Liberal democracy is frequently used to describe the political philosophy of America. Though books may argue about how many governments America has, each sector of government would claim to base itself on liberal democracy. Indeed the basis of governments having to go to the electorate on a fixed and frequent rate is part of this democratic process whereby government is done for the people rather than an exercise that leads to the creation of policies but at the exclusion of public debate.
Liberalism is a political view that seeks to change the political, economic or social quo to foster the development and well-being of the individual. Liberals regard the individual as a rational creature who can use his or her intelligence to overcome human and natural obstacles to a good life for all without resorting to violence against the established order. Liberalism is more concerned with process, with the method of solving problems, than with a specific programme.
In the C18 and C19 liberalism emphasised the full development of the individual free from the restraints of government. In the C20, liberalism has seen a change of direction in that it looks to government as a means of correcting the abuses and shortcomings of society through the use of positive programmes of action. Today’s liberals would see the government as a positive force in issues involving, for example, civil rights when the government can use its authority and power to change society for the good so that individuals can experience a positive benefit to their lives brought about by government action. In this sense, modern liberals do not see the government necessarily as a major threat to individual freedom.
Democracy is a frequently used word but its meaning is rarely fully understood. A democratic political system is one in which the ultimate political authority is vested in the people. The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos” which means the people and “kratos” which means authority.
Democracy may be direct, as practised in New England town meetings, or indirect and representative. In the modern pluralistic democratic state, power typically is exercised in groups or institutions in a complex system of interactions that involves compromises and bargaining in the decision process. The democratic creed includes the following four concepts:
Individualism; which holds that the primary task of government is to enable each individual to achieve the highest potential of development.
Liberty; which allows each individual the greatest amount of freedom consistent with order.
Equality which maintains that all persons are created equal and have equal rights and opportunities.
Fraternity; which postulates that individuals will not misuse their freedom but will co-operate in creating a wholesome society.
As a political system, democracy starts with the assumption of popular sovereignty, vesting ultimate power in the people. It presupposes that people can control their destiny and that they can make moral judgements and practical decisions in their day lives. In implies a continuing search for truth in the sense of humanity’s pursuit of improved ways of building social institutions and ordering human relations. Democracy requires a decision-making system based on majority rule, with minority rights protected.
Effective guarantees of freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, petition and of equality before the law are indispensable to a democratic system of government. Politics, parties and politicians are the catalytic agents that make democracy workable.
“Most Americans think of their political system as best described by the term democratic.” (Plano and Greenberg). Yet the word does not appear in the Declaration of Independence nor in the American Constitution – though the word was rarely used anywhere in the world when these two documents were produced. For a number of centuries democracy was regarded as a dangerous and unworkable doctrine. It took a hold in the western world during the C19 and C20 and was attacked by both extreme left and right wing political groups. There are those who condemn it as mob rule that vulgarises society and as a belief that tolerates mediocrity and incompetence. It has also been criticised as a sham – a belief that can’t work as it goes against human nature. i.e. a government will claim to be democratic in name but in practice it will decide what it will do for the people as an election victory has given it the public mandate to do this but it will rarely – if at all – use referendums to fully find out what the public think about potential legislation during the life time of that government.
Plano and Greenberg believe that for democracy to work in its purest form it needs to have certain pre-requisites. Society has to be educated and responsible. The state must have a degree of economic stability. Social cohesion and social consensus must exist. Above all, it requires the acceptance of the democratic “rules of the game”;
that there should be frequent and fair elections. that the losers must accept the verdict of the public and allow the majority to govern. that the majority will respect the right of the minority to provide the government with opposition if the minority wins a future election, it will be permitted to take over the reins of government.
Can democracy ever be created in its most perfect form? It is argued that if governments try to move in the direction of democracy then they have the right to be labeled democratic. Democracy found in America and western Europe was given a huge boost in the 1980s and 1990s when many communist governments gave way to what were termed democratic ones. The same thing is occurring in the Third World which is further undermining the hold of authoritarian regimes but giving a further boost to western style democracy.