Graduate Student, University of Cambridge
Democracy is premised on the normative notion that all people are equal in terms of their political rights. This in turn stipulates that citizenship in a democracy confers on each person a set of enumerated rights and obligations that ultimately also shape a larger community of people imbued with shared values. It is this aspect of democracy that makes it the crucible of a free and self-constituting society: one of free individuals endowed with a set of clearly spelled-out rights and privileges, while at the same time bound by a mutuality of obligations. Citizens in a democracy, whether in a parliamentary or presidential system, have the inherent right to be invested in the political process, affecting decisions that impact themselves and the community at large. But these citizens must also freely accept the notion that their rights to shape decisions are circumscribed by their attendant obligations to the community as a whole; this dialectic of individual freedom on the one hand, and responsibility towards one’s community and the society at large on the other, is the most important benefit of living in a democracy. Maintaining such a tension between personal liberty and the welfare of society is arguably the best way to allow for the full potential of the individual and the group to emerge, thereby underscoring the importance of living in a democracy.
The linkage in a democracy between rights and obligations flows from the fundamental verity that every citizen’s voting choice will shape the community, and by extension the life of that individual. In the vernacular, this “co-responsibility” aspect of living in a democracy means that we all have the proverbial skin in the game. Democratic freedom stipulates that in order to enjoy our rights we need to balance them against our duty towards other citizens to stand ready to extend and protect the same rights for the rest of the community. In short, the experience of democracy shapes free citizens because it sustains an essential tension between freedom and obligation, which is arguably the essence of liberty. Even though the desiderata of all citizens living in a democracy will never be fully met, the process of engaging with one’s fellow citizens educates, shapes, and empowers the society.
No other system offers this degree of citizen participation in policymaking. In a democracy the polity can prioritize larger shared objectives, negotiate differences and reach compromises – all key to orderly political processes in society. A democratic system where processes become “self-regulating,” for instance, where electoral outcomes are accepted by all as a matter of course, is what I would call a consolidated democracy as opposed to one that has been merely institutionalized. Perhaps the greatest advantage of living in a consolidated democracy lies in its inherent ability to facilitate an orderly transition of political power. To put it differently, at the most rudimentary level a democratic culture means that individuals and parties lose elections and accept their outcomes. This is arguably the most stabilizing function of a properly structured democratic state, for it makes power transitions into a routine, and borderline mundane, process. In contrast, in authoritarian and totalitarian systems, each instance of power transition – such as when a dictator dies or is overthrown – poses a great risk to the overall stability of the state and society, often leading to factional strife and repression.
Yet one must also contend with the reality that democratic processes can result in the triumph of values that would seem to conflict with the assumptions underlying democracy itself – that strike at the heart of “equality.” In other words, a process predicated on the equal representation of individuals and their interests can be used to usher in parties that seek to curtail the various rights of groups of people or simply to legalize a way of life that is by any measure oppressive – for instance, by codifying into law the subservience of women and sexual and ethnic minorities. Hence, democracies must be structured in a way that provides for the safeguards of checks and balances, whereby the majoritarian rule does not devolve into oppression. To put it differently, democracy requires carefully crafted institutions that ensure that minority rights and views are protected, and that when compromises are made they do not go too far and de-legitimize the state in the eyes of its citizens.
However, democracy requires not just properly calibrated institutions, but also their consolidation, yielding what I would broadly call a “democratic culture” that is both prescriptive and self-regulatory. Without the development of a democratic culture, societies that manage to articulate baseline norms on paper face the difficulty of adhering to them, as the proliferation of high-sounding but often ignored constitutions and creedal documents the world over attests. The Stalinist constitution in the USSR, to take one example, was arguably one of the most detailed foundational lists of rights and responsibilities known to Political Science. And yet, the dominant political culture of the Soviet state bore little resemblance to the enumerated constitutional guarantees.
Living in a democracy offers arguably the best way to strike a delicate balance between individual rights and obligations to society, i.e., between what the society owes the individual in terms of his or her political rights, and what the individual must do to ensure that the system remains stable and fair to all. In that sense, democracy provides the sinews of a functioning community which, though far from perfect, is on balance better than other systems currently in place around the world. Winston Churchill is reported to have said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others – a well-worn cliché often repeated in university classrooms that nonetheless vividly captures the extent to which available systemic alternatives fall short of what democracy can offer the individual citizen and the community at large.