Democracy is the system of government most commonly associated with freedom, equality and human rights. The word itself is derived from the Greek words demos (“people”) and kratia (“rule”). This political system involves the active participation of citizens in governing themselves, either directly by referendum or indirectly through elections. The nature of this participation has evolved over time and across countries, from direct democracy to representative democracy. How the people participate has a profound impact on the legitimacy and durability of democracy.
This fundamental question about democracy is being asked more and more as democracy is challenged around the world. The rise of populist movements and demagogues threaten liberal values. The Brexit vote and the Trump presidency have left many people questioning whether popular votes are credible or even meaningful. Even in the West, a more technocratic form of politics has taken hold that is less responsive to the needs of people and may be out of touch with technological, demographic and cultural changes.
The debate about democracy is a vital one, as it concerns the very foundations of how we govern ourselves. The answers that are given to this question will determine the type of society we live in, how much protections we have against discrimination and exploitation, the degree to which we can be secure in our lives, and even whether or not we can sustain economic growth.
There are two major ways that the legitimacy of a democracy can be evaluated: instrumentally, by considering the benefits that come from using it in comparison with other methods of making political decisions; and intrinsically, by examining the values that are embodied in the method itself. In general, there is room for improvement on both fronts in any democratic system.
One example of an instrumental benefit is that democracy allows for the equal sharing of resources amongst a society’s members. This can be done through formal mechanisms, such as the equal value of each vote or proportional representation, or through informal ones, such as free and fair debate.
Another instrumental advantage of democracy is the ability to protect individual rights. These include the right to free thought, conscience and religion (UDHR, Article 18), the ability to pursue one’s own interests and satisfy their needs without being subjected to coercive state interference, the freedom of association and private property, and voting rights.
A number of philosophical arguments support more political egalitarianism in a democracy, including increasing the frequency of elections, improving electoral systems to make them more reflective of the people’s will and making them more transparent, and relying more on mechanisms like citizens’ assemblies to delegate power more directly.
While the simplest way for people to get involved with democracy is to vote, it’s important that they engage in all other forms of civic responsibility such as volunteering, activism and public discourse. This will help them to become more aware of the issues that affect them and the people around them and will allow them to have a more direct impact on how society is formed and managed.