In the Greek polis the meaning of the term “democracy” implied the government of a vast majority of the people, the “plebs”, as opposed to the aristocracy. In modern politics the word signifies that the entirety of the population, made up of free and equal individuals, is the source of sovereignty, even though the population does not rule directly but rather through a free mandate.
Democracy is therefore the common creation, through a contract or through another emblem of the constitutional power of the people, of the legislator (the Parliament), that along with the law, gives consistency to the natural rights of individuals, giving them the status of citizens. Historically, democracy is born in Europe with the French revolution and in the United Stated with the independence from colonial England. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, also through warfare, struggles and regressions, democracy is established both on a political level, through universal suffrage -which represents the formal political requisite for a democratic state-, and on a social one; the Social State of the second half of the twentieth century is in fact an attempt to drive the economic and technical dynamics that had activated Europe to follow the logic of political equality, rather than letting them create strong power inequalities inside society.
Nowadays democracy means an active and free participation of all citizens to an open, dynamic and gregarious life. The objective of democracy is not only to defend rights but also to foster growth of individuals and that of intermediate communities.
According to political theory, democracy, as a representation of the individual, of the people, of society and of the State, stems from many western political traditions; from the secularization of Christianity and its values of dignity and equality, but also from legal doctrines based on the principle of social contract, from Anglo-Saxon constitutionalism and liberalism, as well as from the continental tradition, the State of Right and Enlightenment. It stems from republicanism but also from socialism, from social-democracy as well as from social Catholicism.
Democracy implies that the power is linked to people’s sovereignty and excludes external principles of authority, implying the laity of the State. It demands a periodical control of the power by the people and a true periodicity, a balance among different political powers and a balance between political and social powers (pluralism); the theoretical and practical application of the rights of man throughout generations (human, civil, political, social, gender and group rights). Democracy implies the freedom of association for political parties and syndicates, it implies freedom of trade, property, work, welfare, culture and religion; democracy is a representation of pluralism, not only on an institutional level, but also from a social point of view.
Apart from facing its internal inconsistencies which turn it into a passive mass-society led by obscure and demagogic powers, democracy now has to deal with more challenges arising from its original mission, a universal one, that nevertheless originated specifically in the western culture, with due internal differences. It is therefore difficult to export democracy with its institutional and social forms outside the western world with any approach (whether pacific or military). For this reason democracy is often viewed as a means of spreading the western hegemony in the world, just as economy, science, technology and entertainment; its approach to politics, which revolves around the subjectivity of human rights, and considers universally valid certain manifestations of the legitimacy of the relation between the individual and the community, between religion and politics, between society and State, can only be perceived as the result of a unique historical and political experience.
Even though some non-western civilizations are aware of the benefits for the people of the limitations to power, it is not easy to blend democracy with these historical situations. On the other hand, even in the western examples of democratic societies, democracy is challenged by the growing presence of individuals whose cultures have not developed the concepts and institutions of democracy. This could lead to a segmentation of democratic citizenship into a variety of collective cultural identities to which individuals tend to grant primary legitimacy and loyalty. This segmentation could easily cause cultural conflicts. In order to face the challenge of multiculturalism, a democracy has different options. On the one hand, it could refuse to grant a privileged political status to different cultures and favor the emancipation of members from their own culture, exclusively stressing the values of free and equal democratic citizenship, according to the French republican model.
On the other hand, starting from the assumption that it is possible to organize a democratic cohabitation not only of individuals and classes, but also of cultures, democracy could hold all main principles firm allowing for a given level of relativism and tolerance in the concrete forms of their realization (that is, accepting the development of personalities in non-western family and religious environments). This last approach, rather than pursuing a political neutralization of cultures, tries to establish a dialogue among them that would lead to a reciprocal acknowledgment and to the creation of a common ground for democratic cohabitation with room for cultural pluralism. In the economic, political and cultural heterogeneity of our globalized world, in the dilemmas of universalism and in the dichotomy between exclusivists and relativists, there is a new horizon for democracy, which could lead to potential moments of crisis but also to development and change.
Carlo Galli teaches the History of Political Doctrines at the University of Bologna. His work include: Genealogia della politica. Carl Schmitt e la crisi del pensiero politico moderno (Il Mulino 1996); Spazi politici (Il Mulino 2001); La guerra globale (Laterza 2002); Enciclopedia del pensiero politico, with Roberto Esposito (Laterza 2005), and he is he editor of Manuale di storia del pensiero politico (Il Mulino 2006).