What Is Democracy? Is It the Best System of Government?

Welcome to the insert philosophy here podcast. Inserting the principles of philosophy into real life.

As I record this, it is less than three weeks from the United States Election Day. So on this week’s edition of the insert Philosophy Here Podcast, I want to talk about democracy, the concept politicians in the United States and many other countries say that their nation is a democracy and how much they support democracy.

Democracy is one of those terms that people use all the time and we all like to think, “Oh yes, I’m living in a democracy.” But do we really know what that means? What does it mean to have a democracy?

From the ancient Greek where we get so many words in Western languages, “democracy” literally means rule of the demos. The demos are the common people. As I discussed in Episode 9, “What is Political Philosophy?” the Greek word “polis” is where we get the word “politics.” “Polis” in ancient Greek means the city, the community.

So democracy is when the people rule the polis, the city, or the government. The history books tell us that the first democracy was Athens, the ancient city, and the system of democracy in Athenian democracy was the idea that all the people collectively voted on issues. A system of government in which every single citizen has a vote on issues directly related to legislation within their polis would be what is correctly called direct democracy. Ancient Athens, at least for a brief period, was, indeed, a direct democracy, in that those few males who were granted citizenship were allowed to directly vote on matters related to legislation.

The United States currently is not a direct democracy. To be fair, there isn’t a nation in the world that is a direct democracy, mainly because such a system would only work in a relatively small political state. It may work for a city in and of itself. Although for the most part even small cities are not ruled by direct democracy.

Direct Democracy

Another reason why there are no political systems in the world today that are true democracies, and I think it’s fair to say that only a direct democracy is a true democracy, is because there are other inherent problems with such a system. People have known about this for a very long time. Plato was alive during the time of the Athenian direct democracy, and he identified several problems with it.

Now, granted, this has a bit to do with Plato’s conception that the only proper society is a completely harmonious, well ordered society. He thought that any dissension whatsoever was wrong. But given that, he makes some good points. He said that the problem with democracy is that it is inherently harmful to society and would lead to tyranny.

Today we place such a high value on democracy, at least what we take to be democracy. So this idea of “democracy is harmful and will lead to tyranny” sounds very mistaken in our worldview, but right or wrong,

Plato had a solid reason for opposing government by democracy. He argued that a democracy ignores the fundamental principle that everyone should act for the good of society as a whole and not for themselves. Plato reason that humans in a democracy would, instead of accepting their part in the whole of society, would seek personal advantage over others. He said that opposing factions would emerge and struggle for power and democracy would promote to leadership anyone who merely calls himself the people’s friend.

Plato feared that someone with enough charisma and guile would eventually grab power by securing the loyalty of enough people, enough voters, to be elected and that once in power the politician could become a tyrant and suppress those who might challenge the tyrants power and that would result in a state that is far from being just and well ordered. Plato was against individualism in general. He was against relativism.

Plato’s warning against democracy has shown to have some merit to it in history. It is not completely without legitimacy. It is definitely the case that a number of rulers throughout history have managed to cobble together a coalition of people to vote for him (it’s always a him) and then once they have power, they turn into a tyrant. And yes, we do have to use Adolf Hitler as a prime example. It should never be forgotten that the Nazi party with Hitler as his leader gained power through Democratic votes. Obviously, there was a lot of corruption involved in that, but they gamed the system, the system that was ostensively Democratic.

Plato’s warnings against democracy have resonated throughout history. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, argued that democracy is inferior to the system, that he preferred—monarchism or absolutism. He argued that democracy fosters a destabilizing dissension among the citizens. In Hobbes’s view, individual citizens and even politicians are apt not to have a sense of responsibility for the quality of legislation because no one makes a significant difference as an individual to the outcome of decision making. Hobbs also argued that politicians who are seeking the votes of the demos, the common people, will succeed only by being louder and more manipulative than their rivals in politics, and thus because politicians will have a general lack of responsibility for the common good, but only are concerned about their own political power. The state will eventually fall into anarchy, which is what Hobbs feared the most.

Hobbes’s answer to that is Plato’s answer to that: a form of totalitarian government. That, of course, is inherently problematic. The concentration of power in an absolutist government necessarily means that a majority of citizens within a political state will lack power. However, there are some people today who, like Plato, like Hobbes and various other philosophers, and of course leaders throughout history, insist that allowing the common people to rule, allowing the mob to have a voice in government, will lead to political instability, will eventually lead to infighting, if not anarchy itself. Obviously, though these critiques of democracy, though they have some merit, there is a grain of truth to them. Is only half of the story.

Representative Democracy

The other half of the story, of course, are the arguments in favor of democracy, or at least a form of it. As I said, the United States is not a direct democracy. There is no such thing as direct democracy in the world today, and they’re very seldom has been, because direct democracy does tend to fall apart, as Plato warned, that criticism is also valid for what the United States has, which is technically a representative democracy.

All citizens within the United States have a vote. They have a right. If not a duty to vote on representatives who will, at least in theory, serve their interests within an electric body. If you live in a city, you have some sort of City Council, some sort of city government, and you have a right to vote for the people who will represent your interests at that City Council. The same goes for township or county level of government, state level of government, and of course the national government. In less than three weeks, there will be a vote for the entirety of the United States House of Representatives and roughly 1/3 of the Senate seats in the US Senate.

The system that the United States has adopted is representative democracy. The demos, you, the common people, have the right, the legal right, to vote for the people who will represent you in government, and it is those representatives who vote on legislation that will affect your lives and the good of the nation.

The system of representative democracy solves one of the other problems with direct democracy, which is that is just plain inconvenient. If every time we need to get something done, a decision needs to be made at the level of government, we have to get everyone together and everyone has to vote on it that well, we have stuff to do, and so people aren’t going to really want to do that. It’s difficult enough to get people to vote at all every two to four years. Nevertheless, it is a matter of convenience.

Governments in the Western world have for many centuries engaged primarily in the system of representative democracy, because if we hire people to do this stuff for us, then that alleviates us of that daily responsibility. This system was not invented by, but was given significant philosophical legitimacy, by the philosopher John Locke in the late 1690s. In a system of representative democracy, everyone can legitimately say that they have a voice in government.

Now, of course, once the representatives have entered an elected body of government, they should remain responsible to the people because it is a representative democracy, technically at least, the common people, the demos, are still in charge, and that was part of Locke’s philosophy. The government must answer to the people, he said, the representatives, and indeed the government itself, only has legitimacy if it is genuinely answering to the wishes of and is serving in the interests of the people, the demos.

John Locke advocated this system of representative democracy because in his mind, that was the best method by which we could produce relatively good laws and policies. When the government is responsive to the needs and wishes of the people, then that’s a common good, and it’s hard to argue with that. Locke was arguing from the idea that it is a net good for people to have a voice in their government.

Now, obviously we can argue that Locke was not completely consistent. It was a slightly hypocritical in this for example, he did not feel that women or nonwhite people or of course even Catholics should be allowed to participate in government. They weren’t really citizens. But in the context of it’s the rule of the citizens of a state, Locke was consistent there. It’s just who does he consider to be citizens?

Similarly, the United States when it set up its constitutional system of government — a representative democracy from its very beginning — said “we the people,” and the government is based on the will of the people. Well, who did the United States consider people? It did not consider women to be people. It did not consider nonwhite people to be people. Nevertheless, the basic idea is still applicable, the voices of the citizens should be represented in government, and when government is responsive to the voices of the people, then it will give us relatively good laws and policies.

Since it is very difficult to argue against the idea that liberty or freedom is a common good. The freedom to have a voice in government, the freedom to vote for a representative, and the freedom to still petition and speak to that representative in order to try to get the representatives in government to answer to our concerns is a good, a moral good. And many philosophers have argued for centuries that this alone justifies democracy, even if it’s just representative democracy as a good system of government.

People have the freedom to have their voices heard, the freedom to hire people, politicians, to act in their interests. From the good of that freedom, then democracy has authority. It’s a simple argument. If we set up system, a political system in which everyone is allowed an equal vote, one person, one vote, everyone has a free and fair vote, and representatives are elected as a result of that free and fair vote in which everyone has equal participation, then the representatives are empowered with a mandate, with legitimacy, to enact laws. As long as they are acting in the interests of the people, that is authoritative.

Representative democracy, therefore, can be seen as a collective self-rule in which citizens are enacting their freedom. Their democratic authority and the government is well, again, in Locke’s words, are a relatively good system. No one is pretending here that this is a perfect system. There is no such thing as a perfect system of government. There never has been, there never will be. We can’t really imagine this. That’s simply because life is complex and there are few things more complex than any type of human society. If you have more than one person involved in anything, you are going to have complexities.

Elections and What They Don’t Mean

That leads us to the next inherent problem with democracy, which is the idea of consensus. I mentioned just now about a mandate, and politicians love to say, “I have a mandate. I have a mandate from the people to do stuff.” “The stuff that I want to do,” is usually what the politicians are saying. It’s kind of bizarre when you find any politician who would win an election even by one percentage points, say, “we have a mandate.”

Well, a mandate is not a consensus. It’s a plurality. And this is one of those distinctions that politicians love to, basically, ignore. A consensus would mean a vast majority of people, if not all people, agree on a particular idea. The dictionary defines consensus as unanimity, in which there is group solidarity in sentiment. Well, 51 to 49% is not a consensus. It’s not anywhere close to unanimity. There isn’t group solidarity if 49% disagree what we have in a 51 to 49 situation. Or even, for that matter, a 60 to 40 situation of a vote total is what the dictionary will tell us is a plurality, a number greater than another, an excess of votes over those cast by an opposing candidate.

Elections create pluralities. They seldom create consensus. In theory, yes, you can have an election in which one candidate wins 80 to 90% of the vote. And it does happen in rare occasions, usually when there’s a sitting incumbent who’s been there for decades, and there’s not a serious candidate running against that politician.

The fact that we have only pluralities does speak to an inherent problem in what sort of authority a democracy has. You will always have a minority, sometimes a quite sizable minority, who disagrees with who is currently representing them within government, and who disagree with the actions that a government takes. In a true, good democracy, a democratic system, those grievances, those disagreements, will still be heard. People will still have the freedom to voice their dissent, not to be ridiculed or locked up as seditious for simply speaking their opinion. If you have a democratic system, a representative democracy, then it still represents all the people, even those people who are opposed to the actions that the government takes.

There is always this limit to the authority of democracy—an internal limit in that you will never please everybody, no matter how much you try. There will always be a minority who are not represented. That’s a significant problem in any type of government. Democracy at least gives a minority an opportunity to voice what they want and to have some sort of representation and some sort of system by which they can appeal to government.

The Tyranny of the Majority

A number of political philosophers have wrestled with the problem of the tyranny of the majority. John Stuart Mill was perhaps foremost in this, in saying that when you have a representative democracy, the mere fact that a majority voted for a particular political party does not mean that that political party has a mandate to rule without regard for minority opinion. That doesn’t mean that the minority opinion gets to veto things. It is impossible to have absolute unanimity.

Decisions do need to be made, and they need to be made in the best interest of society as a whole, with the understanding that not everyone is going to agree with this, and perhaps not even everyone is going to benefit from it. But we do need to make a decision for the greater good. Mill warned, though, that this cannot go too far. There have to be limits to democratic authority. Even if there is an overwhelming majority that is in support of a particular position, a particular law. It must never be the case that the rights of minorities are sacrificed for what is perceived to be the greater good.

The tyranny of the majority: Mill and many other political philosophers have been well aware that this is a fundamental problem for any political state. That a government needs to represent and address the will of the majority, but that minority, though they have lost the election, cannot be written out and silenced from government. As Jean Francois Lyotard said, to silence a minority is the worst immorality that we can commit.

The Tyranny of the Minority

On the one hand, we do need to always respect the rights and views of minorities. On the other hand, we cannot allow a minority to overrule and subvert the common good or the will of the majority simply because a minority disagrees with that. This is another central problem that any sort of democratic system would have.

If we have a minority that has too much power, then we are sliding toward an authoritarian state in which power is concentrated excessively within a small group. The extreme example of that is of course an absolute, authoritarian governmental system, a dictatorship. In my recent book What Left and Right Mean, and you can look at Episode 24 of this podcast to hear more about that book, I argued that a concentration of power in the hands of a few, is highly problematic for society. It’s a right wing system of government.

When you have a concentration of power, that means necessarily a large number of people are excluded from power, excluded from freedom. There are certainly excluded from having a voice within the society. An excessive concentration of political power in the hands of a few is a threat to any society.

One could argue with legitimacy that representative democracy is the best means by which we can resist such takeovers by a minority, however, any democratic system is still going to remain vulnerable to manipulation and even takeover by a small minority of powerful people. We see that in Western democracies, including the United States.

The system known as “neoliberalism”: the ideology that the political power within a society should be given inordinately to those that have economic power within the society. In the most positive gloss available, the ideology of neoliberalism is that the interest group of wealthy business owners, when they are allowed to most fully express their interests and act in their interests, will benefit the people as a whole and society as a whole. This ideology has been derisively but realistically and accurately described as “trickle-down economics.”

Neoliberalism suggests, and kind of demands, that the functions of the state, the political state, be reduced. On the one hand, this is probably how society has always been—the rich rule, plutocracy. On the other hand, it’s pretty much turning Karl Marx on his head, where Marx is utterly obsessed with the class difference and which class should rule over the other class. Marx says of course, that rule by the capitalists is wrong, morally wrong, as well as counterproductive for society, whereas neoliberalism and its other forms such as libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism, feel that yes, there is a class divide and the capitalists should rule over the common people.

One argument made in favor of this by certain thinkers of the neoliberal ideology points out that the vast majority of people are mostly inattentive to political issue. A large number of people don’t even bother to vote in elections and beyond elections have virtually no involvement in government; not because they’re not allowed to, but because they’re just completely uninterested on that issue. It’s hard to argue that they are incorrect. A lot of people have very little interest in politics, very little interest in government. At most, they will vote every one to four years.

This is, of course, one of the drawbacks of representative democracy, because you vote, and by voting, you are hiring a representative to do the work for you. And so they’re off doing that and you can go back to your life. It’s a convenience. John Locke was right. Government is a convenience. We hire people to do government for us.

But as John Locke also pointed out, it is important that government be responsive to the people. Government, because it is a human institution, like all other human institutions, government will listen to whoever is speaking the loudest human society being how it is. One of the loudest voices within any society is money.

What we have in the United States, what we have in most nations in the world, right, is, yes, a representative democracy where, yes, there is an appearance at least of a freedom where everyone has an equal right to vote in an election. Another reality, though. Is that these elections are subject to whoever has the loudest voice, and the loudest voice is not always the majority. The loudest voice is oftentimes who has the money, who has control of power.

Again, it is about concentration of power. Every aspect of politics is a question of “is power concentrated in a few or circulated among the many?” It is fair to say right now in the United States and in certain other European countries, especially the people who I will call the corporate class, the people who own and control corporations, businesses, are the ones who hold the most political power. This is a very small minority of people. But because they have economic power, which gives them control over the media, which then creates a narrative power. They can translate that into political power.

Democracy can and should be based on the principle of one person, one vote, with every citizen within the society having that one vote. It should not be one dollar, one vote; one pound, one vote; one euro, one vote; or whatever local currency that country has. It is fair to say that the political system that currently exists within the United States and various other countries is a neoliberal representative democracy. It is not an authoritarian state, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s not a police state. It is, though, a right wing state, in that power is concentrated in the hands of a few and denied, at least to a significant extent, to the majority of the demos, the common people.

What’s the Answer?

As many philosophers point out today, and some politicians, this is deeply problematic. But what’s the answer? Well, Marxism is definitely not the answer. Anarchism is absolutely not the answer. The answer has to be in freedom—a real freedom that does not tyrannize a minority, that allows people a voice, but that also demands the people responsibility and accountability.

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. In that, he has a lot of wisdom. A form of democracy has to be the answer. That’s simple to say. Yeah, democracy is the best system.
Or at least the least worse system of any political system that humanity has come up with. But that doesn’t mean that democracy is easy—it’s deeply, deeply, difficult. Democracy is filled with potholes and fault lines and problems. Life is not easy. Society is really not easy. Democracy is not easy.

I don’t pretend to have answers. Any politician or philosopher who says, “I have the answer, I have the solution to everything if we just do this one thing.” They’re insane or they’re selling you something. Or maybe both.

The best answers I’ve heard for any political issues is to answer the abuses of power by a small minority by circulating power to more people, more power to more people. That means, it must mean, more authority for democratic voices within a society. But that requires a responsibility of people, a moral duty of citizens to be involved with their government, their society. The polis dies when no one cares.

I argue that everyone has a duty to vote, and not just a duty to vote, but to vote in an informed way. You have every right to vote your self-interest. The richest person in the world has every right to express his or her views electorally and in government. That’s the same with the poorest person and the richest person. The poorest person should have an equal amount of participation within a representative democracy. If, however, the one rich person cares. And thousands of poor people don’t. Well, who wins?

We can only build a better society when all voices are allowed to speak, when all voices are listened to, but that we come to agreement through compromise, through dialogue. I side with a growing number of philosophers who speak about the need for a meaningful dialogue that moves towards consensus, even realizing that perfect consensus will never be reached. Of course, that can only happen if people care about the issues, about themselves, but also about other people.

Democracy also dies when there is a lack of ethics, a lack of caring and sympathy for other human beings. Politics is too much of a blood sport of hatred toward the other side of perceived disagreements. Too many Americans will go to the polls, either early voting or November 8th, and they will vote out of a antagonism toward a perceived enemy rather than vote for the interests of the nation as a whole. But that’s human nature. That’s politics.

But perhaps we could move to our better system. Somehow, someway. Someday.


Thank you for listening to the insert philosophy here podcast. Please subscribe and go to insertphilosophyhere.com to see my other offerings. You can support the Insert Philosophy Here project with a donation at kofi.com. Thank you for listening and see you next time.


  1. We were heading in the right direction and sometimes still do, but I would point to more than Gingrich in 1994 as the turning point(s). There was the adoption of the southern strategy by Nixon in the 70’s. Then came Reagan who started the destruction of Government by saying Government is the problem. Then came Gingrich and his Contract with American. Then came McConnell with his determination to not work with Democrats even when Democrats pushed an agenda they would have gone with if proposed by Republicans, and also there was McConnell’s court packing tactics. Finally, along came Trump with his preference for authoritarians and his war on truth with authoritarian propaganda.

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