Politics / Technology

What is Democracy?

Reading or listening news we can easily make a shortlist of how difficult it is to have in place and maintain such a thing known as democracy. In the Middle east and Africa we have a lot of countries who have been struggling to land there for a long time now. But also Ukraine is a clear statement that democracy is not such an easy task. Not to forget the various democracy leaking European parties that from time to time come out form some elections. Apparently democracy is what we have in USA, unless we start considering the NSA affair, Edward Snowden and so on.

Why democracy is such a hard habit to take? Do we really need a democratic system? And, even more important, what is Democracy?

What does Democracy mean?

Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens (we should say people) participate equally—either directly or indirectly through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws.

The name was taken from the ancient Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people” and comes from demos (δῆμος people) Kratos (κράτος rules\power) the term is an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia) “rule of an elite” although even Athens would not be considered a democracy in our time.

As a form of government the key points to consider are related to how we decide that a citizen is eligible, the form of the institutions that will be elected and the extension or limits we have in the proposal, development and creation of laws. Theoretically those points are, or should be, the main differentiators that allow us to choose our representatives.

All over the world we have different way to express those points. For example, a citizen is eligible because of some conditions:

  • is a citizen
  • has reached a certain age
  • has specific other condition like census or gender or criminal records and so on.

This seems quite easy, right?

Well we should first ponder whether someone needs to be a citizen in the first place: in some countries you are allowed to participate in some elections (usually local ones) even if you’re not a citizen (or, at least, you have different levels of citizenships).

The idea of citizen is even not so easy: we could be citizens because of jus soli (right of soil) or jus sanguinis (right of blood) or a mix of both. We can be citizens because we, somehow, acquire this right. It is all quite variable. So in Germany you’re not considered German if you do not have German blood (jus sanguinis) otherwise you would be an Ausländer (Gaijin in Japan), while in Italy it is enough to born inside the country or to have Italian blood.

And if we use age as criterion, well when someone could be considered mature enough? We in ol’Europe usually put this line at 18 years old, but it is not so everywhere. So the question is not barely easy even from a basic point of view.

In literature we find different kinds of democracy (liberal, oligarchy, direct, representative…) and different kinds of democratic forms of government: constitutional republics, such as France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, or the United States, or a constitutional monarchies, such as Japan, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, or the United Kingdom. It may have a presidential system (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the United States), a semi-presidential system (France), or a parliamentary system (Australia, Canada, India, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom).

And then we should consider the other implications related to the term democracy; the assumption is so hard that philosopher Karl Popper “simplified” the question making the assumption that democracy is where there is not tyranny or dictatorship and people is able to change the people at the government without a revolution.

What a Democracy is not?

If defining and understanding democracy is so difficult then one could already see in that the reason why so many democracies look flawed. But somehow if we cannot say what is, we can still say what it is not.

Democracy is not “our way of life”

Do you think that yours is a democracy because you are used to do something? This is a slippery floor. Something you consider normal could be considered crazy in other places even if both the places are considered “democratic” by their respective citizens. So if in USA you have in the constitution the right to bring weapons with you (and consider this a sign of progress, justice and democracy) we in Europe think exactly the opposite, and few exception aside (like Switzerland), people holding a gun machine are not considered a portrait of freedom and rights.

The same can be told for other things: death penalty is considered a barbarian heritage here in Europe while China, USA, North Korea and some countries in the Middle East consider this a sign of civilization.

Democracy is not an economic model

Capitalism is not a synonym of Democracy, and communism is not an economical model but a social model with economic implications. I always think of poor Adam Smith turning in his grave in Scotland every time he is named to justify modern capitalism and radical economic liberalism. The most used tags of our last centuries are completely misunderstood or misrepresented. When mixing different things together you may well obtain a salad but not a coherent theory.

Democracy is not “this religion”

While religious people have the right to be represented in a democratic system, in a theocracy this is not always the case. This is not to say that a “confessional” form of democracy cannot exist. Let’s consider Iran as an example. It is a democratic Islamic republic, that means that the corpus of the law was coming out from the religion and so most of the rules, but the representatives are democratically elected inside this system. As a matter of fact the form IS a democratic system, unless you believe that religion should be completely disjointed from the government and the law. This is the case of France, where all religions are repected but the government and its ethic are secular.

Democracy is not “against a religion”

The relationship between democracy and religion is not always easy and sometimes the different ethics and rules collide. But for sure the meaning of a democratic system could not be to fight a religion, even if the religion itself is “antidemocratic”. Besides I’m not aware of religions that are strictly antidemocratic.

Democracy and democratic are not synonymous

While there can be no democracy without a democratic system, a democratic system can be present in non-democracy governments. Democratic systems are based on a form of government in which the people choose leaders by voting. So even a monarchy can be democratic while not clearly a democracy.

Democracy is not the only government system that works

In different ages and different countries some systems have been more effective than others. And sometimes there have been changes. In ancient Rome they started with elected kings to move then to a Republic than move to different form of governments to end with the dictator, the emperor. Kings still exist in our age, and can be elective (as the Pope in Vatican) or by blood streams (UK, Spain, Sweden, Holland, Japan, Thailand …) , bound to a constitutional law or not. As a matter of fact a King in a modern constitutional monarchy is a dictator that more or less graciously passed some of his\her rights to the parliament. A dictatorship is just a form of government where the dictator is the ruler and the driver of its people. And the dictator can be elected even with democratic instrument as happened to Adolf Hitler in Germany. There can be different forms of dictatorship as in monarchical absolutism and theocracy. Even if nowadays dictatorship is usually related to authoritarianism and totalitarianism, those are not synonyms of dictatorship and authoritarian or totalitarian form of governments can be also be dressed with a republican or elective outfit.

So Democracy is not a lot of things we are used to consider as democratic. This does means that “freedom” and “democracy” are not the same things, but they could to coexist in a sound environment. Democracy is not either free of speech or religion, but they can be part of a modern democratic system. To be clear a “democratic” system can be something different form a democracy, and the electoral process does not identify a democracy per se.

Democracy is not Human Rights

Don’t be fooled by marketing, Human rights and democracy don’t go hand in hand. While a democracy (and any other system) should respect human rights the truth is that even the biggest democracies does not always accomplish it. Instruction, death penalty, personal rights, privacy there are thousands of Human Right violation even in the modern democracies.

Democracy is not “We are the Good”

Just to be clear living in democracy can allow us also to make the wrong choices. The fact that the majority want something does not necessarily means that that “something” is good, right, ethical, moral or just simply sound. While democracy has implications in terms of some moral and ethical constrains (I will talk about some constrains below) that does not mean that a democracy have to be peaceful of working for the “greater good” of mankind. Democracies, like the other forms of government, tend primarily to promote and preserve themselves even if this require to overcome freedom or rights of external entities. Somehow justified by some “greater good” or “people need” or “national security” even the greatest democracies do not hesitate to use force and impositions against other countries to preserve their own benefits and interests.

Some clear democracy requirements

There are, anyway, some clear requirements to be able to implement a democracy. Requirements that seem obvious, may be, but not so universal:

  • There should be an elective procedure of some kind, ruled somehow and the voters should be able to move inside those rules without any external constrain. In other terms people should be able to vote “freely” inside the set of rules that match specific democratic model.
  • A democracy should recognize the existence of different points of view, and this have some implications. In democracy there could be a majority, but for sure there will be minorities and those have to be protected by the system to avoid becoming a totalitarian one. Religious, political, cultural, ethnic, census minorities do have the right to be represented in some form. In democracy have to be implemented “super partes” controls that are needed to force the majority to respect rules and minorities. In democracy all eligible people have the right to be informed to allow themselves to form an opinion.
  • The starting point of a democracy is the will of the people to live in such a system. By definition democracy cannot be imposed, while can be imposed a democratic system that does not lead directly to democracy.

Those implications are mandatory and are bounded in the ethical and moral standard of a democracy.

The first point outline that cannot be a democracy without a democratic system. The key here is the respect of the rules, no matter what those rules are. It is not a specific rule (age, census, gender, religion …) that mark the difference, but the fact that the rules have to be the same for all the eligible ones. If for some reason a system adopt strategies to adjust the result of an election or force somehow people against its will then we have a great deficiency in terms of democracy. The “free” vote inside the rules also imply the existence of point 2.

If for some reason we change rules in order to not allow a specific population to vote we are acting against democracy even if we played accordingly to the local legislation. This is a typical example of a collision between law and ethical and moral standards. And this is not just a developing country issue, someone will remember all the democratic party rumors and complains related to Florida when Bush Jr. was elected for the 2nd mandate.

The second point contains the greatest number of unattended needs even in the so called advanced democracies. Every systems presents its soft spots and black holes, no country is immune.

The third point, on the right to have access to information, concerns me the most and is, in my opinion, crucial in all the democracies under construction.

If the whole point of democracy is being able to vote knowing what we are doing we should be able to be as much knowledgeable as possible. The idea behind is that to be able to make a conscious choice we should be able to analyze and criticize what is proposed in order to make our opinion freely. Lack of information, knowledge and ability to critically analyze it is a serious limitation in terms of democracy.

If you don’t know you cannot choose

Knowledge is the basic for any conscious choice, if we don’t know we have to trust more or less blindly. The problem here is to be able to find sources and verify facts. If we don’t do it we just simply make some act of faith and treat democracy as something that is not, a religion. Democracy cannot be a religion because is a system that does not contain the truth inside, but just try to balance the different truths in the best effort way. A critical, and probably the biggest flaw, point is to be able to discuss and then decide. But, as someone may be remember, there is not a discussion without the assumption that we could even change our mind. If our starting point is “I am the truth” there will not be a discussion but a monologue, and so we will be right outside the democracy moral and ethical standards.

Knowledge is power, this is more real in a democracy where everyone is responsible for the free expressed vote, and its consequence. Basing a choice over an assumption like “you are wrong anyway” is just not the right thing.

Alas watching some scary threads on the various social networks remind me how little “critical thinking” is applied in nowadays political life. And I’m not talking of my country, but everywhere.

Numbers, historical facts, objective results are simply not considered. And sometimes to support a theory some “Dude, what are you talking about?” facts are presented as gospel even if have a little or no link with solid facts and history. And funny enough sometimes there would be plenty of good reason in support that are not even known or used.

Typical example is the worldwide obsession with immigrants. USA, Europe and even Asia and Africa are plenty of discussions based on dumb or untrue assumptions, wrong facts, tampered presented numbers and statistics. Follow a twitter thread to understand what I’m talking about. Very few times have I seen discussions based on fact.

They don’t want, they don’t know; why do you expect it works?

So let me recall: democracy is a very difficult environment that requires knowledge, will, application and sacrifice. There are specific needs that have to be respected and an overall agreement by all the involved parts.

Democracy is not a religion, does not have all the answers, ou contraire, is a system based on the assumption that the answers can be different and equally valuable.

It requires that all the part respect each other habits and ideas and will to discuss openly. On those assumption is quite understandable that implementing an election systems does not means to have introduced democracy in a country. By its nature democracy cannot be forced, because if you force someone to democracy there is not democracy at all, remember what Karl Popper say there is not democracy if to change the form of government you have to use a revolution.

The very pillar of democracy are will, knowledge and respect of the minorities, if a country is not ready to this every form of government will be less than a democracy, no matter if it is Iraq, Ukraine or Libya.

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Antonio Ieranò

Antonio Ieranò is an IT professional, marketing specialist, and tech evangelist with over 16 years of experience serving as a community liaison, subject matter expert, and high-profile trainer for key technologies and solutions. Antonio’s experience includes acting as the public face of Cisco security technologies; leading pan-European technical teams in development of new Cisco security products; and serving as a key public speaker and trainer on behalf of new high-tech products. His expertise spans IT development and implementation, marketing strategy, legal issues, and budget / financial management.

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