What Is Democracy?

The Bill of Rights and the Rights of Man


A Civic Culture
Democracy is more than the sum of its institutions. A healthy democracy depends in large part on the development of a democratic civic culture. Culture in this sense, points out Diane Ravitch, does not refer to art, literature, or music, but to "the behaviors, practices, and norms that define the ability of a people to govern themselves.

"A totalitarian political system," she writes, "encourages a culture of passivity and apathy. The regime seeks to mold an obedient and docile citizenry. By contrast, the civic culture of a democratic society is shaped by the freely chosen activities of individuals and groups. Citizens in a free society pursue their interests, exercise their rights, and take responsibility for their own lives. They make their own decisions about where they will work, what kind of work they will do, where they will live, whether to join a political party, what to read, and so on. These are personal decisions, not political decisions."

Literature, art, drama, and film--the artistic expression of a society's culture--also exist independently of government. A democratic society may support or otherwise encourage artists and writers, but it does not set artistic standards, pass judgment on the worth of artistic endeavors, or censor artistic expression. Artists are not employees or servants of the state. The primary contribution of a democracy to art is freedom--to create, to experiment, to explore the world of the human mind and spirit.

Democracy and Education
Education is a vital component of any society, but especially of a democracy. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be."

In contrast to authoritarian societies that seek to inculcate an attitude of passive acceptance, the object of democratic education is to produce citizens who are independent, questioning, and analytical in their outlook, yet deeply familiar with the precepts and practices of democracy. Vanderbilt professor Chester E. Finn, Jr., said in his address to educators in Nicaragua: "People may be born with an appetite for personal freedom, but they are not born with knowledge about the social and political arrangements that make freedom possible over time for themselves and their children....Such things must be acquired. They must be learned."

From this perspective, it is not enough to say that the task of education in a democracy is simply to avoid the indoctrination of authoritarian regimes and provide instruction that is neutral concerning political values. That is impossible: All education transmits values, intended or not. Students can indeed be taught the principles of democracy in a spirit of open inquiry that is itself an important democratic value. At the same time, students are encouraged to challenge conventional thinking with reasoned arguments and careful research. There may be vigorous debate, but democracy's textbooks should not simply ignore events or facts that are unpleasant or controversial.

"Education plays a singular role in free societies," Finn states. "While the education systems of other regimes are tools of those regimes, in a democracy the regime is the servant of the people, people whose capacity to create, sustain, and improve that regime depends in large measure on the quality and effectiveness of the educational arrangements through which they pass. In a democracy, it can fairly be said, education enables freedom itself to flourish over time."

Conflict, Compromise, and Consensus
Human beings possess a variety of sometimes contradictory desires. People want safety yet relish adventure; they aspire to individual freedom yet demand social equality.

Democracy is no different, and it is important to recognize that many of these tensions, even paradoxes, are present in every democratic society. According to Larry Diamond, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a central paradox exists between conflict and consensus. Democracy is in many ways nothing more than a set of rules for managing conflict. At the same time, this conflict must be managed within certain limits and result in compromises, consensus, or other agreements that all sides accept as legitimate. An overemphasis on one side of the equation can threaten the entire undertaking. If groups perceive democracy as nothing more than a forum in which they can press their demands, the society can shatter from within. If the government exerts excessive pressure to achieve consensus, stifling the voices of the people, the society can be crushed from above.

The answer is that there is no single or easy answer. Democracy is not a machine that runs by itself once the proper principles and procedures are inserted. A democratic society needs the commitment of citizens who accept the inevitability of conflict as well as the necessity for tolerance.

It is important to recognize that many conflicts in a democratic society are not between clear-cut "right" and "wrong" but between differing interpretations of democratic rights and social priorities. In the United States, there are many such debates. Is it proper, for example, to allocate a certain percentage of jobs to minority groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination? Does the state have the right to expropriate someone's home for a badly needed road? Whose rights prevail when the society seeks to prohibit logging in the name of wilderness preservation, but at the cost of job losses and economic devastation to small communities dependent upon the lumber industry? Are the rights of citizens violated, or are those of the community protected, if the police stop people at random to curtail drug trafficking?

These are not easy questions, and the broad precepts of democracy only provide guidelines for addressing and analyzing these issues. Indeed, the answers may change over time. It is for this reason that the culture of democracy is so important to develop. Individuals and groups must be willing, at a minimum, to tolerate each other's differences, recognizing that the other side has valid rights and a legitimate point of view. The various sides to a dispute, whether in a local neighborhood or national parliament, can then meet in a spirit of compromise and seek a specific solution that builds on the general principle of majority rule and minority rights. In some instances, a formal vote may be necessary, but often groups can reach an informal consensus or accommodation through debate and compromise. These processes have the added benefit of building the trust necessary to resolve future problems.

"Coalition-building," Diane Ravitch observes, "is the essence of democratic action. It teaches interest groups to negotiate with others, to compromise and to work within the constitutional system. By working to establish coalition, groups with differences learn how to argue peaceably, how to pursue their goals in a democratic manner, and ultimately how to live in a world of diversity."

Democracy is not a set of revealed, unchanging truths but the mechanism by which, through the clash and compromise of ideas, individuals and institutions, the people can, however imperfectly, reach for truth. Democracy is pragmatic. Ideas and solutions to problems are not tested against a rigid ideology but tried in the real world where they can be argued over and changed, accepted or discarded.

Self-government cannot protect against mistakes, end ethnic strife, or guarantee economic prosperity. It does, however, allow for the debate and examination that can identify mistakes, permit groups to meet and resolve differences, and offer opportunities for innovation and investment that are the engines of economic growth.


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

       This site is produced and maintained by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs.
       Links to other internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views contained therein.