The Recorder - My Turn: What is democracy?

Published: 03/09/2022 17:53:37 Modified: 09/03/2022 17:53:04 Democracy is much vaunted but little understood. Most people, if aske...



Published: 03/09/2022 17:53:37

Modified: 09/03/2022 17:53:04

Democracy is much vaunted but little understood. Most people, if asked to define democracy, would say it means the majority rules. But that leaves out much of what we usually associate with democracy and fails to answer some key questions.

The most obvious question is “the majority of what?” In the United States, we have several levels of government, and a majority at one level is often a minority at another level. For example, New York City is solidly Democratic, but Staten Island is solidly Republican. At a higher level, we often have conflicts between individual states and the federal government. So who should win – the voters of the state or the voters of the nation? We also have the phenomenon of the United States Senate, where senators from small states have proportionally much more power than those from larger states.

Moreover, there might not even be a possible majority. This is the situation in Israel, where the government has always been formed as a parliamentary coalition. The Israeli public has no control over the negotiations that determine who will form a government. Religious parties have the support of only a small fraction of the population, but they can impose their demands on the whole nation because their support in the Knesset is usually essential to form a ruling coalition.

We also have certain standards of government in a democracy that have nothing to do with majority rule. Hitler’s Germany was a democracy in the strict sense since it was enthusiastically supported by most Germans, despite its barbaric treatment of Jews. Hitler would have won even the most scrupulously fair elections.

We expect a democratic government to respect at least a minimum of civil liberties and recognize the rights of minorities. Prior to his Ukrainian misadventures, Vladimir Putin won solid majorities in every Russian election. His elections were of course rigged, but he would have won them without any rigging.

What we really mean when we talk about democratic government is good government. Personally, I would prefer to live under a benevolent dictatorship that tolerated dissent and recognized its value, granted full civil liberties to everyone, and was generally accepted because it ran the country well.

I am not against democracy. I know what it is not; I do not know what it is. And I don’t think anyone else knows either.

Paul Abrahams is a retired computer scientist, professor, and former New Yorker who lives in Deerfield and now writes philosophical essays.



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Newsrust - US Top News: The Recorder - My Turn: What is democracy?
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