Is our democracy at risk? Many recent discussions have focused on that issue with questions about the meaning of “democracy.” This set me off looking for a definition, but it turns out that the concept is not entirely straightforward. I found not a single definition, but varying ones.

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 in my mind. Democracy is government by “the people,” but what is the definition of “the people”? 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, but not in my mind.

          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 or denied access to the ballot to all those not in the majority. (“No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.) 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 that.

          The 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. It seems to me that one 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 then 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. The U.S. Constitution contains many non-democratic features which assure that all votes do not have equal weight. One example: Because each state selects two Senators the votes in small states count more in constituting the Senate than votes in large states.

          But even so, I think that most people believe that in a democracy elections matter. We, the People, no matter how we define the People, should be able to change those who represent us through our elections, and therefore voting is important. Of course, that is frequently not true in our country. Our presidential elections are an example.

          I vote in New York, but it is clear long before the voting who will win the presidential race in my state. The result will be the same whether I or ten thousand others vote or not. The election is a mere formality and voting in a New York presidential race does not really matter. Instead, the relative handful of “swing” state voters actually control who will be president. Their votes count a lot more than mine, and a basic principle of democracy is undercut.

But now there are movements to make many more elections mere formalities, and they present basic threats to our democracy.

(continued Dec. 20.)

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