Introduction: What Is Democracy? by Danielle Allen

Democracy Web

Introduction: What Is Democracy? 

by Danielle Allen

            Democracy is a word that is over 2500 years old. It comes from ancient Greece and means “the power of the people.” When democracy was first invented, in ancient Athens, the most stunning feature of this new form of government was that poor men were allowed to participate alongside rich men in determining the fate of the city: whether to go to war; how to distribute the proceeds from public silver mines; whether to put those convicted of treason to death.

            In ancient Athens, all male citizens could gather together in the assembly to vote on issues of this kind. In ancient Rome, by contrast, the republic of Rome established a “mixed” regime in which some offices were held by the wealthy and some by representatives of the poor. Rather than throwing everyone together in a single decision-making group, the Romans tried to balance the interests of the rich and of the poor by giving them different roles in the political system.

            Nonetheless, both Athens and Rome understood themselves to have built political systems that rested on the voice of the people and that secured the freedom of a body of free and equal citizens strong enough to protect themselves from outside sources of domination and also committed enough to the rule of law to protect all citizens from domination by one another.

            The light went out for ancient democratic and republican forms of government respectively when Alexander the Great conquered Athens and when Julius Caesar overthrew the free Roman Republic and transformed it into an empire, headed by an emperor. Democracy would be revived, however, in Italian city-states in the early modern period and then in its modern form with the American Revolution in 1776.

            The modern revival of democracy has brought us twelve key concepts that the ancients didn’t have, or that vary significantly from their ancient variants. These are: (1) Consent of the Governed; (2)  Free Elections; (3) Constitutional Limits; (4) Majority Rule, Minority Rights; (5) Transparency and Accountability; (6) Multiparty System; (7) Economic Freedom; (8) Rule of Law; (9) Human Rights; (10) Freedom of Expression; (11) Freedom of Association; and (12) Freedom of Religion.

            Taken together, these twelve concepts are the building blocks of modern, representative democracies. Our democracies are too big for all citizens to gather together to decide questions of state and the public good. Instead, we have representation. We elect people, our representatives, to make those decisions for us. With every election, we hold our representatives to account. Have they taken the country in a general direction to which we consent? We ensure that our governments rest on the consent of the governed by routinely holding free and fair elections. To make these elections meaningful, we need transparency about what our representatives have done. Only if we know what they have done, can we hold them to account for their actions.

            Why do we care that governments should rest on the consent of each and every one of us? Being human involves seeking to control one’s life. Achieving that requires having a role in politics because political decisions have such a big impact on our life. The idea of human rights captures the notion that every human being ought to have a chance to control his or her own life, including through political participation. Of course, being able to control one’s own life requires a lot more than just participating in politics. It also requires being able to spend time with those whom one chooses. It requires being able to express one’s views and to develop one’s beliefs as one chooses. This explains the importance of freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.  Of course, it’s also important to point out that those freedoms—to speak one’s mind, to gather together with those whom one chooses, and to control one’s own beliefs—are necessary if one is going to participate politically. These freedoms give us the chance to control our private lives but they are also the necessary tools of political participation. Economic freedom-the freedom to control one’s own property—is equally necessary if one is going to control one’s own life and one’s public role.

            Now, making it possible for people to control their own lives, both privately and in public through politics, is not merely a matter of listing some important rights that we hold up as ideals. We also have to build institutions that work to protect those rights. Modern democracy differs the most from the ancient variants in the kinds of institutions it has invented to secure these rights. Some of the key inventions include written constitutions that identify the powers of government and how they should be wielded as well as the limits on those powers; a recognition that constitutions need to protect minorities from the power held by majority voting blocs; and formal political parties with platforms that help citizens organize their disputes and contests with one another.

            These basic building blocks—an overarching goal of consent of the governed; a set of rights that give people the chance to control their own fates; and institutions whose purpose is to balance power so that it does remain, ultimately, in the hands of the people—show up again and again in democracies all over the world. But every democracy describes the overarching goal slightly differently; it establishes its own priorities among the rights, especially when they come into conflict; and it arranges its institutions to suit its own people. Nonetheless, by looking at many comparative cases of democracy, one can come to see how beneath the surface differences, they share a basic DNA, a combination of ideals and institutions that work to put power in the hands of ordinary people.

Danielle Allen is Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and professor in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought.