Two Views on Democracy

Flag DE  [DE] Zwei Sichtweisen auf Demokratie

Two rival views on democracy can be distinguished: a top-down or hierarchical view and an egalitarian view. The nature of society, humans and democracy appear to be very different in the ruler’s perspective than in the egalitarian perspective. Those in power usually prefer representative democracy that minimizes citizens’ power whereas for a majority of the people an egalitarian model of real democracy is preferable.

Aspect Ruler’s view
People’s view
Democracy Concept A form of government, something institutional and external. A state-centered concept A way of life, not only a form of governmenet, but also something personal and internal. A citizen-centered concept
Power Politicians monopolize political power Politicians and citizens share power
Citizens/Politicians Citizens elect representatives and these decide on behalf of the citizens. Only representatives are considered politically competent Citizens elect and vote; both people and parliament are law-makers. All citizens are considered politically competent
Participation Doing for and to people.The aim is to find solutions which serve decision-makers best. Top-down control; people are expected to conform Acting with. The aim is to find solutions and to regulate conflicts in ways which serve all those concerned best. Voluntary and self-motivated participation; people are expected to dissent
For more aspects see table below!
A definition of democracy as a form of government usually corresponds to a top-down approach to democracy as seen from the rulers’ point of view. In this view the so-called ordinary people or citizens are considered as politically incompetent and it is argued that under modern conditions direct democracy is not only impossible but also unwise. Therefore democracy must be limited to the rule of an elected elite which alone has the capacities needed for making reasoned political decisions guided by the common good. In this approach voting for representatives is the most important instrument for citizen participation. However, citizens are excluded from direct participation in decision-making and governance.

Such an elitist top-down approach has become dominant after the Second World War and it was convincing because of its seeming realism. However, if we accept it not only as a description of reality (which it is not) but also as a democratic ideal, then there is no room left for the development of direct democracy. For that we need another and egalitarian vision of democracy.

Democracy as a way of life is such a vision, which is based on other assumptions about the nature of human beings, state and society than the still powerful hierarchical and elitist concept of democracy. In this view, democracy is more than a form of government, more than a political ideal, it goes beyond institutional politics, and it is also something personal and internal, a social ideal rooted in everyday life and work which make people willing to engage in democratic decision-making and to acquire the skills needed for participation.

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. (…) It is (…) a way of life, social and individual. The key-note of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.

(John Dewey. 1937. Democracy and educational administration. In: School and Society, 45 (162), 457-462)

The following can hardly be overemphasized: The foundation of democracy is trust in fellow citizens, faith in their capacity to learn, if given an opportunity, how to make good political decisions based on public reason.

To develop such trust is neither naive nor unrealistic. Organizing a democratic process of public debates and decision-making is tantamount to creating collective intelligence. In an increasingly complex world collective intelligence and creativity is ever more needed to find solutions for the increasingly complex effects/problems that are produced by human activities which are interconnected and interdependent in a myriad of ways, be it on the local, national, regional, or global level. No government, no administration, no enterprise is powerful and knowledgeable enough to cope by itself.

Sovereign individual citizens are the only means by which the demos has an actual physical existence.

Strategies to solve complex or wicked social problems must be based on factual knowledge not ideology. Only just solutions are sustainable. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s solution. Authoritative strategies usually disregard the input of weak social groups (weak is not equal to small) and result in unjust and coercive solutions. Competitive strategies tend to discourage knowledge sharing. Collaborative and democratic strategies aim to involve all stakeholders, they too need a minimal common understanding in order to work, and the main problem to reach such an understanding is to overcome the gaps that are created when power differentials between social groups are too big.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for more intelligent and humane decision-making. However, the creation of sustainable democratic processes is a very difficult and sensitive enterprise. It requires power sharing, redressing the imbalance of power, making the distribution of power much more equal than it is at present. This is most difficult, not only in dictatorships, but also in the oligarchic states that call themselves representative democracy. It seems an overwhelming task when it comes to building democratic processes on the transnational and global levels, but that is the challenge humanity is faced with today.

Aspect Ruler’s view
Peoples’ view
Type of democracy Representative-electoral democracy (RD); exclusive democracy Activating democracy (AD); inclusive democracy
Value of democracy Democracy has no value in itself, it is only a means to an end, a method to give political power to the few Democracy means self-determination and is a value in itself. Democracy is also a project of collective learning
Primary aims Quest for power, the democratic principle is applied sporadically; it is a by-product of the power struggle Self-determination (autonomy) or implementation
of individual liberty and equal freedom for all
Type of society “Order of egoism” or capitalism. People are treated as objects, they are determined by others. Domination. Consumerism “Order of equality” or NOT capitalism. People are treated as subjects, they are self-determined. Self-government (democracy). Minimal basic income for all
Image of human being Ordinary people are politically incompetent Ordinary people are politically competent
Sovereignty Belongs to the state; representatives of the state act as the sovereign Belongs to the people; citizens together (pluralism) act as the sovereign
Power Power flows top-down: domination. Power-over, coercive. Politicians monopolize the right to make decisions on policy issues and the right to set the political agenda. Experience of oppression and exploitation Power flows bottom-up: democracy. Power-with, power-to, non-coercive. Politicians and citizens share the right to make decisions on policy issues and the right to set the political agenda. Experience of liberty and liberation
State Capitalist state, based on the exclusion of people
from power. Decisions are made top-down and by the few. Concentration of power
A democratic political organisation of the people. Horizontal or egalitarian way of decision-making. Power sharing
Concept of freedom Negative freedom. Renunciation on freedom as autonomy. Individual liberty is associated with political abstinence Positive freedom. Freedom as autonomy. Liberty is associated with active political participation
Rights and duties Duties come before rights Rights come before duties
Relationship between politicians & citizens Established-outsiders-relationship. Institutionalized categorical inequality between people and politicians Power-sharing between people and politicians, no categorical inequality between the two groups. Citizens have their own controlling power over politicians and they have the right of initiative
Role of citizens Elector, passive citizen, outsider to politics. Elects parties and persons, gives advice to politicians. Politically dependent and other-directed like minors Elector and voter. Citizens are capable to intervene, occasional politician, decides the most important issues. Politically independent and autonomous
Role of politicians Active citizen, decision-maker, politicians govern on behalf of the people. They may ask the citizens for advice. Members of exclusive established groups (“elites”) Active citizen, decision-maker, govern together with the citizens. Adviser of citizens. Members of less or non-exclusive established groups (“elites”)
Participation in decision-making Passive citizenship. Doing for and to people: citizen participation is not needed (except for elections). Politicians look for solutions which serve decision-makers best. No infrastructure, no time and no space for citizen participation. Depoliticization of the citizens. Politics is separated from everyday life Active citizenship. Acting with: citizen participation is necessary and fundamental. Democratic politics looks for solutions which serve all those concerned best. An infrastructure for citizen participation exists. Direct democracy. Politics is a part of everyday life

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last update: 16.06.2015