We often hear the term, “democracy”, thrown around in different contexts. We are described to be living in democratic societies, and we often hear states being criticized for being undemocratic. However, while many of us can identify some elements of democratic societies, it is doubtful whether we fully understand the meaning of democracy. Democracy’s ultimate purpose is to give a voice to the people, and may be interpreted as a political term or an ideal. For a society to truly be democratic, the society must establish a democratic system which promotes the democratic spirit.
As a political concept, democracy is a system of governance where all functioning members of a given society have, to some extent, the power to decide on public policies. Such power is usually exerted in the form of voting and usually for the purpose of giving the public a voice. However, it should be noted that the extent of power may differ.
For example, while some societies allow its members to vote directly on public policies, others only allow members to vote on legislators, who then decide on the policies to be enacted. While both societies in the aforementioned examples may be seen as democratic, it is clear that the members of the former society enjoy a larger degree of democracy than those of the latter, as members of the latter society have to rely on legislators to make decisions. Although legislators may be selected based on their alleged goals and values, there is no obligation for legislators to uphold campaign promises, resulting in the public voice not being transmitted from the legislator.
It should further be noted that democracy would only be open to functioning members of society, which may be defined pragmatically as those who contribute to revenue, or defined idealistically as those who are willing and able to participate in civic life. There are also exceptions within the wide scope of “functioning members”. For example, prisoners are still excluded from participating in democratic processes in Hong Kong despite the fact that they may be contributing to revenue through prison labour. A possible rationale for such exclusion is that by committing crimes against society, this category of people forfeit their right to continue participating in civic life. However, there are further controversies regarding the eligibility for participation in democratic processes, which will be discussed below.
Democracy may also be viewed as an ideal or a spirit. In order for democratic systems to function, core values or principles are needed to support such systems. Such essentials may be referred to as the spirit of democracy. The democratic spirit promotes the ideal of letting everyone have a say, or in other words, public participation in politics. Because democracy requires public participation and the expression of one’s opinion, democratic systems can only be established based on fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech.
Such rights would protect the people from repercussions due to their opinions, hence enabling them to participate in civic life, the democratic spirit also upholds the freedom of speech, while being closely connected with values such as open mindedness and tolerance towards rivalling opinions. The democratic system should also serve as a reflection of public opinion, or even a response for the common good. Democratic systems also need to be established on the basis of equality. It is only when we believe that all voters have equal rights and equal power that we are able to uphold the results of a fair election.
Given the distinction between a true democracy, a democratic system, and the democratic spirit, we must consider their importance separately. As the question emphasizes on the importance of living in a democracy, importance should be defined in accordance with the state of living, or rather, human life. Thus, what we are really asking is how well democracy corresponds to human values, hence how important it is that we see, hear, and breathe democracy every day.
Yet, true democracy is often difficult to achieve, and the impracticality of true democracies signifies its’ insignificance to human life. Societies often only use democracy as a political mechanism without the underpinning democratic spirit. Without the democratic spirit as a backbone to the democratic process, neither historical nor modern societies cannot be regarded as true democracies.
Take Athenian democracy as an example. Although there was the use of a voting system, women and slaves were excluded from the process. As such categories of people may be regarded as functioning members of society, it is arguable that Athens did not establish a truly democratic system. Even if women and slaves are regarded as non-functioning members of Athenian society due to the cultural beliefs held by the Athenians, Athenian society failed to uphold equality. Hence, Athenian society cannot be said to be democratic in spirit.
Furthermore, modern societies with democratic systems also fail to promote the democratic spirit. The electoral college system in the U.S. means that there is no adherence between the democratic process and the fundamental principle of reflecting public opinion, as shown by the discrepancy between the electoral college vote and popular vote in 2016. Phenomenons such as gerrymandering further erode the democratic spirit. Gerrymandering signifies that politicians emphasize more on manipulating democratic processes for their party’s victory, rather than effectively utilizing the democratic system to understand public opinions. Gerrymandering conveys politicians’ unwillingness to tolerate opposing opinions, hence their failure to uphold the spirit of democracy.
Most modern democracies also limit the right to vote for certain age groups, with the minimum voting age spanning the range of 16 to 25 years old for countries around the world. A justification for an age restriction may be that an individual would only have an independent and sound mind for participating in civic life once they have reached the minimum age. However, this justification cannot possibly stand when there are so many teenagers today who are just as well-informed about candidates and public policies as legally eligible voters.
Besides, if we are using the criteria of being well-informed to determine voter eligibility, why would a fifty year-old who only watches Fox News have the right to vote over a sixteen year-old who has done actual research on the issue or candidate? Additionally, there are alleged cases of “vote-buying” in Hong Kong where campaign helpers stamped a candidate’s name or number onto the hands of elderly nursing home residents and bussed them to voting venues, possibly manipulating the residents’ votes. With little to no correlation between the minimum age and susceptibility, it is difficult to see how the aforementioned justification would be valid. Such limitations on the right to vote signifies that not everyone actually has a say, and the outcome of the democratic process is an inaccurate reflection of public opinion.
However, it is also for good reason that true democracy is not enacted in modern societies. A true democracy may lower the efficiency of government administrations, and amplify conflicts between public interest and the public’s desires. Combined with the occurrence of susceptible and unintelligent voters, a true democracy may be disastrous for the governance of a state. As a truly democratic system would be, although possible, nevertheless impractical and undesirable, such a system is unimportant to human life.
On the other hand, are democratic systems important to human life? As may be seen from the above, democratic systems are ultimately a shell for the democratic spirit. Even with the use of electoral processes that fit the definition of a “democratic system”, the outcome may not even be determined by the people.
It is arguable that the DPRK has a democratic system as citizens must cast their vote to elect the new ruler. However, even without the electoral process, members of the population are already certain of who the next leader will be. The ineffective use of the democratic framework in the states around the world indicates that a democratic system is unimportant for human life and not necessarily connected to human values.
What would instead be important is the democratic spirit. Values of equality, freedom of speech, and open-mindedness, as embedded in the democratic spirit, form part of our core universal values. These values can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all nations on the planet have agreed to regardless of their system of government. At the very least, governments around the world agree that it is important to live in a society with universal values, which includes the democratic spirit.
To conclude, it is unimportant to live under a democratic system, but important to live with the democratic spirit. The democratic spirit embodies universal human values and forms a core to human morals. Without the democratic spirit as a backbone to modern society, it would be possible for states to simply brand themselves or their actions as democratic without upholding fundamental rights. Without the democratic spirit, there would simply be no constructive meaning to a term that has played such an important role in the development of human society.