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The Essentials of Democracy

By: Dana-Marie Seepersad

The concept of democracy has emerged as a result of a gradual change in the principles that govern the distribution of power in the society.

According to a lecture conducted at Stanford University, democracy incorporates four major principles: it is a political system for choosing and replacing governments through free and fair elections; it involves the active participation of citizens in politics and public life; it entails protection of the human rights of all citizens; it is a rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

The first principle of democracy as a political system for choosing and replacing governments through free and fair elections, views democracy as a means for people to choose their leaders and hold them accountable for their actions and policies. In this regard, people decide who will represent them through free and fair elections. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” According to Robert Post in Democracy and Equality, “democratic forms of government are those in which the laws are made by the same people to whom they apply.” Government is therefore based on the consent of the governed which means that people are sovereign, that is, the highest form of political authority.

Secondly, the key role of citizens in a democracy is participation in public life. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues and to scrutinize how political leaders and representatives execute their powers. Furthermore, they can express their opinions and interests by voting; a citizen’s civic duty. Voting is an important method through which citizens participate in the choice of their leaders and because all citizens are affected by this choice, it is the citizens’ equality of agency. This principle indicates that each citizen is to be regarded as formally equal to every other in the influence that their agency can participate in public decisions. Participation also involves campaigning, running for a public office, debating public issues and attending meetings. It is thus clear that political parties are vital to a democracy.

Thirdly, in a democracy all citizens have certain basic rights that cannot be denied or withheld by governments. Citizens have the right to their own beliefs, religion and culture. For instance, people can choose the sources of news or opinions to follow, they can control what they read, listen to or watch as well as who they associate with. In addition to this, people are free to form and join organizations and freely assemble among themselves to protest government actions. This is backed by the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” This right includes the freedom to change one’s beliefs and manifest such beliefs through teachings, practice, worship and observance. This is critical to democracy since it allows people their right of dignity and participation in decision-making processes.

Fourthly, democracy is a system of rule by laws. The rule of law protects the rights of citizens, maintains order, and limits the power of government. All citizens are equal under the law. This means that no one can be discriminated against on the basis of their race, religion, ethnic group, or gender. Democracy calls for persons be treated equally as autonomous participants in a process of self-government. This form of equality is the essence of democracy as it speaks to an equality of democratic agency. Under this principle, no one is above the law. The law is fair, impartial and enforced by courts independent of the other branches of government. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights maintains that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” This principle is indispensable to democracy because people must respect the rights of their fellow citizens. Furthermore, while people have the right to question the decisions of their government, they ought not to reject governmental authority. In this regard, all groups in society must understand that they are all a part of a democratic state and as they express their opinions, they too, must listen to the views of other people, even those whom they do not necessarily agree.

It should be understood that while the principle of participation in public life is relevant and desirable, it is not necessarily essential to democracy. In many instances voters are largely uninformed about many political issues and may have biases on certain others. For instance, a certain group in the society may only be passionate and informed about issues that directly relate to them and hence, they may lobby for these issues while disregarding the wishes of the rest of the population. Furthermore, voters may not be educated enough and so may be incapable of making beneficial decisions or fully understanding the impacts of their decisions. When this happens, they may be taken advantage of by politicians who appeal to their emotions instead of their intellect. Post reinforces this argument by stating that while participation is a necessary condition for this identification, it is not a sufficient condition. Realistically, there will always be people who feel destitute, marginalized, stigmatized, and subordinated. However, democracy ensures that citizens are nonetheless free to engage in public discourse.

Ultimately, the essence of this discussion drives home the understanding that democracy in any society is vital for individuals to maintain identification with their governments.

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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