Literally ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek ‘demokratia,’ and may be translated as the rule of the common people (‘demos’ means ‘common people’ and ‘kratos’ means rule or strength). In a narrow sense, it seems that any society that affords the majority vote of its population a significant role in governance would count as a democracy. Two questions arise when further identifying a democracy: what if the “majority” is composed of only a minority of those people living in the state? For example, what if a necessary condition of voting is being male? Or a landowner? Or an adult? What if certain ethnic groups are not permitted to vote? Or if felons and prisoners are not permitted to vote? A second matter concerns the justness of the majority imposing its will on the minority. In the German election of March 1933, Hitler’s Nazi party received 33% of the votes. This was enough for Hitler to form a government with help from another party. But imagine Hitler received 60% of the votes and he acted swiftly to execute his main rivals and then quite openly worked to purge Germany of its Jewish citizens, executing them in large numbers with the support of an increasing percentage of the population. His popularity would become larger insofar as he killed those who opposed him. Under those conditions, would we classify such a state as democratic? In some narrow, lean concept of ‘democracy’ perhaps we would, but our reluctance to do so suggests that the concept of ‘democracy’ today is linked to a form of governance in which citizens are recognized as having certain rights, even if they are in the minority. For a classical American treatment of this issue, see James Madison’s “Paper Number Ten” in The Federalist.
In “The Constitutional Conception of Democracy,” Jeremy Waldron integrates a strong view of individual rights into the concept of democracy:
The identification of someone as a right-bearer expresses a measure of confidence in that person’s moral capacities – in particular his capacity to think responsibly about the moral relation between his interests and the interests of others. The possession of this capacity – a sense of justice, if you like! – is the primary basis of democratic competence. Our conviction, that ordinary men and women have what it takes to participate responsibly in the government of their society is, in fact, the same conviction as that on which the attribution of rights is based.
This conception of democracy is therefore not merely procedural in nature, but requires confidence in the morality and maturity of citizens:
A theorist of rights should not be in the business of portraying the ordinary members of a democratic majority as selfish and irresponsible predators. But equally a theorist of democracy should not affect a pure proceduralist’s nonchalance about the fate of individual rights under a system of majority-decision, for many of these rights (even those not directly implicated in the democratic ideal) are based on the respect for individual moral agency that democracy itself involves.
Waldron amplifies this morality-based approach to democracy with his insistence that persons in a democracy have a responsibility to engage in debate in the course of resolving disagreements:
Democracy requires that when there is disagreement in a society about a matter on which a common decision is needed, every man and woman in the society has the right to participate on equal terms in the resolution of that disagreement. The processes that this involves may be complex and indirect; there may be convoluted structures of election and representation. But they are all oriented in the end toward the same ideal: participation by the people – somehow, through some mechanism – on basically equal terms. This means that there cannot be democracy unless the right to participate is upheld, and unless the complex rules of the representative political process are governed, fundamentally, by that right. If some are excluded from the process, or if the process itself is unequal or inadequate, then both rights and democracy are compromised.
If such a constitutional democratic system is accepted or recognized as being just, then this may form the basis for the compulsory education of citizens up to a certain level of moral competence.