Foundations of Democracy (Part 1)

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– Bart Binning, Ed.D. 

Binning_Bart_2011-1The Arab Spring has come and gone, with the hope for democracy in many of those lands being replaced with ISIL’s Caliphate, whose objectives seem to be very anti-democratic.  Why do we lose this opportunity?  I would submit that we have lost sight of what makes democracy work, and therefore don’t know how perform Democratic Nation Building  – We take Democracy for granted.

In its day, “All Men are Created Equal” was a revolutionary concept.  Both Aristotle and Plato believed that different people have different roles to play; treating unequals equally is just as unjust as treating equals unequally.  In Plato’s universe, everyone had their “place,” and justice meant that they should act, and be treated, accordingly.  Later, both Locke and Hume, thought the ultimate criterion of justice was “utility” and the public interest; meaning justice was defined by the majority, and minority rights did not significantly matter.

It is arguable that the success of any society, is based on its citizen’s perception of justice and fairnessJustice is a legal term involving how the absolute power of the government should be used to address wrongs and to protect all citizens.  Fairness is a moral/ philosophical term involving how individuals should be concerned with the running of society, including the distribution of privilege, power, the enjoyment cultural gifts, and questions of status.

For this discussion on Justice and Fairness, we can divide governments into three basic categories:

  • Absolute monarchy (or dictatorship) – the monarch has unrestricted political power over the state and citizens.  Current examples include Brunei, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, the emirates of the UAE, Cuba and N. Korea.  Justice is dispensed by the ruler, and fairness is what the ruler says is fair.
  • Theocracy – priests rule in the name of God (or a god).  Israel from the time of Moses until the election of Saul as King was a theocracy.  Current examples of a Theocracy include the Holy See (Vatican City), Iran, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (the Caliphate established by ISIL)  Justice is dispensed in the name of a ruler/holy person, and fairness is based on the ruler’s understanding of what God says is fair.
  • Democracy – the citizens of a state are involved in making decisions, typically by elected representatives; the terms justice and fairness are intertwined and defined in terms of the citizens, not the ruler.  As a result, Democracies are much more complex than other forms of government,  and a failed democracy will be replaced by either a Theocracy or some form of dictatorship.  Democracies consists of four key elements (listed in order of importance).  Without all four elements, in the long-term, democracies will fail:
  1. active participation of citizens in political and civic life
  2. protection of Human Rights of all citizens
  3. the Rule of Law – the laws and processes of government apply equally to all citizens
  4. a system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections

Human Rights are those things that must be secure to protect one’s freedom.  It is arguable that everyone has basic human rights that the state cannot take away, and these rights are internationally recognized and guaranteed for all forms of government. Everyone has the right to:

  • life; no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life except by due process
  • own property individually as will as in association with others, and not be deprived of the property without due process  (which implies that there needs to be a fair system of recording legal ownership of property, as well as processes that allow for fair and speedy transfer of property from one person to another)
  • have their own beliefs, including their religious beliefs, and to say and write what they think
  • seek different sources of information and ideas
  • associate with other people, and to form and join organizations of their own choice
  • assemble and to protest government actions

However, citizens have an obligation to exercise these rights peacefully, with respect for the law and for the rights of others.

In a Democracy, these Human Rights are protected through The Rule of Law.   As all attorneys know, the Rule of Law is said to exist when Laws and Civil Procedures Apply Fairly and Equally to All Citizens. It is arguable that for the Rule of Law to exist, the following criteria must all be satisfied:

  • a Democracy is a system of laws, not decrees issued by individuals. No one, not even an elected President is above the law.  These laws protect the rights of citizens, maintain order, and limits the power of government (A theocracy and absolute monarchy will tend to expand the power of government).
  • Equality: All people are equal under the law; all individuals are valued equally and have equal opportunities, while maintaining their right to have different cultures, personalities, languages and beliefs.  The law is fairly, impartially, and consistently enforced, by courts that are independent of the other branches of government.
  • Accountability: All government officials are responsible for their actions. Officials must make decisions and perform their duties according to the will and wishes of the people, not for themselves; they must avoid an appearance of a conflict of interests. (in a theocracy and absolute monarchy government officials are accountable to the ruler, not the citizens)
  • Transparency –  For government to be accountable the people must be aware of what is happening in the country.  A transparent government holds public meetings and allows citizens to attend. The press and the people are able to get information about what decisions are being made, by whom and why
  • Political Tolerance – While the majority rule in a democracy, the rights of the minority must be protected. People who are not in power must be allowed to organize and speak out, the opposition must be allowed to express new and different ideas. A democratic society is often composed of people from different cultures, racial, religious and ethnic groups who have viewpoints different from the majority of the population.  Decisions are more likely to be accepted, even by those who oppose them, if all citizens have been allowed to discuss, debate and question them. (in a theocracy and absolute monarchy it is easier for only the ruler’s opinion to matter, and descent is often not tolerated)
  • Due Process of Law  – the concept that anyone accused of a crime has the right to a fair, speedy, and public trial, and that the law must be equally, fairly and consistently enforced. A person’s guilt must be proved in a court of law, through a fair, speedy, and public trial. In a democracy, a person accused of a crime has the right to know the charges against him, to remain silent, to have legal representation to participate in his defense, and to question witnesses for the prosecution.  Laws are applied according such that No one may be:
    • arrested, imprisoned, or exiled arbitrarily
    • denied their freedom without a fair and public hearing by an impartial court
    • taxed or prosecuted except by a law established in advance
    • once acquitted of a crime, may not be tried again on that charge
    • imprisoned or have their property seized without legal justification

Free and fair elections are a necessary, but not a sufficient feature of a democracy. Holding elections in a society without cultural mores that establish a social foundation for democracy will lead to, at best – a tyranny of the majority, and at worse a dictatorship.   A discussion of civic responsibility and elections will be the topic of Part 2.

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