Democracy is not just the holding of elections.
Democracy is not just the occurrence of periodic elections, but it also requires the ability
for anyone to run for office, for candidates to be heard, for liberty in the publications so
that the current leaders can't hide the truth to deceive the people, and that the vote counting
is verifiable. Quasi-democratic nations may have constitutions that define how their democracy
is supposed to work, but sometimes they lack sufficient safeguards to prevent leaders from
"rigging the system" to make it impossible for anyone else to win. There needs to be certain
powers in a supreme court or senate, etc., and effective enforcement of rules within the
government by an independent judiciary.
Democracy is an important element of ethics. Ethics isn't just about standards of behavior,
but also about practical methods of implementation. In ancient societies, hierarchies were used
to resolve disputes by pushing decisions upward when disputing people couldn't agree. However,
leaders of hierarchies tend to get self-serving over time, and democracy seeks to cure that by
holding the leaders responsible to the citizens.
Democracies do have limitations: a leader is held responsible to his own citizens but not to
the citizens of other nations. There have been cases of democratically elected leaders starting
wars, the prime example of which is Adolf Hitler. A more recent example (in 2022) is that of
Vladmir Putin leading Russia to attack Ukraine. Citizens can often be enthusiastic supporters
while their side is winning, notwithstanding the suffering their nation is causing. It's the
same kind of psychology that causes people to cheer for their home team in a sporting event.
We need to get to a point where people see each other merely as people rather than as Russians,
Ukrainians, Germans, English, or as any other nationality. We need to get to a point where
everyone seeks the truth diligently rather than simply accepting what their local leaders tell
them. This requires a new kind of thinking among people.
In such a case, a worldwide democracy would become possible, and nationalistic wars would
become a thing of the past.
It seems like such a future is far off, because a pre-requisite is having effective democracies
across the world in the national, provincial, and municipal levels everywhere, and that is certainly
not the case today. You cannot build an international democracy on a foundation of dictatorships,
or of ineffectual democracies. Here are some things that are essential in every democracy at all
- Open candidacy (not requiring approval of the existing government)
- Affordable candidacy (not requiring candidates to be wealthy)
- Secret ballot.
- This seems obvious today, but early democracies didn't have that.
For example, Canada was founded in 1867 but secret ballot wasn't introduced in federal elections
until 1874. Secret ballot was pioneered in the state of Victoria, Australia in 1856 and gradually
adopted in Britain and elsewhere.
- Voting that includes all adults regardless of gender.
- This also seems obvious, but it has been a long
path for women to
vote along with men. This arose in gradual stages across the world from the 1700s onward, becoming
common among democracies in the 1900s.
- Objective and verifiable means of counting ballots.
- Objective rule of law overall. Many dictatorial nations have constitutions that endorse democracy
and that sounds wonderful, but the rules of the constitution are not upheld. The nation is filled with corruption.
- No censorship of information relevant to political debates (which still allows rules against libel, slander,
- Available means for candidates to communicate their message to the public (broadcasting and web sites that are
not controlled by only those who support one party).
- No tyranny of the majority: people decide based on improving happiness of all individuals regardless of
- Bigotry based on race, language, gender, religion, etc., should not be present
in the population. This is achieved by widespread knowledge of ethics among the population, where people
understand the weaknesses in human nature that lead to tribalism, and how to overcome those weaknesses.
- In support of "no tyranny of the majority" and having rules of democracy that are protected, there must be
civil rights that are protected within the constitution, and a constitution that can only be changed with an
overwhelming majority of the public to endorse it.
- Among elected representatives, power should not be concentrated in a single individual.
- This is a weakness
of democracies that put a lot of power in the hands of a president. For example, in USA, only Congress may
declare a war, but most USA military interventions in other nations since World War II were not declared as
wars--including actions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Most people would call those wars. It is a big
risk that any single person should have authority to instigate such an action.
- In support of the previous point, there needs to be a means of electoral recall for any elected
representative. Furthermore, the parliament or legislature should have a means of removing their own
leader mid-term if they disagree with the direction he (or she) is taking them, whether it be a prime
minister or a president.
- Direct democracy, in which citizens participate regularly in policy decisions, is a practical possibility
with today's online technology. This needs to be developed further, in order to make governments more
responsive to the wishes of their citizens.
- There are multiple ways of voting: constituency-based majority voting, runoff voting,
proportional representation. There are also multiple levels possible, at municipal, provincial,
and federal levels, with various ways of dividing up the responsibilities and authority at each
level. Also there are various ways of protecting rights and fundamental processes, including
structures such as a constitution, charter of rights, rules of constitutional/charter changes and
the level of public approval necessary, roles for supreme court or senate, etc. There are means
of ensuring that members of the public have opportunity to run for election, such as limits
on constituency campaign spending. These processes are being refined. An effective democracy seeks
to learn from their own experience and the experience of other nations to continuously improve.
We can see that democracy is not just a "we've got it" or "we don't" situation. There is a whole science to it.
No nation should be so complacent as to suppose that their system is perfect.
- Arthur de Leyssac, June 1, 2022.
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