Does democracy work?

Denying groups the right to vote is contrary to the function of a democracy, a system of government where each individual's vote has equal weight.
AP Images

Alexander Hamilton, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, was far from comfortable at the thought of instituting a democracy. Democracy was, in Hamilton's opinion and those of many others at the time, tantamount to mob rule. The idea of a large, diverse group of people attempting to govern itself invoked images of gangs tarring and feathering the local tax collector. That's not government, went the argument: That's lawlessness.

What Hamilton endorsed instead was a strong, centralized government run for the benefit of the whole by an elite ruling class [source: Wright and MacGregor]. That seems miles away from American democracy, though it's pretty much how the United States operates. The U.S. system of government is a republic, a type of democracy in which elected officials carry out the will of the people. These officials, called politicians, should know more about issues that face the society and how the government functions than the average citizen does. This means they're entrusted to speak on behalf of the people they represent. The citizens bestow their trust by voting officials into office.

A true democracy is slightly different. In a democracy, the will of the people serves as the basis for collective decisions. It's also called self-governance. Each member of the population expresses his or her opinion on each issue through voting. Since all votes are equal, the opinion held by the most members is considered the will of the majority. That's what becomes law.

In this sense, the U.S., which serves as the model for democracies around the world, can't use its 250 years of existence as proof that democracy works in practice. Also keeping the U.S. from serving as a true democratic model is the argument that it hasn't been even a republican democracy for more than a couple of decades.

One of the tenets of a democracy is that all members of the society must be equal. For the democracy to function, this equality must be present in the individual vote. Author N.D. Jayaprakash points out that in the U.S., groups have been disenfranchised from the right to vote. Initially, only white men wealthy enough to own land could vote, then all white men, then African-American men. It wasn't until 1920 that women gained the right to vote, and because of post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws, blacks were effectively barred from voting until the 1960s. Jayaprakash argues that it wasn't until the mid-1990s, when the National Voter Registration Act came into effect, that most Americans enjoyed wide access to exercise their right to vote [source: Jayaprakash].

All of this is to say that the democratic experiments represented by nations like the U.S. and others don't necessarily serve as true examples of democracies. Those that do are still too young to act as any real proof of whether a true democracy works. But what about theoretically?




Can democracy work in theory?

Simply raising your hand in favor or in opposition to an issue at a PTA meeting is a form of exercising the vote in a microcosmic democracy.
Simply raising your hand in favor or in opposition to an issue at a PTA meeting is a form of exercising the vote in a microcosmic democracy.

On a small scale, democracy has proven itself to be an effective means for a group to come to a consensus. Everyday examples are all around us: a group of co-workers voting on where to go to lunch, a Parent-Teacher Association deciding whether the school should adopt a dress code.

The basic premise of democracy, that the collective wisdom of a number of people can be employed to arrive at a reasonable decision, has been shown to work as well. In a 2005 book, author James Surowiecki describes a search for missing submarine that went down in 1968. The naval commander assigned to find the missing sub contacted a number of people independently and asked for a best guess of where the sub might be. Each expert received the same information, and each opinion was given equal weight.

No one expert correctly guessed where the sub was. But, the average of the pooled guesses led the recovery operation to less than 200 yards from where the sub was found [source: Card].

In this story, all the elements of a democracy are present. The experts were informed, their guesses were given equal weight, and the individual guesses were combined into a collective whole that served as the basis for action.

It worked on the sub recovery, but can democracy work on a large scale? It's too early to tell if it works in practice, but can it work in theory? Back in the 1920s, John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, a pair of liberal political observers, engaged in a debate about this very question. Through the debate, the pair exposed the key vulnerability that could prevent any large democracy from working properly: the media.

It's no coincidence that modern democracy began to emerge from Greek antiquity at the same time as the public at large was growing increasingly educated. A democracy relies on an informed citizenry. Issues like immigration, healthcare and war are often immense and complex. It's the responsibility of an independent media to properly educate the public about such issues. The media must present all sides of an issue so each citizen can choose the best course of action.

At the vital center of this education is the individual citizen. Lippmann described an "omnicompetent" citizen, one capable of searching out information and making an informed decision that best served the country as the democratic ideal. Dewey argued that citizens needn't be omnicompentent. Instead, they needed to have their natural curiosity stoked by a media that could "interest the public in the public interest" [source: Alterman].

All of this depends on the notion of an informed citizenry, however, which both concluded was too open for cooption. If one group or interest held too much control over the media or the schools, the result was one-sided debate. Without diverse points of view on an issue delivered by the media, democracy fails to function properly.

The essential point raised (unintentionally) by the debate was that the media is far too vulnerable to control to allow a large democracy to function in reality. Without media, a large democracy cannot exist.

Related Articles


  • Alterman, Eric. "Can democracy work?" December 23, 1999.
  • Card, Orson Scott. "Does democracy really work?" The Rhinoceros Times. February 6, 2005.
  • International Center for Peace and Development. "Democracy." Accessed August 3, 2010.
  • Jayaprackash, N.D. "'World's oldest democracy': the myth and the reality." Dissident Voice. March 14, 2009.
  • Macfarlane, Alan. "15. How well does democracy work?" How the World Works. March 11, 2007.
  • Wright, Robert K, Jr. and MacGregor, Morris J., Jr. "Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution; Alexander Hamilton; New York." U.S. Army Center of Military History. 1987.
  • The British Museum. "Ancient Greece - timelines." Accessed August 3, 2010.
  • U.S. State Department. "What is democracy?" Accessed August 4, 2010.