Essay on the Generic Concept of Democracy

(b) The characteristics of the actors who are admitted to or excluded from such access;

(c) The resources or strategies that these actors can use to gain access;

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(d) The rules that are followed in the making of publicly binding decisions.

To produce effects, the regime must be so organised that actors become habituated to the patterns of behaviour. Norms of a regime may be constitutionalised or observed as prudence and precedents.

These forms, characteristics, resources and rules are usually bundled together and given a generic label. Democratic is one such label used to classify regimes. (Authoritarian, oligarchic, monarchic etc. are others.) Democratic regimes, in turn, could have many subtypes.

(2) The rulers are those who occupy dominant positions in the formal structures of governance.

Democratic rulers have the authority to give legitimate commands to others. They differ from non-democratic rulers in the manners in which they become rulers and the norms which make them accountable.

Put in another way, citizens in a democracy have not only rights but also obligations to accept as legitimate and therefore obey the commands which are based on fair norms and practices.

(3) The public realm consists of the arena where binding norms of the society are backed by the coercive power of the state. Across democracies, the size of the public realm does vary, depending upon how public and private spheres have been defined and the way legitimate action and voluntary exchanges are worked out.

While liberal democratic norms prefer a circumscribed public realm, social democracies and socialist regimes prefer a larger public realm through state ownership, regulations, and interventions, etc.

Both are democratic, but differently. Development of private sector is no less democratic than the expansion of public sector of the economy; however, experience shows that if carried to the extreme, either would undermine the democracy by neglecting collective needs or by curbing individual preferences. Literature on democratic theories has for long but inconclusively dealt with the issue of balancing it out.

(4) Only democracies have citizens using the broadest and non­discriminatory criteria for holding and electing offices. Democracies in the 20th Century have experienced the extension of citizenship rights to women, indigenous, and illiterates and the property-less so as to move citizenship towards universalism.

Others have lowered the voting age (for instance, Brazil where 16 years old are eligible to vote), made voting compulsory, etc. although large segments of citizenry could still be under informal restrictions of some kind.

(5) Competition has become intrinsic since modern political democracies are invariably indirect, except may be at local level in some countries. ‘Factions’, ‘adversarial action’ and ‘particular interests’ may not be desirable, but have become inevitable in modern democracies, giving rise to competition. Excessive factionalism has always been deemed a problem but no democratic polity can escape from it.

As James Mwiison put it, two of the possible remedies for “the mischief of faction” are worse than the disease: (i) to remove its causes “by destroying the liberty that is essential to its existence”, or (ii) “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” The best one may hope is only to control the ill effects of excessive factionalism.

While factional or partisan competition is inevitable, democrats do differ on the forms and rules of competition. Importantly, it is along the lines of disagreement on principles and practices of competition that the sub-types of democracy are elaborated,

(i) Forms of competition am important.

The most common conception of democracy makes it virtually synonymous with the presence of regular, fairly conducted and honestly counted elections of uncertain outcome. At the extreme, the mere presence of elections-even ones from which specific parties or candidates are excluded or in which substantial portion of the population cannot freely participate-is also considered a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy.

However, this is a fallacy; and at best can be called ‘electoralism’. In between elections, however, individuals can still compete to influence public policy through a wide variety of other intermediary’s interest associations, social movements, etc.

Modern democracy in other words offers a variety of competitive processes and channels for the expression of interests and values associational as well as partisan, functional as well as territorial, collective as well as individual.

(ii) Rules of competition are equally important.

A commonly accepted rule is majority rule; that is, a simple majority of votes cast as in India; it also could be 50 per cent plus one to become a democratic rule, as is the practice in presidential election of most Latin American countries.

Other rules may also be operative like two-third majority for a constitutional amendment, consent of provinces etc. in a federal system. The problem however arises when ‘numbers’ meet ‘intensities’.

What happens when a properly assembled majority (especially, a stable, self-perpetuating majority) produces decisions that regularly and negatively affect some minority (especially a threatened cultural or ethnic minority)?

In these circumstances, the actual practice of successful democracy tends to displace one of its central principles i.e. to guarantee and uphold the rights of minorities -political, economic, ethnic, and racial.

Often, therefore, modern political democracies place certain matters beyond majorities such as by enshrining fundamental rights into the constitutions, by guaranteeing the autonomy of local or regional governments from the central government in a federation, by forming grand coalitions incorporating all parties in a ‘consociation’ power- sharing arrangement, or by encouraging social pacts for instance between labour and capital.

The most common and effective way of protecting minorities however lies in the everyday operation of interest groups and social movements. These are different ‘intensities’ of preferences, which bring some influence on those chosen according to the majority principle.

Another way of putting this intrinsic tension between ‘numbers’ and ‘intensities’ would be to say that ‘in modern democracies, votes may be counted, but influences are also weighted’.

(6) Democracies work on the basis of cooperation. Actors need to combine by some voluntary process to make binding decisions for the polity as a whole. They must cooperate in order to be able to compete.

They must be capable of engaging in collective action through political parties, associations, and movements that can select candidates, articulate preferences, petition authorities and influence policies.

Beyond this unavoidably adversarial aspect, democracy should also encourage citizens to deliberate among themselves, to discover their common needs and resolve their possible conflicts without relying on some outside political authority.

The ‘classical’ conception of democracy had stressed upon these aspects and they remain true to modern democracies as well. Some contemporary theorists have erroneously stressed on individuals always maximising their own rational interests as if democracy is a kind of marketplace.

Cooperation and voluntaries for autonomous group action is called civil society. Associations that remain independent of the state but exert influence on its decision-making powers check the arbitrariness of the rulers as, at the same time, make citizens aware and tolerant of the preferences of others. A civil society strengthens the virtues of civic action and improves the quality of democratic governance.

(7) The principal agents of modern political democracies are representatives. Citizens may elect them or support the parties, movements etc., which they lead. These are political professionals pursuing a life-long vocation, often described as ‘political elite’ or ‘political classes’. The way a group of representatives is composed and held accountable is important in a democracy.

Democracies have multiple channel of representation-some are elected for a period and may be responsible for approving all decisions that are binding; others may be located in specialised agencies empowered to make public decisions.

Then, there are leaders of associations of civil society representing and promoting various causes, besides leaders of the social movements and political parties. A major implication of this proliferation of groups and modes of political expression is that recent and fragile democracies-in Latin America and elsewhere-must live in ‘compressed time’.

Unlike in the older democracies of Europe and US, where time allowed the gradual evolution of a civil society, in ‘transition’ democracies – through varieties of initiatives and for varied reasons-all manners of parties, associations and movements are, and will be, present during the transition, and all of them seek to influence the political outcome with their highly diverse opinions, passions and interests.

Operational Principles

The above-mentioned component processes and procedural norms help one to identify what democracy is but they do not tell us much about how it actually functions. The simplest answer is “by the consent of the people”.

The more complex answer is “by the contingent consent of politicians acting under conditions of bounded uncertainty.” Let us elaborate on the meaning of ‘contingent consent’ and ‘bounded uncertainty’.

Contingent Consent:

In a democracy, representatives agree to compete in such a way that those who win or exercise greater influence over policy will not use their (temporary) political superiority to impede those who have lost; and those who have lost will respect the right of the winners to make binding decisions.

In their turn, citizens are expected to obey the decisions ensuing from such a process of competition, provided its outcome remains contingent upon their collective preferences as expressed through fair and regularly held elections or through open and repeated negotiations in the future.

The challenge is to find a set of rules that embodies contingent consent, not a set of goals that command widespread consensus. This ‘democratic bargain’, to use Robert Dahl’s expression, varies from society to society, depending upon cleavages and subjective factors such as the degree of mutual trust. It may even be compatible with a great deal of dissension on substantive policy issues.

Bounded Uncertainty:

All democracies involve some degree of uncertainty. Who will be elected and what policies they will pursue? Polities that do not have such uncertainty are not democracies. But the uncertainty embedded in the core of all democracies is bounded. Not just any actor can get into the competition and raise any issue he or she pleases to raise; there are previously established rules that must be respected.

Not just any policy can be decided and implemented; there are contingencies that must be respected. What the emergent practice of democracy does is to define and delimit ‘normal’ uncertainty with regard to actors and policies.

These boundaries vary from country to country. Constitutions delimit the boundaries; and, through competition and cooperation among associations and interests also such rules of contingent consent are worked out.

Whatever the rhetoric- and at election times, it can be really very wild-once the rules of contingent consent have been agreed upon, the actual variation in the conduct of actors and policies is likely to stay within a predictable and mutually acceptable range.

It is to be noted that these operative principles of democracy- abstract in themselves-lie behind the generic concepts and formal procedures. Also notably, these two operative principles rest on rules of prudence and not on some deeply ingrained norms of mutual trust and tolerance, moderation, compromise and sense of fair play, and respect for authorities etc.

Often in the past, democratic theory had argued for a prior existence of ‘civic culture’; that is, the aforementioned norms must develop and be gradually transmitted through its working, if democracy is to consolidate. On the basis of current cases of democratisation, civic culture is better thought of as the product, and not the producer of democracy.

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