What is Democracy?

Democracy is a profoundly liberating concept. But for most of us, it’s the default world we live in.

First practiced in rudimentary form in ancient Athens over two millennia ago, the allure of what democratic principles stood for can be seen repeatedly throughout history in various dominions and forms: the American Revolution in 1775, the French Revolution in 1789, the Xinhai Revolution in 1912, the Russian Revolution in 1917 were all- at least in part- inspired by the democratic ideal of “rule by the people.” More than that though, the democratic principles include a respect for the rule of law, a transparent and accountable government, and a upholding of the fundamental principles of human dignity and equality. These democratic principles have been famously enshrined in the documents of the Magna Carta and the Habeas Corpus in Great Britain, and the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. More recently, they have been written into the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, where the principle of how “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” has been codified into a universal aspiration. Indeed, the public appeal of democracy is such that overwhelming majority of all government systems in the world are “democratic” de jure, but whether they are in actual fact, might not be the case- the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could be considered the antithesis of a democracy.

The democratic system exists in all sorts of forms and variations in the modern world, and its evolution is still constantly in flux. Whether it is a direct, parliamentary, representative, presidential, or a hybrid, a democratic system at its very core is highly conducive to the guarding of the common value and respect for human rights. Take the voting process for example: the symbolic meaning of equality is physically epitomized by a universal right to vote; the symbolic meaning freedom of expression is captured in the plurality of voices, discussion, and debate around policy. It is no coincidence that in contexts where a government or political party has unilateral authoritarian power, the consequences often included gross violations of human rights- whether it is the White Terror in Taiwan under martial law, or the persecution of Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong followers in China. Further back, both Nazism in Germany and the dictatorship in Khmer Cambodia resulted in genocides committed against marginalized groups. With no checks and balances or public accountability, dictatorial and autocratic systems are by their very nature deeply corrosive to these value of human rights we should all rightly treasure and enjoy.

The democratic system in practice, of course, is not perfect. Indeed, in the past in the U.S., it was more akin to democracy to males, even white males. But what established democratic systems are good at is that they can change, and these changes can be protected by robust institutions. Today, a polarized, uninformed electorate and institutional corruption continue to plague would-be democracies. But I end with Winston Churchill’s quote, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar