Changing Dynamics of Democracy

Democracy is now consıdered to be the best administrative system in the world. This is principally is because, with democratic regimes, there are systemic precautions to prevent rulers acting in an autocratic manner towards their people. Also, various aspects of democracy such as freedom of speech, human rights, individual liberties, freedom of the media, and minority rights have been embedded into current democratic systems and given utmost importance. The way democracy works actually depends on the axiom that people will invariably decide what is in their best interests via “free” elections. Allowing people to decide for themselves implies that they would always know what is good for them and so the results of free elections would bring legitimate political and social order and prosperity. That is why democracy was characterised by Abraham Lincoln as a system “by the people for the people”.

The conceptual picture of democracy is the ultimate point where most of the human beings can and should aim to achieve. Therefore, most nations claim that they have a democratic regime despite their different institutions and practices. There is no need for comparisons between democratic regimes to determine which one is the most democratic but there is a general consensus on that western states are those in which democracy is embedded into their legislative and governing systems, culture, and judiciary. Therefore, the democratic systems prevalent in those countries offer a fundamental basis from which to develop criteria that can be used to measure the levels of democracy elsewhere.

The European continent, which is thought to be the cradle of democracy, is in crisis because liberal democracy is now changing towards majoritarian democracy. The latter is still democracy but from a liberal perspective, the absolute authority of a certain identity, which of course consists of a majority, is not acceptable by definition and even challenges the essence of the concept of liberal democracy. Historical experiences in terms of the development of democracy indeed suggests the opposite because in certain periods in the past democracy meant simply extending the ruling circle and expanding the franchise or giving a greater number of individuals a voice in decision making processes. This short paper argues that the current migration flows from conflict areas to the western states forces liberal democracies to be replaced with majoritarian democracies. Up until now, the development of democracy might have been characterised as ‘progressive’ but it now appears to be reactionary (not democratic opposition but claiming re-dominancy of a certain identity) and backward-looking as has been seen historically.

The emergence of the concept of democracy dates back to the ancient Greek city-states and was formulated as the rule of the people. However, what is meant by ‘the people’ and identifying who they are is problematic because only notables, rich people, nobles and men were considered and so only they had to right to engage in politics or in decision making processes. If neglecting the rest of the society (women and slaves), it is a ‘perfect’ democracy because every people took responsibility for political issues. On the contrary, the history of democracy is full of the struggles of those who were excluded from the decision-making process and this can be seen as a characteristic of the democratization process since ancient times.

After witnessing the dark and the middle ages, in the Enlightenment period, human beings were freed from dogmatic ideas and reactionary political systems and superseded them with “free will” which was based on rational thought. In such a long period of time, this struggle was focused against political structures identified as absolute sovereignty which was founded on on religion, tradition, royal families and feudal structures. By means of the French Revolution, political rights were expanded to encompass ordinary French citizens (mostly bourgeoisie) who fell into the majority profile of France and a political philosophy offering equality to every French citizen. In other words, the French Revolution was a victory of ordinary French citizens consisting of the majority against a French aristocracy, nobles and feudal lords who were a minority. In this sense, democracy was characterised as the people who were seen as ‘the ruled’ to have achieved the same status as the people who were considered as ‘the rulers’. In short, it is the participation of all people the political process. Regardless of how one identifies ‘the people’, their preferences provided legitimacy to the democratic regimes and the system itself and the leaders who were elected through this system were legitimate because people freely chose those whose power was limited by law so that they could not do harm to their people.

Following on from this, nationalist ideas suggest that people who have the same ethnic, cultural and linguistic characteristics grouped as collectives which led to a nation-state structure. This ‘sameness’ created a majoritarian democracy so major identities came to dominate the social fabric. Political parties representing ordinary citizens (French, German or American) obtained power and directly or indirectly disseminated their dominant ideas throughout their societies. In this regard, it is possible to say that until all people obtained the right to vote, democracy was characterised by majoritarian features and this was consolidated by people identifying themselves with particular nations. Under these circumstances, a nation’s interest that was believed to be shared by all people became a fundamental aspect of national and international politics.

When it comes to the changes in the components of nations, this majoritarian democracy had to concede its triumph to liberal democracy which ties people with legal citizenship rather than having a certain ethnic or cultural identity. This was in part as a consequence of the number of deaths caused by warfare and massive migrations between nations brought about new concepts in national and international politics, such as human rights and multi-culturalism. These changes elasticized the definitions of particular nations and their characteristics. This was especially evident in the international agreements on guaranteeing human rights and the cultural rights of minorities, indicating a changing understanding of the dominant national identities.

From a historical perspective, the concept of democracy appears to have progressively evolved from a minoritarian (Greek city-states) to a majoritarian character and then to liberal democracy. In the last phase, leaders are not merely elected and left alone to rule but checked and influenced by civil society, social groups and even individuals. In addition, the multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-identity characteristics of liberal democracy have dominated the literature regarding the states, regimes, and democracy. Each of these characteristics are also allowed to take part in both civil society, social groups and political parties, especially as minority groups which are expected to be naturally assimilated within or integrated into the dominant social culture of certain states.

Nevertheless, it is believed that multi-culturalism has failed because those who have distinctive identities apart from the dominant identity, culture, and even religion have neither successfully assimilated nor fully integrated. That might not have been an issue if the numbers of ‘others’ had not dramatically increased. Therefore, these distinctive identities, or ‘others’ are now perceived by many as a threat to the dominant identity and culture because, since early years of the 21st century, the numbers of people migrating from areas of conflict to liberal democratic western states have increased dramatically. This trend has encouraged many to think that majoritarian democracy might claim reinstate its former dominant position because immigrants are resisting the dominant identity and culture while citizenship is the only binding factor keeping people together despite their differences. That seems true in legal terms but it is not clear whether is true from a social and cultural perspectives.

The aspects of democracy, such as human rights, high prosperity and the rule of law convince immigrants that European states are the best place to migrate to and settle for a new life. Yet, as long as immigration numbers are higher than that which the liberal democratic western states can tolerate, social, economic and cultural reactions of the natives (those who have major identity) will change the liberal democratic characteristics of the Western states for a majoritarian democracy which only focuses on the interests of the majority rather than providing certain rights to minorities. As mentioned before, in democracies people will decide who is going to lead or which political party will rule. It means that the liberal understanding embedded into the western culture and individuals will change first and consequently cause a change in power.

Given the history of democracy in the world, liberal democracy is a perfectly suitable means of ruling for prosperous countries which have adequate resources to allow them to tolerate differences. Otherwise, a majority of the people of any given state will focus on their own interest rather than willingly sharing their wealth with ‘others’ who are posing danger for them. There have been always some people who have altruistic view for minorities and their identities but this might not be adequate to prevent rising majoritarian claims.

Trump’s economic and social policies, and the EU’s migration crisis are practical examples of these historical changes because their established liberal order in economy, culture and politics demonstrate a massive change. The rising popularity of extreme left and right wing political parties in Europe and Trump’s abandonment of established global economic relations via an increase in custom duties are examples of such social and economic changes, respectively.

Rahman DAG, (PhD)
Cesran International,
Adiyaman University,

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How to Cite:

DAG, R. (2018), ‘Changing Dynamics of Democracy’, Political Reflection Magazine, 4(4): 6-9.

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