Democracy ranks among the most opaque and misused terms in modern times. Even the most questionable regimes have evoked democracy as their guiding principle. Whether it is the German Democratic Republic, the former Communist East Germany, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, or one of the USA’s major political parties, the Democratic Party, all seem to adhere positively to democracy and its values. A cynical definition could then amount to something like this. Democracy can be used by anyone and could mean anything. It is a rhetorical tool with which a regime, a country, a party, an organisation claims to rule on behalf of the people. Of course, this is an unsatisfactory definition.
Yet, it does bring us to the two etymological constituents of the term in Greek rule Kratos, and people Demos. Literally, democracy means rule by the people. And ever since the first use of the term some 2000 years ago in ancient Athens, it is exactly those two components that have continuously been contested. Who are the people? And how can the people rule? In general, it took until the late 19th century that democracy was perceived as something good or desirable. Before that, rule by the people was synonymous to mob rule or tyranny of the majority. Monarchy, rule by one monarch, and aristocracy, rule by the few, were generally seen as more stable alternatives.
It took dramatic political and social changes before democracy would entail the promise it holds today, free elections, freedom of expression, and popular politics. The answer to the first question, who comprise the demos, had indeed changed dramatically in the last two centuries. Up until the French, American, and Haitian Revolutions of the late 18th century, the political community, the demos, comprised only the happy few, the male, white, rich, and noble. The French Revolution added to the demos the bourgeoisie, the middle class. The American Revolution brought about a non-European demos, and the Haitian revolution created a demos of former slaves and previously excluded indigenous peoples.
In general, the demos in most parts of the Western world increasingly included emancipating groups, such as former slaves, the working class, and women. Based on the well accepted principle one man, one vote, individuals of all classes, sexes, and ethnicities, were ultimately granted the vote or elected in order to participate in democratic political processes in Western societies and elsewhere. This brings us automatically to the answer on the second question. How can the people then rule? How does one organise a democracy? And as the scale and size of modern societies increased over the centuries, it was evident that the people as a whole could never rule.
Enlightened political thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau were convinced that, principally, the general will of the people could not be separated or represented in government. However, it was practically impossible to have millions of people decide over their own public affairs directly. Indirect democracy, thus, was imperative. It was perceived necessary to select a few from the many who’d assembled to decide over public affairs. The era of representative democracy ushered in by the middle of the 19th century. The ballot box became the main institution through which the few were selected by the many. Elections, not lot appointment or nomination, has since developed as the main method or even equation of democracy.
Political parties emerged by the end of the 19th century as mediators between the demos, the political community, and the ballot box. As the rest of this week will show, European democracy and debates about its deficits, legitimacy, and procedures, in essence hark back to continuously contested definitions of the demos and of rule. Again, who comprise the demos and how can they rule. This particularly applies to thinking about organising democracy beyond national borders, such as in the case of the European Union.