As an ideal, democracy is by definition unachievable, but it is possible to act in ways that make the relations between people more democratic. To do this, we need a democratic ideal (normative concept) that gives our actions direction and serves as an instrument to measure the distances between reality and ideal. Only with the help of a meaningful ideal is it possible to measure which actions are making our society more democratic (democratization) and which less (de-democratization).
Democracy as an IdealNormatively we can imagine modern democracy as a process and activity of creating a self-determined society of free and equal individuals. The members of such a democratic society have the same rights and obligations. Together they form the citizenry, the people, the demos. In a democracy citizens are subject only to the laws which they have given themselves by way of a democratic procedure.
The democratic principle presupposes that in practice disagreements can be, if not resolved, regulated discursively, that is by reason and argument, and without resort to violence. It indicates how to institutionalize such an egalitarian and discursive process of political opinion- and will-formation and decision-making. This happens through a system of rights which makes sure that every person has equal opportunities to participate in the making of laws and provides the necessary conditions for it.
However, there are different opinions and ideas about just how much and what kind (direct, indirect) of participation is needed to put the democratic principle into practice. For example, whereas political liberalism advocates indirect or electoral-representative democracy, republicanism puts much more emphasis on citizen participation, both direct and indirect.
Electoral-representative democracy cannot fulfill the normative expectations of those citizens, who feel the need for more and direct political participation, rather it presupposes that people leave the political business to the elected politicians. Such a model of democracy has been emptied of its original meaning, which is rule by the people. It is designed, not to implement the idea of democracy, but to prevent its implementation as far as possible. The mainstream model of electoral-representative democracy has to be changed in order to accommodate demands for more and direct citizen participation, or such demands have to be dismissed.
For example, Karl Rohe’s view is typical for a majority who dismisses the democratic ideal (rule by the people) as impossible in practice and considers democracy merely as a method to select an authoritative government (rule by the politicians): He states that a modern society cannot let all the people decide. The bigger the number of people that are taking part in a decision-making process, the more it is necessary to transfer the real decision to a small body, in order to prevent confusion and deadlocks. In a modern society decision-making processes are inevitably distancing themselves from a democratic utopia, according to which all those concerned by a decision should be enabled to participate equally in the decision-making process. The decisive question then, says Rohe, is not whether a few or all are making the decisions, but how the few can get their privileged position of a decision-maker and whether or not their position is limited in time or not (Karl Rohe. 1994. Politik. Begriffe und Wirklichkeiten. Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln, pp. 26-28).
Rohe’s mainstream view is contradicted by the fact, that certain societies do let all the people decide (by using direct democracy) and with good results. The decisive question then is not about how the ruling politicians are selected but how to decide which issues are to be decided directly by all the citizens and which indirectly by elected representatives, and how to design decision-making procedures so that the democratic ideal (rule by the people) can be realised.
Democracy as a RealityThere is a tension between ideal and reality, that is between what we expect democracy should deliver and what it delivers in reality. In other words, there is a gap between normative expectations and institutional realities (see also Broken Promises or Democratic Deficit?). The different forms of democratic government vary as to their capacity to respond to normative expectations, and the different democratic ideals do not all imply the same normative expectations. For instance liberal models do not expect that the citizens are actively involved in politics, whereas republican models of democracy do.
One way to close the gap between the democratic ideal and reality is to change reality and make it more democratic. But of course there is also the possibility to adjust our democratic ideal so that it fits better with reality. However, by doing this our democratic ideal might lose its capacity to serve as a means of orientation and we possibly end up with an ideal that is not meaningful anymore.
According to Colin Crouch (Colin Crouch. 2004. Post-Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press) this is what happened to the elitist model of liberal democracy, which was changed to fit with the reality of the USA and UK after the second world war. Through this redefinition of democracy, a realistic description of existing democracies was turned into a new democratic ideal which then may serve to justify authoritarian political programs.
The elitist liberal model of democracy emphasizes the importance of elections, lobbying, and non-intervention of politics into the economy; it gives citizens the role of spectators and excludes them from an active part in political decision-making. From this model of liberal democracy it is a long way to the original idea of democracy as a process of creating a self-deteremined society of free and equal individuals, living together peacefully.
Democracy exists as a word, even if it has become an empty shell that can be filled with almost any form of government, the word still reminds us of a powerful idea(l), an idea(l) that those in power and their supporters have declared “impossible” and “unwise”, but could not completely eradicate from people’s mind: rule by the people, self-government, creating a just society of free and equal individuals.
Democracy exists in people’s imagination as a powerful transformative idea. Without such a collective idea that guides our actions democracy could not exist. It is therefore important what kind of democratic ideal motivates people to become active. Is it an idea of real democracy where all people have a voice or is it democracy in a pet form like representative democracy that excludes so-called ordinary people and decides on behalf of them? Is it a form of government or rather a way of life?
The Democratic Ideal in ActionIt seems evident that the struggle for democracy is decided not least on the level of determining collective imagination. The surest way to prevent real democracy from happening is to put a ban on the very idea of real democracy. This is and can be done in many ways, for example, through the trivialization of democracy, by convincing people that ideas of autonomy are unrealistic and naive, by stigmatizing such ideas as totalitarian or communist, by undermining the reputation of advocates of real democracy, by associating real democracy with terrorism, and also by way of simply repressing and prohibiting such “unhealthy” ideas of radical democracy or any such alternative to authoritarian and oligarchic rule.
However, human beings have a sense of justice and freedom that cannot be destroyed by any regime, only corrupted and suppressed. As many historical and present examples show, sooner or later the idea of real democracy will come to the surface and motivate people to try to put their egalitarian visions into practice. This always happens against the powers that be and their top-down vision of state and society.
Real democracy is not a fiction, it is also not merely a project for the future, rather it is a reality that exists here and now, as a collective imagination, in the form of democratic activities that are guided by an ideal of radical democracy, as a potential that has to be developed in, beyond and against the dominant state and society, as a starting point and point of reference for our every day activities.
How can we, the people, think of the democratic ideal as a true ideal? The democratic ideal is a process, an infinite movement, not something static. It belongs to us and is embedded in our activities, it is something that motivates us and that we feel is immensely important, it is not something given to us from outside and to which our activities have to be subordinated. It is a way, an activity here and now, and not a distant goal and only when we have reached that goal can we begin to exercise democracy. It belongs to the present, not to the future.
Two Ways of Understanding the Meaning of “Ideal”
Being a process, democracy cannot be reduced to a constitution, a set of institutions (a regime), or a series of procedures through which it manifests itself. Rather it is something that must remain open, changeable, but without losing its core meaning which is popular power, and due to this openness it is characterized by indeterminacy.
Being an activity here and now, democracy – as an ideal and in practice – will come into conflict with non-democratic realities. Democracy implies a struggle against all attempts to build a closed society, a struggle against all attempts of the state or the economy (corporations) to impose its rule over people.
The democratic ideal develops in a collective learning process, which could be described as a permanent dialogue between ideal (theory) and practice (experience), the ideal being both, a guide to practice and informed by it.
“(…) true ideals are the working hypotheses of action; they are the best comprehension we can get of the value of our acts; their use is that they mark our consciousness of what we are doing, not that they set up remote goals. Ideals are like the stars; we steer by them, not towards them.”
(John Dewey. 1897. Study of Ethics, a Syllabus. p. 40)
Today, in 2011, millions of people all over the world are out on the streets to demand “Real Democracy Now!”. They are gathering to reclaim the original idea of democracy in protest against the rule of corporations and unrepresentative governments which together are destroying our planet and our humanity. These movements show that real democracy is already a part of our societies and at the same time it is directed against the ruling society which does everything in its power in order to relegate untamed democracy into the realm of unrealistic dreams.
There is a huge gap between those who make the rules and the ruled (“WE ARE THE 99%”); the size of this gap corresponds to the extent to which the rulers monopolize power resources, like, for example, the right to making decisions on policy issues. If we the people are to go beyond protest, we need instruments that allow us to come up with our own solutions; we need both, the right to reject bad decisions (laws) made by government or parliament and the right to make our own laws, that is we need the right of referendum and initiative.