For many of us, the notion of “democracy” is buried in school textbooks or is something that only happens once a year when we vote. We don’t often realize that we can change the status quo – we can define for ourselves what democracy means for us. We can have a role in influencing decisions that affect us on a regular basis – not just when we vote.
People across the country are coming together to share their ideas and opinions with others and to work together to create better communities on a wide range of issues such as education, food security, racial equity, community-police relations, and building prosperity. We asked people working towards change in several communities what democracy means to them, and this is what they said:
"Democracy.....just a word unless it is about people living and working together with respect and equal rights and elected leaders who value and practice the same.
My commitment will always be to find ways to encourage more people to take part in the process at the local to national level!"
"For me, democracy is a work in progress, with the emphasis on work. It means having a voice and using it. (I just called my Senator! In a vital democracy, I’m at liberty to do that.) Democracy dares to make room for all kinds of people and ideas. It gives us the privilege of listening and learning from one another, without fear. And it requires us to be 'actors.' It’s a gift, not a birthright. "
"Having just read “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, I’m sobered about the difficulty of democracy as new forms of colonization and theft of resources are sanctioned by international bodies purporting to address human rights and social need. Democracy is really about neighborhoods, cities and towns and advocacy groups that work through coalitions for the broad interests of as many residents and citizens as possible. I don’t think government is “broken”, but it’s slow. Capital is fast. Capital is able to manufacture consent and maneuver in any context, without moral compass, accountability or sense of interdependence on a green and blue earth. Organize."
"What democracy means to me is a government obeying our Constitution and staying out of individual citizens' personal lives. This means allowing citizens to make their own decisions for their own personal lives, making mistakes and all. It means not having politicians in office who believe citizens freedom of speech should have any limits. It means that government does not have any authority to take any individual right away or change it in any way. Our individual rights are God-given rights to all and no human can take those away. America is a Republic because a democracy doesn't work any more than totalitarianism, marxism, socialism or any other -ism. And America will stay a Republic, 'if the people can keep it that way through the election process.'"
"To me democracy means we're in this together & we share responsibility for the outcomes of govt."
-@socialcap (on Twitter)
"Democracy is the embracing of independence to actively engage in the ever-changing society of which I live to protect its existence and to ensure an appreciation with grace for all those that fought and continue to fight for its survival."
"Today is for red
and white and blue,
but what does democracy
mean to you?
Freedom to live
in safety and peace,
and to seek that for others
so all will increase.
With freedom comes
to be engaged and to grow
Stripes show us red
and white today,
but blue shows us stars
which light our way
You are the star
that we are waiting for;
so step out and be counted
on November 4 (2)."
"Democracy for me means the alienable right of self determination and participation in governance by the consent of the governed."
-Ronald Randolf Winley
"Democracy to me means decision-making and deliberations by all affected."
"In a Democracy that believes in diversity, equality and a government for, of and by the people, the most important tool we have as a society is the tool of communication. Communication is a skill, just like music, athletics or academics, a skill that must be practiced, honed and advanced. The quality of our communication helps our relationships, our communities and our society. The quality of our communication affects the quality of our well-being. It is through communication and deliberation that our forefathers built the foundations of this great country and it is through our everyday democracy that we will continue to be a great country."
"To me, democracy means that government derives all of its authority from the people, and all of the people have a voice in government policy -- not just an elected elite or self-appointed partisans -- but all the people."
"Democracy is a way of living and working together based on freedom, equality, justice, and mutual respect."
"Democracy means freedom and the responsibilities that come with that freedom: the responsibility to be educated and informed; the responsibility to vote; the responsibility to give back to the community; the responsibility to listen openly to opposing points of view and learn from them; and the responsibility to participate respectfully in the democratic process."
"Democracy means that no matter the circumstances of your birth you have a right for your voice to be heard and to seek to have that voice be represented in government"
"Democracy means to me exactly what Tony Judt describes it to mean in his April 29, 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books, titled Ill Fares the Land. I cannot say this nearly as well as he has, but his perspective on democracy resonates and is completely aligned with mine:
'Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right-- and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.' "
"Democracy means that 'We, the People' includes EVERYONE (regardless of race, class, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender, ability, etc.), & everyone has an equal chance to participate in ALL levels of our society. "
"Democracy for me is more fundamental than a political philosophy. It is the human struggle for the shared life of community. Democracy, unchecked, leads to oppression. Our work is to ensure that we build a community that protects every group and every person…particularly those we dislike."
"To me, democracy means having the same freedoms and rights as everyone else, regardless of your ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status. It’s a beautiful thing, democracy."
"Democracy means that everyone has a voice and that every voice matters. It is something that may never be achieved to its full potential, so the journey toward democracy is constant, but absolutely necessary."
“Democracy is a journey. Sometimes the road is smooth, sometimes rough, but each step brings up closer to the ideal. We’re on the path, but not there yet.”
A democracy means rule by the people. The name is used for different forms of government, where the people can take part in the decisions that affect the way their community is run. In modern times, there are different ways this can be done:
- The people meet to decide about new laws, and changes to existing ones. This is usually called direct democracy.
- The people elect their leaders. These leaders take this decision about laws. This is commonly called representative democracy. The process of choosing is called election. Elections are either held periodically, or when an officeholder dies.
- Sometimes people can propose new laws or changes to existing laws. Usually, this is done using a referendum, which needs a certain number of supporters.
- The people who make the decisions are chosen more or less at random. This is common, for example when choosing a jury for a trial. This method is known as sortition or allotment. In a trial, the jury will have to decide the question whether the person is guilty or not. In Europe, trials with a jury are only used for serious crimes, such as murder, hostage taking or arson.
To become a stable democracy, a state usually undergoes a process of democratic consolidation.
Elections[change | change source]
After people hold an election, the candidates that won are determined. The way this is done can be simple: The candidate with the most votes gets elected. Very often, the politicians being elected belong to a political party. Instead of choosing a person, people vote for a party. The party with the most votes then picks the candidates.
Usually, the people being elected need to meet certain conditions: They need to have a certain age or a government body needs to determine that they are suitably qualified to perform the job.
Not everyone can vote in an election. Suffrage is only given to people who are citizens. Some groups may be excluded, for example prisoners.
For some elections, a country may make voting compulsory. Someone who does not vote, and who does not give a good reason usually has to pay a fine.
Kinds of democracy[change | change source]
Democracy may be direct or indirect.
In a direct democracy, everyone has the right to make laws together. One modern example of direct democracy is a referendum, which is the name for the kind of way to pass a law where everyone in the community votes on it. Direct democracies are not usually used to run countries, because it is hard to get millions of people to get together all the time to make laws and other decisions. There is not enough time.
In an indirect, or representative democracy, people choose representatives to make laws for them. These people can be mayors, councilmen, members of Parliament, or other government officials. This is a much more common kind of democracy. Large communities like cities and countries use this method, but it may not be needed for a small group.
History[change | change source]
Ancient origins[change | change source]
This kind of government was developed long ago by the ancient Greeks in classical Athens. They had everyone who was a citizen (not slaves, women, foreigners, and children) get together in one area. The Assembly would talk about what kinds of laws they wanted and voted on them. The Council would suggest the laws. All citizens were allowed in the Assembly.
The Council were picked by draws (lottery). The participants in the Council would change every year and the number of people in the Council was at the most 500. For some offices the Athenian citizens would pick a leader by writing the name of their favorite candidate on a piece of stone or wood. The person with the most votes became the leader.
Middle Ages[change | change source]
In the Middle Ages, there were many systems in which there were elections, although only a few people could join in at this time. The Parliament of England began from the Magna Carta, a document which said that the King's power was limited, and protected certain rights of the people. The first elected parliament was De Montfort's Parliament in England in 1265.
However, only a few people could actually join in. Parliament was chosen by only a few percent of the people (in 1780, fewer than 3% of people joined in). The ruler also had the power to call parliaments. After a long time, the power of Parliament began to grow. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the English Bill of Rights 1689 made Parliament more powerful. Later, the ruler became a symbol instead of having real power.