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Concepts in Democratic Theory

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  • Universidad Rey Juan Carlos (King Juan Carlos University)


This chapter reviews key concepts in democratic theory and participation from a classical liberal perspective, so as to set up the stage for the rest of the book. After revising various definitions about democracy, we review the main ideas about direct democracy, representative democracy and participatory democracy. We then address some of the current challenges for democracy, outlining how information and communication technologies may aid in addressing such issues.
Concepts in Democratic Theory
Manuel Arenilla1
Abstract This chapter reviews key concepts in democratic theory and
participation from a classical liberal perspective, so as to set up the stage
for the rest of the book. After revising various definitions about democ-
racy, we review the main ideas about direct democracy, representative de-
mocracy and participatory democracy. We then address some of the cur-
rent challenges for democracy, outlining how information and
communication technologies may aid in addressing such issues.
1. Introduction
Few words exist in the social sciences that have so many different,
even opposed, meanings and that have mobilized more passion and
people throughout history than that of democracy. This word evokes
hope, but also apathy; it represents the future although also a pro-
found past; it symbolizes change as well as resistance to change; it
excites passions, but produces conformity. As if it were a sun,
around this concept others revolve structuring the political and social
essence of contemporary life: liberty, equality, power, sovereignty,
representation, participation, legitimacy, choice and the common
The concept of democracy just reflects the evolution that has taken
place over the last two and a half millennia of a system for the or-
ganization of the exercise of political power in society, which in-
cludes diverse and contradictory meanings. It is a creation of West-
ern thought, with innumerable theoretical and ideological
contributions and political forms exercised over this time. The fact
1 Manuel Arenilla, Dpt. of Political Science, Rey Juan Carlos University,
that it is a historical and cultural product as well as a social model
would explain current problems related with attempts to extend it to
certain societies, as their context is too different from those in which
the concept of democracy was forged.
What we know as democracy today is grounded in the theoretical
premises of democratic liberalism, which has little or nothing to do
with the Athenian democracy. Its construction owes much both to its
detractors and to its defenders. It represents a specific type of society
that can be contrasted with all other political systems and with what
in each historical moment, since Athens, has been understood as
democracy. In addition, democracy today has become a “brand” or
a “certificate of quality” for states in international relations.
The evolution of democracy is in debt with the development of the
concepts of liberty and equality. Democracy has been constructed
on these two principles and they constitute the explanatory core of
the ideas developed in this chapter, which are based on the classics
of political theory. Constructing the evolution of the concept of de-
mocracy based on participation or its limitations is a tempting offer,
particularly in a book of these characteristics. Contrasting the exer-
cise of direct power with the exercise of power through representa-
tion restricted by an institutional structure has great explanatory
power, but such a focus could divert the discussion of the essence of
democracy towards a quantitative question, government by the many
or by the few, present today in the debates around e-democracy.
Thus, the central theme of democracy has to be found in the mean-
ing of political power, in the nature of the citizen and his/her role in
society and in political institutions. It is the opposition between the
individual/citizen and the exercise of power which gave rise to the
evolution of the concept of democracy.
This chapter deals with what is understood by democracy. From the
focus just mentioned, we will begin with the principles of liberty and
equality and look at the concepts of direct democracy, representative
democracy and participatory democracy. Lastly, we will look at
some of the principal elements of the crisis in democracy and the
challenges that it currently faces.
2. What is democracy
As was mentioned, the development of democracy is in debt to the
evolution of the concepts of liberty and equality. These concepts
had very different meanings in ancient democracy in comparison
with how they are understood today. Under ancient democracy, lib-
erty meant to live as one wanted, to, in principle, not be governed by
anyone, or if so, to govern in turn, that is, “for all to rule and be
ruled in turn” (Aristotle, 1988). This idea of liberty as no depend-
ence, as autonomy, was completed with one another essential aspect,
which was the attainment of the social status of citizen by man,
which permitted him to participate in governing the state, in the ex-
ercise of collective power (Sartori, 2003). Liberty existed before the
law, it had a collective character and was compatible with “the com-
plete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community”
(Constant, 1988). This concept of liberty was only possible if it was
based on equality among citizens.
Equality for the Greeks was not absolute. It rather referred to politi-
cal rights and participation in common affairs. To arrive at this con-
cept, it was necessary to conceive all men as possessing the capacity
for autonomous political judgment and political competence, which
entailed the possibility of their equal participation in public affairs
and a link between this participation and honour and justice. This
equality, in turn, involved the right to demand participation in the
management of the affairs of the polis. Plato (1986) wrote that it
corresponded to all men to take part in political virtue “or cities can-
not exist”. Aristotle (1988) wrote that for there to be equality “it is
just for the poor to have no more advantage than the rich; and that
neither should be masters, but both equal”. In this way, he sentenced
the main defect of Greek democracy, even condemning for centuries
the very word democracy. Lastly, he would state that democracy
distributes equality both among equals as well as among unequals
(Aristotle, 1988).
All this can be summarized by pointing out that, for the Greeks, the
concepts of liberty and equality were inseparable from the notion of
citizen and that man achieved such a condition as he participated in
the political life of the city, as it was that participation which made
him a citizen, and not the contrary (Sartori, 2003). Thus, Aristotle
said that “the state is, by nature, clearly prior to the family and to the
individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part” (Aris-
totle, 1988). In this conception, the political was opposed to the pri-
vate or the personal and referred to what was in common, to what
was of concern to all (Águila, 1998), and participation was not an
element of democracy but rather, its very foundation. In this way,
for Aristotle the “political” was nothing other than government of
the free and equal (Aristotle, 1988).
The critics of pure or classical democracy carried out a dialogue
about it for centuries which would lead to the republican focus
(Held, 1985). It had such an impact that the word “republic” re-
placed the word “democracy” up until almost the 19th century. The
republican focus was on constructing a popular government that
would not reproduce the “evils” of government by the many, or the
poor as Aristotle would say, and found it in the mixed government
that first appeared in Republican Rome and later in the Italian repub-
lics and Rousseau’s Geneva. As in the Greek case, the origin of the
republican focus was found in the very conception of man. If for
classical democrats all men possessed equal capacities for autono-
mous political judgment and political competence, which permitted
them to participate in the government of the polis, for the first repub-
licans it was the polis which gave form to the citizen, who was seen
as lacking capacity, through the law (Held, 1985) and educated him
in virtue dictated, in the case of Plato, by the philosophers. For
Madison, the two most important differences between a democracy
and a republic were, first, that in a republic “the delegation of power
to a small number of citizens chosen by the rest” (Held, 1985) and,
secondly, “the greater number of citizens and the greater dimension
of the country over which the republic can extend” (Rivero, 1998).
Both these points would be the basis for the preference for represen-
tative over direct democracy.
In addition to these differences, there existed similarities between
the concepts of democracy and republic that would nourish modern
democracy. Both the model of Greek democracy as well as the di-
verse republican models coincided in considering man as a social
and political animal who develops his potential in a political com-
munity. They both focused also on the need for citizens to place the
common good before private interest in order to preserve the politi-
cal community and defend liberty. Both conceptions coincided on
the value of not only political but social equality, which included a
certain equality of wealth to avoid the appearance of factions.
Lastly, they shared a similar conception of citizenship, understood as
an intense participation in the political life of the community and
tied to an idea of liberty that referred to status (of the citizen) and
autonomy in relation to that community and its institutions (Rivero,
In contrast to this understanding of liberty and equality by the an-
cient Greeks, we find that of liberal democracy. For the liberals,
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our
own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive
others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” (Mill,1986).
Liberty is the right not to be subject to other than the law “and must
consist of peaceful enjoyment and private independence” (Constant,
1988). This subjection to the law affects, mainly, to power itself in
such a manner that “power should be a check to power” (Montes-
quieu, 1989). Men renounce to the equality, liberty and executive
power that they have in their natural state when they enter into soci-
ety and place all of it in the hands of society so that legislative
power has it available through law and according to that which is
required for the good of the society. What man obtains through this
renouncement is the preservation of himself and his property
(Locke, 1986). This would permit Marx to state that “the practical
application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private prop-
erty,” which constitutes the foundation of the bourgeois society
(Marx, 2004).
In contrast to the classical conception, there is a clear dominance of
individual liberty over the political liberty of participation in collec-
tive affairs, which is deemed of secondary importance. Liberty must
include the lack of interference of the state, so that citizens can enjoy
their privacy in peace (Constant, 1988). Liberty implies the domin-
ion of internal conscience, freedom in our tastes, and in the determi-
nation of our own aims, and freedom of association (Mill, 1986).
The equality of the liberals was basically an equality of rights, but its
formal expression presented serious difficulties because of the fear
that the extension of political rights could alter property rights. It
seems clear that for effective limits on political power to exist,
which protect individual liberty and the shaping of the common
good or general interest, it is necessary that political equality and a
certain economic equality exist (Held, 2008), however political
equality would not be formally guaranteed until the establishment of
universal suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century.
For Rousseau, there was only liberty if there were no serious social
and economic imbalances and a generalized equality, understanding
by this that all citizens participate under the same conditions and en-
joy the same rights (Rousseau, 1967). Lastly, for Marx liberal
equality “is nothing but the equality of the liberté described above
namely: each man is to the same extent regarded as such a self-
sufficient monad” (Marx, 2004).
In this way, under liberalism the conception of liberty and equality
fundamentally preserves individual liberty and natural rights in rela-
tion to the state and the collective, without undervaluing participa-
tion, although this clearly is secondary to the mechanism of repre-
sentation. It is both the limits placed on power in relation to
individual rights and the separation of powers which shape liberal
institutions which conclude in representation and have come to be
central to what we understand today as democracy. For liberalism,
society is born from the individual’s renunciation of his/her natural
liberty with the aim of obtaining more favourable civil liberties.
Liberalism’s emphasis on individual liberty would inhibit the exten-
sion of the principle of political equality, which would lead to revo-
lutionary outbreaks in Europe from the middle of the 19th century
until the beginning of the 20th century.
The focus of liberalism has been the object of numerous critiques
from diverse perspectives up until today. We will focus on three
particular issues which have been raised. The first is the confronta-
tion between individual freedom and the collective interest; the sec-
ond is the conflict between representation and popular sovereignty; d
the third, the opposition between the individual and the community.
The first issue refers to how the common good or general interest is
shaped in a society of free individuals. Rousseau contrasted indi-
vidual will with the general will. For him, individual will referred to
private interest, while the general will was the common interest of
the political community and of each one of its parts (Held, 1985).
Contrary to Rousseau, Schumpeter will deny the existence of such a
general will, not to extol individual will, but rather because he un-
derstood that no common good equally discernible by all exists.
The second issue derives from the previous one and can be raised in
the terms used by Constant (1988), who, in contrasting the liberty of
the ancients with that of modern thinkers, said that the first “admit-
ted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjec-
tion of the individual to the authority of the community” so that “the
authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will
of individuals.” For Rousseau, this type of subjection is not possible
as the people are sovereign in actively participating in the articula-
tion of the general will (Held, 1985). For his part, Marx did not ac-
cept the existence of both a public and a private nature, as for him
the rights of man were the rights of a member of the bourgeois soci-
ety, of the egoistic man, of the man separated from the other men
and from community (Marx, 2004), which would lead him to de-
mand unity between the civil and the political society. For Marx
(2004) bourgeois rights were summed up in the right to property,
which was understood as an individual freedom independent of soci-
The dichotomy between the individual and the collective would
mark the two major tendencies of liberalism. For some, like Ben-
tham or James Mill, individual liberty had to be protected from the
state and other citizens, so that the individual could develop his pri-
vate life, participation being merely of instrumental value (Held,
1985). For others, such as John Stuart Mill, political participation
had an intrinsic value and was seen as a fundamental mechanism for
moral self-development and the protection of individual interests
(Held, 1985).
The criticisms to political representation are the most numerous.
Rousseau was opposed to any representation mechanism because, as
he understood, “It is against the natural order for the many to govern
and the few to be governed” (Rousseau, 1967) and that when citi-
zens choose their representatives, they become slaves (Rousseau,
1967). Rousseau’s magistrates were chosen, but they did not repre-
sent the people, as the people did not renounce to their power (Sar-
tori, 2003). For his part, Marx would reject as legitimate any other
form that was not direct democracy and would defend the binding
mandate for those elected and the principle of recall and the perma-
nent responsibility of all civil servants and public officers (Marx,
1966). However, the main criticism to political representation by
numerous and diverse authors stem from the assertion that govern-
ment in modern democracies is exercised by a minority, which
means that it has not managed to avert the danger of factions that so
much concerned early liberals (Held, 1985). What these diverse
thinkers are not in agreement is on the possibility for this to change.
The elitists are skeptical while the Marxists defend the possibility of
a government for all. Thus Michels (1962) wrote that “[T]he mass
will never rule except in abstracto” concluding that democracies
“undergo gradual transformation, adopting the aristocratic spirit”
(Michels, 1962). Schumpeter would state that “democracy means
only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing
the men who are to rule them” as democracy is a very limited
method for the selection of politicians who accede to power compet-
ing for the vote of the people (Schumpeter, 1976). He would also
state that “the will of the people is the product and not the propelling
power of the political process”. Along similar lines, Dahl (1998) re-
fers to current democracies as polyarchies, which permit stable gov-
ernments and in which decisions are adopted by a technocracy with-
out interference from the people, which leads him to conclude that
democracies are what they must be.
3. Direct democracy
For centuries the word democracy only meant government directly
exercised by citizens. The concept became tied to a political system
which, for its excesses, was seen as so undesirable that for a long
time the word democracy was not used, replaced by the word repub-
lic. The history of direct democracy shows us that this type of gov-
ernment is very rare, limited almost exclusively to ancient Greece
and some concrete experiments, such as the Jacobin stage of the
French Revolution and the Paris Commune, as Marx analyzed in this
last case. The rest of history’s democratic phenomena fit, up until
now, within the parameters of representative democracy. This does
not mean that the study of direct democracy makes little sense, as it
functions as a utopian reference with which to compare the function-
ing of representative democratic institutions. Currently, the study of
direct democracy makes is stirring new interest due to the possibili-
ties that information and communication technologies offer, permit-
ting us to talk about e-democracy. Some radical movements, par-
ticularly those that emphasize citizen participation, contain some of
the key elements of direct democracy.
Direct democracy is based on the equality of all citizens and its
characteristics can be extracted from ancient democracy. No one
better than Aristotle to summarize them (1988):
1. Officers are chosen among all, including the administration
of justice.
2. Offices which do not require experience and skill are rotated
by lot, of short duration and cannot fall on the same person
3. Occupation of offices does not depend on income.
4. Officers receive a salary.
5. The assembly has authority over all affairs or over those of
major importance.
Constant (1988) would synthesize the functioning of direct democ-
racy in pointing out that it “consisted in exercising collectively, but
directly, several parts of the complete sovereignty; in deliberating in
the public square over war and peace; in forming alliances with for-
eign governments; in voting laws, in pronouncing judgments; in ex-
amining the accounts, the acts, the stewardship of the magistrates; in
calling them to appear in front of the assembled people, in accusing,
condemning or absolving them.”
Despite its conceptual prestige, which would lead Marx, in studying
the Paris Commune, to state that the institutions of direct democracy
were the only legitimate ones (Marx 1966), direct democracy would
have from its beginning, powerful enemies that would base their op-
position on three major criticisms. Thus, Aristotle (1988) would
identify the weakest point of direct government by the people in stat-
ing that this is really government by the poor as they are the majority
of the citizens and therefore they impose themselves over the minor-
ity. Along the same lines, Mill (1991) considered direct democracy
to mean the exclusion of minorities, in concrete, the most educated
and those with the most wealth. For his part, Constant (1988) would
make the second important criticism of direct democracy: the com-
plete subjection of the individual to the community, which implies
the loss of personal freedom when it does not serve the collective.
These two criticisms, together with the clear excesses produced dur-
ing several revolutionary periods, such as the Jacobin stage of the
French Revolution or the Paris Commune, eliminated the possibility
that direct democracy would today be something more than just a
yearning of radical democrats.
The third criticism questioned if the majority of citizens were capa-
ble of understanding with sufficient criteria governmental decisions
and actions. Machiavelli saw the majority of men as selfish, lazy,
suspicious and incapable of doing something good if it was not as a
result of necessity (Held, 1985). Montesquieu said that “The great
advantage of representatives is their capacity of discussing public af-
fairs. For this, the people collectively are extremely unfit, which is
one of the chief inconveniences of a democracy,” which here, logi-
cally, has to be understood as referring to direct democracy (Mon-
tesquieu, 1989). Precisely, the liberal authors tried to avoid the evils
of classical Greece, impeding in their theoretical constructions that
the people take active part in decision-making, considering them to
be completely incapable, concluding that “They ought to have no
share in the government but for the choosing of representatives,
which is within their reach,” limiting their capacity specifically to
choosing their representatives (Montesquieu, 1989). The logical
outcome of this perspective was the distrust towards the less edu-
cated classes and less wealthy classes acceding to representation, as
they could alter the rights of property. This led them to support lim-
ited suffrage. Another effect was the appearance of a growing bu-
reaucratic apparatus responsible for the technical tasks of governing.
Together with these criticisms, we should add those referring to the
effectiveness of direct democracy. All liberals agreed that such a
system was only valid for a small number of citizens and for a small
country and that, in any case, a large country would better guarantee
the common good (Hamilton, Jay and Madison, 2005). Schumpeter
understood that direct democracy was not desirable because of its
inadequacy for the necessities of governing states which must re-
solve a great number of complicated technical problems.
Anyway, today the idea that popular government is the only legiti-
mate one and that citizen participation is essential for the continuity
of the state and society. The debate around e-democracy brings di-
rect democracy and its criticisms up-to-date and allows us to recon-
sider them in the light of new technologies and new economic, po-
litical and social mechanisms, so different from those of two
centuries ago.
4. Representative democracy
We should first note is that, with the exception of certain shared
terminology, representative democracy has little to do with direct
democracy. This is due not only to the radical differences in the en-
tailed meaning of the terms citizenship, liberty, equality, and sover-
eignty, but also because representative democracy introduces a se-
ries of mechanisms and institutions that try to achieve a balance
between the exercise and control of power. Among these, the most
important are the division and separation of powers, and a certain
constitutional engineering that establishes limits on the actions of
the state and guarantees the protection of basic individual rights in
relation to the state. The aim is to avoid a concentration of power in
a majority faction and achieve a balance between different powers.
We should stress additionally that representative government was
constructed in opposition to direct democracy and its characteristics,
particularly political equality. Thus, Dahl (1998) points out that rep-
resentative democracy promotes a high degree of political equality.
Representative democracy is the application of the logic of equality
to large communities, which profoundly transforms the significance
and reach of that equality. For many authors, direct government by
the citizens was the ideal as a political system, although it was often
seen as unreachable or problematic and could generate excesses.
Thus, for Mill “the only government which can fully satisfy all the
exigencies of the social state is one in which the whole people par-
ticipate”. However, he would recognize that in communities with
more than a small population “the ideal type of a perfect government
must be representative” as it would permit the participation of all the
citizens and form better persons (Mill, 1991). Beyond the issue of
the immensity of modern states, the decrease of love of one’s coun-
try, the actions of private interest and the conquests and abuse of
government should be added (Rousseau, 1967). All this would lead
Jefferson to conclude that representative democracy was the democ-
racy that was most practicable over a long period of time and over a
large territory (Dahl, 1998).
Representative democracy is also justified over political systems
other than direct democracy. For (Mill, 1991) “the rights and inter-
ests of every or any person are only secure from being disregarded
when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed,
to stand up for them” which leads to the growth and spread of gen-
eral prosperity.
Along with a different conception of equality and citizenship, repre-
sentative government also gives a different meaning to sovereignty.
In contrast to the unlimited sovereignty attributed to the citizens in
the conception of direct democracy, which can be summarized in
Rousseau’s statement (1967) “Sovereignty, for the same reason as
makes it inalienable, cannot be represented”, although he was think-
ing of small states, we find a contrary position among the defenders
of representation. Thus, Constant would defend the idea that the
sovereignty of the people only exists in a limited and relative way,
given that where independence and individual existence begins, the
jurisdiction of this sovereignty ends. He would maintain that not
understanding this limit would introduce into human society “a de-
gree of power which is too great to be manageable and one which is
an evil whatever hands you place it in.” (Constant, 1970) and the
way to avert it was through the representative system, which “is
nothing but an organization by means of which a nation charges a
few individuals to do what it cannot or does not wish to do by her-
self” (Constant, 1988).
For Dahl (1998) the political institutions of democratic representa-
tive government today, which constitute a new form of popular gov-
ernment that never existed before and are due, in part, to demands
for inclusion and participation in political life, are the following:
1. Elected officials.
2. Free, impartial and frequent elections.
3. Freedom of expression.
4. Autonomy of association.
5. Alternative sources of information.
6. Inclusive citizenship.
Criticisms of representative democracy are numerous and focus on
diverse aspects. Here we will look at two, the relationship between
the majority and minorities, and the composition of the common
good. The first criticism is that representative democracy forms “a
government of privilege, in favour of the numerical majority, who
alone possess practically any voice in the State” (Mill, 1991). This
position has resulted in the strengthening of the small number of rep-
resentatives which has culminated in the appearance of modern po-
litical parties with their tight control of political and even social life.
At this point, the problem shifts from being that of government by
the many to government by the few, something which Machiavelli
had tried to avoid in stating “when the people are entrusted with the
care of any privilege or liberty, being less disposed to encroach upon
it, they will of necessity take better care of it; and being unable to
take it away themselves, will prevent others from doing so” (Ma-
chiavelli, 2003).
For his part, Michels (1962) would state that the government, or, if
the phrase be preferred, the state, cannot be anything other than the
organization of a minority. It is the aim of this minority to impose
upon the rest of society a “legal order,” which is the outcome of the
exigencies of dominion and of the exploitation of the mass of helots
effected by the ruling minority, and can never be truly representative
of the majority. The majority is thus permanently incapable of self-
government… Thus the majority of human beings, in a condition of
eternal tutelage, are predestined by tragic necessity to submit to the
dominion of a small minority, and must be content to constitute the
pedestal of an oligarchy.” However, this does not mean that Michels
completely renounced all effort to place limits on the powers exer-
cised over the individual by the oligarchies: “It would be an error to
abandon the desperate enterprise of endeavouring to discover a so-
cial order which will render possible the complete realization of the
idea of popular sovereignty.” In this way, the critics of representa-
tive government pointed out that this avoids the excesses of a gov-
ernment of the people only to culminate in the periodic election of
representatives that come from one or more groupings of elites or
which pertain to a single class.
The second criticism starts from the very conception of the citizen
which comes from the theories of liberalism, shared in part by ear-
lier authors such as Aristotle. For many of them, the citizen was not
capable by himself of reaching a high level of motivation as he was
basically mediocre, which impeded him to search for the common
good, the ultimate aim of government. Some authors stressed the
need to educate the citizens, so that they could fully participate in
the search for this good, but others saw them as apathetic or took
elitist positions, such as that of Schumpeter (1976) who negates the
existence of this common good. In this way, for some the search for
the common good was relegated to those most capable, an elite cur-
rently composed of elected representatives, administrators, bureau-
crats, judges and international organizations, which would first jus-
tify limited suffrage during more than a century and then lead to the
exercise of enormous discretional power and deal-making between
political elites and bureaucrats (Dahl, 1998). This widespread posi-
tion, places in doubt whether representatives really look for the gen-
eral interest, except when this is the sum of diverse private interests
that intervene in political decisions. Radical democrats maintain the
position that they fear government by the few more and see the
common good as coinciding with the good of the people. Marx rep-
resented a more extreme version of this position when he stated that
liberal rights, particularly those of property, made individuals retreat
into themselves and dissociate from the community and this would
impede them from reaching their social being (Marx, 2004).
5. Democracy and participation
From the beginning, theorization on democracy has been indissol-
ubly linked to the concept of citizenship and this, in turn, to that of
participation, to the point that the strength of this connection is what
structures the two major contemporary trends in democratic theory:
that which understands participation as its defining element and that
which, though valuing it, subordinates it to representation.
For the ancient Greeks, the nature of the citizen was defined more by
his participation “in the administration of justice, and in offices”
than by any other characteristic, so the citizen was “he who has the
power to take part in the deliberative and judicial administration”, in
such a manner that the body of such self-sufficient persons was re-
ferred to as the city (Aristotle, 1988).
For the Greeks, political organization referred to the body of free,
equal and self-sufficient persons who were shaping common life
thorugh their participation. Thus, private life could not be distin-
guished from common life, neither the citizen from his city. All
human beings possessed the same political virtues, so that an indi-
vidual that did not participate in the life of the community, where
one obtains honour and justice, would have been considered a use-
less person (Águila, 1998). The Greek concepts of equality and lib-
erty granted independent status to the citizen which permitted him to
have a certain position in the community, so that equality and liberty
had only meaning if they referred to participation in the government.
As we have seen, Athenian democracy relegated individual liberty
and government of the most capable in favour of the control of the
collective over the individual, whose liberty could be taken away in-
voking the will of the majority. The result was tyrannical and unsta-
ble governments, which, in response, gave rise to republican
thought, to the Roman Republic and, later on, to the Italian republics
which tried to correct these excesses through a government mixed or
balanced between leaders and the participation of the people who
were seen as the guardians of liberty (Machiavelli, 2003).
Today, participation continues being a point of polarization over the
understanding of democracy. For some, democracy cannot be un-
derstood without referring to the Athenian ideal, tempered by repub-
lican thinking; for others, democracy is based on the strengthening
of the representative system, after taking into account the weak-
nesses of the institutional model designed by the liberals.
The excesses of Greek democracy and its sequels, particularly the
Jacobins, generated strong theoretical antibodies among the liberals
that were justified by the great size of the new states and the deep
social inequalities existing in liberal societies. Although they con-
tinued to consider taking part in government as being important,
they stressed private independence. The new political order had to
guarantee privacy, individual liberty and private property in relation
to the state, although this might result in the danger of renouncing
“[the] right to exercise some influence on the administration of the
government” (Constant, 1988). It must be mentioned that participa-
tion was presented as an individual right and not as the true meaning
of political life, which was the representative government, where the
representatives were those with knowledge and property.
The fear of the excesses of the many, which were characteristic of
direct democracy, meant that participation was relegated to an ex-
pression of political equality. This, despite the original intentions of
the theoretical liberals, resulted in limited suffrage, or government
by the few, which would only become universal suffrage after many
years of demands, although participation would be limited to the
election of representatives. What was won by relegating participa-
tion was the preservation of property and civil liberty, resulting in
many states in a bill of rights.
It can be stated that liberal democracy was conscious of its “be-
trayal” of the principle of political equality, and that this led to the
subsequent expansion of suffrage during the 19th century and begin-
ning of the 20th, until universal suffrage was reached. Currently, the
lack of real political equality and the recognition of obvious short-
comings in government by the few, revealed since Rousseau and the
elitists, has led governments to open up to greater citizen participa-
tion, although in a selective manner. As Michels pointed out, it is no
longer possible to believe that going to the polls and trusting our so-
cial and economic interests to some delegates would assure our di-
rect participation in power (Michels, 1962).
A part of democratic liberalism has embraced the taken up republi-
can logic and understands that participation in public life is not only
necessary to preserve and strengthen the state, peace and liberty, but
is also essential to being a good citizen and directing individuals’ ac-
tions toward the common good. In this way, participation acquires a
pedagogical sense in forming good citizens capable of contributing
virtue and high aims to political life in exchange for honour and jus-
tice (Held, 1985).
We have now looked at the two sides of the dilemma of modern de-
mocracies: participation understood as inseparable from citizenship
and, therefore, as the civic obligation of all citizens, who will im-
prove as persons in their collaboration in the creation of the common
good; and participation in collective power as a right that improves
the life of the community and corrects some of the excesses of rep-
resentative government.
The first approach is connected with the postulates of direct democ-
racy and needs citizens that are politically and economically equal,
so that they can make autonomous judgments. In this process, citi-
zens do not only try to improve humanity, but also to improve mor-
ally. The role of political institutions will be to favour “the general
advancement of the community, including under that phrase ad-
vancement in intellect, in virtue, and in practical activity and effi-
ciency” and “organise the moral, intellectual, and active worth al-
ready existing, so as to operate with the greatest effect on public
affairs”, hence, the government should be judged “by what it makes
of the citizens, and what it does with them; its tendency to improve
or deteriorate the people themselves, and the goodness or badness of
the work it performs for them, and by means of them” (Mill, 1991).
In short, in this conception democracy is a process for achieving
civic virtue in which participation is a means for personal develop-
The second approach guarantees our private independence, although
at the risk of enclosing ourselves “within the dull precincts of a nar-
row egotism” due to participation robbing us time (Tocqueville,
1956), or of others governing us. One of its foundations is the great
difficulty of having and managing information for collective deci-
sion-making, which impedes the decision-making process from be-
ing the result of a debate among all. Today, this limitation can, un-
doubtedly, be reduced with the introduction of e-participation
instruments. However, the incorporation of corrective elements to
the current system of political representation would require the re-
thinking of some of the fundamental concepts of representative de-
mocracy. If this does not happen, it is probably because participa-
tion is in decision-making areas that are not of great importance to
the community.
6. Challenges for democracy
Up to now, we have dealt with some of the principal issues that
emerge in understanding democracy. The construction of this system
of government has been the result of a rich debate which has at-
tempted to address the social, economic, political and institutional
characteristics of each historical period. This permits us to state that
there is no ideal type of democracy, nor it is possible to “prescribe”
a normative model, as is often done by international bodies for
states that do not belong to the club of democratic countries. When
this is done, this results in the appearance of states with formal but
not real democracy. In this sense, Dahl (1998) points out that the es-
sential conditions for democracy to thrive are: control over military
power and the police by elected officials, the existence of democ-
ratic values and a democratic political culture, and the inexistence of
a foreign control hostile to democracy. To this, he adds as condi-
tions favourable to democracy the existence of a market economy
and a modern society, as well as a weak few cultural conflicts. It is
evident that many countries in which democratic constitutions exist
do not meet all these requirements.
Democracy is a clear Western product, with its origin in the liberal
state, and has been constructed by numerous thinkers, politicians,
social movements and by tradition and political practice for more
than two hundred years. In this process, each society has opted for
diverse solutions to the problems that have emerged, but this does
not mean that the existing model in each country is the most evolved
form from the specific historical process. This implies that there
will always exist problems for democracy, just as there are for life in
society, and that some of these emerge from the past just when we
thought that they had been overcome, as is currently happening in
the debate around e-democracy.
This chapter has tried to show that the central questions for democ-
racy today are not so different from those of the Greeks or, more re-
cently, the first liberals; nor are the problems or challenges to be
faced that different. The introduction of information and communi-
cation technologies in the mechanisms of democracy and its concep-
tualization as e-democracy reopens old questions about direct de-
mocracy that were discussed in previous pages. The challenge is to
set out solutions, not global ones but rather solutions adapted to each
situation, environment, collective, issue, etc: Two centuries of repre-
sentative democracy have shown us that it is a good mechanism for
resolving political conflicts of a general character, although it pre-
sents problems in specific areas. Undoubtedly, a focus on e-
democracy can lead to a strengthening of representation if not to an
alternative in some specific cases, as well as a strengthening of the
citizenry which can widen its decision-making capacity and its
knowledge of political activity.
The first challenge raised is that of civic education and knowledge.
Both Plato and Aristotle were concerned about the knowledge nec-
essary to deal with political affairs. For Aristotle, one of the charac-
teristics of democracy was its rustic nature and for John Stuart Mill
(1991) one of the dangers of representative democracy was the “low
grade of intelligence in the representative body, and in the popular
opinion which controls it”. This issue raises the question today of
whether the average citizen possesses the information and knowl-
edge necessary to rationally evaluate government decisions, as
Schumpeter stated (1976). The answer cannot be other than nega-
tive. This leads radical democrats to again take up the need to in
deepen the civic virtue of the citizens and their knowledge of public
affairs, proposing as the most effective method for doing this their
active participation in political processes.
Dahl argues that if the institutions in charge of promoting civic edu-
cation are weak there is only one satisfactory solution: they must be
strengthened. Along the same lines he also insists that another es-
sential aspect for strengthening democracy is the existence of a de-
mocratic political culture based on democracy and equality being
desirable ends; that basic democratic institutions must be preserved;
and that differences and disagreements between citizens must be tol-
erated and protected (Dahl, 1998).
The second challenge is that of effectiveness. The first liberals were
conscious that “democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of
government upon the people” because it does not “display a regular
and methodical system of government” (Tocqueville, 1956). This
second problem has been partially resolved through giving the task
of the executive function of government to enormous professional
bureaucratic apparatuses, though this has created doubts about their
legitimacy and responsibility because of their democratic deficit.
However, the question of the effectiveness of democracy still exists
when we ask whether democratic institutions really consider citizen
preferences in their governing preferences. Another issue which de-
rives from this is if these institutions are really adequate for channel-
ling these preferences. It is likely that democracies are as they must
be and that they have managed to achieve a certain effectiveness in
their management of public affairs and a relative stability, but it can
also be stated that we can see a worrying distance between political
institutions and their leaders and the citizenry, which is eroding the
legitimacy of the democratic system.
The previous issues refer to the central problem of current democ-
racy, which is the question of representation. We can say as
(Michels, 1962) does that that which is oppresses that which ought
to be”, in other words, the clear dominance of the political parties
and political-bureaucratic structures overwhelms the representation
of the needs and preferences of the citizenry.
Perhaps the problem is found in the very mechanism of representa-
tion, which is designed to gather the preferences of a big number of
citizens over political party lists and not to channel the preferences
and needs of those citizens. The historical explanation is that liberal
representative democracy was the response to the implementation of
democracy in large countries and complex societies with a great di-
versity of interests to be addressed. However, perhaps at this mo-
ment it is necessary and timely to rethink some aspects of represen-
tation in light of new technologies and current social complexity and
Currently, representatives are not subject to a binding mandate or to
recall and their accountability to the electorate is limited by the in-
terference of political parties. This favours the creation of a political
and technocratic elite, which, in advanced societies, shares in great
part the same cultural values and interests which are not necessarily
those of the citizenry. In this way, representative democracy has
averted the danger which direct democracy represented of govern-
ment by the many, although at the cost of government by the few,
leading the system toward an oligarchic or aristocratic model.
Thus,we can conclude, as does (Schumpeter, 1976), that democracy
is the government of the politician and that “the will of the people is
the product and not the propelling power of the political process.”
In addition to the above challenges to democracy, Dahl (1998) adds
the challenges of the tension between capitalism and democracy and
its impact on political inequality, the democratization of interna-
tional organizations, the integration of cultural diversity, and the im-
provement of civic education to increase the capacities of citizens,
so that they can be more involved in political life and can face the
complexity of public affairs.
The last issue to be dealt with is that referring to citizen participa-
tion. The current challenge is not so much increasing participation to
the point that it substitutes current decision-making mechanisms
through political representation in democratic societies, but to avoid
that the incorporation of participatory instruments in the political
process reinforces the elitist tendency in the political system with the
inclusion of new social leaders who produce greater distance from
citizens and a loss of legitimacy in the system. The current exercise
of political power can assume without great cost, from a neo-
corporative or similar logic, the incorporation of new social groups,
which does not mean that the interests of the majority of the citizens
are better represented.
Perhaps the future of democracy lies in deepening and perfecting it,
particularly through deepening the systems of responsibility and
transparency for political leaders, eliminating some of the preroga-
tives of the parties and providing greater political education to citi-
zens, especially in regard to that which provides greater capacity for
understanding of government action, in which the focus on e-
democracy and information and communication technologies can
undoubtedly help.
Acknowledgments Research supported by the E-Democracia-CM program.
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