Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The three principles of democracy [excerpt]

Whether or not true democracy can ever be achieved remains uncertain. Historian James T. Kloppenberg argues that while democracy can be defined as an ethical ideal, the practical definition of democracy is too contentious to be adopted as a political system. The following shortened excerpt from Toward Democracy analyzes three contested principles of democracy: popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality.

At the heart of debates about democracy are three contested principles, popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality; and three related, but less visible, underlying premises, deliberation, pluralism, and reciprocity. The persistent struggles over these principles and premises help explain the tangled history of democracy in practice as well as theory.

To start with the first of the three principles, popular sovereignty holds that the will of the people is the sole source of legitimate authority. Although apparently unambiguous, its precise meaning has always been the central issue in debates about democracy. Champions of monarchical or aristocratic rather than strictly popular government have insisted that the people can legitimately choose to—and should—place themselves under the authority of a single person or a group of qualified individuals. Even partisans of democracy have expressed misgivings about the people’s capacity to exercise judgment. Thomas Jefferson, by popular reckoning among the most passionately democratic of eighteenth-century thinkers, became increasingly ambivalent about those who considered him their champion. In a letter written in 1820, the seventy-seven-year-old Jefferson identified this perennial problem: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” he wrote in an apparently unqualified endorsement of popular rule. “If we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to enlighten their discretion.” Despite his genuine preference for democracy over monarchy or aristocracy, Jefferson did not identify the “we” charged with enlightening the people’s discretion or explain what justification “we” have for presuming to instruct them. That problem has dogged even the most ardent champions of democracy, who have been forced by abundant evidence to admit, as Jefferson himself did in the wake of the French Revolution, that the people are capable of horrible excesses. Ever since Plato’s Socrates likened statesmen to doctors and politicians to chefs—the former prescribe what is good for you even if it tastes terrible, the latter merely ask what tastes good—political thinkers have acknowledged the need to “enlighten” the people or to train (or restrain) their appetites. The principle of popular sovereignty itself, which assumes that the people are the source of authority and possess the potential to exercise good judgment, has been understood to be consistent with multiple forms of government.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peale, circa 1791. Courtesy of the Independence National Historical Park. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Autonomy is the second principle of democracy. One of the principal arguments of this study is the centrality of the idea of autonomy in contrast to the impoverished conceptions of freedom that dominate contemporary scholarly and popular debate. The etymological roots of “autonomy” stretch back to the Greek words for “self” and “rule” or “law.” “Autonomy” thus means self-rule. An autonomous individual exercises control over his or her own life by developing a self that is sufficiently mature to make decisions according to rules or laws chosen for good reasons. Autonomous individuals are in control of themselves, which means first that they are sovereign masters of their wills and second that they are not dependent on the wills (or whims) of others. Recent political theorists who have distinguished between “positive” and “negative” freedom, between the freedom to do something and the freedom from constraint, depart from the discourse of earlier democratic theorists, who understood that autonomy means self-rule in both the positive and negative senses: it requires a self both psychologically and ethically, as well as economically and socially, capable of deliberate action; and it requires the absence of control over individuals by other individuals and by the state. Autonomy has meaning only if individuals are understood as beings who act on the basis of consciously chosen goals developed in the framework of community standards and traditions. Thus in democratic discourse the idea of autonomy, like that of popular sovereignty, must be balanced against other ideas, in this case the dual awareness that constraints circumscribe individual choices and that the choices of the mature self must be weighed against the demands of the community.

Equality is the third contested principle of democracy. The conflict arises not only from the familiar opposition between the values of equality and individual autonomy but also from the inescapable tensions within the concept of equality itself. The familiar distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of result again obscures the deeper problem, because equal opportunity is not possible in conditions of extreme inequality. There is nevertheless an inevitable contradiction between the principle of equality and the democratic commitment to majority rule. Imagine a simple community with three voters. Two of them decide that the third should become their slave, and they justify their decision by the principle of majority rule. When the third invokes the principles of autonomy and equality in self-defense—as oppressed minorities have often done, sometimes successfully—that strategy counter-poses principles equally central to democracy to the principle of majority rule.

The discourse of democracy, like the institutional frameworks of different democratic cultures, is complex and multilayered. It requires the careful weighing of different values rather than the passionate defense of one alone. As its emergence over the centuries shows, democracy is best understood as a way of life, not simply a set of political institutions. The internal tensions between the principle of popular sovereignty and the principles of autonomy and equality make the notion of a smooth-running, conflict-free democracy a contradiction in terms; history provides no examples of a placid democracy. Inherent in democracy, even when conceived of as an ethical ideal and a way of life, are the inevitable disagreements, and the victories, defeats, and compromises, that are inseparable from the commitment to allowing people to pursue their own ideals and refusing to specify in advance which of their different, and perhaps even incompatible, conceptions will triumph.

Featured image credit: “vote-word-letters-scrabble” by Wokandapix. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Alan Bates

    Before considering the concept of democracy and its application, the paramount premise that must be pored over is whether society – as the sine-qua-non condition for democracy, or anything of the ilk, to exist – is realistic or utopian.

    You will find that, without radically altering the originally intended meaning stemming from the etymology of “socius”, there will be no room for any study of the kind you attempted.

    I make assertions as a bona fide moral/political philosopher.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *