What does Democracy mean?

Flag DE [DE] Was bedeutet Demokratie?

Democracy is praised in theory and obstructed in practice by our rulers. Wars of aggression are fought in the name of ‘democracy’. It is a much abused word with many meanings. Our task is not to abandon but to reclaim the idea of democracy and to clarify the meaning of it that guides the making of this website.

[D]emocracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. Source: Sheldon S. Wolin. 2008. Democracy Incorporated, p.260

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Direct participation in decision-making is needed for self-determination. Without it we cannot be free, neither as individuals nor collectively. Democracy is the domain in which the rules and instruments for all other domains (economic, social, ecological) are made. Politicians know that those sitting at the table where decisions are made take first their own interests into account and second, if at all, those of others. Democracy operates in the first person, it cannot be exercised on behalf of others.

Democracy is not only a means but also an end in itself. It happens in the present, it is not something in the future. Democracy is normative and practical. It is a process and activity guided by the vision of a society of free and equal individuals. It takes place in actual societies that are neither equal nor just. Democracy is a way and a direction rather than an aim. It has no foundation and does not recognize any external authority. In a democracy values are set by the people themselves.

Democracy is inclusive: everybody has the right to participate equally in the decision-making processes which decide, peacefully, the rules of living together. The people who make the rules for themselves as members of a political community live in a democracy, they are self-determined (autonomy). People who are bound by these rules but are not allowed to participate in their making do not live in a democracy; they are determined by others, by those who make the decisions on their behalf (heteronomy).

Without going deeper into the concept of democracy, I would like to recall two core principles:

(1) The word ‘democracy’ means literally rule by the people. It expresses the first core principle of democracy: popular sovereignty, which was elaborated most famously in the Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, practiced in ancient Athens and put on the world political agenda by the French Revolution.

Popular sovereignty is an activity and should not be reduced to a principle or static condition. It refers to the process of lawmaking by the people. Only laws that are decided democratically are legitimate. Democratic decisions are based on public debates (rational discourse) and taken through the free and equal participation of all the people concerned.

Popular sovereignty implies the separation of powers, the vertical control of all government authority by the law-making people. The people are the sole legislator and the government and state apparatuses merely the executors. The government consists only of its mission, it is bound by the law and subject to the permanent disposition of the only legitimate sovereign: the people.

The monopoly of violence remains with the state and the people control the exercise of state power/authority by the laws enacted. The binding of state power to democratic laws can only work in a state which obeys the rule of law. The law-applying state must not usurp the legislation, and the legislature may not exercise judicial or executive power.

The sovereign people are both, creator of the constitution and recipient of the constitution. Unlike government, which is always bound by the law, the sovereign people can change the constitution and laws whenever they so decide, provided it is done in a democratic manner.

However, until today popular sovereignty remains an unfulfilled promise. In our so-called democracies, democracy is still far from being realized (For a thorough study on popular sovereignty, see Maus 2011).

(2) The word ‘democracy’ evokes also another core image, namely justice. Democratic society is a just society. Democracy can therefore not be reduced to the majority principle, rather democratic decisions must also be reasonable, that is acceptable for the minorities which disagree with the majority.

RD vs Real Democracy
It is easy to show that what is called “representative democracy” is not a democracy nor was it ever intended to be one. A quick look back in history helps to understand where we are today. The Athenians practiced active citizenship: They debated and took decisions in the Assembly, the Council, and the courts. They made decisions about foreign policy, about war and peace. What set Athenians apart from the rest of the world was not the exclusion of women and slaves, but the extraordinary degree of inclusion and participation. While Athenian democracy was built from below, modern democracy was built from above. For example: The Founding Fathers of the USA were mostly rich and propertied men. Their concern was to install an efficient central government. They wanted a “republic”, and certainly not the Athenian type of democracy. James Madison (Federalist, 63) makes this crystal clear: The true distinction between ancient and modern democracy “lies in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in the government.” Similarly Benjamin Constant (1819) said that people participate in government only through representation, that is in a purely fictive way.

“Representative (liberal) democracy” is a “democracy” without popular sovereignty, like an egg without the yolk. It is a regime that prevents people from exercising their political sovereignty. There exists a gap between rulers and ruled, between people and governments. They are separated by a categorical inequality, usually enshrined in the constitution. Laws are made on behalf of the citizens, not by them or with them. According to a new study by Gilens and Page (2014) average U.S. citizens do not have any significant influence on government policies. Revelations about the surveillance state show that nowadays citizens are controlled and spied on, and sometimes killed, by their own governments (see, for example, Greenwald 2013 and Scahill 2013). To call this type of regime democratic is a misnomer, a denial, and/or a delusion. A real democracy operates precisely the other way round: citizens control government and the state, controlled by the citizens, protects the freedom and privacy of the people.

It became a standard view to dismiss the very ideal of democracy and turn it into merely a method for selecting a government. World developments seem to support this mainstream view that democracy can be no more than an accessory to the rule of the few, a poodle in the lap of oligarchy. Decision-making is indeed far from democratic, financial interests rule over politics, corporate power and state power join hands while people are watching as their needs are put behind those of capital and so on… and as a result of such developments peoples’ civil and political rights are losing ground. Today more and more people are aware that we are not living in a democracy. We have learned this through our everyday experiences, but we are told that “There is No Alternative”, meaning: Don’t Look for One!

Direct Democracy is Primary

But there is nothing inevitable about these developments. They are made by people and can be changed by people. There exists an alternative to “representative democracy” (an oxymoron) so that people need not surrender their sovereignty to representatives: direct democracy (a pleonasm). Direct democracy makes it possible that all people decide, and size is no problem in this.

Democracy is a political choice; we must choose self-rule (autonomy) against being ruled by others (heteronomy). This implies citizens who truly want to participate and are committed to act in accordance with the democratic principles. Citizen participation requires adequate tools, time and a supportive environment (infrastructure). In a real democracy the constitution is made by the citizens, it can be changed by the citizens and only by the citizens. Hence, in a real democracy the citizens can decide the institutional framework and it is in their power, for example, to establish a republic in place of a (constitutional) monarchy, or to adopt a system with or without a parliament (for example Rapperswil-Jona).

Elections alone don’t constitute a democracy: they do not empower citizens to make their own laws and constitution. Direct democracy does, and the instruments of direct democracy are: citizens’ initiatives, citizen-initated referendums, obligatory referendum, popular assembly. Consequently, I would argue that democracy is the primary structure and representation must remain subordinated to it.[1] Otherwise the result will not be democracy but an oligarchy such as what is called liberal or representative democracy, which negates popular sovereignty. Representation, a process, means obedience to the lawgiver, the sovereign people. It is the exercise of delegated power in service to the political community. Obviously the people need instruments by which they can regulate and control representation, and sanction representatives who become corrupted by usurping the sovereignty of the people, that is, by exercising power for their own individual or group benefit. Direct democracy provides such instruments (see performance of direct democracy), liberal electoral democracy does not.

The passage from classical to modern democracy is normally presented as a (hi)story of “representative democracy” in a particular country/nation state. These (hi)stories transport certain basic ideas like, for example, that representation was the method to overcome the natural limits of classical democracy with respect to the size of the population, the extension of the territory, and duration. They teach us to see our political system as a democracy and not as what it really is, a form of oligarchy defined by a constitution. They pass with silence over the successful institutionalization and rich practice of modern direct democracy, and even more, they stigmatize any idea of radical/real democracy by associating it with the terror of the French revolution and, depending on circumstances, with the tyranny of a majority or minority. Representative democracy is built on the fear of the “ignorant masses” and their revolutionary potential; it is maintained not least by fear and by “making the masses ignorant”.

The institutionalization of “representative democracy” shaped the social imaginary of modern democracy and took hold of mainstream political thinking, including opposition to or scepticism towards direct democracy. As a consequence direct democracy as an idea and as a more than a century long tradition played, if at all, a very minor role in politics, history, philosophy and political theory. To illustrate: Direct democracy is missing in Rosanvallon’s (2008, 2011) and rejected in Kean’s (2009) reconceptualization of democracy; it is misunderstood and thoroughly neglected in John Dunn’s outstanding history of democracy where he affirms “the evident political impotence of the great majority of citizens at most times and over almost all issues” as a fact that contradicts “the meaning of the term democracy”. While Dunn doubts whether it could be otherwise, Karl Rohe (like Keans) dismisses the possibility of democracy right away: “In a modern society decision-making processes are inevitably distancing themselves from a democratic utopia, according to which all those concerned by a decision should be enabled to participate equally in the decision-making process.“(Dunn 2005, 175; Rohe 1994, 26-28) In conclusion: The possibility of direct/genuine democracy is withheld from us, not seen, not wanted, feared, belittled, stigmatized, marginalized, misconceived, considered as impossible – and thereby suppressed. Closing the gates to freedom as autonomy stifles imagination and creativity. Opening the gates would enable us to create conditions under which we could live differently and become fully human.

Only when the thinking in terms of instrumental rationality is overcome, only when it does not matter how much money and influence, prestige and reputation someone has, we begin to see more clearly and to recognize the human being behind all the facades. Humanity is only possible from this moment on. Source: Eugen Drewermann. 2004. Der sechste Tag. Zürich und Düsseldorf: Walter Verlag, S. 367 (my translation)

[1] An opposite position is defended by Massimo Luciani in an excellent article entitled “Referendum und parlamentarische Regierungsform”: “What we need today is a participatory and representative form of government (…). The main structure of this form of government is essentially representative, for political representation is the only way a democracy can work in developed and pluralistic societies. (…) It is on this main structure that forms of popular participation can be inserted, aiming to a dynamic, open and satisfactory political system.” (Luciani 1998, 207-8)
Oligarchy Democracy
Name Representative democracy Democracy
Representation Free and fair elections Sortition / free and fair elections
Citizen lawmaking (popular sovereignty) No tools Direct democracy
Popular vote procedures which empower citizens None Citizens’ initiative, citizen-initiated referendum, obligatory referendum, popular assembly
Popular vote procedure which empower representative authorities Plebiscites (initiated by a representative authority) None

Constant, Benjamin. 1819. De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes. (available online)

Dunn, John. 2005. Setting the People Free. The Story of Democracy. London: Atlantic Books.

Gilens, Martin and Page, Benjamin I. 2014. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. (available online)

Greenwald, Glenn. 2014. No Place to Hide. Edward Snowdon, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Kean, John 2009: The Life and Death of Democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.

Luciani, Massimo. 1998. Referendum und parlamentarische Regierungsform. Italienische Eerfahrungen. In: DIE UNION 4/98, Vierteljahreszeitschrift für Integrationsfragen, 197-208.

Maus, Ingeborg. 2011. Über Volkssouveränität: Elemente einer Demokratietheorie. Berlin: Suhkamp.

Rohe. Karl. 1994. Politik. Begriffe und Wirklichkeiten. Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln.

Rosanvallon, Pierre 2008: Counter-Democracy. Politics in an Age of Distrust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosanvallon, Pierre 2011: Democratic Legitimacy: Impartiality, Reflexivity, Proximity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scahill, Jeremy. 2013. Dirty Wars. Nation Books.

Wolin, Sheldon S. 2008. Democracy Incorporated. Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Updated 31.12.2017

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