Does Democracy Exist?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

We tend to think of democracy as a set of governmental institutions. We see it as a political order characterized by open elections, constitutional constraints, the rule of law, freedom of speech, a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on. This makes good sense. These institutions indeed loom large in our political lives.

However, political institutions differ considerably from one purportedly democratic society to the next. Voting procedures, representation schemes, conceptions of free speech, and judicial arrangements are not uniform across societies that are widely regarded as democratic. In some of these countries, voting is required by law and military service is mandatory. In others, these acts are voluntary.  Some democratic countries have distinct speech restrictions, others have different and blurrier boundaries. And the ancient Athenians appointed their representatives to the Boule by lot, instead of by vote. Given these variations, how can these societies all be democracies?

This leads to the thought that although certain institutional forms are characteristic of democracies, democracy itself should be identified with the kind of society those institutions realize. We hence can see how two societies with distinct constitutions nevertheless can be democratic.

This prompts the obvious question: What kind of society is a democracy?

Abraham Lincoln’s depiction at Gettysburg may seem a good place to start. He identified democracy as government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Yet this goes only so far. For one thing, it retains the idea that democracy is centrally a mode of government. More importantly, it doesn’t specify what it means for government to be by the people. As Lincoln’s remark stands, it may allow a society to count as democratic even though benevolent oligarchs, or some other subset of the citizenry, runs it.  Consider this against the fact that there are many democracies with appallingly low voting rates.

What’s missing from Lincoln’s account is the idea that a democracy is a social order accountable to all the people. In a democracy, the people not only rule themselves; they rule themselves as equal partners. No citizen is another’s political subordinate, master, or overlord. In short, a democracy is a society in which people govern themselves as political equals.

It is worth emphasizing that political equality does not mean that every citizen is identical or as equally admirable. Rather, our political equality means that we participate in the activities of collective self-government as equals. We each get to make up our own minds about political affairs. We don’t merely get an equal say in political decision-making; we’re entitled to one.

This definition helps to make sense of why institutions can vary across democratic societies. There are different ways to structure a society of self-governing equals. Thus, democracy can take various institutional forms. Societies embodying significantly different institutions can be democratic.

However, this conception of democracy raises a new difficulty. Arguably, no existing society fits the definition. Material, social, and historical blocks to equal standing among citizens are pervasive in all societies claiming to be democratic. There is no self-governing society of political equals to be found. Every existing society falls short of that mark.

Does it then follow that democracy doesn’t exist, that no society should count as democratic? No. To see why, we need to take a step back to consider some features about what we might call aspirational concepts.

Let’s begin by asking a different question: Was Aristotle a scientist? He wrote multiple treatises on scientific subjects, from marine biology and botany to astronomy and physics. However, he never looked through a microscope and had no conception of DNA. He had never heard of the theory of evolution or of Newton’s laws of motion. Moreover, he held views of natural phenomena that could hardly be called scientific by today’s standards. For example, he thought that species were eternal, that men and women had different number teeth, that the Earth is the center of the universe, that the universe’s motion had to be sustained by a purpose, and that formal and material explanations must be distinct.  Not only were these views incorrect, but they arguably stood in the way of the progress of the sciences.

Nonetheless, Aristotle sought to explain the world around him by means of a particular style of inquiry, a mode of investigation that directed him to observe, tinker, take notes, track how things change, theorize in light of the available data, and revise as new evidence emerged.

For this reason, Aristotle was indeed a scientist. His status as such is due to the aspiration his empirical studies embody, and the way that aspiration guided his work. We’d say the same of Ptolemy and Newton. Moreover, we contend that contemporary scientists are bona fide scientists, even though we also expect that in the next 100 years new discoveries will render obsolete much of what they believe.

We should say the same about democracy. It’s the name of a political aspiration. Accordingly, a society counts as democratic in virtue of the extent to which the aim of realizing a self-governing society of political equals guides its institutions and practices. This means that a society that falls short of being a self-governing society of political equals might nonetheless qualify as an authentic democracy.

However, it remains the case that a society’s being a democracy comes to more than its claim to be one. We regard Aristotle as a scientist not simply because he says he’s being scientific. Rather, his status as a scientist has to do with how he conducted his investigations; he counts as a scientist in virtue of how the aspiration to understand the world informed his efforts. We might call it a broad empiricism and a commitment to systematic and natural explanations.  Similarly, there are certain necessary institutional and practical conditions that a society must meet if it is to qualify as embodying the democratic aspiration. Here we return to the familiar governmental and institutional forms that typically spring to mind when we think about democracy: open and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and so on. A society that does not satisfy certain baseline institutional requirements cannot count as a democracy, because it cannot be regarded as embracing the democratic aspiration.

But that’s not all. The democratic aspiration also involves the creation of a culture in which the aim of achieving a self-governing society of equals is operative in the minds and practices of political officials and citizens. This means that for a society to qualify as democratic, certain kinds of considerations, reasons, and arguments must count in discussions of political policy. To use a simplistic example, a cogent argument to the effect that a particular policy diminishes the capacity of some citizens to participate in self-government as equals must count as a formidable criticism of that policy. What’s more, in the absence of similar considerations that favor the policy, the equality-based critique must be regarded as decisive. Now putting the point in a different way, a society in which arguments about equality simply have no purchase in political discourse is at best a democracy in decline, and arguably not a democracy at all. Similarly, politicians and political coalitions that disregard considerations about equality, or that openly seek to limit any citizen’s equal access to the activities of self-government, have effectively divested from democracy.

Thus, even though no society lives up to the strict definition of democracy, democracies nevertheless exist. Real world societies are democratic in virtue of satisfying two related conditions. First, the society must feature certain characteristic political institutions. Second, the people – politicians, officials, and citizens alike – must regard those institutions as manifesting the moral aspiration to realize the idea of self-government among equals more fully. Crucially, this means that a democratic people must treat certain kinds of moral considerations regarding equality as politically salient – always weighty, sometimes decisive – in their own political thinking.

We conclude by highlighting one important upshot of our account. It is common to think of democracy as something that is founded or established. This leads to the thought that once a democracy is set up, all that remains it the task of upholding it. This is an error. Once we see that democracy is an aspiration, we also see that the task of democracy is that of sustaining it. And sustaining democracy is a matter of working to change it in the direction of greater political equality.