate for democratic politics.
  5. Constitutional Government: Constitutional government means a ‘government by laws’ rather than by men. Democracy requires an infinitely complex machinery of process; procedures and institutions of translate the majority will into action. It makes enormous demands on the time, goodwill and integrity of its citizens and public servants. Once the prescribed procedure is set aside, even for a legitimate purpose, it can set a precedent that may be followed for pursuing illegitimate purposes, and the flood-gates of corruption might be thrown wide open. It is therefore, essential to have a well-established tradition of law and constitution for the stability of a democratic government.

The main characteristics of liberal democracy:

  1. More than One Political Party Freely Competing for Political Power: Liberal democracy seeks reconciliation between varying interests and ideologies of different groups. There is no fixed method of securing the reconciliation. When there is a free competition between more than one political party for power, the people get an opportunity to consider various alternative policies. Programmes and personalities to exercise their choice. According to this test singleparty system do not qualify as democracies. The former Soviet Union and the present People’s Republic of China cannot be treated as democracies as they conceded monopoly of power of their respective Communist Parties, in spite of a facade of periodic election.
  2. Political Offices Not Confined to any Privileged Class: In a liberal democracy a political office or public office can be acquired only through the support of the people, not by birth, tradition of anybody’s favour. This feature of democracy distinguishes it from feudalism, monarchy and despotism, etc. In a democracy all citizens enjoy equal rights and status. Any citizen can have access to political office by following the prescribed procedure and fulfilling certain conditions. Political office can be held only for a limited period which must be relinquished on completion of one’s term or other exigency, such a s dissolution of the legislature, one’s own resignation, etc. Some qualifications, such as, age, education, etc. may be prescribed for the candidates of a political office, but nobody can be declared unfit for any office on grounds of caste, creed, sex, language, region, etc. However, in order to secure due representation for all strata of the population, some seats in the decision-making bodies can be reserved for minorities or weaker section, It is believed that such provision would strengthen democracy rather than weaken it.
  3. Periodic Election Based on Universal Adult Franchise: Since representative government is the only practicable method of establishing democracy in the present-day world, periodic elections become necessary for this purposes. Each citizen should have the right to vote on attaining the prescribed age (say, 18 years); nobody should be disqualified on grounds of caste, creed, sex, language, region, etc. It is true that the principle of universal adult franchise was introduced in modern democracies only gradually, but today it is regarded a necessary condition of democracy. Periodic elections require that the people’s representatives should be chosen for a limited period (say four or five years) so that the party that comes to power is able to implement its policy and programme, but it is obliged to renew the confidence of the people to continue in power. At the same time, the opposition should have an opportunity to bring any shortcomings of the ruling party to the notice of the people, to offer alternative policy and programme with a view to winning the next election.
  4. Protection of Civil Liberties: The protection of civil liberties, such as freedom of thought and expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and association, and personal freedom, i.e. freedom from arbitrary arrest, is an essential characteristic of liberal democracy. On the one hand, these freedoms enable the citizens to form interests groups and other organizations to influence government decisions; on the other hand, they ensure independence of the mass media, particularly the press, from government control. Without civil liberties, will of the people cannot be translated into public policy and decision. Civil liberties, therefore, constitute the core of democracy.
  5. Independence of the Judiciary: Freedom of the people cannot be secured in the face of concentration of governmental powers in any organ. Liberal democracy, therefore, insists on the separation of powers between different organs of government. While the legislature and executive in a democracy are dominated by politicians, Judges are appointed on merit and they cannot be removed from office in consequence of sudden changes in the political climate of the country. Independence of judiciary enables the judges to pronounce their verdict without fear or favour.

Conditions for successful working of democracy:

Democracy as a form of government cannot function properly unless it is supported by suitable socio-economic and cultural factors. In the contemporary world, democracy has been adopted as a form of government in a large number of countries. It is not equally successful everywhere. The successful working of democracy depends upon many conditions. Some of the important conditions may be described as follows:

  1. National Sentiment: Some thinkers have pointed out that national homogeneity is essential condition for the success of democracy. For instance, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) in his Representative Government (1861) suggested that a mono-national state is essential for the success of democracy. A large number of states have emerged on the globe since J.S. Mill wrote his Representative Government. Most of these states include people belonging to different races, religions, languages and cultures. Democracy is working successfully in many such states. What is therefore needed for the success of democracy is not the uniformity of the people as a nationality but the sense of belonging to a single nation, inspired by the feeling of having a common history, common life in the present and a common future as also a common centre of loyalty.
  2. Spirit of Toleration: True national sentiment cannot be created without the spirit of toleration. In fact, the spirit of toleration is the keynote of democracy. In a democracy we do not demand conformity nor assimilation, but different groups are expected to coexist in spite of their differences. We are free to win others by persuation and discussion, not by force or blackmail. The minority is expected to respect the majority; the majority is expected to accommodate minority with full dignity.
  3. High Moral Character: High moral character of the people as well as leaders is another condition for the success of democracy. If people are led by their narrow self interests, or leaders are led by mere opportunism, democracy is bound to give way to demagogy, that is, the practice of leaders playing with the emotions of the people instead of appealing to reason. On the country, a sense of morality and discipline will make the people active in solving social problems more effectively.
  4. Widespread Education: An educated electorate is an asset to democracy. Generally the people could be literate if not highly educated so that they are able to learn more and exercise their judgment in the matters of common concern. Free access to the media of mass communication is provided within the democratic structure itself. Only a literate, preferably an educated, electorate can make best use of this facility. For the fulfillment of this condition, the state itself should provide for universal education.
  5. Economic Security and Equality: Lack of economic security in the masses is bound to undermine the people’s faith in democracy. Similarly, vast economic disparities are bound to destroy the sense of equal dignity of individuals. In fact, democracy without a reasonable level of economic security and equality is a force.

In addition to this, other scholars have also come out with their view point on the subject. Borrowing from Robert Dahl’s classic work on democracy, Alfred Stepan, states that among the basic requirements for democracy “is the opportunity to formulate preferences, to signify preferences, and to have these preferences weighted adequately in the conduct of government.” According to Robert Dhal for the proper functioning of the government, it should ensure the following institutional guarantees which includes;

  1. Freedom of association and expression :
  2. The right to vote :
  3. run for public office;
  4. free and fair elections;
  5. the right of political leaders to complete for support and votes;
  6. alternative sources of information;
  7. policy making institutions dependent on votes;
  8. Other expression of preference.

However, while accepting the importance of these institutional guarantees, Stepan considers them as a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the functioning of democracy. Not sufficient, because no matter how free and fair the elections, and no matter how large the majority of the government, the political society lacks quality unless it is able to produce a constitution that provides for fundamental liberties, minority rights, and a set of institutions and checks and balances that limit state power and ensure accountability, necessary for any given democratic system.

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