What Is Democracy?
POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND PLURALISM|
The myriad groups to be found in democratic societies can be classified in several ways. Those that function primarily to pressure government with regard to particular issues are referred to as interest groups, or lobbies. Private interest groups, such as business associations, professional groups, or labor unions, usually have an economic stake in the policies they advocate, although they may also take public positions on issues far outside their area of specialization.
So-called public interest groups, like environmental and social welfare organizations, seek what they perceive to be a public, or collective, good. This does not make such public interest groups wiser or more virtuous than those with private interests. Rather, the degree of self-interest is often secondary in the positions they take on public issues.
Both types of interest groups are active in any democracy. Both pay close attention to public opinion, making every effort to widen their base of support as they seek simultaneously to educate the public and influence government policy.
Interest groups serve as a mediating force between the isolated individual and a government that is usually large and remote. It is through the interplay of these groups--and through the process of open debate, conflict, compromise, and consensus among them--that a democratic society makes decisions affecting the welfare of its members.
The motivations of voters are as numerous as the societies and interests that they represent. Voters obviously cast their ballots for candidates who will represent their interests, but other factors influence voter preference as well. Party affiliation is one: Individuals who identify strongly with a political party are much more likely to vote than those who identify themselves as independent or nonpartisan. Indeed, in systems of proportional representation, voters may only be able to vote for a political party, not for individual candidates.
Political scientists have identified numerous other factors that can influence voter preference and turnout at the polls. For example, nations with systems of proportional representation, where every vote counts toward representation in the legislature, tend to have higher voter turnouts than nations where a simple majority or plurality of the votes within a district determines the winner. Socioeconomic status, the relative ease of registering to vote, the strength of the party system, the media image of the candidate, the frequency of elections- -all affect how many and how often voters will cast ballots. In democratic elections, the struggle is often not to determine which candidate commands the greatest public support but who can most effectively motivate his or her supporters to convert their opinions into votes. The lingering danger of voter apathy is not that public offices will go unfilled but that office holders will be elected by smaller and smaller percentages of eligible voters.
Party organizations and procedures vary enormously. On one end of the spectrum, in multiparty parliamentary systems in Europe, political parties can be tightly disciplined organizations run almost exclusively by full-time professionals. At the other extreme is the United States, where rival Republican and Democratic parties are decentralized organizations functioning largely in Congress and at the state level. This situation changes every four years when national Republican and Democratic party organizations, relying heavily on volunteers, coalesce to mount presidential election campaigns.
Political parties are as varied as the societies in which they function. The election campaigns they conduct are often elaborate, usually time-consuming, sometimes silly. But the function is deadly serious: to provide a peaceful and fair method by which the citizens of a democracy can select their leaders and have a meaningful role in determining their own destiny.
Direct action is open to everyone in a democracy, but it traditionally has been used by oppressed, disadvantaged, or minority groups who feel excluded from other means of influencing government policies. Such protests have always been part of democratic society. Today, nonviolent protest, often designed to attract the attention of the news media, encompasses a wide array of issues, from environmental pollution to nuclear weapons, foreign policy issues, and racial and ethnic discrimination. One special form of direct action is the right of labor unions to conduct strikes against employers with whom they have disputes that have not been resolved at the bargaining table.
Protests are a testing ground for any democracy. The ideals of free expression and citizen participation are easy to defend when everyone remains polite and in agreement on basic issues. But protesters--and their targets- -do not agree on basic issues, and such disagreements may be passionate and angry. The challenge then is one of balance: to defend the right to freedom of speech and assembly, while maintaining public order and countering attempts at intimidation or violence. To suppress peaceful protest in the name of order is to invite repression; to permit uncontrolled violent protest is to invite anarchy.
There is no magic formula for achieving this balance. In the end, it depends on the commitment of the majority to maintaining the institutions of democracy and the precepts of individual rights. Democratic societies are capable of enduring the most bitter disagreement among its citizens-- except for disagreement about the legitimacy of democracy itself.
The News Media
The news media in a democracy have a number of overlapping but distinctive functions. One is to inform and educate. To make intelligent decisions about public policy, people need accurate, timely, unbiased information. Because opinions diverge, they also need access to a wide range of viewpoints. This role is especially important during election campaigns, when few voters will have the opportunity to see, much less talk with, candidates in person. Instead, they must rely on newspapers and television to explain the issues and characterize the respective positions of candidates and their political parties.
A second function of the media is to serve as a watchdog over government and other powerful institutions in the society. By holding to a standard of independence and objectivity, however imperfectly, the news media can expose the truth behind the claims of governments and hold public officials accountable for their actions.
If they choose, the media can also take a more active role in public debate. Through editorials or investigative reporting, the media can campaign for specific policies or reforms that they feel should be enacted. They can also serve as a forum for organizations and individuals to express their opinions through letters to the editor and the printing of articles with divergent points of view.
Commentators point to another increasingly important role for the media: "setting the agenda." Since they can't report everything, the news media must choose which issues to report and which to ignore. In short, they decide what is news and what isn't. These decisions, in turn, influence the public's perception of what issues are most important. Unlike countries where the news media are government-controlled, however, in a democracy they cannot simply manipulate or disregard issues at will. Their competitors, after all, as well as the government itself, are free to call attention to their own list of important issues.
Few would argue that the news media always carry out these functions responsibly. Newspaper reporters and television correspondents may aspire to a standard of objectivity, but the news is inevitably filtered through the biases and sensibilities of individuals and the enterprises for which they work. They can be sensational, superficial, intrusive, inaccurate, and inflammatory. The solution is not to devise laws that set some arbitrary definition of responsibility or to license journalists, but to broaden the level of public discourse so that citizens can better sift though the chaff of misinformation and rhetoric to find the kernels of truth. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a distinguished justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said in 1919: "The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."
Democracy and Economics
Social democrats, for example, have stressed the need for equality and social welfare as the core of the government's economic policies. In the past, this has entailed government ownership of the major components of the nation's economy, such as telecommunications, transportation, and some heavy industry. They also call upon government to provide medical, unemployment, and other welfare benefits to those in need. By contrast, centrist and conservative political parties usually place much greater stress on the free-market economy, unimpeded by government control or intervention, as the most effective means of achieving economic growth, technological progress, and widespread prosperity.
Virtually all sides in the economic debate, however, share a greater common ground than they might concede in the heat of political argument. For example, both left and right accept the important role played by a free labor movement, independent of government. Workers in a free society have the opportunity to form or join unions to represent their interests in bargaining with employers on such issues as wages, health and retirement benefits, working conditions, and grievance procedures.
No contemporary democratic state has an economic system that is either completely state-owned or totally free of government regulation. All are mixtures of private enterprise and government oversight. All rely heavily on the workings of a free market, where prices are set not by the government but by the independent decisions of thousands of consumers and producers interacting each day.
Political parties on the left, while generally social democratic in orientation, recognize that the free market, acting in accordance with the principles of supply and demand, is the primary engine of economic growth and prosperity. Similarly, center-right parties, while generally opposed to government intervention or ownership of production, have accepted the government's responsibility for regulating certain aspects of the economy: providing unemployment, medical, and other benefits of the modern welfare state; and using tax policy to encourage economic development. As a result, modern democracies tend to have economies that, while diverse in the details, share fundamental features.
In recent years, the collapse of centrally planned economies in many parts of the world has reinforced the emphasis on the critical role of free markets. In economic as in political affairs, it seems, the indispensable element remains freedom. As Morris Abram, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and now chairman of UN Watch in Geneva, has said, "Freedom alone may not guarantee economic success. But repression most certainly guarantees economic failure." Even in those rare cases where authoritarian regimes have made significant economic strides, they have done so by granting the freedom in the economic realm that they deny their citizens politically. Moreover, their success generally has not strengthened the hand of the regime over the long term but has contributed, as in the case of Chile and Taiwan, to demands by the people for political freedom commensurate with their economic freedom.
Democracies will continue to debate economic issues as vigorously in the future as in the past. But increasingly, the debate is focusing not on the failed alternative of state-run command economies but on ensuring the benefits of the free market for all in an increasingly interdependent world.
Former U.S. president George Bush described the wide array of volunteer organizations in the United States as "a thousand points of light." The metaphor could also serve for the diversity, or pluralism, of democratic societies everywhere. The voices of democracy include those of the government, its political supporters, and the opposition, of course. But they are joined by the voices of labor unions, organized interest groups, community associations, the news media, scholars and critics, religious leaders and writers, small businesses and large corporations, churches and schools.
All of these groups are free to raise their voices and
participate in the democratic political process, whether
locally or nationally. In this way, democratic politics acts as
a filter through which the vocal demands of a
diverse populace pass on the way to becoming public policy. As
another former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter,
once said, "The experience of democracy is like the experience of
life itself--always changing, infinite in its
variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having
been tested by adversity."
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