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What is Democratic

November 16, 2019

The original democracy was in ancient Athens.  It sounds pretty good, but it’s not what we would call democracy today.  The principle was that any citizen of Athens could participate, by proposing motions or voting on them.  The catch, though, was the meaning of the word citizen.  It excluded women, slaves, and foreigners.  That’s most of the population of Athens!

I was asked to sign a petition recently.  The person collecting signatures told me I didn’t have to sign if I didn’t want to.  That’s how petitions work, of course.  I sign if I agree with the proposition.  I don’t sign if I disagree.  The petition carries only signatures of people who agree.  There’s no place for those who disagree.  That’s not democratic at all.  Fortunately, the people who receive the petition understand how petitions work: they know that petitions represent only one side of a question.

Demonstrations are similar to petitions, except that they involve a group of people gathering in a public area.  Demonstrations must also be for or against something.  They are effective when only a small fraction of the population demonstrates.  That’s not a majority.  That’s not democratic.  You only join a demonstration if you agree with them.  Again, it’s one-sided.  That’s not democratic.  The modern equivalent of demonstrations seems to be outrage on social media, although it doesn’t have the same visual effect.  Demonstrations still have their place.  Failed demonstrations, on the other hand, provide an opportunity for an armed group like the military to force the change.

What about elections?  Aren’t they democratic?  They are, with some reservations.  Elections can be subverted.  Political parties can be outlawed.  Candidates can be jailed or executed.  Most of the time, though, elections are democratic.  However, there must also be a culture of democracy and democratic institutions.

Is a revolution democratic?  It’s a way to overthrow a government, often a repressive government.  Many countries have had a successful revolution.  Sometimes it’s the only way to cause a change of government.  Just don’t expect the new government to be democratic.  Often revolutions are carried out by a small group in their own self-interest.  A revolution could lead to a democracy, of course, but there’s no guarantee that it will.

Finally, there’s a military coup.  They are never democratic.  It’s another case of the end justifies the means.  We all know that that’s wrong.  Even promises of democratic elections to come cannot be trusted.  The military in a democratic country should always be under the control of democratically elected politicians, not the other way around.


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