What Does Democracy Mean Today?

What Does Democracy Mean Today?

What does the word democracy mean today?  There is certainly more than one answer to this question, because democracy is a word with a long and rich history and multiple meanings. Therefore, a meaningful analysis must first distinguish between the meanings and then (being cognizant of the old scholastic wisdom distinguere sed non separare) examine their interdependencies and relationships.  I suggest that the problem of today’s democracy be approached from four perspectives:

I.          Democracy as a form of government

II.        The ethos of democracy, democracy as a political culture

III.      Democracy from the historical perspective: ancient  versus modern

IV.     Democracy as a central and truly “cosmopolitan” value in the age of globalization; democracy as a precondition for peace among nations; the internationalization of democracy

I. Democracy as a Form of Government

According to its classical definition, democracy is a form of government. It is the rule of the many, in contrast to a monarchy, which is the rule by one, or an oligarchy, which is the rule by a few. As with any other rule, democracy requires a system of offices and institutions designed to order the social body, to administer its necessary functions, and to defend its vital interests in the external environment. Successful institution building and marketing of institutions are necessary conditions for democracy’s development and its enduring vigor and prosperity. The institutional set-up of democracy (which may include constitutional frameworks; executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the national government; political parties; elections; local or regional governments; the protection of individual, economic and social rights before independent courts of justice; media and information; civilian control of the military; the system of education; etc.) can be described and studied from all possible perspectives. Legal, functionalist, or historical analyses of democratic institutions represent the principal point of departure for every student of democracy today, making up the fundamental bulk of our cognitive basis for understanding and evaluating its current (actual) state.                 

Nonetheless, democracy is always more than a static functioning system. Fundamentally and above all, it is a political idea that is endowed with the power to set human matters in motion, rather than to keep them as they were — to open human society under its rule, rather than to keep it closed. A synchronic analysis is simply not sufficient to grasp the very essence and principle of democracy. What should first be looked at is the process by means of which democracy came into existence — the transition from the traditional, i.e. hierarchical way of administering human matters to a radically new, “egalitarian organization of human society.  

When democracy first emerged in ancient Greece in the eighth century B.C., it was perceived as an epoch-making, truly revolutionary event: power that had originally been in the possession of kings, who administered human communities as their own households, was given “unto the midst of the people.” Prior to the discovery of democracy, it was the will of the deified rulers who acted as mediators between heaven and earth that was recognized as the ordering principle in human society and the basic source of their “laws.” A “polis” governed democratically was placed under the law (NOMOS), which was above all of its members. It was the rule of law that made all citizens of a polis free and equal, that endowed them with certain unalienable rights, and that enabled Aristotle to say that in the polis, “those who rule and those who are ruled are the same.” It was freedom based on equality that made the Greeks see themselves as different and “more human” than all of the “barbarians” — those who were subordinated to the unconditional will of their rulers like immature children – and was considered to be the fundamental value and  raison d’etre of their democracy.

In short, in order to understand the actual state of democracy, we must start not only with a description of a democratic form of government, but also with a historically informed analysis of the processes of democratization. It is essential to study the conditions under which the democratic idea historically was set in action.  What I intend to do in sections II, III and IV of this text is to point to three different questions – or three different areas of interest — that seem to me relevant in this context.

II. Ethos of Democracy, Democracy as a Political Culture

As I stated in Section I, a democracy is not just a state whose goal is to survive and maintain existence;  rather, a democracy must always have the character of a dynamic process driven by the conscious decision to make people equal before the law; it must be informed by the deliberate will to institute freedom as one of the fundamental human values; it must be animated by the belief that being free is not just a privilege of some individuals  – according to their status – but an open possibility for  every human being,  something that all humans can achieve under favorable conditions because it is rooted in the very human nature. Thus we shift our focus from the objective components of the democratic system to the subjective preconditions of a democratic,  open society.

Without proper institutional architecture, the life of a democratic society is likely to be emotionally loaded, messy and short. Without people sharing the conviction that the Greek form of a free life (even if sometimes harsh, demanding and full of uncertainties) is incommensurably better than the “barbarous” life of slavery — in short, without individuals truly committed to the democratic values of freedom and equality — such a society simply cannot come into being.

“While the state came about as a means of securing life itself, it continues in being to secure the good life,” according to Aristotlein his Politics (1252b31). In both ancient and modern political theory, the origin of the state is connected with a kind of primordial agreement — a social contract that must be upheld as binding by future generations.  The debate on the state of democracy in the contemporary world reminds us of what such a social contract is about. It affirms the recognition of the difference that Aristotle was speaking of — the difference between a “sheer life” that might be luxurious, pleasant and sufficient for one’s material well-being and a “good life” — one that will flourish only in the freedom of the polis and in the openness of its public space. A democratic society, then, is a community which has deliberately selected a democratic form of government where all activities and functions are performed under the conditions of the rule of law, in which the respect for privacy and the individual rights of the citizens are upheld, and where there exists an open political system in which those in power can be replaced peacefully by others with different policies.

The contractual basis of democracy requires a democratic ethos and political culture, a democratic education, and the “intermediary bodies” of civil society, which occupy the space between the private sector and government. It is these intermediary bodies of civil society that Alexis de Tocqueville recognized as essential to democracy during his visit to America in 1831. The intermediary bodies not only perform various functions that do not need to be performed by the state government, they also act as guardians of the social contract and important indicators that the decision to choose the freedom of a “good life” over the slavery of a “sheer life” continues to be cherished and unconditionally recognized as valid.

III. Democracy from the historical perspective: ancient versus modern.


The principal objection to the use of historical arguments in discussing democracy, especially the “Greek example”, is well known.  There is a fundamental difference in the very foundations of ancient and modern societies. The number of free citizens in the Greek city states was both proportionally and in absolute numbers rather small, and the vast majority of their inhabitants, including slaves, women and foreigners with permanent residency had no chance to participate in the political processes and enjoy the freedom of democracy. Nevertheless, I believe that those who argue that what might be considered  “Greek nostalgia” has no place in current progressive political thought are mistaken.

It is true that Greek society did not reach our level of individualism and emancipation. Nonetheless, the trend to free more and more individuals and to enable their entry into the public space was one of the most dynamic factors animating Athenian politics, triggering several fundamental constitutional reforms in Athens. The political culture of the period was ingrained in the dominant polytheistic religious beliefs as well as in kinship and blood ties (the web of gentilian relationships), which had a profound influence on the formation of human identity – more than we can ever imagine in our current context, which has been formed predominantly by a Judaeo-Christian monotheistic personalism. Notwithstanding major differences, we need to acknowledge that the very idea of an open society and of a democratic government structure was born among the inhabitants of small city-states in the Aegean region that shared common language, common religious traditions, common cultural heritage and that called themselves, in opposition to all “barbarians” in their region, HELLÉNÉS.

The ancient Greeks were the first nation to discover the liberating power of the public sphere, where individuals — freed from duties to their families, tribes or gentes — could stand face to face with other free men as equals among equals, ready to deal with the matters of the world.  Having emerged as equal citizens, they had the right to speak and to be heard, to voice their agreements or disagreements, to participate with their peers in collective decision-making, and to protect their polity by common action. The very fact that the public space was constituted in the “midst of people”, with free individuals ready and able to leave the privacy of their households and to act, as Hannah Arendt often said, “in concert,” changed the whole of human existence, giving history a new direction. The previous tendency of human societies to be protected against the erosive impact of time and to participate in the immortality that the cosmic divinities bestowed upon their deified rulers was overruled by the tireless efforts of mortal men to “immortalize” their finite existence on the earth by virtue of their own “words and deeds.”

Just as democracy cannot be reduced to a  “form of government,” it is still insufficient to  add to the “objective” components of a democratic system its “subjective” preconditions and highlight the democratic ethos as the necessary condition for the formation of civil society and democratic political culture. The emergence of democracy is a historical event of enormous magnitude, one of the crucial events in the history of both man and being. Only when man “invented” democracy, did he become fully conscious of the historical dimension of his existence. The founders of democracy in ancient Greece were the first people that we know of who realized and acted upon the insight that the human condition does not bind human beings to a stable and unchangeable place in the cosmos; that humans qua humans can abandon their inherited passive attitude and adopt an active stance towards the world; that they can understand and challenge the finiteness and fragility of their own historical situation, accept responsibility for it and thus begin to shape their own history.

On the one hand, the process of democracy must be by definition reversible: it must allow for the replacement of those in power by others with different policies, functioning even as the pendulum swings from one side to another. It is the steady pendular rhythm of democratic process that provides the element of order and regularity in public space, which is “disorderly” by the very fact of diversity of those who occupy it. Democracy functions by moving back and forth between extremes and hovers around the center. On the other hand,  the major virtue of a true democracy is not so much its smooth functioning, but open-mindness and creativity, its capacity to tolerate and integrate historical change; its readiness to take difficult, courageous decisions and actions.

Where a genuine democratic spirit and culture prevail, there is an inclination to move between the conservative forces committed to maintaining the status quo and the progressive forces of innovation and change. But there is even more than that. Democracy derives its strength and persuasiveness from its philosophical underpinnings, from the very concept of human nature, which opens a question of the historicity of the human condition. Is it not this ontological status of democracy that makes it the greatest disturber of the tranquility of the status quo and that endows it with the power to “cause” a new beginning in the course of human history? Is not the tendency or disposition towards democracy a part and parcel of human nature that enables humans to break the circle of necessity, imposed on them — as if by the being itself, requiring the unconditional compliance to its “laws” — and to make them open to the freedom of the world?

To sum up the results of our inquiry: are we not confronted here with a kind of paradox of democracy? Is it not true that democracy, by its very nature, seems doomed to work towards  two opposing objectives at the same time: to stabilize and preserve itself as a social and political order — as a “static” historical formation — and to destabilize itself in the name of its own ideals and standards of achievement, acting as the most powerful cause of instability and movement in human history? To keep a democratic system in existence presupposes the reversibility of democratic political processes. But vulnerability to historical changes always has existed in the human world, regardless how stable and ever-lasting any existing political order or power constellation may have appeared to be. Democracy, closer to human nature than any other form of government, somehow “knows” about the elements of irreversibility behind the regular swings of its election pendulum and perceives the human history not as a linear process with a knowable end, but as an open-ended adventure whose final outcome remains, and will remain until the end of the world, an unsolved mystery. Its outstanding protagonists have repeatedly shown the courage to act accordingly, i.e against their own power ambitions, struggling selflessly for the freedom of the world and not only for the selfish and narrow-minded “national interests” of their own states; jeopardizing for the sake of  “truth of history”– that as they have been well aware of, cannot be had or known — their political, and sometimes even physical self-preservation. 

In analyzing democracies over the course of history, we must never forget that the capacity for self-reflection and self-transformation is both the main virtue and the grave weakness of every democracy. Remember the Illiad, in which Homer, the respected “teacher of Hellas”, mentions the famous choice that Achilles faced –choosing between a long but tedious life at home and a short but adventurous life out in the world. Taking part in the Achaean military campaign against Troy, Achilles chose the second option — a short life filled with deeds worthy of being remembered and transformed into song. Being genuinely democratic does not necessarily mean being as militant and bloodthirsty as the ancient Homeric heroes. It does, however, mean that one should be prepared to face a similar dilemma often and to be able to make choices similar to the one made by Achilles.  It means an awareness that democracy is always fragile and in a state of danger; a belief in the liberating power of human deeds and words that are capable of shedding their light on the realm of human matters, otherwise dark and tedious, and keeping the public space open – not only, and not in the first place, to make the authors of these deeds or words famous and “immortal”, but for the sake of our common freedom in the ever changing world, our common human values, and, last but not least, our civility.


Democracies as we know them today are products of a different historical era. The rediscovery of the democratic form of government coincides with the transition of the European Judaeo-Christian civilization from the “Middle” to the “Modern” Age.  The origins and growth of modern democracy are part of the all-encompassing process of modernization, which includes the gradual but profound transformation from predominantly agrarian societies to industrial societies; the crises of medieval political and religious authorities; the emergence of new arts and sciences; the formation of modern political nations; and the radical enlargement of the inhabited world resulting from the discovery of new naval routes and new lands.

In the context of this treatise, we will consider ancient and modern democracies, looking at the similarity of the basic attitude and the state of mind of their respective advocates and protagonists. What is important to our debate is the fact that the rediscovery of democratic ideas by the emerging European nation-states was perceived by those who had the courage to dethrone the established “regal rule” and replace it with the “political rule” as a major historical event – a new beginning. We know well from the biographies of English political thinkers and politicians of the 17th and  18th centuries, as well as from the American founding fathers and those who inspired the French Revolution, how much attention all those well-educated men paid to ancient political thought and how deeply they were influenced by classical Greek and Roman authors. The three great revolutions of the modern era – English, American and French – which set the whole “civilized” world on its way towards constitutionalism and democracy as we know them today, were not inspired so much by utopias, even if certain utopian elements are embedded in all political revolutions, but by the readiness of their spiritual and political leaders to rediscover and find new uses for the old, well tested “liberal” ideas of classical antiquity.

The modern revolutionaries – took these ideas from their original contexts and, by using them in a new situation, gave them new content and new meaning. Still, the building and strengthening of democracy presented them with a challenge very similar to the one experienced by their ancient predecessors. When we look closely at how modern democracies came into existence and how they function, what we see is the old problem of isonomy and the rule of law; questions of the protection of individual “unalienable” rights; questions of the independence of the judiciary; and struggles for political emancipation and corresponding constitutional reforms. We are again reminded that it is the ethos of the society that is the most important condition for the survival of its democracy; the belief that the free life is better than enslavement, that the “good life” lived in the public space is worthy of defense and personal sacrifices.

What we have again is an “open” society that must exist without being able to offer a final answer to the question concerning its place in the course of human history, trying to discover, but never knowing with certainty, who are its friends and who are its enemies.

V. Democracy as a Central and Truly “Cosmopolitan” Value in the Age of Globalization; Democracy as a Precondition for Peace Among Nations; The Internationalization of Democracy.

The final part of this brief journey through the world of democracy, will focus on democracy’s international life, on the behavior of democracies towards the external environment in which they operate. I will begin with an analysis of the question in the context of the historical evolution of international systems. Second I will comment on the ideas, visions, and blueprints that are currently “in the air”. These concepts are in some cases too idealistic or even utopian, and in others are too dangerously down-to-earth.

War or Peace?

There is a traditional, well-tested response to threats to the existence of states, and democracies are no exception in this regard: the use of force. When the Greek cities, discovering, constituting, and occasionally experimenting with the democratic form of government, had to resist the military campaigns of the Persian Empire, they were left with only one option to keep themselves in existence: to fight and win. After the American founding fathers signed their famous Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, they also had no other choice but the use of force if they were to succeed in turning their political ideas into a political reality and separate their republican cause from the British Crown. They had to defeat the British colonial armies if they were to gain as well as declare their independence. In these cases, war was not only an act of self-defense, but also a crucial state-making event. It gave their revolutionary ideals full meaning, laid the foundations for state traditions, and endowed political body with a proper raison d’état and state ideology. Democracies eventually stopped being so bellicose and were ready to negotiate agreements with their former enemies. But regardless of how peaceful and peace-loving they became, they never abandoned the “golden rule” of all states — regardless of whether they are democratic or undemocratic: to protect themselves in the environment of international anarchy and to survive. The state’s survival, the sacrosanctity of its famous prerogatives, such as territorial integrity and sovereign equality, remained the supreme  “meta-value” above all values that animate the civil society contained within its borders. It is true that the rule of law was the landmark of a democratic government — but all good democrats were aware of the iron logic that dominated the tough world outside: in order to have democracy, you have to have a law; in order to have a law, you must first have a state; in order to have a state, you must be able to defeat and to keep warding off its enemies.

The “realistic” conceptions of the international behaviour of states — based on the belief that  “international society” is doomed to operate in the state of nature and, thus, by definition  “anarchic” (in the state of permanent war of all against all) — have had their fundamentum in re throughout the human history. At the same time, however, it is evident that the “realists” do not offer the full picture of the world of international relations. Although confrontation is an indisputable fact of life for states in the international environment, it is not the only possible modus operandi of states among themselves. What always has been available as a plausible, and more attractive alternative is their peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Under which conditions are states inclined not to fight each other, but rather to cooperate?

What has been, traditionally, the most important instrument to define, promote and bring into existence various forms of their cooperation? Is a democratic form of government more conducive to the peaceful solution of international conflicts, or is the international behavior of a state entirely independent on its internal organization, influenced only by the nature of international system? Every elementary text-book of international relations answers these questions. States show the tendency to cooperate when they do not threaten one another, and especially when they have to face a common enemy, when the way of life their inhabitants cherish — the civilization they embody, the religious or cultural values they stand for — are in danger. The instrument they use to define cooperative frameworks, to determine and  gradually to broaden the scope of their cooperation  – be it military, trade and economics, culture, people-to-people-contacts, education or anything else – is international law.

A due process of law instead of the use of force in the realm of international relations is undoubtedly a very attractive alternative, but there are many good reasons to remain cautious. On the one hand, there have been the situations in human history when  democratic ideals and values turned out to be powerful enough to influence decisively international politics of the time, motivating the collective resistance of “civilized” nations to “barbarity”, initiating intensive activities in the field of international law, giving birth to new treaties or  whole legal corpuses, inspiring the founding of new international organizations or even starting the process of integration of cooperating nation-states into a larger, supranational political unit. Still, it is not advisable to succumb to the illusion that the fundamental difference between domestic and international politics and law can and should be abolished entirely; that the planetary mankind can be brought to its “final” historical stage — the international civil society  — with a democratic world government and independent global judiciary. Such an idea, as even Kant realized, could be rather more dangerous than helpful for the future of democracy. The situation of the world at the beginning of the 21st century, in the ever-faster and more dynamic process of globalization, and considering the horrible experience with totalitarianism in the 20th century, offers many good reasons why it is advisable to be cautious not to stretch the capabilities of the democratic idea beyond its natural limits. The problem of democracy in the international environment, regardless of how much power is eventually delegated to democratic international institutions, how large is the territory under their jurisdiction, or how strong and enforceable is their international law,  can be again grasped in terms of a clash between the two competing models of description: should the international democracy be ultimately conceived as a “state” (i.e a stable form of government), or should it rather  be perceived, for substantive reasons, as an open-ended  process ?

Let us consider in this context once more the case of the Greek poleis that managed to organize themselves in defense of their Hellenic civilization – formed by their common religious and cultural heritage, the noetic insights contained in the common corpus of Greek philosophy and most important, by the common idea of democracy and politics  – against their common “barbarous” enemy during the Persian Wars. Their coalition held together and their “customary” international law was able to survive only in the unique situation of confrontation with the Persian Empire. After that war had been won and the Greek poleis had experienced their “golden age”, life-death conflict burst out among them. The war between former allies set the entire Aegean region in motion and the whole Greek political experiment, the entire Hellenic civilization — as though inspired by Achilles who also preferred a short, but glorious life to a long but tedious one — was turned into ruins in a couple of decades. Thanks to Homer, the heroic deeds of Achilles were turned into a song. In that sense, there is undoubtedly something Homeric in Greek political thought as well: it has, indeed, illuminated the path of mankind through its history from the beginning until today, even in  dark times, in spite of the fact that, seen from the perspective of contemporary political theorists or practitioners, it is safely a matter of the past.

Another less poetic, but perhaps more relevant case of historical dynamism for our debate is the history of European (or Western) civilization in the Modern Age, which gave birth to the idea of nation-states and their international politics. The history of international systems came into existence after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and has been evolving up to the present. From time to time, it is exposed to the strikes and blows of revolutions, ravaged by either local or all-out wars or struggles of independence; turned into the battle-field of those who strived for reunification of their nation and others who became for the same reason champions of fragmentation; suffering periodically the major crises of its identity and genuinely seeking in the aftermath of all these events to renew stability and to achieve reconciliation.

Those who debate the future of international (or even cosmopolitan) democracy should be aware of the long and winding road that modern political thought has traveled from its origins in the works of Bodin and Hobbes, who laid down the theoretical foundations of the concepts of state sovereignty, state supremacy and sovereign equality of states — formed within the orbit of the European civilization – to the current discussions concerning European integration, striving to cope with its endemic “democratic deficit”, transatlantic cooperation between Americans and Europeans, or possibilities for international cooperation in the environment of more and more connected world. What must be considered is the dynamic evolution of modern international law, from Grotius and Vatel to current conceptions of human rights and fundamental freedoms. From the classical doctrines of “humanitarian intervention” which set the first and most important limitation to the otherwise unlimited power of the “sovereign” Christian princes, we go to the language of the European Convention of Human Rights stating solemnly that “common understanding and observance of the Human Rights” represents, hand in hand with “an effective political democracy” a major instrument for achieving “greater unity between its Members” – between the European countries which are “like-minded, have a common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law”.

Despite of the fact that the post-modern climate of ideas of our times is very different from the spiritual and political atmosphere of Enlightenment, it seems to me that Kant’s 1795 project of “perpetual peace” still represents an unsurpassed and the most articulate theory for bringing the idea of democracy to the international level. Starting wit the simple postulate that “all men who can mutually influence one another must accept some civil constitution”, Kant not only formulates his famous thesis that for the sake of peace all civil constitutions should be republican, but proceeds first to the idea “ that the rights of nations be based on a federation of free states”, and, second, to the cosmopolitan right “that shall be limited to conditions of universal hospitality”. It is true, that Kant’s “peace proposal” scorned by the political realists as sheer utopia, has safely remained contained in the realm of philosophy. At the same time, one has to admit that the Kant’s key postulate of the project of perpetual peace, (it is the “republican constitution”, which “provides for this desirable result, namely, perpetual peace”) has been empirically confirmed by modern European history.  Democracies, indeed, have not been launching wars against one another and this simple idea is in fact being tested day after day by the existence and every-day life of the European Communities (the European Union).

Some questions for your discussions

Whatever results the current debate on the Europe’s future will be, the European integration proves that the internationalization of democracy has become a political reality; that it makes sense to talk about democracy among “like-minded states”, within a region which has been historically and spiritually tied to the concept of civilization.

Can we extend this debate to democracy on global level? Is it possible to confirm the principle of the rule of law as valid in the universal realm of international relations, and by doing so limit in an unprecedented way the sovereignty of nation-states and their territorial jurisdiction?  Who should approve this step and how? In history, it was the citizens of small city-states and, later, the larger, well defined political bodies born in the Modern Age, who entered into the “social contract,” constituting their civil societies and polities. It was always a finite, exclusive and homogenous people that shared the same elementary values and common understanding of the difference between the “good life” of democratic polis and the forms of “sheer life” available to the members of non-democratically administered human communities. Is it not somewhat beyond our common sense, and therefore somewhat unrealistic, to expect that humankind, with all of its cultural, religious, social and historical diversities, could ever enter into a social contract that express the consent of the governed with the idea of a global, even if very limited, government?

Can we think meaningfully about a democracy that is all-inclusive? Shouldn’t we, on the contrary, be worried that the transformation of the whole planet into one big would-be democratic monster would rather kill the very idea of democracy, its open political culture and its ethos? Is it not more likely that such a step would not bring us into the “Promised Land” of peace and justice for all, but would rather deprive us of our freedom and democratic traditions, condemning us and our posterity to live in a prison or in a concentration camp, from which there would be really no escape, because it would embrace all territories of our Mother-Earth? Would it not be more advisable than to indulge in the fantasies of cosmopolitan democracy, international civil society, and the New Age, etc., to return to the earth and raise once more the century-old question posed by Woodrow Wilson, the question of how to make the world  “safe for democracy”?

I am going to stop here and to leave the rest for your future discussions. In trying to clarify the theoretical roots of our currently used political concepts, it is useful to look back in history, to refresh our political thought, making it less rigid and more dynamic, less judgmental, and more open to making political judgments appropriate to our changing world. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: whether we are liberal reformers or political realists, uncompromising supporters of standard party politics, NGO activists promoting the idea of civil society or even anarcho-socialists, democracy has indeed become the flagship of our hopes for a better future. The possibility of its wreckage in the ocean of international affairs, indeed running extremely high after September 11, 2001, is rightly perceived as a major disaster.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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