What Is Democracy?

Magna Carta


Inalienable Rights

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

In these memorable words of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson set forth a fundamental principle upon which democratic government is founded. Governments in a democracy do not grant the fundamental freedoms enumerated by Jefferson; governments are created to protect those freedoms that every individual possesses by virtue of his or her existence.

In their formulation by the Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, inalienable rights are God-given natural rights. These rights are not destroyed when civil society is created, and neither society nor government can remove or "alienate" them.

Inalienable rights include freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of assembly, and the right to equal protection before the law. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the rights that citizens enjoy in a democracy--democratic societies also assert such civil rights as the right to a fair trial--but it does constitute the core rights that any democratic government must uphold. Since they exist independently of government, these rights cannot be legislated away, nor are they subject to the momentary whim of an electoral majority. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, does not give freedom of religion or of the press to the people; it prohibits the Congress from passing any law interfering with freedom of speech, religion, and peaceful assembly. A historian, Leonard Levy, has said, "Individuals may be free when their government is not."

The detailed formulation of laws and procedures concerning these basic human rights will necessarily vary from society to society, but every democracy is charged with the task of building the constitutional, legal, and social structures that will ensure their protection.

Freedom of speech and expression is the lifeblood of any democracy. To debate and vote, to assemble and protest, to worship, to ensure justice for all--these all rely upon the unrestricted flow of speech and information. Canadian Patrick Wilson, creator of the television series The Struggle for Democracy, observes: "Democracy is communication: people talking to one another about their common problems and forging a common destiny. Before people can govern themselves, they must be free to express themselves."

Citizens of a democracy live with the conviction that through the open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will eventually win out over falsehood, the values of others will be better understood, areas of compromise more clearly defined, and the path of progress opened. The greater the volume of such exchanges, the better. American essayist E.B. White put it this way: "The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and dwell in the light....There is safety in numbers."

In contrast to authoritarian states, democratic governments do not control, dictate, or judge the content of written and verbal speech. Democracy depends upon a literate, knowledgeable citizenry whose access to the broadest possible range of information enables them to participate as fully as possible in the public life of their society. Ignorance breeds apathy. Democracy thrives upon the energy of citizens who are sustained by the unimpeded flow of ideas, data, opinions, and speculation.

But what should the government do in cases where the news media or other organizations abuse freedom of speech with information that, in the opinion of the majority, is false, repugnant, irresponsible, or simply in bad taste? The answer, by and large, is nothing. It is simply not the business of government to judge such matters. In general, the cure for free speech is more free speech. It may seem a paradox, but in the name of free speech, a democracy must sometimes defend the rights of individuals and groups who themselves advocate such non- democratic policies as repressing free speech. Citizens in a democratic society defend this right out of the conviction that, in the end, open debate will lead to greater truth and wiser public actions than if speech and dissent are stifled.

Furthermore, the advocate of free speech argues, the suppression of speech that I find offensive today is potentially a threat to my exercise of free speech tomorrow--which perhaps you or someone else might find offensive. One of the classic defenses of this view is that of English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued in his 1859 essay "On Liberty" that all people are harmed when speech is repressed. "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth," Mill wrote, "if wrong, they lose...the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error."

The corollary to freedom of speech is the right of the people to assemble and peacefully demand that the government hear their grievances. Without this right to gather and be heard, freedom of speech would be devalued. For this reason, freedom of speech is considered closely linked to, if not inseparable from, the right to gather, protest, and demand change. Democratic governments can legitimately regulate the time and place of political rallies and marches to maintain the peace, but they cannot use that authority to suppress protest or to prevent dissident groups from making their voices heard.

Freedom and Faith
Freedom of religion, or more broadly freedom of conscience, means that no person should be required to profess any religion or other belief against his or her desires. Additionally, no one should be punished or penalized in any way because he or she chooses one religion over another or, indeed, opts for no religion at all. The democratic state recognizes that a person's religious faith is a profoundly personal matter.

In a related sense, freedom of religion means that no one can be compelled by government to recognize an official church or faith. Children cannot be compelled to go to a particular religious school, and no one can be required to attend religious services, to pray, or to participate in religious activities against his or her will. By reason of long history or tradition, many democratic nations have officially established churches or religions that receive state support. This fact, however, does not relieve the government of the responsibility for protecting the freedom of individuals whose beliefs differ from that of the officially sanctioned religion.

Citizenship: Rights and Responsibilities
Democracies rest upon the principle that government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve the government. In other words, the people are citizens of the democratic state, not its subjects. While the state protects the rights of its citizens, in return, the citizens give the state their loyalty. Under an authoritarian system, on the other hand, the state, as an entity separate from the society, demands loyalty and service from its people without any reciprocal obligation to secure their consent for its actions.

When citizens in a democracy vote, for example, they are exercising their right and responsibility to determine who shall rule in their name. In an authoritarian state, by contrast, the act of voting serves only to legitimize selections already made by the regime. Voting in such a society involves neither rights nor responsibilities exercised by citizens--only a coerced show of public support for the government.

Similarly, citizens in a democracy enjoy the right to join organizations of their choosing that are independent of government and to participate freely in the public life of their society. At the same time, citizens must accept the responsibility that such participation entails: educating themselves about the issues, demonstrating tolerance in dealing with those holding opposing views, and compromising when necessary to reach agreement.

In an authoritarian state, however, private voluntary groups are few or nonexistent. They do not serve as vehicles for individuals to debate issues or run their own affairs, but only as another arm of the state that holds its subjects in positions of obedience.

Military service provides a different but equally contrasting example of rights and responsibilities in democratic and non-democratic societies. Two different nations may both require a period of peacetime military service by their young men. In the authoritarian state, this obligation is imposed unilaterally. In the democratic state, such a period of military service is a duty that the citizens of the society have undertaken through laws passed by a government they themselves have elected. In each society, peacetime military service may be unwelcome for individuals. But the citizen-soldier in a democracy serves with the knowledge that he is discharging an obligation that his society has freely undertaken. The members of a democratic society, moreover, have it within their power to act collectively and change this obligation: to eliminate mandatory military service and create an all-volunteer army, as the United States and other countries have done; change the period of military service, as happened in Germany; or, as in the case of Switzerland, maintain reserve military service for men as an essential part of citizenship.

Citizenship in these examples entails a broad definition of rights and responsibilities, since they are opposite sides of the same coin. An individual's exercise of his rights is also his responsibility to protect and enhance those rights--for himself and for others. Even citizens of well-established democracies often misunderstand this equation, and too often take advantage of rights while ignoring responsibilities. As political scientist Benjamin Barber notes, "Democracy is often understood as the rule of the majority, and rights are understood more and more as the private possessions of individuals and thus as necessarily antagonistic to majoritarian democracy. But this is to misunderstand both rights and democracy."

It is certainly true that individuals exercise basic, or inalienable, rights--such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion--which thereby constitute limits on any democratically based government. In this sense, individual rights are a bulwark against abuses of power by the government or a momentary political majority.

But in another sense, rights, like individuals, do not function in isolation. Rights are not the private possession of individuals but exist only insofar as they are recognized by other citizens of the society. The electorate, as the American philosopher Sidney Hook expressed it, is "the ultimate custodian of its own freedom." From this perspective, democratic government, which is elected by and accountable to its citizens, is not the antagonist of individual rights, but their protector. It is to enhance their rights that citizens in a democracy undertake their civic obligations and responsibilities.

Broadly speaking, these responsibilities entail participating in the democratic process to ensure its functioning. At a minimum, citizens should educate themselves about the critical issues confronting their society--if only to vote intelligently for candidates running for high office. Other obligations, such as serving juries in civil or criminal trials, may be required by law, but most are voluntary.

The essence of democratic action is the active, freely chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy will begin to wither and become the preserve of a small, select number of groups and organizations. But with the active engagement of individuals across the spectrum of society, democracies can weather the inevitable economic and political storms that sweep over every society, without sacrificing the freedoms and rights that they are sworn to uphold.

Active involvement in public life is often narrowly defined as the struggle for political office. But citizen participation in a democratic society is much broader than just taking part in election contests. At the neighborhood or municipal level, citizens may serve on school committees or form community groups, as well as run for local office. At the state, provincial, or national level, citizens can add their voices and pens to the continuing debate over public issues, or they can join political parties, labor unions, or other voluntary organizations. Whatever the level of their contribution, a healthy democracy depends upon the continuing, informed participation of the broad range of its citizens.

Democracy, Diane Ravitch writes, "is a process, a way of living and working together. It is evolutionary, not static. It requires cooperation, compromise, and tolerance among all citizens. Making it work is hard, not easy. Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility."

Democracy embodies ideals of freedom and self-expression, but it is also clear-eyed about human nature. It does not demand that citizens be universally virtuous, only that they will be responsible. As American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

Human Rights and Political Goals
As a principle, the protection of basic human rights is accepted widely: It is embodied in written constitutions throughout the world as well as in the Charter of the United Nations and in such international agreements as the Helsinki Final Act (the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe--CSCE).

Distinguishing among different categories of rights is another matter. In recent times, there has been a tendency, especially among international organizations, to expand the list of basic human rights. To fundamental freedoms of speech and equal treatment before the law, these groups have added rights to employment, to education, to one's own culture or nationality, and to adequate standards of living.

These are all worthwhile undertakings, but when such entitlements proliferate as rights, they tend to devalue the meaning of basic civic and human rights. Furthermore, they blur the distinction between rights that all individuals possess and goals toward which individuals, organizations, and governments may reasonably be expected to strive.

Governments protect inalienable rights, such as freedom of speech, through restraint, by limiting their own actions. Funding education, providing health care, or guaranteeing employment demand the opposite: the active involvement of government in promoting certain policies and programs. Adequate health care and educational opportunities should be the birthright of every child. The sad fact is that they are not, and the ability of societies to achieve such goals will vary widely from country to country. By transforming every human aspiration into a right, however, governments run the risk of increasing cynicism and inviting a disregard of all human rights.

  • Freedom of speech, expression, and the press.
  • Freedom of religion.
  • Freedom of assembly and association.
  • Right to equal protection of the law.
  • Right to due process and fair trial.


Defining Democracy
The Rule of Law
The Culture of Democracy
Democratic Government
Politics, Economics, and Pluralism

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