It is almost impossible to talk about democracy without mentioning Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America defined democracy as "government of the people, by the people and for the people.” This definition has become so infamous that many people rarely realize that the concept itself traces its origins in ancient Greece.

Democracy, literally means, rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek word dēmokratiā, which is a combination of dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). The term was coined during the Classical period in the middle of the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in some Greek city-states, notably Athens. at the time Greece was more of a collection of several independent city-states each with its own country-side than what we know a country to be in the modern sense. Under the leadership of Cleisthenes, in 507 BCE, the citizens of Athens began to establish a system of popular rule that would last for roughly 200 years. Thus Athens became known as one of the earliest ancient cities that gave citizens the right and duty to determine how they were governed and the laws that affected them. Thus, the Athenian democracy foreshadowed some of the modern-day democratic practices even among those who have little or no knowledge about the ancient Athenian system.

Democracy, today as well as in the past, has always been concerned about the relationship between those who exercise political leadership in society and those who are governed, those who exercise authority and those who are subjects of that authority. Democracy requires that those who have authority use it for the public good. For this state of affairs to exist, a democratic system of government must begin by recognizing that all members of society are equal; that they must have an equal say in the affairs of government and the decision-making process; and that governments exist to serve the people and not vice versa. Their primary role is to enhance the human rights of people as human beings and to neither creates such rights nor suppress their unique existence.

From the foregoing, it can be argued and rightly so, that this describes an ideal democratic system of government which may differ quite significantly from the reality on the ground.  Democracy in and of itself is an imperfect form of government - whether it be representative or direct democracy. That stated it is the lesser evil so to speak. In discussing the concept of democracy, Aristotle found it quite useful to address the subject from the aspect of constitutions. He classified governments in terms of three ideal and perverted constitutions each of which described situations where the ruling class pursued common good and selfish goals respectively. The ideal and perverted constitutions were distinguished by the number of persons that were allowed to rule. Thus according to Aristotle “rule by one” is monarchy in its ideal form and tyranny in its perverted form; “rule by the few” is aristocracy in its ideal form and oligarchy in its perverted form; and “rule by the many” is “polity” in its ideal form and democracy in its perverted form.

Notwithstanding his strong views on democracy, Aristotle was unwavering on his position that liberty was the foundation of any democratic state. An ideal democracy would require key features such as:

  1. Inclusion
  2. Equality in voting;
  3. Effective participation in policymaking and decision-making processes;
  4. Respect for fundamental rights and freedoms; and
  5. Informed Citizenry - citizens have access to information about policies and laws that affect them.

While this is not an exhaustive list, it does highlight some of the key features that are said to be necessary to constitute an ideal democracy.

Is an ideal democracy possible? does it exist?

In my reasoned opinion, and I stand guided, ideal democracies do not exist. If they did, then we would not be talking about recurrent problems such as inequality of resources, uprisings among others.

Many political scholars have canvassed the argument that attainment of all features of ideal democracies is impossible for the simple reason that while many institutions of government have been tailored to attain a high degree of democracy, they have not been developed to achieve an ideal democracy. They will aspire to achieve the ideal, but they will inevitably fall short because of the internal distortions and contradictions of the system which they have bought into. 

I would like to believe that an ideal democracy is possible but only when man attains a higher sense of altruism. Meaning that, in theory, it is possible but in practice, probably not. Thomas Hobbes, 17th Century British philosopher and political theorist, argues that without an overarching authority, men live without a common power to keep them all in awe meaning that they are in a condition of war, and such war is of every man against every man. “In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I started out by saying that democracy in and of itself is an imperfect form of government but when pitted against other forms of government, it is the better of the worst. The value of living in a democratic state cannot be overstated. There are numerous advantages to living in a democratic society with the most fundamental ones being:

  1. Guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms that are not granted by autocratic systems;
  2. Protection of fundamental rights and freedoms;
  3. Human development  in terms of healthcare, education, employment etc

From the foregoing, you will note that fundamental rights and freedoms are one of if not the most important reason for living in a democracy. Choice, free will, liberty - the idea of making, taking part in decision making and the moral responsibility associated with those choices and freedoms is almost ethereal. Non-democratic systems neither grant nor guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms. Many tend to reduce human beings to speaking instruments essentially denying their humanity. The turning of human beings into speaking instruments is a reduction of their status into camps of oppressors and oppressed, and exploiters and exploited. That is how many dictatorships tend to operate forgetting that neither camp can claim full humanity until such divisions are reconciled.  The fact that political subjugations last for decades or centuries does not mean that they are natural or immutable. what holds true is that an oppressed people will always fight to liberate themselves and regain their lost and or denied humanity. That is why the age-old struggle for democracy still continues to persist.

In the course of my work and studies, I have met different people from different countries and the constant thing that they have always told me is that they would rather live in a place with some freedoms than with one with none at all. One old lady I met in Monrovia told me that during the war, she lived worse than a dog and her oppressors dehumanized her to the point that they told her she was not worthy to have a name because names are for people and she was not one. She told me that every day that she lived, she wished that she could be a dog because at least the dogs had some rights and she had none. Yes, democracies are imperfect government systems but when it is all said and done, they do afford people such as this old lady, rights, and freedoms that validate her humanity. This cannot be said for other forms of government.


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