WHAT IS DEMOCRACY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO ME?
- How do you understand the word “government.”
- What thought or image comes to mind when someone says government? Why?
- What thoughts come to mind when someone says “democracy.”
- Can you connect the word democracy more to our personal life, or our politics, our culture? If not, spend a little time to think about it. And then have a round of sharing.
- Why is there so little thinking about the political system?
LET US begin with the origin of the word. The word democracy comes from two words in Greek.
DEMO (People) KRATOS (Rule/Strength)
In a democracy, the power resides in the people.
As a system of government, it recognizes that the people hold the highest authority; and, in principle, govern themselves. The members of society or citizens of the country all decide that the social and political order rests on the principle that the people are sovereign.
This power of the people to rule themselves operates directly; or indirectly, through freely elected representatives.
ATHENS: DIRECT RULE OF THE PEOPLE
There are not too many models of direct rule, as this is difficult to do when working with many people.
The model for direct rule most frequently cited was in Athens in the 6th century BC. And even there, they had to work to gather the people in a public place to express their will on a question posed to them. Even in Athens, sometimes, people had to be forced to leave whatever they were doing so that they could participate in the decision, doing so with a show of hands, or a physical count of “yeys” and “nays.”
In Athens, the people selected their “leaders” – the ones who will take charge of different responsibilities. Leadership was rotated among citizens, as a leader was expected to step down to give way to others. But there is evidence as well, that Athenians selected leaders by using a kloterion, a kind of stone machine, which threw all the names to be picked randomly (imagine a tombola) for the different positions of authority. It is hard to believe that they would resort to such a method; but consider the equal opportunity this random selection offers. The kloterion may make just as much sense when compared to how some voters make their choices today.
The idea is that no one stayed long in these positions, providing the necessary check to abuse of position and power as well as to remove those who are incompetent.
The end of the first democracy
Athens lost a war with Macedonia and in 322 BC. Foreign rule took over the independent city state and dissolved its democratic republic.
But the direct democracy in Athens was ironically un-democratic as it did not include everyone. Citizenship was given only to free men. They were the only ones who could vote. Not the slaves. Not the women.
It would take centuries for humanity to question the practice of slavery and it would take even more centuries for women to gain the right to suffrage.
World history shows how different communities or nations experienced different systems of rule: monarchy and empire, or theocracy which has religious rule as examples.
Among these, democracy has been demonstrated as an ongoing experiment, a work in progress, which when adopted, requires the understanding and acceptance of roles for leaders and roles and responsibilities of the people.
Throughout the history of the world and in our experience as a country, the lessons of democracy has not been easy. It has been a slow work of progress.
GOVERNMENT AND THE PEOPLE
The practice of democracy up to the present is based on the selection of people who will govern the population, decide on the use of its resources and its assets, what government calls policy or program. Those elected are representatives of the people and are duty-bound to serve those who voted for them. The power of these officials comes from those who selected or elected them. Those who are appointed are also committed to serve the people, not just the one who appointed them. For their part, the people also have obligations. Each citizen has a role to play, a duty to fulfill. Choosing and electing representatives is a duty of each citizen. But in between elections, voters are duty-bound to check how those elected are doing the job of representing their interests, their welfare and wellbeing.