The precise definition of democracy is direct rule by the people. In a true democracy, the people would vote directly on whatever comes before the state—laws, amendments, and decisions by government. If your class votes for a take-home exam instead of an in-class test, that would be an example of democracy. And anything that invites people to participate in decision-making in some meaningful way, such as elections, can be said to be democratic. But that’s not the same thing as a democracy. Why does this matter? First, words should have meaning, so that when we talk about politics, for example, we’re all speaking the same language. When Americans call their government a democracy, they are also implying that they are directly in control of government. It probably would surprise many of them to learn that the Founding Fathers, about whom so many American citizens like to wax nostalgic if not poetic, thought that ordinary citizens should have a definite but limited role in directly controlling the government. Calling the government a democracy may also lead to unrealistic expectations of how government works and how quickly it responds. In fact, most of the modern “democracies” are designed to be a little bit slow and a little bit unresponsive. In this chapter, we’ll see why.
Thumbnail: Elizabeth II is the current Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms. (OGL v.3; Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence via Wikipedia)