September 24, 2013
Democracy and Political Obligation
• Who decides has to be justified? Who gets to elect the people who decide?
• Power is distributed in such a way that power rests with the people.
• People obey in a democratic state.
• Does democracy makes political obligation much easier than other forms of government
• Do we agree that democracy is the most important formation for political obligation?
• Originates from the Greek terms, demos, the people, and kratos, power or rule
• Classical example is in ancient Athens, which had a direct rule by its citizens, although it did
exclude women, slaves and foreigners. Eliminated these people from the decision-making
process. It’s possible that the women and slaves did the work that would normally keep the
men busy, which allowed them to attend these elections. Every citizen had a right to be a juror.
• Office holders were subject to regular rotation and chosen by the rest of the citizens
• Direct democracy was practiced
• Considered to be a less desirable form of government by the likes of Plato and Aristotle who
tended to equate it with mob rule
• Neither Hobbes nor Locke regarded democracy as a desirable form of government
• Remained a negative term in political theory until relatively recently.
- Even the American constitution was arranged so as to avoid being overly democratic
(prevent pure democracy).
A European Concept?
• Much of what is considered to be democratic today is drawn from a model used by the
indigenous populations of North America
• “Great Law of Peace” allowed the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Iroquois
nations to live together for over 200 years. Many aspect were borrowed from this.
• Based on popular election, women’s suffrage, and merit-based promotion,
The French and American Revolutions
• Both proclaimed democracy as a central goal
• In America, there was still concern over establishing a system of majority tyranny inherent to
• Directly elected legislature (the House of Representatives) had limits placed on its power (the
creation of the Senate, executive and judiciary -- elected by the president with approval by the
What is democracy?
• Essentially contested concept
• Generally considered to be a POSITIVE term
• Set of institutions built around competitive elections that enable all adult citizens to choose and
remove their government leaders (Stoker, 2006)
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• Illiberal democracies, also called competitive authoritarian regimes or semi-democracies, are
also on the rise
- Turnover from elections is smaller than might be expected
** Bentham and J Mills
• Different type of democracy was practiced in ancient Greece
• Utilitarian theory of democracy*
• There is no single definition of democracy, it is considered ambiguous and is up to
interpretation. There are many definitions
• “Government for the people, by the people, for the people”
A Core Definition of Democracy
• Regime in which political power is widely distributed and power in some way rests with the
• Political equality as a central theme
• This leaves lots of room for differing interpretations as to what counts as democracy
• Bottom line: power must rest with the PEOPLE
• Political equality is so crucial under democracy, so when there are competitive elections there
MUST be political equality.
Lively’s seven possible democracies
1. That all should govern in the sense that all should be involved in legislating, in deciding on
general policy, in applying laws, and in governmental administration
2. That all should be involved in crucial decision-making (ex: in deciding on general laws and
matters of general policy)
3. That rulers should be accountable to the ruled (ex: obliged to justify their actions to the ruled
and be removable by the ruled)
4. That rulers should be accountable to the representatives of the ruled
5. That rulers should be chosen by the ruled
6. That rulers should be chosen by the representatives of the ruled
7. That rulers should act in the interests of the ruled (almost every dictator will say that they are
there because they’re working in the interest of the people)
• Lively argues that interpretations 1-4 can justifiably be described as democratic
• 5-7 cannot, since there is no provision for rulers to be removed by the ruled
• Point 7 allows for systems without elections to call themselves “democratic”. It allows for the
inclusion of regimes (such as those subscribing to communism) that, even though they lack
competitive elections, claim to be democratic on the grounds that their rulers act in the interest
of the many by promoting social and economic equality.
- e.g., the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (North Korea). The leaders claim that
they are there to protect the interests of the people. Lively argues that this is not a
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• The outcomes of a political system are separate from the means by which its rulers are chosen.
It may be that democracy (in the sense of a political system requiring regular competitive
elections) is the most effective way of ensuring that rulers do act in the interests of the ruled.
• Achieving political equality may require a degree of economic equality
• Liberal democracies cannot escape criticism either because of the potential for conflict
between majoritarian decision-making and the protection of individual rights.
Forms of democracy
1. Direct: Direct rule by the people, traditionally considered possible only in small societies
2. Representative: Rule by representatives elected by the people (Canada has this)
Some people argue that direct democracy can only be possible in smaller societies (we can’t fit 1
million Edmontonians into one auditorium). Logistical constraints mean direct democracy may
not be possible in this modern world. Also, it’s unlikely that MPs can entirely ignore their
constituents’ views without suffering negative consequences at a future election.
★Greek city states practiced direct democracy:
- More specialized and time-consuming tasks were allocated to a smaller # of office holders
- Office holders were subject to regular rotation, chosen by the rest of the citizens
- Jury service was also a feature
• The concept of democracy is about popular rule, or the rule of the people
• Lively suggests that democracy requires that the people either make decisions directly or
choose, and be able to remove, those who make decisions on their behalf.
Competing theories of Democracy
• By the middle of the 20th century, two competing theories of democracy predominated:
- Democratic elitism or “protective” democracy
- Participatory democracy
• Joseph Schumpeter (1993-1950)
Argued that democracy and elitism could be reconciled
• Mass participation is not realistic, as most people are quite happy to leave politics to the
• Masses are often irrational and also tend to have authoritarian values and are easily swayed by
the charismatic leaders
- Writing during Germany under Hitler and Italy under Mussolini
• Democracy is “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which
individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s
vote” (Schumpeter, 1961)
Democratic competition takes place between elites
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- Voters choose between leaders not policies per se
• Elites act as guardians against the rise of authoritarianism
ECONOMIC THEORY OF DEMOCRACY
• Reinforces Schumpeter’s analysis and ties in nicely to rational choice models
• Also called protective theory - because citizens seek to hold the politicians accountable to the
wishes of the voters.
Politics and economics are analogous
• Key goal of politicians in this case is to maximize votes
• The key objective of consumers is to get the best out of the amount that is spent
• Consumers seek to buy at the lowest possible price -- what the voter does is looks for
politicians that best serves their interests.
• Producer-Consumer relationship is similar to Politician-Voter relationship.
• The voters choose among the competing elite in the society
• Votes are analogous to profit
• Parties will position themselves to match the interests of the voters in order to maximize the
votes they receive.
• What happens in politics is the same as in economics - trying to maximize votes, whereas
consumers/voters are trying to maximize the outcome of who they vote for/material goods.
Criticisms of Economic Democracy
• Overly Simplistic
- Complexities of Voter preferences ignored
• Downplays the role of the value-oriented vote or party
• Evidence suggests that voters lack the kind of sophistication the theory requires of them, and
that party allegiance can be more important than party analysis.
• Evidence suggests that some voters use their votes altruistically, on grounds of principle, rather
than their own self-interest
• This theory also finds it difficult to explain why most people bother to vote at all.
It ignores the possibility that voter preferences are shaped by powerful forces in society
**In certain societies, competitive elections (democracies) do not lead to wide-distribution of
power, it can actually lead to conflict. You’ll hear about post-election violence - part of the
reason why the kind of democracy we have leads to conflict is because of ethnic differences. Two
key ethnic groups in Rwanda - Hutu government protecting Hutu needs and wants. Competition
between two ethnic groups, at the end of the day there will be violence because they know
• What makes democracy special
• Problems of the majority rule
The Utilitarian Theory of Democracy
Developed by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill
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• At first Bentham was not concerned about democracy, feeling that an enlightened despot was
just as likely to pursue the utilitarian aim of the greatest happiness (not just subject to
• His mind was changed after the British government failed to implement any of his reforms
• These two men believed that when left alone, members of the government will work to make
themselves happy before anyone else and they won’t actually pursue the greatest happiness of
all unless their position/power/wealth depended on it!
• THIS was why utilitarians argued for democracy: to make sure the government stayed
accountable to the public
• Utilitarian perspective: Elections are protective devices designed to ensure that decision-
makers take the preferences of the people into account
19th Century Move Towards Democracy
• Democracy was becoming more popular in both theory and practice
• Utilitarian theory represented the first attempt to apply democracy to a class-divided capitalist
• Utilitarianism gave rise to liberal democracy.
• Many property owners in the 19th century feared the universal suffrage would result in
pressure for greater economic and political equality and put their privileges at risk. (However,
the advent of universal suffrage in 1928 did not produce any significant moves towards a
socialist political program)
Factors that explain why universal suffrage did not bring political or economic equality:
- The difficulty of establishing political equality in an economically unequal society is clear
- Political equality is not achieved through universal suffrage alone
• For much of its history, democracy was seen in a negative light
• The turning point came in the eighteenth century. Following the French and American
Revolutions, democracy was cast in a more positive light, partly because of the influence on
the US constitution of the “Great Law” of the Six Nations confederacy. Democratic ideals and
models today represent a fusion of European and indigenous ideas.
• The nineteenth century saw a sustained effort to achieve universal suffrage in practice and to
justify it in theory. The utilitarian theory of democracy developed by Bentham and Mill was
the first attempt to justify the introduction of democracy into a class-divided society
• The final quarter of the twentieth century saw a major increase in the numbers of regimes
holding competitive elections and proclaiming themselves democratic.
Protective Theory Participatory Theory
Bentham Greek city-states