Democracy is rule for the people1. The democratic process is designed to avoid dictatorships and totalitarianism by making government accountable for its actions through voting and legal sanctions. There are different ways to implement democracy. Party-based democracy is where the electorate (those who can vote) choose a governing party (out of several) every few years, based on their overall policies and style2. Direct democracy has the people vote on an issue-by-issue basis. The separation of powers means that no particular government organ has unfettered control. The rule of law applies to all: politicians from the ruling party and from other parties, rich businessmen, and poor citizens, are all subject to the same equalities and restrictions. Human rights are protected by allowing reporters, watchdogs and civilian concern groups to scrutinize government. The principal of secularism requires that Government must not come to represent a sole ethnic or religious group (i.e., it should be secular and unbiased)3.
Democracy faces many challenges. Large multinational companies can outmanoeuvre and ignore local governments, which sometimes places them above-the-law. Therefore regional and international agreements are now an essential part of maintaining the rule of law - bodies such as the UN and EU answer this call. Special interest groups and single-issue lobbies (as well as parties) can, through their hearty activism, undermine democracy. Mass stupidity and voter apathy means that the people normally vote (if they vote at all) on short-sighted, shallow and unimportant issues, hindering the ability of government to overcome long-term problems. Nationalism, ethnic divides, religious impulses and mass intolerance can all pressurize a democratic government into allow the 'tyranny of the masses' to overcome human dignity and freedom: new ways of curbing populism need to be tested and implemented.
Democracy needs to be actively monitored and defended against its challenges. Despite weaknesses, its democracy has proven itself to be the superior method of governance and facilitates personal freedom, human development (technological and moral) and human rights and has had "overwhelmingly... wonderful consequences"4. But good national governance is not a simple affair, and those in power should be dedicated to their job, highly educated and capable.
A government maintains legitimacy "through success in regular and competitive elections"5, which are the primary way in which a nation decides if it wants its current leaders to continue in power, or if things need to change. It's by far the most identifiable feature of democracy. This system encourages elected officials to try to govern well, for fear of future electoral outcomes6. It is the duty of democratic governments to facilitate fair elections, and this is a serious enough issue that a process of peer-review must be enacted, wherein independent international bodies check on elections as they occur, to ensure that they are duly fair.
“Consider the right to a government chosen by periodic and genuine elections carried out with universal and equal suffrage (Universal Declaration, Article 21). The principal duty correlative to this right is the obligation of the state to stage and to administer elections that are free, fair, and open (to all candidates and all voters). Other actors - e.g., poll watchers or international election monitors - may be incorporated into the process to strengthen its integrity. The state must vigilantly protect all citizens from private efforts to coercively discourage or prevent them from participating. For the most part, though, the state's basic obligation is to run - that is, to provide - clean elections.”
It is all-too-easy for the government in power to abuse mass media outlets and the press in order to push a one-sided account of their own actions, and therefore distort the democratic process. Likewise, it is too easy for powerful corporations and individuals to have undue influence. Therefore, there must be rules and regulations during electoral campaigns to protect the system8, including ensuring that information is available to the electorate and that funding is equalized fairly. Breaking these rules is profoundly serious business, and should result in offenders being barred from office.
Free-market capitalism can bolster democracy by allowing large numbers of the citizenry to mobilize economically and socially9,10, creating a business class that can influence government and thus feed into the democratic system9. But pure capitalism creates more losers than winners, and welfare services social programmes must be run by the government to protect the people against capitalism's negative side. Mitigations must also be put in place to protect democracy itself against the spectre of government becoming purely focused on business interests11. Donations to politicians and parties must be meticulously publicized and similar legal requirements must exist for politicians and political entities to reveal all business interests. In short, free-market capitalism can raise the quality of life and wealth of entire nations, but, it must be regulated if democracy is to be maintained.
For more, see: Free-Market Capitalism and Democracy.
Political Parties are groupings of politicians that share a set of values and aims. Because individual politicians cannot steer government unaided, in order to have a chance of succeeding in their aims, they must group together with others. The trade-off for this increase in effectiveness is that sometimes they must submit to the greater will of their party on topics where they disagree.
Another benefit of having political parties is that it reduces the extent to which the electorate must study politics: parties can have an overall look and feel, and the electorate can vote for their preferred party. Without parties, voters would have to analyse the voting records of each politician that they could possibly vote for as it would be the only way of knowing what to expect from candidates.
Political parties bring stability and effectiveness to politics13. The alternative is that coalitions of supporters must be built for every piece of legislation13, resulting in politicians spending their time making behind-the-scenes deals, paving the way for mass corruption.
If there were no political parties, like-minded politicians will still find themselves combining with the same people on multiple issues and the result is that you will always have more-or-less consistent parties: it is better for the voters if this system is made open and specific, rather than implied and secretive13. Therefore, there is no sensible alternative but to have stable parties, visible to the public in their aims and demands.
But the party system can go wrong. Democracy is damaged when parties represent limited social classes, ethnic communities or particular religious adherents14; many people will vote for them regardless of their policies, and simply because they want to be represented even if this means exclusion for the other groups. If a country becomes stuck in an undemocratic battle between fixed and stable demographic groups, it can result in the party-in-power permanently representing the largest ethnic or religious group, and all other communities becoming directly or indirectly discriminated against14. This is the problem of single-issue-parties, of which ethnic and religious parties are the worst.
In Presidential democracies, the head of state is the same person as the head of government, and is voted in2. This is the case in the USA and France. and a handful of other countries but is quite uncommon (especially historically15). In Parliamentary democracies, the votes determine which parties have the most MPs (Members of Parliament), and each party selects its own leader2. In both systems the personality of the leader is highly influential for the country as a whole, however in Parliamentary systems the focus is on party policies, and the leader themselves have limited powers to act autocratically. In Presidential systems, the President should also be faced with restrictions on their own activities which are designed to protect democracy against autocratic abuse (wherein one person can undermine democracy and/or other element of good governance).
To have people vote on issues directly is disastrous for a country's health, stability and economy, so much so that systems of 'direct democracy' never last long. Instead, 'representative democracy' is the norm, wherein citizens elect representatives who sit in a parliament or national assembly16,17. The principal advantage is that they can give governance the full-time attention that it requires16 and following this train of thought, the philosopher Plato argued that only the best-educated should be politicians, to ensure that they make wise choices18. Others argue that it's more about specialisation:
“What differentiates our representatives from the rest of us is not that they have some superior qualities which others do not possess, but that they are given the necessary time to deliberate and decide public issues in our place and on our behalf. But in a democracy they still have to listen to and take notice of the rest of us.”
The spirit of democracy demands that anyone can, in theory, propose themselves as a representative for a constituency16, and if elected, become a politician. Representatives should be available to meet with voters and engage them19 - although in the modern world with high populations, it seems that this is best achieved primarily through opinion polls and associations, rather than direct one-on-one contacts.
“The eighteenth-century philosophy of democracy may be couched in the following definition: the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will.”
A democratic government must not just rule for the people; it must also do so well. A democratic government is responsible for the long-term health of the nation, for future as well as current citizens, and it must rule wisely and strategically without being distracted by the allure of short-term wins that are poorly thought-out. As such, over time, the developed world has accumulated a hard-learnt set of checks and balances as part of the democratic system. Although the following items could be implemented by any form of government, in reality only democracies have whole-heartedly embraced these elements of good governance.
How do you govern a nation well, looking after people fairly and allowing maximum freedom and prosperity?
Voters themselves need to be educated and well-informed in order to vote wisely32,33 but they do not do so, often voting on short-term and shallow issues that are not in their own long-term interests34,35, making some worry if democracy at all can continue to function34. Many democracies witness a continual decline in the numbers of people who bother to pay any interest in politics, let alone to vote36. A constant threat is the 'majority rules' impule, that can lead to the 'tyranny of the majority' or 'mob rule' situations in which outisders and minorities become unfiarly persecuted37,38,39.
There are problems with political parties and governments. Short-term policies such as increasing spending keep governments in power40 whereas wiser, long-term policies are less popular with voters. Highly motivated activists can exert undue pressure on governments41. Dictators, bigots, fascists and separatists can all be voted in along the same lines as anyone else42. Some governments come to abuse power, and, single-issue-parties and ethnic/separatist parties prevent the equality-of-opportunity and balance that should come from government. Finally, politicians themselves are sometimes corrupt.
In short, constant vigilence is required to prevent "democracy´s own weaknesses lead[ing] to disaster"41 , and a system of balances and checks must be maintained, to ensure that the democratic system is not going astray.
For more, see the full page on this topic: The Internal Challenges Facing Democracy.
The appeal of democracy comes from its success. Horrible dictators such as Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) orchestrate fake elections they can never lose43. But why do they do this? Because they know that their populations, and those they work with around the world, are convinced of the worth of democracy.
“When the enemies of democracy mouth its rhetoric and ape its rituals, you know it was won the war. [...] We live in a democratic age. Over the last century the world has been shaped by one trend above all others - the rise of democracy. In 1900 not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government created by elections in which every citizen could vote. Today 119 do, comprising 62 percent of all countries in the world.”
The success of good government can be measured by its results via the comparison of international statistics, with a slant to selecting data sets that reflect on the policies that aid human community across the longest-possible timeranges. See: "What is the Best Country in the World? An Index of Morality, Conscience and Good Life" by Vexen Crabtree (2020), and its menu, which reveals the data sets: