(Sometime ago I was invited to submit an article on electronic democracy [eDemocracy] for publication in a scientific journal. However, after asking colleagues to send me anything they had that could be cited in the review, I discovered that there was almost nothing published on this topic. Most of the literature seemed to be methods of managing public participation and involvement. For example, how to manage public hearings, focus groups, and other fora where public opinion could be refined for presentation to the actually decision makers. This was not supporting what I considered to be a democratic process. I present here the draft that was started.)
No political concept is more popular and more perplexing than "democracy". It seems to come in an almost infinite variety of forms: direct democracy, representative democracy, participatory democracy, strong democracy, guided democracy, multi-party democracy, and so on. The concept is even applied to seeming non-political areas, for example, "economic democracy." On the other hand, economic actions can be seen as a way to improve political democracy: Allocating funds to local communities, to be used as they see fit for community improvement, is characterized as a type of participatory democracy.
To increase the confusion, it seems that even the most dictatorial regimes proclaim themselves to be democracies. Wallerstein (2010) notes "there is virtually no country in the world today whose government does not claim to be the government of a democracy. But at the same time, there is virtually no country in the world today about which others – both inside the country and in other countries – do not denounce the government as being undemocratic." He continues:
The word, democracy, was not always so universally popular. The word first came into common modern political usage in the first half of the nineteenth century, primarily in western Europe. At that time, it had the tonality of terrorism today.
The idea that the “people” might actually “rule” was considered by all respectable people as a political nightmare, dreamed up by irresponsible radicals. In fact, the principal objective of respectable people was how to make sure that it was not the majority of the people who had the authority to decide. This authority had to be left in the hands of people who had interests in preserving the world as it was, or as it should be. These were people with property and wisdom, who were considered competent to make decisions.
After the revolutions of 1848, in which the “people” rose up in social and national revolutions, men of property and competence grew frightened. They responded first with repression, and then with calculated concessions. The concessions were to admit people, slowly and bit by bit, to the ballot. They thought that the ballot might satisfy the demands of the “people” and in effect co-opt them into sustaining the existing system.
Over the next 150 years, this concession (and others) worked to a considerable degree. Radicalism was muted. And after 1945, the very word, democracy, was co-opted. Everyone now claimed to be in favor of democracy, which is where we are today.
Perhaps we should think of democracy as a claim and an aspiration that has not been realized anywhere yet. Some countries may seem to be more undemocratic than others. But are any countries demonstrably more democratic than others?
So, even when a formal democratic structure is proclaimed the law of the land, and there are free and fair elections, the actually influence of the citizen may be extremely limited. This is not just a problem in poor, backward, or underdeveloped countries, it may actually reach a pinnacle of sophistication and success in what are considered to be the most advanced democratic states (Crouch, 2004; Marquand, 2004). A leading author and activist has declared “Today, the biggest scam in the world is democracy” (Roy, 2010). This is alternatively expressed as, "If this is democracy, what is next?"
It is clear from this brief overview, that our first major task is to define and delimit what we will consider to be a democratic system. Parry (1995) notes that the Greek direct democracy defined democracy for the more than two thousand years up to the American revolution. Therefore to begin, we will limit our discussion to the original meaning of the term. In the original Greek, the term "dēmokratia" comes from "dēmos," meaning the people, plus "kratia," meaning power or rule. Thus, in a democratic system the people rule and they obey rules that they make themselves. Of course, a definition alone doesn't provide a complete picture of the Greek democracy. The city state of Athens is typically taken as the fullest expression of that democracy. Athens had two major bodies that played a legislative role. A two to five hundred person Council prepared proposals for new laws. Citizens were limited to two yearly terms on the Council. Proposals were then discussed in the Assembly, which included all citizens who chose to attend. A typical Assembly would number five thousand, out of an eligible citizenry of about thirty thousand. About forty Assemblies would be held each year. There was also a judicial system, to which about six thousand citizens were assigned each year. A given trial would employ hundreds of these citizens. Finally, there was a large number of public offices that had to be filled. The large number of participants in official functions and the rule limiting serving repeatedly meant that a substantial fraction of citizens would be involved in administering the Athenian democracy over their life time. Parry (1995) notes that about of a third of citizens served on the Council at some point in their lives. This clearly was a participatory democracy. It also was a democracy based upon deliberation. Finally, the operation of the system was prescribed by a constitution.
Random selection of officials of all sorts was typically, since this was seen as most fair. A combination of election or appointment followed by a random selection was also common. The result would be a form of stratified random sampling, which assured a balance among different interests or "tribes." The circulation of such large numbers of citizens through the different governance bodies and other positions presented significant logistical problems. Not only did selection of hundreds of persons take place on a daily basis, but it was also necessary to ensure the right persons were performing their assigned functions. Maintaining a balance of participation was also a substantial task, since hundreds or even thousands might be involved in a deliberation.