Democratic Theory

  • Churchill “democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
  • Mass conversion in favour to the cause of democracy is SIGNIFICANT – even in Ancient Greece – the cradle of the democratic idea – democracy was viewed in negative terms. Now seen as ace.
  • Plato and Aristotle saw democracy as a system of rule by the masses at the expense of wisdom and property. Aristotle was worried that sophists could demand authority in democracy – wanted an aristocracy instead. Continued with negative connotations – 19th century – system of ‘mob rule’.
  • Mob rule – considered fatal to individual freedom and to all the graces of civilised living.
  • Now we are all democrats. As major ideologies faltered in the late 20th Century, the flame of democracy appeared to burn more strongly. It emerged as perhaps the only stable and enduring principle in the postmodern political landscape.


  • Origins can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Derived from the Greek word kratos meaning ‘power’, or ‘rule’. Democracy thus means ‘rule by the demos’ (‘demos’ being ‘the people’). Much democracy has come from Athenian democracy.
  • Being universally regarded as a ‘good thing’, democracy has become little more than a ‘hurrah! word’, implying approval of a particular set of ideas or system of rule. People champion democracy due to positive connotations when in fact it means nothing unless it is defined more specifically – end of history concept.
  • Fukuyama and the view that capitalist democracy represents the final stage of the development of human political and economic institutions. There is remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of capitalist democracy – other things such as Communism have collapsed but capitalist democracy hasn’t.
  • Distortion of democracy – Bismarck – “democracy is like a nursery where children can be controlled”.
  • Bernard Crick (1993) – “Democracy is perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs.”
  • Abraham Lincoln extolled the virtues of what he called ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’. What this makes clear is that democracy links government to the people, but that this link can be forged in a number of ways: government of, by and for the people.
  • Anthony Giddens – “effective competition between political parties for positions of power”.
  • Democracy was to be government by the POOR, oligarchy meant government by a few of the ‘rich and well-born’. Similar ambiguity with ‘aristocracy’ – this meant the rule of power of the best, but it was assumed that the few who were rich and well born we also ‘the best’ morally and politically. Contrast of this elite group with ‘the mob’.  This notion is not now accustomed to being associated with democracy.
  • Hypothesis that power and the right to exercise power belongs to the people, although in some theories ‘the people’ refers to an aggregate of individuals, in some, to a collective entity.
  • One core feature of democracy – principle of political equality, notion that political power should be distributed as widely and evenly as possible.
  • Political equality – all have the same input and chance to participate. However, some more equal than others.
  • Majoritarianism – system of decision-making in which decisions approved by the largest grouping (problems over minority rights).
  • Participation – providing opportunities for citizenship to become involved in the political process.
  • Accountability – calling to account the decisions reached by politicians through elections or other forms of political involvement. To what extent is government accountable and answerable to Commons? How, in a democracy, can a committee of the Commons find itself prevented from interviewing civil servants?
  • Representation – entrusting the power of decision-making to another citizen, usually a professional politician (basis for modern concepts of democracy).
  • However, within what body should this power by distributed? Simple answer = demos. BUT every democratic system has restricted political participation – early Greek writers: ‘demos’ = disadvantaged and usually property-less masses – implication of bias towards the poor. Greek city-states – only male citizens over 20 considered citizens. Universal suffrage not established in UK until 1928 etc.

Ambiguities in defining democracy – concept of who the people are can CHANGE in circumstance.

  • The ‘people’ can be viewed as a single, cohesive body, bound together by common or collective interest – tends to generate a model of democracy like Rousseau’s theory – “general will”.
  • ‘People’ may in practice to be taken to mean ‘the majority’. Democracy comes to mean the strict application of the principle of majority rule, in which the will of the majority override the will of the minority – “tyranny of the majority”.
  • OR ‘people’ can be viewed as collection of free and equal individuals, each of whom has a right to make autonomous decisions. Contradicts any form of majoritarianism and also implies that only unanimous decisions can be binding upon the people, thus dramatically restricting the application of democratic principles.
  • Limitations on voting in modern societies – J.S. Mill – plural votes for the educated, very fearful of ‘mob rule’.
  • Limited Athenian citizenship – no slaves/women.
  • Most conceptions of democracy based on the principle of ‘government BY the people’ – implies that people govern themselves – make crucial decisions that structure their lives and determine the fate of their society. However, since the people are likely to be divided among themselves, government is likely to be representative of the MAJORITY of people. Government by representatives of a majority – Britain doesn’t meet this criterion – no government since attainment of adult suffrage has produced a bare majority.
  • Can take a number of forms: direct democracy – popular participation entails direct and continuous involvement in decision-making through devices such as referendums/mass meetings/interactive television. Could lead to tyranny of the majority.
  • More common form of democratic participation is the act of voting, which is the central feature of representative democracy. When citizens vote, they do not so much make the decisions that structure their own lives as choose who will make those decisions on their behalf. What gives voting its democratic character is that provided the election is competitive, it empowers the public to make politicians accountable.
  • ‘Government for the people’ allows little scope for public participation of any kind, direct or indirect. The worst example of this was found in the so-called ‘totalitarian democracies’ that developed under fascist dictators (Mussolini and Hitler). The democratic credentials of such regimes were based on the claim that the ‘leader’ articulated the genuine interests of the people, thus implying that a ‘true’ democracy can be equated with an absolute dictatorship.
  • These types of democracy evidence the tension between ‘government by the people’ and government for the people’. Advocates of representative democracy have wished to confine popular participation in politics to the act of voting, precisely because they fear that the general public lack the wisdom, education and experience to rule wisely on their own behalf.

Liberal view on democracy

  • Models of democracy constructed on the basis of liberal individualism have usually proposed that democracy be restricted to political life, with politics being narrowly defined. From this view, the purpose of democracy is to establish, through some process of popular participation, a framework of laws within which individuals can conduct their own affairs and pursue their private interests.
  • Democratic solutions are appropriate only for matters that specifically relate to community; used in other circumstances, democracy amounts to an infringement of liberty.

Social and radical democrat view on democracy

  • Democracy is a general principle that is applicable to all areas of social existence. People are seen as having a basic right to participate in the making of any decisions that affect their lives, with democracy being the collective process through which it is done.
  • Left wing critique – “democracy is the rule of the politician” Schumpeter.
  • Needs to be a balanced between needs of society and protection of individual rights.

Direct democracy

  • Athenian state – The Ecclesia, limited citizenship, executive appointments by lot and limited time span in office.
  • Key principles – popular sovereignty – people can have the power. Rousseau – “[Britain] is only free at the time of an election” – critical of parliamentary sovereignty – powerless to effect change. Aristotle saw as poor imposing rule on the wealthy – society dominated by property less masses.
  • Equal rights and say.
  • Unanimity wherever possible. Qualifying majority vote can ensure some unanimity. Not a simple 50.1% - attempts to prevent tyranny of the majority.
  • Early criticisms – Plato – belief in natural hierarchy requiring rule by guardians – who guards the guardians however? Aristotle dangers of mob rule.
  • Renewed support – Rousseau – support for participatory democracy where civic virtue (only way of maintaining social cohesion through community – direct democracy involvement) based on all citizens participating in law making. Advocated rule in line with ‘general will’. What is the best for everyone? However, people don’t know what the ‘public interest’ is. Could be majority of selfish wills. Sense of higher order making public interest’s decisions. Doesn’t sit well with democracy. Almost like totalitarianism.  But Rousseau thought of an ENLIGHTENED individual – this system got labelled as a form of “totalitarian democracy” Talmon. Idealistic view.
  • For Rousseau, the common good is something which benefits all individuals but may not coincide with felt interests. It is NOT the will of all individuals added together and averaged, nor is it the will of the majority. Not necessarily democratic but Rousseau thought would be best be realised through direct democracy where people’s sovereignty would act as a safeguard against the imposition of any particular wills.
  • Renewed support – Fourier – small scale communities based on self-rule and communal decision-making.
  • Modern problems of direct democracy – apathy; population sizes; complexity of problems and levels of commitment – how can you vote so regularly if you work? Also idea of elite theory and natural inequality (Mosca and Pareto). Dangers of populism (de Tocqueville).

Representative democracy

  • Accepted to be most practical.
  • Twin principles of representation and democracy.
  • Limited participation – “the evils we experience flows from the excess of democracy” – Governor Gerry.
  • Regular free and fair elections.
  • Existence of competing interests and factions (polyarchy). Contentious point as it is elitist. Whether or not pressure groups are truly competitive is questionable: Orwell – “some pressure groups are more equal than others”. Elitist theory.
  • Limited government with constitutional guarantees (protective democracy) and commitment to individual liberty. E.g. Supreme courts and HRA are almost constitutional safeguards – quasi-constitutional government.

Models of representation

  • Representation is the relationship through which an individual stands for, or acts on behalf of, a larger body of people” Heywood.
  • Representation is a conduit for the popular consent that legitimate government itself in liberal thought.
  • Delegatory – electorate control over actions of representative. Paine – regular interchange between citizens and representatives to avoid corruption. A person acts as a conduit conveying the views of others, while having little-no capacity to exercise his/her judgement. Much needed interchange between citizen and rep., ultimately avoiding corruption. Link is needed in representative democracy – popular sovereignty. Regarding accountability, Jouvenel’s question of ‘who guards the guardians?’ can be answered relatively confidently: the electorate has the capacity to remove politicians at election time.
  • The favouring of referendums to supplement the representative process. Elitist view of democracy is that citizens don’t really know what is best for them – huge danger of selfish voting. BUT – delegate model provides broader opportunities for popular participation and serves to check the self-serving inclinations of parties – comes as close as poss. to realising ideal of popular sovereignty.
  • Disadvantage – breeds narrowness and fosters conflict – Burke feared this: “Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole”. ALSO, delegation limits scope for leadership of politicians – politicians can’t provide vision and inspiration when they are only able to reflect views.
  • Trustee – elected individual most suited to uphold interests of constituents isn’t held to account during time in office. Limited control of the trustee outside of elections. Burke – “You choose a member...when you have chosen him he is a Member of Parliament...your rep. owes you...his judgement”. Insinuates that electorate has no say in politician’s judgement.
  • Elitist implications – once elected, representatives exercise individual judgement. Also has anti-democratic implications – if politicians thinks for themselves because public is ignorant, then surely it is a mistake to allow public to elect reps in the first place.
  • Radical democrat view – Paine – if politicians are allowed to exercise own judgement, they will simply use that latitude to pursue their own selfish interests: “the elected should never form to themselves an interest separate from the electors”.
  • Resemblance – parliament should be a microcosm of society at large. Bevan – can an MP represent a mine working constituency if he has never been a miner? Champagne socialists. A representative sample, therefore, is one which has the same proportions of men and women, rich and poor, black and white, or young and old, as the population at large, an impression of whose opinion is being sought. Needs to be some level of resemblance, as otherwise politicians find it incredibly hard to represent a group of individuals whom they have no common ground with. The model suggests that only people who come from a particular group, and have shared the experiences of that group, can fully identify with its interests.
  • Critics argue it is anti-democratic – social engineering limits free choice of representatives by electors.
  • Mandate – the electorate votes for the party label, not the individual candidate. As it is the party, rather than individual politicians, that is the agency of representation, the mandate model provides clear justification for party unity and party discipline. In effect, politicians serve their constituents not by thinking for themselves or acting as a channel to convey their views, but by remaining loyal to their party and its policies. One could argue that there would be a distinct tyranny of the majority, with the dissenting individual’s interests oppressed. Unless a political party could encompass the desires of the entire electorate, including minorities, then this model of representation would not suit the needs of representative democracy.
  • Criticism - voters are not always the rational and well-informed creatures that this model suggests – they can be largely affected by short-term goals and promises of party pledges, rather than the manifesto commitments that would help the country in the long run.


  • Rousseau – personal sovereignty is inalienable. Representative assemblies will become corrupted by sectional interests and lose sight of General Will. T.U.s, P.G.s, P.P.s all formed to win elections – say what they need to win.
  • Is it democratic? Increasing alienation and apathy with democratic institutions.

Direct and representative democracy


  • Both based on democratic principles: popular sovereignty, political equality, executive accountability, majoritarianism.


  • Varying degrees of popular input – electoral accountability versus direct decision-making.
  • Different attitudes towards ability of citizens.
  • Logistical problems of direct democracy outweigh the practical benefits of direct democracy.

Models of Democracy

Classical democracy

  • Same as Athenian democracy.
  • Credentials for being democratic – basis on political equality, popular sovereignty and majoritarianism – government by the people and for the people.
  • Limitations as a model – limited citizenship, applicability for modern mass society, dangers of populism and demagogues.

Protective democracy

  • Protection from themselves and from over mighty government.
  • Fear of despotic government with too much control that abuses individual rights.
  • Limited representative role for citizens.
  • Politics as resolution between competing interests – politics is a forum for this whilst recognising the checks and balances for individual rights. Stems from Locke and Jefferson’s support for natural rights: “life, liberty and property”. Democracy came to be a system of government by CONSENT. Consent is the only legitimate basis for authority, and we can only be subjected to laws by our own consent. Those who do not explicitly consent to a government are said to consent tacitly by living under its laws and accepting its protection. The principle of consent is the theoretical basis and justification of democratic rule, and the rule of law is described as “not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest” – law doesn’t infringe but supports liberty.
  • Madison and Montesquieu constitutional safeguards – checks and balances.
  • Burke and trustee representation – conservative view.
  • Set of liberals who disagree with natural rights as a basis for government. Notably utilitarianism – Bentham – government should be based on the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Hedonistic calculus – pleasure/pain thing.
  • Credentials for being democratic – democracy achieved through electoral consent and public accountability of politicians.  Multi-party politics and pluralism. Expansion of universal suffrage.
  • Limitations – limited role for citizenship, dominance of professional politicians, emphasis on protecting individual rights and liberties as opposed to public interest.

Developmental democracy

  • Humans essentially cooperative and altruistic.
  • Elevation of collective good above selfish interests. Rousseau
  • Empowering citizens through active participation in decision-making.
  • Importance of civic virtue.
  • Coming to the fore in representative democracy – referendums etc. instigate aforementioned elements.
  • Talmon and Schumpeter against.
  • Credentials – popular sovereignty, citizens actively engage in the political process, public interest elevated above individual desires.
  • Limitations – limited individual rights and all-encompassing state. Lack of tolerance for alternative perspectives. Too positive view of human nature?

People’s democracy

  • Democracy needs to achieve economic and social equality as well as political – reducing inequality. Party true guardians of the General Will – links between developmental democracy and totalitarian democracy. Marx – “species being”. Democratic centralism – politics seen as an administrative process not one of division.
  • Critics – Talmon Finer Fukuyama
  • Government based on public interest, rejection of economic influence over the democratic process, internal party elections and mass discussion of party directives.
  • Limitations – no political pluralism or multiparty systems. Subordination of individual rights and freedoms with overarching state and very limited accountability of party hierarchy. Democratic credentials very limited.

Liberal democracy

  • Holden – “best understood as referring to democracy of a limited kind” “liberal democracy is a political system within which the people make the basic political decisions, but in which there are limitations on what decisions they can make”.
  • Indirect and representative form of democracy in that political office is gained through success in regular elections that are conducted on the basis of formal political equality.
  • Based on competition and electoral choice. Achieved through political pluralism.
  • Three key concepts – liberty, democracy, equality.
  • Key criteria: institutional, procedural, cultural.
  • Institutional – representative and accountable parliament, constitutional safeguards on individual rights and separation of powers.
  • Procedural – free, fair and regular elections giving consent of citizenship through the ballot box, political pluralism and a free media.
  • Cultural – emphasis on individual freedom and private ownership allied to a free market economy, and equality before the law.
  • Emphasis on individual rights and ability to own property (contrasts to socialism and common ownership). Limitations on scope of government involvement – J.S.Mill self-regarding as oppose to other-regarding actions – through written constitutions and decentralising power: “night watchman” (Locke).
  • Tension over majority rule – fear by de Tocqueville that democracy restricted individuality by elevating will of the people or majority over that of the individual. Can minorities or individuals who dissent from the majority view have an equal say?
  • Equality versus liberal individualism – defining democracy beyond political to social democracy conflicts with individual rights – ownership of property – does property rights conflict with equality? Some more equal than others. Political democracy of one man one vote for traditional liberals raises tyranny majority fears. Berlin’s positive conception of liberty does allow for some enhancement of individual liberty through state involvement.
  • Liberal democracy solves the paradox of democracy – democracy is seen as liberating the individual in allowing articulation of personal interests yet can enslave the individual to the will of the majority (paradox). Liberal democracy solves this by limiting intervention of the state and the majority will through constitutional means.
  • Blends elite rule with a significant measure of participation. The virtues of elite rule – government by expects, educated are balanced against the need for public accountability. Accountability strengthened by capacity of citizens to exert direct influence on governments through the formation of interest groups. Liberal democracies are therefore PLURALIST DEMOCRACIES.

Rival views on liberal democracy

Pluralist view

  • Madison – stress upon the multiplicity of interests and groups in society. Unless groups possess a political voice, stability and order would be impossible. He therefore proposed a system of divided government based on separation of powers, bicameralism and federalism that offered a variety of access points to competing groups and interests – system of multiple minorities called Madisonian democracy.
  • Dahl – although the political privileged and economically powerful exerted greater power than ordinary citizens, no ruling or permanent elite was able to dominate: “democratic system, warts and all”.
  • Lindblom – coined term ‘polyarchy’ – rule by many. Key feature of pluralist democracy is that competition between parties at election time and the ability of pressure groups to articulate their views establishes reliable link between government and governed. Falls short of popular sovereignty but supporters state it ensures a sufficient level of accountability.
  • Could be seen as bad as a system of rule by minorities may simply be a device to prevent the majority (propertyless masses) from exercising political power. Could also cause political stagnation – log jam – too much government ‘overload’.

Elitist view

  • Elite rule is an inevitable/desirable feature of social existence, or seen as a regrettable one.
  • Pareto Mosca Michels saw democracy as no more than a foolish delusion – political power is always exercised by a privileged minority: elite.
  • Michels argued that within all organisations, tendency for power to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of dominant figures – “iron law of oligarchy”.
  • C. Wright Mills pointed out how undemocratic states are – ‘power elite’ consists of big business, US military and political cliques surrounding the president (in the USA).
  • Has been argued that elitism is consistent with a measure of democratic accountability. Competitive elitism consists of the leading figures from a number of competing groups and interests – electorate can decide which elite rules but cannot change the fact that power is exercised by elite. Corresponds with liberal-democratic political system.

Marxist view

  • Tension between democracy and capitalism. Inherent tension between the political equality which liberal democracy proclaims and the social inequality which a capitalist economy inevitably generates. Liberal democracies = bourgeois democracies. Such an analysis inclined revolutionary Marxists to reject the idea that there can be a democratic road to socialism.

Radical democrat view

  • Facade democracy – emphasis of the need for political participation. Don’t believe there is enough participation – underline benefits of direct democracy e.g. Rousseau.


  • Heywood – “form of rule in which absolute power is vested in one individual”.
  • Origins seen in Roman Republic. Modern use a dictator lacks formal constitutional constraints and lacks accountability.
  • Totalitarian – state seeks to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives – censorship. Use of terror. Total lack of political freedoms. Mythical worship of a figure or party. Cult of the leader is very strong e.g. Hitler. Arendt – totalitarianism is a breakdown of social order. Talmon – if you entrust all power to a single individual, this individual will start to assert merely their own will.
  • Absolutist – seen in traditional monarchies where the monarch holds complete sovereign power – hereditary based system – Hobbes – supports a Leviathan state – we’re all corrupt and evil therefore if we leave individuals to their own there would be a perpetual civil war of man against man. Joseph de Maistre – society as an organism bound together by throne and altar.
  • Military – military junta has taken over political power in order to stabilise regime. Often meant as temporary.
  • Authoritarian – rule by a dictator claiming to be acting in the true interests of the nation.
  • Class – Marxist perspective of temporary rule of a vanguard of proletariat but will give way to a socialist utopia. Stage in Communism. Recognising the real interest of the state rather than the felt interest. Need enlightened dictator of middle classes until proletariat realise their true interests and can govern themselves. ‘False consciousness’.
  • Majority tyranny – de Tocqueville – democratic dictatorship – the many over the few.

Similarities between dictatorship and democracy

  • Both claim to act in the popular interest. Dictatorship: Class – stage in communism – recognises ‘real’ interest of the state rather than felt interest. Need enlightened dictator of middle class until proletariat realise their true interests and can govern themselves.
  • Authoritarian – rule by a dictator claiming to be acting in true interests of the nation – Mussolini’s Italy.
  • Democracy – can be seen as a majoritarian dictatorship – de Tocqueville. Tyranny of the majority. Claim to act in popular interest but only acting in the interest of majority. Disregard for minority.
  • Democracy can be seen as a totalitarian democracy – Talmon.
  • Dictators may seek to display public approval – plebiscites and mass rallies. Totalitarian dictatorship – Nazi Germany – leader attempted to gain support through mass rallies. Mythical worship of a figure. Cult of the leader is v. Strong due to mass public approval. However, rule by terror and thus those who disagreed were silenced. Not a major incentive of dictatorship to seek public support as there is absolute rule.
  • Democracy – elections every five years and ability of constituents to recall MPs means that professional politicians must seek public approval. However, rare referendums and lack of electorate involvement in parliament which means some disregard public approval of policies, except for at time of election: “only time people are free...” (Rousseau).
  • Often dictatorships will use the term democracy to describe their operation.


  • Decision-making – in theory, people make decisions in democracy by voting etc. Dictatorship – masses are excluded from politics.
  • Dictatorships lack:
  • Free, regular and fair elections.
  • Political pluralism – competing pressures.
  • Protection of civil rights and formal constitutionalism – dictatorships have abolition of civil society. The private sphere is no longer private but of state concern. In democracy, there is a distinct split between the public and the private sphere. Liberty and civil rights upheld.
  • Independent judiciary – ‘show trials’ in dictatorships to show citizens how to toe the line.
  • No toleration of dissent. Open terror and brutality used to combat them. Democracy – toleration towards dissident groups is ensured through legislation.

Advantages of Democracy

  • In modern politics there is a strange and perhaps unhealthy silence on the issue of democracy – so broad is respect or it that it has been taken for granted.
  • Protection against government Juvenal – ‘who will guard the guardians?’. The right to vote was usually regarded as a means of protecting the individual against over mighty government. Social contract theorists saw democracy as a way in which individuals could check government power. Locke – believed there should be no ‘taxation without representation’ – to limit franchise to property owners would not qualify as democracy by 21st century standards however. Bentham and universal suffrage – believed that each individual’s interests were of equal value.
  • Political participation Rousseau and Mill – for R, democracy was a means through which humans achieved freedom or autonomy. Individuals are free only when they obey laws which they themselves have made. Therefore extolled the virtues of active and continuous participation. This moves beyond idea of electoral democracy however (“people of England are only free at the time of an election”). M remained advocate of electoral democracy but believed participation was beneficial to the individual and society: proposal of votes for women and extension of the franchise to include all except illiterates on educational grounds. Creates more balanced and harmonious society.
  • Advantages for community Creates a sense of social solidarity by giving all members a stake in the community – have a voice in the decision-making process. Rousseau – general will. Similar reasons have inclined socialists and Marxists to support democracy, albeit in the form of ‘social democracy’ – democracy is an egalitarian force standing in opposition to any form of privilege. Therefore democracy represents the community rather than individual.

Disadvantages of Democracy

  • Ordinary citizens are not competent to rule wisely in their own interests – Plato – “philosopher kings” needed. Pareto, Mosca, Michels – democracy no more than foolish delusion – power always exercised by privileged minority: “two classes appear – a class that rules and a class that is ruled”.
  • Democracy the enemy of individual liberty – ‘the people’ is not a single entity but a collection of individuals – ends up being tyranny of the majority – de Tocqueville. Mill also believe that majoritarianism damages intellectual life by promoting uniformity and dull conformism.  Mention Madison.
  • The nature of the majority – democracy places power in those least qualified to govern: uneducated masses. Gasset warned that the arrival of mass democracy led to the overthrow of civil society and moral order. Paves the way for authoritarian leaders who just appeal to base instincts of the masses. This is more directed at participatory forms of democracy which place no check upon appetites of the masses. Talmon “totalitarian democracy”.
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