What Makes a Democracy?

Democracy depends on reasonable people thinking rationally and behaving with generosity towards people they disagree with. There are few things that are as difficult. It is easier to send people to the moon.

Democracy goes against the grain of human social and political history which  has primarily consisted of the rule of the strong and the powerful. It uniquely places the power to govern in the hands of ordinary people, ordinary people who can weigh in on complex matters of economics, security, morality and the education of the young. This is a tremendous responsibility. 

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Democracies require citizens who can function as mature and reasonable adults capable of making informed decisions for themselves as well as for the larger society. This is a very tall order and calls for the cultivation of autonomous, courageous, empathic, collaborative, and critically thinking citizens.

By definition, democracy, being of human design and having to do with the management of human societies, is always a work in progress and requires constant improvement and finessing.

What Breaks a Democracy?

Democracy is a very fragile system that is more easily threatened from within than from outside. Dependent as it is on complex conditions that call for a higher level of human intelligence, maturity and compassion than required of subjects in autocratic societies, it can be degraded by inadequate investment in intellectual, social and moral education. This under investment eventually results in a citizenry which is ill-equipped for the responsibilities of self-government.

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Democracy is also undermined by extreme inequality, majoritarianism, populism, autocratic ideologies, and impatience with the slow and deliberate process of dialogue and negotiation. Anything that increases the emotional, intellectual, political or economic distance between people, making it difficult to empathize with each other or cooperate, is detrimental to democracy.

The greatest danger to democracy is lack of confidence and trust in the system itself because it requires the willing and able participation of its people.