What are necessary conditions for a democracy?


In my conversations with Italians, often they despair about their government. The two things that are most mentioned is that they don’t feel represented by the multi-party system here and that the present P.M. and other politicians are stifling honest discussion and movement on important social and economic issues. Often political discussions degenerate into name calling with no reasonable debate on the issues. Also, except with a coalition of political parties there isn’t much/any give and take within the political parties that make up Italian politics.


One of these issues is called “Partitocracy”


It has been alleged that Italian parties have retained too much power in the First Republic, screening the choices citizens had in elections; this electoral law would maintain fixed electoral lists, where voters can only express a preference for a list but not for a specific candidate. This can be used by parties to all but guarantee re-election to unpopular but powerful figures, wiki


I remember in my undergraduate government class, the professor telling us that compromise was a hallmark of democracy. This made sense to me then and now since in a democracy each group or even individual, depending on their location, situation, etc., has different needs that need to be negotiated with each other to act on within the limited resources that are available.


So, I thought to re-visit this discussion of what are necessary conditions for a democracy to function well. The following are important points that are made by numerous scholars but for time and space I chose the writings of those who could express this complex topic in a quicker and accessible way.


First, what is democracy: democracy [Gr.,= rule of the people], term originating in ancient Greece to designate a government where the people share in directing the activities of the state, as distinct from governments controlled by a single class, select group, or autocrat. The definition of democracy has been expanded, however, to describe a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes. Such a philosophy places a high value on the equality of individuals and would free people as far as possible from restraints not self-imposed. It insists that necessary restraints be imposed only by the consent of the majority and that they conform to the principle of equality.


From Thomas Jefferson’s first Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801 “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of discussion and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.”


So what are characteristics of democracy?


“First, the people govern themselves by regular elections through which their highest leaders are periodically determined (representative democracy) or policies governing them are chosen (direct democracy).


A second is that the right to vote includes virtually all adults.


A third is the acceptance of certain so-called democratic rights, particularly the right to vote, the right to have one’s vote count equally, the right to run for the highest office, and the right to organize political groups or parties.


Finally, there is above the state a law to which all authorities adhere, that provides the framework for democratic rule, and that protects democratic rights. Democracy, therefore, now generally means that a people rule themselves through periodic elections of their highest leaders in which nearly all adults can participate, for which offices they are eligible, and under the rule of law.


There is wide agreement on the empirical conditions that either give substance to what democracy means or must be present for democracy to exist. One is that the newspapers and other communication media are free to criticize government policies and leaders. A second is that there is open competition allowed for political office, which usually is translated to mean that there is more than one political party competing for power. A third is that there be a popularly and regularly elected legislature and head of government. Moreover, it is now deemed necessary that election ballots be cast secretly, but that debate and voting by democratically elected representatives be public. Then there is also the widely accepted belief that democracies cannot coexist with lack of religious freedom and the right to hold and express unpopular ideas. Finally, for there to be a rule of law there must be fundamental documents which structure the government, elaborate the reciprocal rights and duties of government and the people, and which all governing officials and their policies must obey. This is a constitution, either in the form of a single document as for the United States, or a set of documents, statutes, and signed agreements, as for Great Britain.


Many democratic theorists now accept that democracy requires a political culture of negotiation, compromise, accommodation, and a willingness to lose. It is widely recognized as essential to democratic stability. Especially important here is the argument that democracy institutionalizes a means of nonviolent conflict resolution- – -the willingness to negotiate, compromise, and debate, rather than fight. Moreover, the ballot rather than the bullet is the very democratic ideal of voting to resolve differences and choose leaders. It is what we mean by democracy. Then there is the third type of national society that is largely regulated by bargaining power. There is a central government, to be sure, along with the coercion and authority that are the essential attributes of any regime, but most relations between the regime and the society, and especially in the society as a whole, are based on exchange. A largely economic free market exists and many other social relations depend mostly on what people can do for each other. The regime is open and individuals are free to oppose the regime and compete for power. There is freedom of speech and the press. Churches, private schools, businesses, youth groups, and other institutions of all kinds can exist and independently pursue their interests. Politics is based on exchange, where politicians promise goodies in return for votes and interest groups offer support and campaign funds in return for the laws or regulations they desire. Finally, the political leadership neither tries to achieve some utopia in the future, as do totalitarian regimes, nor preserves traditions, as do authoritarian regimes, but is oriented to the present, responding to today’s national problems and public demands.” R.J. Rummel


Also, “freedom of speech, properly enacted and conducted with care for the rights of all concerned, promotes freedoms to be related in its purpose and format — like communication in all its forms, but if it is hostile, the written word still makes it dominant: it is hard to suppress the hatred sourced at the spoken or written word, e-mail or the world wide web. The written word usually has a longer lifespan and wider impact than its oral counterpart. Most people agree that freedom of speech should not be limited except if one expresses hatred, aggression or lie. In such cases the court will decide the following situations are examples of the subtle character of the freedom of expression.” Douglas Ray, Ph.D.,


“Without the guaranteed right of all citizens to meet collectively, to have access to information, to seek to persuade others, as well as to vote, democracy is meaningless. Democratic rights, in other words, are those individual rights which are necessary to secure popular control over the process of collective decision-making on an ongoing basis.” David Beetham


And finally, “In other words, compromise brings us much closer to what actually happens in the practice of politics than doe’s consensus. It is, to quote Burke, “a very great mistake to imagine that mankind follows up practically any speculative principle, either of government or of freedom, as far as it will go in actual argument or logical illation. All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences, we give and take; we remit some rights that we may enjoy others; and we choose to be happy citizens rather than subtle disputants.”Moreover, compromise by nature inculcates tolerance, trust and trustworthiness, respect of others and of their moral autonomy. Compromise more powerfully contributes to these virtues than consensus, because consensus (especially in Rawls’s conception of it) does not force us to leave the domain of what is rational and justifiable in our own eyes: consensus may at most effect a shift in the center of gravity of our political universe, but it does not require us (in the way that compromise does) to move outside it. Compromise socializes, whereas consensus leaves us the separate individuals that we were.” Frank R. Ankersmit


So, my professor hit the nail on the head in saying compromise is a necessary practice in a democracy. We, the people who live in and support a democratic way of life, need to continually expect and demand that those who are engaged in political discourse and practice follow the above principles for necessary conditions for a strong democracy. Those who don’t follow a ‘good practice’ are essentially anti-democratic and need to be identified as so.

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