#WeDecide: What Is (Not) Democracy?

The world is messy. We cannot put things into neat categories. Like democracy. And that's fine – we should embrace the disorderliness and chill.

In a simpler world, it would always be easy to decide what is what. There would be apples and pears, grains of sand and heaps of sand, democracies and dictatorships, and nothing in between. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world. We have pappels. It is famously hard to tell heaps from non-heaps. And there are all sorts of regimes that are just in between. They could be called democracies, for they share a number of features with those regimes that we are sure qualify as democracies. But they also have a number of features that more closely resemble regimes that are surely not democracies.

Now, you may have come across articles discussing at length whether some in-between regime is still in fact a democracy, or not anymore. And you may have thought that the people who write those articles engage into a completely futile project. The world is messy.

We cannot put everything into neat categories. We should embrace the disorderliness and chill.

If “democracy” would be a concept just like “apple”, or “heap of sand”, you would be quite right. But it is not. In our everyday conversations, democracy is used as a normative term - that is, people attach some value (in the case of democracy, positive value) to it, and expect others to adhere to this value.

For example, when your nine-year-old nephew shrieks “But this is not democratic!”, he does not simply want to point out that the way you decided which show he and his siblings can watch did not respect the “one person, one vote” principle”. What he really wants to say is that you should have given everyone in the household (including the minors) one vote and you should have let the majority decide. Even when the majority decides for Pet Sematary.

Of course, your nephew may have been wrong. Democratic decision making is certainly not the way to go in all possible situations. Nevertheless, democratic decision making is the only morally acceptable option when it comes to public life, when it comes to issues that require the cooperation of many disagreeing adult persons. Or so we, European citizens, tend to believe.

When people fight over the correct labelling of a regime, whether it could be called a democracy, they fight over the regime’s moral acceptability. The reason they want to draw a line between democracies and non-democratic regimes is not that they cannot deal with disorderliness. It is that they believe that our course of action hangs on where that line is. If a regime is democratic, hence, morally acceptable (which does not mean that it is perfect or flawless), we should work on making it better. If a regime is not democratic, hence, morally unacceptable, we should fight against it. Empirically speaking, there may well be a grey area between full-blown democracies and autocratic regimes. Still, we have no choice but to draw a line. Because there is no grey area possible between the two ways of proceeding.

Anti-values European leaders are painfully well aware of this. Sometimes they label their regimes as "illiberal democracies". With this they want to say that although they may well be somewhat different to what we used to call democracies, the regimes they rule are still morally acceptable. But they are not. Regimes that do not respect the principles of liberty, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are morally unacceptable. Therefore, they are not to be called democracies.

As you may have noticed, in this piece we talked about the importance of being able to tell the difference between what democracy is and what it is not. We argued that although there is a grey area, a line must be drawn between democracies and non-democratic regimes. But we have not really discussed what a democracy is. Is it a regime where the “one person, one vote principle” is generally respected? Or is it more than that? And what is this thing about moral acceptability? Why are democracies the only morally acceptable regimes? If you are interested in these questions, please follow us on social media and read the coming articles in this series.


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