2008 #2 - The Meaning of Democracy

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Alice Bailey proposes that the universality of democracy is humanity’s response – inaccurate as yet – to the pure energy of Love, and suggests that a true democracy will become possible “through a right use of the systems of education and by a steady training of the people to recognise the finer values, the more correct point of view, the higher idealism, and the spirit of synthesis and of cooperative unity.” To move towards this true democracy, she indicates that what is needed is a greater number of truly awakened people; and when this is so, “we shall see a purification of the political field taking place, and a cleansing of our processes of representation instituted, as well as a more exacting accounting required from the people of those whom they have chosen to put in authority. There must eventually be a closer tie-up between the educational system, the legal system and the government, but it will all be directed to an effort to work out the best ideals of the thinkers of the day.”(The Externalisation of the Hierarchy pp. 52-3)1 When this is so, “…people will not tolerate authoritarianism in any church, or totalitarianism in any political system or government; they will not accept or permit the rule of any body of men who undertake to tell them what they must believe in order to be saved, or what government they must accept.” (op. cit. p.618)

Although democracy appears in a wide variety of forms, there are certain core features that most share. These are: that all who are competent to decide on how they should be led must have a regular say in how those leaders are chosen – hence a regular electoral cycle; that the vote of every citizen, from the richest to the poorest, should count the same in that process – hence the need for secret ballots;2 and that every citizen is completely free to decide how that vote should be cast, without intimidation or bribery – hence the need for a non-politicised police force and army. In addition, every citizen should have access to information about those who aspire to lead them – so the media should be free to provide full and unbiased coverage of all involved in an electoral process.

Indeed, when most people think of democracy, what they really mean is liberal democracy – i.e. the combination of democracy as a means of selecting a government, with constitutional liberalism, namely, the protection of an individual’s autonomy and dignity against any form of coercion, whether from the state, the church or society. Each tends to reinforce the other, for a state can only be truly democratic if its citizens are free, and can thus choose their rulers freely; and these freedoms should be best guaranteed by rulers chosen in this way. However, the commentator Fareed Zakaria notes that democratic elections can bring to power rulers who suppress freedoms.3 This he names ‘illiberal democracy’.4 He also observes that democracy is not a necessary condition for the existence of high levels of constitutional liberalism. So, for example, a state might have a fully independent judiciary (one of the main institutions that guarantee constitutional liberalism), but the electorate might play no part in its selection.

In fact, this is one example of a more general suggestion that Zakaria makes, namely that too much democracy may not be a good thing. In a complex modern nation-state, the electorate is unlikely to have sufficient knowledge to judge on the suitability of every state official, particularly those in very specialised fields, and so may choose to delegate this selection process to the leaders they have elected. And in any case, voting directly on every body that influences the conduct of politics in a democratic state is impossible, as governments must also pay attention to the input of leaders in business and religion, and, increasingly, to other non-governmental organisations that have been set up by groups of citizens concerned about specific issues. The degree of influence that these ‘special interest’ groups have over the conduct of government represents a challenge – too much, and it might be argued that democracy is weakened to the point of oligarchy (the rule of elites); too little, and the culture of justified challenge to governmental excesses that characterises most democracies is neutered.

In the articles which follow, we reflect on some of the issues that arise when considering liberal democracy: what are the qualifications of the democratic politician, and how did this role arise? Do the citizens of democracies have special responsibilities to protect and nurture them, and if so, what are these responsibilities? And what is the deeper meaning of ‘freedom’?

There is perhaps a tendency in the West to regard democracy as a panacea for the difficulties that any society faces as it attempts to modernise. Yet if democracy represents a certain phase of national consciousness, which can only be reached after other phases have been explored, then it may be that the attempted imposition of democracy on a nation which isn’t psychologically ready for it would be counter-productive. There are a number of supposed democracies around the world that are plainly dysfunctional in various degrees. This is not to suggest that individuals, groups and nations should not aspire to conditions of increased freedom; but societies, like individuals, go through an evolutionary process of maturing, and it would be naïve to suggest that the Western model of democracy, arrived at through centuries of struggle, could – or should – be simply transplanted into countries with different histories and cultural norms. In this sense, a fully democratic society has to be developed by a people through experience. And just as no-one would claim that every individual is now resonating strongly with the pure energy of Love, the same claim would seem equally misguided with respect to nations. Where does this leave a person of goodwill? With the difficult but necessary task of investigating a little more deeply whenever it is proposed that the solution to a country’s ills is “more democracy”. The expansion of freedom must and should be supported at all times – but the path of each nation to this exalted goal is unique, and no nation can claim to have reached the end. Liberal democracy is not a machine that can be cranked up whenever needed, but a subtle and continuous negotiation between a people and their leaders. Reflection on its deeper psychological dimensions may help make us more circumspect about recommending it in all circumstances.

1. The Externalisation of the Hierarchy is available here.

2. Which should be auditable, explaining the mounting unease about electronic voting with no paper trail.

3. Hitler, for example.

4. Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom. W W Norton & Co, 2004.

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