Some notes on the nature of democracy

Suppose we take a wide view of things and ask: what is the nature of democracy? Not the democracy of one particular country or organisation, but the fundamental ideal of democracy, the thing that all the governments and societies that call themselves “democratic” are just flawed approximations of?

Democracy isn’t (just) voting.

For example, in ancient Athens during its democratic period the city-state was governed by a council of all its citizens.

Democracy is deliberative.

Democracy requires free and open discussion, dialogue, debate, listening and talking.

Democracy isn’t always called that.

I’d guess that many democratic societies don’t call themselves ‘democratic’ because they don’t need a word for that – it’s just assumed that everyone will participate in decision-making and governance. Maybe they call it ‘having a council’ or ‘gathering together to figure some things out and decide what we’re going to do’.

Democratic societies are roughly egalitarian.

‘Democratic’ doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘egalitarian’, but it’s hard to imagine how a society that was truly democratic could contain large differences in wealth and power. Almost by definition an unequal society is one where most people belong to some sort of underclass. If the society is truly democratic that means they chose to put themselves at the bottom of a pile. It’s not, strictly speaking, impossible. But when you see turkeys voting for roast turkey dinner, you should suspect that the voting was rigged, or that the turkeys were lied to about what roast turkey dinner would mean for them, or that they didn’t have any meaningful choice at all – maybe the only options on the ballot were the ‘Roast Turkey Dinner Party’ and the ‘Fried Breaded Turkey Wings Party’.

Democracy is not meritocracy.

The idea of meritocracy is tricky; how can you definitively measure merit? How can you be certain that those who appear to have less merit are not being unfairly disadvantaged in some way, perhaps by their low social standing and lack of connections or opportunities for training, or by family care responsibilities which prevent them from devoting as much time to work or school? How can you tell the difference between a meritocracy and a privileged, insular, self-replicating elite?

Even if these problems are set aside however, democracy is not meritocracy. Democracy is rule by the people, not rule by some sub-group of the people who have special knowledge or skills. Democracy doesn’t mean ‘everyone gets an equal chance to become a ruler’, it means ‘everyone rules’.

Most people are pretty average. In a true democracy most of the decision-making would be done by average people, not by geniuses or philosopher kings.