My Turn: What is democracy?

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Published: 3/9/2022 5:53:37 PM
Modified: 3/9/2022 5:53:04 PM

Democracy is much praised but little understood. Most people, if asked to define democracy, would say that it means that the majority rules. But that leaves out a lot of what we usually associate with democracy, and fails to address some essential questions.

The most obvious question is “majority of what?” In the United States we have several layers of government, and a majority on one level often is a minority on a different level. For instance, New York City is solidly Democratic, but Staten Island is solidly Republican. On a higher level, we often have conflicts between individual states and the federal government. So who should win out — the voters of the state or the voters of the nation? We also have the phenomenon of the United States Senate, where the senators from small states have proportionately far more power than those from larger states.

Furthermore, there might not even be a possible majority. That’s been the situation in Israel, where the government has always been formed as a parliamentary coalition. The Israeli public has no control of the negotiations that determine who gets to form a government. The religious parties have the support of only a small fraction of the populace, yet they get to impose their demands on the entire nation because their support in the Knesset is usually essential to forming a ruling coalition.

We also have certain norms for government in a democracy that have nothing to do with majority rule. Hitler’s Germany was a democracy in the strict sense since it was supported enthusiastically by most Germans, despite its barbaric treatment of the Jews. Hitler would have won even the most scrupulously fair election.

We expect a democratic government to honor at least a modicum of civil liberties and to recognize the rights of minorities. Before his Ukrainian misadventures, Vladimir Putin won solid majorities in every Russian election. His elections were of course rigged but he would have won them with no rigging whatsoever.

What we really mean when we talk about a democratic government is a good government. Personally, I would rather live under a benevolent dictatorship that tolerated dissent and recognized its value, provided full civil liberties to all, and was generally accepted because it did a good job of running the country.

I’m not against democracy. I know what it isn’t; I just don’t know what it is. And I don’t think anyone else knows either.

Paul Abrahams is a retired computer scientist, professor, and former New Yorker who lives in Deerfield and now writes philosophical essays.


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