Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Essential Concepts and Principles of Democracy

First page of Constitution of the United StatesImage via Wikipedia

For generations the concepts of democracy have been subjects of discussions or debates among legislators, between people in academia, and the ordinary citizen. What makes democracy distinct from the many political and philosophical thoughts is the freedom that comes with it. In antiquity, especially in the era of the Athenians, the application of eleutheria, a word that corresponds in meaning to “being free”, has been the driving factor that guided the principles of liberty. As opposed to douleia which implied “being a slave”, eleutheria signified the equality of the citizens of the state and foreign nationals (Hansen2010). Further, Hansen (2010, p. 3) states that “eleutheria was regularly invoked as a basic democratic ideal in debates that contrasted democracy and tyranny”. In essence, almost everyone involved in the discussion of democracy employs a different interpretation that edge toward a political dispensation unique to personal thoughts and imaginations. According to Landow (2011), democracy has been contentious in past American history with squabbling and confrontations being some of its noted features among legislators.

According to Prothro and Grigg (1960), for a democracy to be successful, there has to be consensus within the social fabric. However, to political scientists, there is no general agreement in mind as to the exact proportion of what constitutes consensus in government. Conversely, for the purpose of constitutional amendment, three-fourths is a good measure to reach an accord. King (2000, p. 661), argues that “any theory that might justify the use of a three-fifths (60%) or two-thirds (66.6%) decision rule should be equally effective at justifying a nine-tenths (90%) decision rule or even the rule of a single person (99.9999%)”.

Of the many concepts of democracy, the four unique and guiding principles that I have chosen to highlight are popular sovereignty, equality, elections, and consensus. The major factor that endears people to have a democratic government is for the most part for the protection and promotion of their rights, interests, and welfare. Some important concepts of modern democracy are democracy, constitutionalism, and liberalism. Post (2009, p. 430) defines constitutionalism as the “law of lawmaking”.

Popular Sovereignty

In popular sovereignty, the people, meaning citizens, are the ultimate source and authority of government and that it is a fundamental principle of government. King Concurs (p. 609) that the current U.S. Constitution requires the votes of two-thirds of Congress or states to initiate an amendment.


Going by the adage “no one is above the law”, equality entails equality of all people before the law regardless of color, creed, religion, sex and gender, religious and political affiliation, and national origin. In liberal democracy, even those regarded as minorities have equal right before the law. If there was no equality in democracy, those enjoying majority rules would govern according to their wishes and thus trample on the inalienable rights of the minority. That is why it is incumbent upon leaders to uphold the law and ensure the equality of all races and sexes. Stratification and marginalization of a select group of people is unacceptable in a genuine democracy. Equal sharing of the fruits of the nation should apply to all citizens.

Giving preference to one religion over the other is undemocratic; likewise, favoring an able-bodied person over a disabled, in any form, is illegal and subject to prosecution before a court of law. An era of political unrest known as the civil rights movement, gripped the U.S. in the sixties mainly because of inequality of races. Similarly, South Africa under the apartheid regime experienced proliferation of political and civil rights movements and increased chaos between the white regime and the oppressed black population.

Free Elections

Elections alone, without being free, fair, and frequent, do not fulfill the wishes of people electing government of choice. Any liberal democracy that wishes to see proper governance has to have a form of genuine representation that evolves out of free, fair, and frequent electioneering processes. According to the U.S. Constitution, free elections are meant to empower every citizen the right to contest and hold office without encumbrances. Regarding voting rights, the U.S. Constitution thus admonishes: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (U.S. Constitution, 1870). “Fair elections” imply fundamentally honest elections that never hinder voters from voting for the right candidate. “Frequent elections” means that there have to be elections now and then so that people can have control of the government. In pseudo-democracies, ruling parties enjoy leverage over the opposition by frequently proclaiming majority votes in major and minor elections at times corresponding to 99.99%. Opposition’s fear of government repression and refusal by the ruling elite to submit to defeat has been harbinger for continuous manipulation in many election processes where the rule of law is mandated by dictatorship.


Liberty, a word having many connotations, is used to describe varieties of rights. The freedom to follow one’s conscience is described as personal liberty. The right to contract and follow one’s avocation or calling is economic liberty. When a citizen votes or partakes in an election process with the aim of making changes to the government of the day, that citizen is exercising his political rights. Civil liberty allows a person to join certain unfettered reforms while social and cultural liberty benefits people who are inclined to social and cultural beliefs (Stevens, 1998). A modern political inclusion or proposition, consensus is a fundamental principle that is essential to democracy and that it implies unanimity or general agreement though we are not told the nature and kind of agreement. Political consensus enables all sides of the political spectrum to agree on an agenda and reach a unifying solution.

Mill (1860) concurred that Christianity was restricted to Europe and European descendants, a reasonable occurrence that may have transpired during his lifetime. However, in the last few centuries, Europe and its descendants took their religion to greater heights while at the same propagating democracy far and wide. Mill’s explanation of individuality as being equivalent to development is an undeniable fact. It is evident from Mill’s essays that he exhaustively focused on various aspects of democratic tenets before concluding what constitute an essential democracy. His pioneering ideas and philosophical thoughts and works have impacted the nature of democratic governance we cherish today in many spheres of the globe.


The absence of one democratic concept or principle is cause for democratic failure. All the concepts/principles of democracy are interdependent and inseparable. Taking away one concept is like depriving a human being of one his/her senses: vision, smell, touch, hearing, and so on. Of the many principles of democratic governance in the world today, liberal democracy towers above others when it comes to rendering developmental services to the cause of humanity.


Hansen, Mogens H. (2010). Democratic Freedom and the Concept of
Freedom in Plato and Aristotle. Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 50 (2010) 1–2. Retrieved from http://www.duke.edu/web/classics/grbs/FTexts/50/Hansen1.pdf

Landow, P. (2011, August 10). Midlands Voices: Contentious democracy a tradition. Omaha World Herald. Retrieved from http://www.omaha.com/article/20110810/NEWS0802/708109938

Prothro, James W. & Grigg, Charles M. (1960). Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 22, No., pp. 276-294.

Post, Robert C. (2009). Democracy, Popular Sovereignty, and Judicial Review. California Law Review, Vol. 86:429, pp.

King, Brett W. (2000). Wild Political Dreaming: Historical Context, Popular Sovereignty, and Supermajority Rules. Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 2:3, p. 661.

The Constitution of the United States (1870). Amendment 15 - Race No Bar to Vote. Ratified 2/3/1870. Retrieved from http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Am14

Stevens, M. (1998). The Philosophic Concept of Liberty. California State University. Retrieved from http://faculty.ncwc.edu/mstevens/default.htm

Mill, John S. (1860). On Liberty. Harvard Classics, Vol. 25.
Collier & Son, retrieved from http://www.constitution.org/jsm/liberty.htm
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