I had not heard of the Democracy Index until a friend recently mentioned that the United States was listed on it as a “flawed democracy.” I later learned that the index is produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sister to The Economist magazine.
The EIU bases its report on sixty indicators grouped into five categories (electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties) yielding a numeric score capped at 10.00. Norway, with a score of 9.87, leads the list followed by Iceland (9.58), Sweden (9.39), New Zealand (9.39), and Finland (9.25.) Countries with scores of 8.0 to 6.0 are listed as flawed democracies, and the United States was given a 7.95 score.
This made me wonder about how I or my fellow Americans would define “democracy.” One dictionary said democracy was “government by the people, especially rule of the majority; government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” Another source said: “a system of government by the whole population of all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A third source: “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.”
These definitions raised all sorts of questions and thoughts. Democracy was government by “the people,” but what was the definition of that entity? Is it the same as “the eligible members of a state”? The whole population cannot vote in an election. Ten-year-olds don’t get to cast a ballot. Isn’t it important to define what the “eligible members of a state” ought to be for a democracy? If the franchise is restricted to a tiny part of the society, but the leaders are picked by majority vote of that small group, is it a democracy? I guess it is, at least according to one definition.
One democracy definition emphasized majority rule, but I have heard of the “tyranny of the majority,” and wondered if we would consider a country democratic that horrendously oppressed all those not in the majority. And, if a system selects representatives with a plurality but not a majority, is it not democratic or is it a lesser form of democracy?
One democracy definition said “free elections.” That is not a self-evident phrase. I was not sure how I would define it, or if it could be defined except by negative examples.
Even though I felt as if I would know a democracy when I saw it, I was not sure that it could be defined. Part of the problem is that the definitions, like most definitions, were binary—something was either this or not this. Something was not “sort of” this or a “better or more complete version” of this. The Democracy Index, however, accepts a more inclusive notion of democracy. Many societies are democratic, but some are more democratic than others, and I probably thought along similar lines.
I did think, however, that third definition included a component the others did not when it said a democracy was a system of government based on the belief of equality among people. For me, I realized, a facet of a better democracy is that the ability to vote is widespread, indicating equality among the people, and that all voters’ votes count the same, again indicating equality among the people. The elected representatives of the society are chosen by determining who had the most votes cast in an election where all the voters have equal access to cast ballots and all votes carry equal weight.
I also noticed an important absence in all the definitions. They had agreed that a representative democracy had the electorate picking people to represent them in government. But the definitions do not say that the people or the electorate choose the form of government in which their representatives will govern. But surely, the structure of the government has something to do with democracy. And “democratic” countries can be structured in ways that seem to make them more or less democratic. If our government is a flawed democracy as the Democracy Index asserts, part of the reason is that the governmental structure we have makes votes unequal. Our form of government means that some Americans count much more than others in choosing those who run the country. We are not, and cannot, be equal under our form of government. And the people of today have not chosen the structures causing inequality and a lesser form of democracy. Our forebears did that.
(Continued March 6)