What democracy is, what it isn't, why we should strive for it, and how we can achieve it

Real Democracy: Introduction

What Is Democracy?

When someone uses the term “democracy,” there are a handful of common understandings of what they intend: a group of people voting on a specific topic, the general concept of deciding any issue by a majority vote, or a political system in which those who hold political office are elected to some of all of those positions. We hold that all of these meanings are derivative of the essential meaning of the word, but are not actually democracy, and that it is imperative that we retain that original meaning. We may call the process of voting on a specific topic a democratic mechanism, but it is only a small part of the process. The second notion – that determination of the outcome of such a process by simple majority – is only one possible method of doing so, and is not necessary to democracy, and in many cases, can be conducive to undemocratic results. The third understanding – of a political structure being composed mostly or entirely of persons elected to their posts – we contend is fundamentally anti-democratic, and one of the key aims of this project is to dispel that misunderstanding.

Throughout this website, when we discuss democracy, we mean the concept of “rule by the people.” When other meanings are intended, we will use quotation marks and/or modifiers to indicate that we mean something else (e.g. pseudo-democracy, liberal “democracy”)  or we will use a more accurate term (e.g. electoral oligarchy).

What Democracy Is Not

Electing government officials is common in many nations, none of which are democracies. Most nations that elect their governments should be more accurately called oligarchies (rule by a minority faction), and for those in which the ruling minority faction is also the wealthiest segment of the population and/or operating in the interest of the wealthiest, they should more specifically be called plutocracies.

One might assume by discarding the above conception that we must mean that only a direct democracy can be truly called democracy. This is not our intention at all. This focus on formal process is just a diversion from what is important. Again, we stress that real democracy must be substantive rather than merely formal. This means that the outcomes of governmental decisions and execution of laws and policies must be in accord with the best interests of the people, rather than serving any elite faction, or even a majority.

Additionally, direct democracy in any jurisdiction larger than the number of people who can convene and conduct a meaningfully deliberative discussion of the various aspects of any issue before reaching a conclusion must necessarily inhibit the full expression of this most important aspect of democracy. The voting part is far less important than the sharing of ideas, the cooperative approach to finding solutions that can serve the broadest benefit, and fostering goals that can be shared throughout the population. “Direct democracy” discards the deliberative aspect for the inclusiveness of the final decision-making mechanism, making it virtually inevitable that the decisions reached will not face thorough scrutiny, solve the problems faced, or serve the interests of the whole community. Rather, it would serve the interests of those who can dominate the media, and ultimately, would not generate significantly different results than the plutocracy delivered by the electoral oligarchies that are commonly called “liberal democracies.”

Another common understanding of democracy which should not be inferred here is “rule by the majority.” Democracy must serve the common good of the people as a whole, not just a faction, even if that faction is a consistent majority. Ideally, democracy should be a tool to promote cooperation among participants, and the goal should be consensus. However, we must also note that when some minority faction attempts to subvert the will of the majority for oppressive purposes, or to inhibit public benefit from being shared justly by any other faction, subverting that minority’s oppressive aims may justify the use of simple majority rule, or some other measure short of a much broader consensus.

The Pathway to Real Democracy

The way to realize real democracy begins with the utilization of sortition rather than elections to choose those who will serve various governmental roles. Sortition means a process of random selection, much like the system used in the first phase of jury selection in some systems. However, it should not be assumed that this mere swap of selection mechanisms will be sufficient. As we consider why we prefer such a mechanism, it becomes apparent that a variety of other differences between such a real democracy and the “liberal democracies” must further enhance such a system to eliminate oligarchic tendencies inherent in electoral models.