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The Importance of Democracy: Definition, History & Concepts

Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker investigates and reports political opinions, supporting them with proven facts and research.

The History of Democracy

In any society, leaders emerge. In order to form a "more perfect union," each leader, along with those he chooses for "guard rails" to ensure safety and protection, sets forth rules. Perhaps in Neanderthal caves, this skeletal prototype of democracy may have been the catalyst for other advancing societies to create what we understand today as "democracy." Even in the small Neanderthalian communities, there may have been a semblance of voting via some ancient ritual for their representative leaders and other tribal dignitaries.

E Democratiam, Veritas (In Democracy, Truth)

To expound on the definition of the word "democracy," Merriam-Webster defines it as "Government by the people. Rule of the majority. A government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically free elections."

Like nearly every other political concept and practice, "democracy" is of Greek origin. It had the same meaning to ancient Greeks in their language as its meaning today: "rule of the people."

This definition is best known in the US when then-President Lincoln in 1863 gave his speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Thus, the equation for democracy includes:

  • The people
  • Government
  • Representation
  • Justice
  • Equality

Ideally, the essence of democracy rests with the fact that people govern themselves, as is referenced in Lincoln's remarks, "of the people, by the people."

Self-Government and "Good" Government

In the hope that self-government will result in "good" government, there are choices to be made by the people and those they choose to represent them. Often, this can lead to failure when the choices made fall from the practicable decisions fall from efficient, pro-democratic forms of government.

One such example is the failure of liberal revolution in Germany of 1848. Germans wholeheartedly and without opposition submitted to Prussian control and leadership under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. In 1933, the Nazi Party and its allied militaristic and nationalistic parties won the people by popular majority.

It is important to note that democracy is most often opposed by aristocrats and middle-class governments citing rounds that mass electorates may vote for tyrants. Examples of this are anti-colonialist movements such as those when Belgium gave the Congo independence in 1960. Chaos and internal strife replaced the formerly smooth operations of the Belgian control.

Even so, the Congolese managed to place the value of self-government above the material benefits of colonial imperialism. It may be said the contrast to "self-government" is "imperial rule."

Western Concepts of Democracy

Western concepts of democracy stress proceduralism. The U.S. Constitution is an excellent illustration of the procedural of democracy.

Whereas the Communist concept of democracy stresses the substantive element, in the formerly Communist Germany, for example, the substantive element was what their Communist representatives decided were in the best interests of the people. However, in the Stalinist Marxist view, the Communist concept was that these decisions were in the best interests of "every people."

What resulted in 1917 was that Russian Communism, while succeeding in abolishing capitalism in Russia, created a new problem: a centralized "state" power more overwhelming and oppressive to "every people" under Soviet Communism than it ever was under the autocratic czars.

The Single Most Important Element in the Democratic Way of Life

Fundamentally consisting of the people's confidence in reason and experience, rational empiricism is perhaps the single most significant element in the democratic way of life.

In England, the founder of modern empiricism is John Locke, who is still considered the most persuasive exponent of political liberalism. There also exists a close connection between empiricism and discussion and consent. This occurs when no representative can possess all of the facts, truths and evidence for dispute.

In the United States, empiricism became a dominant school of philosophy. This philosophy is that "No truth is so certain that it may not be challenged, not even the truth of democracy itself." In theory, there are no taboo issues whose truths are so certain that they must never be discussed. In practice, Western democracies do not always aspire to these philosophical points.

Chief proponents in the U.S. of this philosophy were:

  • John Dewey
  • William James
  • Charles Sanders Pierce

All pragmatic founders of this philosophy. Dewey is most known for founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in addition to his other social and progressive contributions that include:

  • The American Philosophical Association
  • The New School for Social Research
  • The American Psychological Association
  • The American Association of University Professors

Justice and Equality

The organizing principles of human rights are justice and equality of all of the people according to the laws that keep order in any society.

There is often confusion about what constitutes justice under the law. The Merriam-Webster definition of justice is "the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments."

In terms of justice under the law, it is important to note that there are four different types of law: criminal, civil, common, and statutory.

Most criminal laws are applied by statute. These would include murder, rape and armed robbery in the U.S. Most criminal laws refer to behavior.

Civil laws also deal with behavior that constitutes injuries to individuals or other private parties such as corporations. It may also include libel, slander, negligence resulting in injury or death, breach of contract, defamation and property damage.

Common law is defined as a body of legal rules made by judges as they issue rulings on cases—for example, a rule a judge made that states people have a duty to read contracts.

Statute law refers to rules and laws made by the legislature or in official statutes. As is seen by these definitions, law cannot be politicized nor biased in order to be free of outside influence and to effect justice and equality. Lawlessness most always excludes justice and equality in order to effect the desire of a select group who desire control.

The Importance of Democracy

Democracy carries with it certain inalienable freedoms and rights. Democracy is the defining factor in human dignity, respect for individual rights under the rule of law, protection of those rights, social unity and a critical framework for guidance for future generations.

Future generations must be exposed to the fundamental purpose of democracy, so many are denied in non-democratic societies.

One of the most important contributions that defines why democracy is so important can be found in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It is not a coincidence that the early colonists were willing to fight for freedom from the rule of King George.

The following part of the Preamble to the Declaration is equally important to retain in memory:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

When citizens question the importance of the U.S. Constitution, they are questioning law and order, justice and equality and human and civil rights.

All people have the right to a personal opinion. They do not have the right to turn a personal opinion into a law for all others to obey. This is the point at which the Preamble to the Declaration must be a reminder:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

In an organized, unified democracy founded upon justice and equality, it is our right to throw off those who wish to destroy the richness and benefits of democracy.

© 2019 Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker