(A map of the world showing the results of The Economist’s Democracy Index survey for 2017. )
The term democracy (from the ancient Greek δημοκρατία / dēmokratía, combination of δῆμος / demos, “territory” (from daiesthai, to share) then “all citizens”, and kratos, “power”), refers most often to a political regime in which citizens have the power. It can also designate or qualify more broadly a form of society, a form of governance of any organization, or a system of values.
According to the famous formula of Abraham Lincoln (16th President of the United States from 1860 to 1865) pronounced during the speech of Gettysburg, the democracy is “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. This is one of the canonical definitions commonly used, as evidenced by Article 2 of the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic of France (Title I: Sovereignty). This definition is close to the etymological meaning of the term democracy.
However, this definition remains susceptible to different interpretations, both as to the concrete meaning of popular sovereignty and its practical application – which is clear from the diversity of the political regimes that have claimed and claim to be democratic. . Thus, the distinction between what is a democracy and what is not, is a debate, and even today, there is no commonly accepted definition of what is or should be democracy. Some, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, consider that democracy can only be direct: “Sovereignty can not be represented, for the same reason that it can not be alienated; it consists essentially of the general will, and the general will is not represented.” Some thinkers also give it a meaning beyond the political regime, which is even a pre-requisite for building a democratic political system: for John Dewey (1859-1952), American philosopher, this one is above all a way of live. Note also the distinction between the notion of “people” and that more restrictive of “citizens”: indeed citizenship is not necessarily (and is rarely even) granted to the entire population.
Generally speaking, a government is democratic by contrast:
- to monarchical systems, where power is held by one (mono/monos = single).
- oligarchic systems, where power is held by a small group of individuals (oligo/oligos = in small amount, in small numbers).
Nevertheless, these oppositions, inherited from Greek philosophy (notably from the classification of Aristotle and Polybius) are today equivocal because of the existence of parliamentary monarchies. Others, including Karl Popper in particular, define democracy as opposed to dictatorship or tyranny. Karl Popper believes that a regime is democratic if it allows citizens to control its leaders and also to oust them without resorting to violence. Karl Popper presented this theory in his book The Open Society and its Enemies and summarizes its conception in the book All life is Problem Solving. Others, like Francis Dupuis-Déri, oppose democratic systems to aristocratic systems, where power is held by those considered “the best”. For him, in France or the United States in the 18th century, the hereditary aristocracy (under the monarchical regime) was replaced by an elected aristocracy: the election, mechanically, consists in choosing the best of us for functions which require knowledge, and is a procedure of self-expropriation of power by citizens, which entrusts it to elected officials.
Moreover, the term democracy does not refer only to forms of government, but can also refer to a form of society with the value of equality and freedom (this is notably the use made by Alexis de Tocqueville which focuses more on cultural dimensions than on the political system itself), or more generally, a set of principles (cultural, social, political), ideals and values. The term democracy can also be used to qualify the governance of any body or social organization (public or private body, associations, company), most often through the qualifier of democracy. This usually means that this governance is based on elections and/or draws, deliberative procedures, votes, non-cumulation and turnover, equality of group members and any other form of voting. decision-making consensus.
Typology of democracies
Democracy has become a political system (and no longer a simple one) in which sovereignty is attributed to the citizens who exercise it:
- direct when the regime in which citizens themselves adopt laws and important decisions and choose themselves executing agents, usually revocable. We then speak of direct democracy;
- indirect when the system in which representatives are chosen by lot or elected by the citizens, for a non-imperative mandate of limited duration, during which they are generally not revocable by the citizens. We then speak of representative democracy;
- semi-direct in the case of indirect democracies in which citizens are however called to rule themselves on certain laws, by referendums, which can be either a referendum of popular initiative, or to veto a bill to propose a bill.
In direct democracy, power is exercised directly by citizens without the intermediary of representative bodies. According to the thinkers, the idea of direct democracy refers to different conceptions of the direct exercise of sovereignty by citizens. In the same way, according to places and times, direct democracy has designated different forms of governments or political associations, in which the population decides laws.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, following the reappropriation of the term “democracy” by candidates for elections like Andrew Jackson in the United States (because this term “speaks to the poor” and is therefore a populist electoral strategy ), that the term “democracy” generally refers to the idea of representative government. However, for a long time it was rather associated with the idea of direct democracy (which the “founding fathers” of 18th century modern democracy do not want because it defends economic equality and therefore threatens the elites of which they are part), in particular with reference to Athenian democracy: the citizens meeting in assembly there decided laws, the magistrates with the administrative and executive functions were drawn by lot, and the magistrates whose function required an expertise were elected and revocable by the citizens.
Different examples of direct democracies punctuate history, usually as part of a local exercise of power. This is the case since the seventeenth century in New England, through town meetings, where the population of the Commons meeting in assembly decides laws, taxes and budget. The Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus are today examples of direct democracy, particularly through the Landsgemeinde. The Commune de Paris (1871) or the regions of Chiapas (Mexico) managed by the Zapatista movement, are also generally regarded as experiments in direct democracy.
Multiple decision-making procedures are usually associated with direct democracy. Among them, the referendum, and even more the referendum of popular initiative, the popular assemblies, the imperative mandate and the revocability of the elected ones.
On the other hand, the idea of direct democracy is often associated with that of self-management, particularly when it relates to the economic field of production. Thus, councilism, and more generally many libertarian and anarchist theories are related to those of direct democracy. As a result, the Russian soviets until 1917, or the workers’ councils (for example, in Germany and Italy at the beginning of the 20th century), or in Hungary in 1956, are considered to be experiences of direct democracy.