Functions of democracy

What is democracy for?

What is the point of having a democracy? We tend to assume that democracy is the best form of government and the only way in which a civilised state can operate. Winston Churchill said that democracy was the 'worst system, apart from all the others' and its relatively recent general use as well as its frailty suggests it has many flaws.

Why is it so generally seen as a good thing?

What makes democracy so great and so appealing?

Here are some of the features of democracy which are sited as its strengths.

  • It provides Legitimacy. The process for the selection of the different branches of government should have legal authority and fairly represent the will of the people. The process of selecting governments should not be arbitrary or left to chance. Also and more importantly it should give governments an authority which is seen as legitimate. legitimacy derives from the popular perception that the elected government was chose in a process which was openly competitive, fair and reflects the choice of the majority- thereafter the government abides by democratic principles in governing, and thus is legally accountable to its people.

It provides Representation. There must be a means for the people to put their views to the government of the day. This can be through elected representatives or directly in assemblies of the people or juries. Democracy is therefore responsive to popular opinion.

■ There should be Accountability. There must be a process by which the government of the day can be made to explain and take responsibility for its actions. In a democracy this might be in elections where the decisions of incumbent governments are reviewed, explained and criticised. It might be between elections where governments are open to scrutiny and challenged to explain themselves. Errors, mistakes and misdeeds should also be open to examination. Finally accountability should mean some form of redress- i.e. putting things right or compensating those who have suffered. Governments should also face the court of popular opinion in regular and fair elections.

Democracy requires Participation. There must be a way in which the people can be engaged and take part in the political process. At the very least this should be by voting in regular elections, but this can also mean forming or joining parties, engaging in debate, protesting, creating or joining pressure groups and participating in citizens juries.

■ Democracy Limits Power . At the least this is through elections which can remove governments. There should also be a system that ensures power is spread across different political bodies to avoid one body becoming overly dominant. This principle of the Separation of Powers- generally means that those institutions which make the laws should not be the same as those who enforce or apply the laws. It should also mean there is no monopoly on information- a free press and access to information is necessary to limit the power of government.

■Democracy leads to Education. The political process should be open to all and there should be an educated and informed citizenry who are able to understand the issues and make informed decisions. Elections produce debates, arguments and the consideration of alternatives. People are better informed and seek to know more.

  • Democracy results in Social Cohesion: to bind society together peacefully in a social contract. Ideas of citizenship have been developed alongside the expansion of the right to vote and the development of our ideas about democracy. Peace and acceptance of alternative opinions and the result of lections means a peaceful and tolerant society which accepts change and diversity. Democracies are therefore more efficient since failed polices are abandoned; corruption is exposed and resources are manged in a manner which balances equity with expediency. (fairness with efficiency)

  • International peace- Democracies ( or at least developed democracies) do not go to war with each other, so the spread of democracy should mean a more peaceful world. Democracies are transparent they express their fears an public, neighbours are not surprised. When a state’s powerful elite is riddled with corruption, as appears to be the case in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia, among many others, it is a matter of sheer guesswork to understand the true interests, knowledge, constraints and activities of its leaders. In democracies tensions can dissipate in debates or elections. In dictatorships war can be a means of directing internal discontent away from the leadership. Democracies tend to establish a pattern of negotiation and compromise, each democracy becomes increasingly confident that it will not find itself at war with the other. This is a self-reinforcing cycle of mutual trust and cooperation.

Are all of these arguments valid?

What conditions are necessary for democracy to work in this way?


Does democracy always work this way?

Can democracies fail?

Anthony D. Romero makes the case for liberal democracy using a 14th-century fresco by Italian Renaissance master Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Compare the case made above with George Bush speaking in 2001 about the strengths of democracy and how it leads to good government?




You can see main advantages - to avoid tyranny, to find a source of legitimacy based on reason rather than religion, to allow individuals to flourish and to avoid the resort to violence for the resolution of conflict. In this sense democracy is an optimistic enterprise and is underpinned by a belief that human beings will rise to the challenge.

However there is always a nagging doubt that this will not always be true- As Winston Churchill also said 'The best argument against democracy is five minutes conversation with the average voter'- Does representation distance the average voter from direct decision making ? Does limited government mean short term policies and failure to deal with pressing problems? Does argument produce agreement or division?

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that ‘the people’ would not respect decisions made by their peers, For Plato, it was desirable that people should be ruled by their superiors. Authority granted to a leader, he thought, would be more respected than popular decision making. Lack of respect would lead to disorder. Furthermore, left to making their own decisions, people would fall prey to rabble rousers and demagogues. Plato also noted that democracy treats everyone as equal, in terms of knowledge and understanding, when, in reality, they are not equal.

The democratic process continues to provoke debate, criticism and frustration. This has led to calls for the return of popular democracy, including referendums. Populist leaders have been elected cross the world and China has presented itself as an alternative to the western liberal model.



Is democracy in danger?