What is Democracy?

The word “democracy” gets thrown around in many conversation, but no one truly knows what it really means. Robert A. Dahl, states in his article, Polyarchy“that a key characteristic of democracy is the contenting responsiveness of the government to the preference of its citizens, considered as political equals” (Dahl, 1). In order for democracy to exist, it must have, 1. elected officials, 2. free and fair elections, 3. the right to vote, 4. the right to run for office, 5. freedom of expression, 6. alternative sources of information, and 7. the right to join and form organizations. Philippe C. Schmitter, and Terry Lynn Karl states in their article, What Democracy is… and is Not, that democracy is a regime or a system of governance, that depends on the presence of a ruler, the public, and most importantly the citizens.

I prefer Schmitter and Karl’s definition of democracy because like non-democracies, they have competitions, elections, and representatives. But “since no single set of actual institutions, practices, or values embodies democracy, polities moving away from authoritarian rule can mix different components to produce different democracies” (Schmitter and Karl, 83). One example would be that they do not believe having free and fair elections results in a democracy, unlike Dahl. Not all countries who have free and fair elections have a democratic government. Take Venezuela for example, their voting system is known to be the most comprehensive in the world but, they do not have a democratic government, rather they are ruled under the dictatorship of Chavez. Former President, Jimmy Carter even said, “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world”. Just because a country may have traits of what a democracy should have, it does not always mean that they have a democratic government. To include the specific traits Dahl included in his definition, would be assuming that the American polity is the universal model of all democratic governments in the world.


2 thoughts on “What is Democracy?

  1. I disagree. I believe Dahl also sees Democracy on a spectrum and sees it as not limited to a number of characteristics. Dahl places democracy on a spectrum ranging from high liberalization to high inclusiveness. He argues that democratization consists of public contestation and the right to participate. In other words, he believes that the more inclusive a government is and the more institutions that exist, which allow for the citizenry to participate, the more democratic a society is. The most inclusive and liberal, he calls a polyarchy, which emulates the American system. However, he presents two other different perspectives that could exist, governments that are less liberal or less inclusive, yet still somewhat democratic.

    I agree with Dahl’s definition of democracy. I believe that one of the core characteristics behind the ideology is participation. Participation of both the citizens and the governing people. When people voice their concern about a state, it is the job of the government to listen to these concerns and react to them. When both the electorate and the government participate to the fullest, it creates an effective democracy.

    • I believe that what Dahl was trying to address in his chapter is that what we consider to be democracy is not exactly what we use in America and around the world. His idea of a polyarchy, a form of government in which power is invested in multiple people, rather than just one, does accurately describe the U.S’s current political situation as well as numerous countries around the world, although to different extents (Dahl, 1971). He argues that the fundamental democratic characteristic is the “continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” (Dahl, 1971). However, the idea of political equals is merely ideological. Although we believe, especially in America, that everyone’s voice is equal, it is not so. Money talks, and therefore many people join interest groups and PACs. People without the financial resources to do this, tend to not have their voice heard above the yells of the wealthy. Furthermore, many countries are ruled by a small group of interconnected individuals (political dynasties such as the Bush or Vanderbilt families) that hold key power positions, further creating a divide between the “political elite” and the average citizen. This coincides somewhat to the House of Lords in the British Parliament. I believe that Schmitter and Karl provide a much more accurate and working-definition of democracy. They directly address that competition and cooperation are needed between the representatives and the constituents and that there is a great degree of uncertainty about how those in power will take into account the peoples’ voices. I think both papers do a good job of demonstrating the complexity of democracy, a term that is often used quite liberally. In practice democracy is messy and there are varying ways it can be implemented and upheld. It is not something that can easily have a blanket definition because it is shaped by cultural, historical, and economic factors in each country.

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