The Democracy Debate: Analysing the 'Asian' Challenge

Tay Cheng Cheng

Chapter One: Deconstructing Democracy

What is democracy? Is it simply a term used to describe certain institutional or governmental arrangements? Is it a political method or procedure (means) for arriving at political decisions? Or is it a political ideal (value) - an end in itself - that stipulates the best way in which people should and can govern or represent themselves? And if democracy is about either one or all of these, what then constitutes this particular institutional arrangement, this political method or procedure and this political ideal? Then again, is democracy solely about the political or does it concern the social and the economic?

The number of questions we can ask about democracy can go on endlessly. But as soon as we begin to enquire into the meaning of democracy, we will immediately discover that it is a debatable and malleable concept. In this chapter, I will attempt to deconstruct the meaning of democracy and argue that this political concept is both problematic and unstable. By tracing historically how democracy was predominantly defined in ancient Greece and how it later developed to become a hegemonic political concept in 'Western modernity', we will see that its meaning has undergone a considerable reconstruction and redefinition. 1 From this discussion, we will find that the various meanings and interpretations of democracy are always the products of specific discursive formations that can never evade the field of particular power relations. 2 It will further be exemplified in the second section of this chapter, when I engage in a brief discussion of the development of democracy in Britain and the United States, that specific meanings and forms of democracy are also always derived from a constant negotiation and struggle. Furthermore, despite being generally labelled as 'liberal democracies', we will see that the political systems of these two countries are by no means similar and homogeneous. On the contrary, the types of democracies existing in Britain and the United States evolved from their particular histories and social circumstances.

On a more general note, my discussion in this chapter will draw the implicit argument that at the conceptual level, democracy cannot be "sanitized from the infection of value" (Churchill, 1994: 5). As we will see, notions of democracy are always entangled with "value-laden assumptions" about human nature and attached to many other vague concepts such as 'liberty' and 'equality'. Democracy is also loosely linked to ideas such as 'majority rule', 'popular rule' and 'representative rule' - ideas which in themselves have been associated with many interpretations. Altogether, these terms and associations contribute to make democracy a confusing, unstable and complicated concept.

Historicizing Democracy

As we already know, democracy is today beyond doubt a dominant political idea that spreads across the globe. Despite disagreements over what constitutes its definition, its meaning or its interpretation, democracy has at the very least become associated with the idea of political representation - the primary or minimal criterion for democracy being the establishment of an elected government. But although democracy currently reigns as a hegemonic political idea, this was not always the case. Democracy had not always been a prominent concept nor a dominant political form. Neither was the idea of representative rule always associated historically with democracy.

If we look at classical Greece where democracy is frequently said to have acquired its 'original' meaning, we will find that democracy was then understood in a different light and also practised in a very different context. 3 During that time, democracy meant 'direct rule' by the mass of the population through assembly at the town square. This system of political organisation which was feasible because Greek societies were organised in the form of small self-governing city-states (polis), allowed all 'citizens' to meet together to participate in discussions, engage in open debates and make political decisions together. 4 As the democratic system of 'direct rule' meant also 'rule by the popular masses', it is frequently taken for granted and assumed that everyone in that society was allowed to participate in any decision making. 5 It should be noted however that the conditions of citizenship in ancient Greek societies restricted women, slaves as well as foreigners from being part of the Greek political community.

Even though democracy was practised in ancient Greece, it was only one amongst several political systems. The people of that period did not consider democracy to be a "general principle of social life" (Parry & Moran, 1994) and democratisation was also not regarded as "a central political process" (Lewis, 1992: 14). Moreover, perceptions of democracy were not always positive and often carried the negative implication of an "undesirable state of mob rule" (Lewis, 1992: 15) or 'rule by the masses'. 6 Democracy understood as a system of 'direct rule' was seen to place decisions of importance in the hands of ignorant citizens who had neither any special knowledge of the matters to be discussed and resolved nor any expertise in the art of ruling a state. Hence, it was frequently looked upon as a form of government "by amateurs" (McDonough, 1989: 63).

According to the two great Greek Philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, democracy was a "deviant case, an aberration from the standard good government with which popular self-government was not to be identified" (Parry & Moran, 1994:2). It was their belief that democracy was a "corrupt form of rule" that promoted the self-interested rule of the common people. Plato and Aristotle argued that because 'the people' were ignorant and concerned only with their own good, they would seek to "plunder those who are better off" and eventually create despotism (Ball & Dagger, 1991: 25). 7 Because democracy was viewed in a negative light, it was never universally accepted in the Greek societies. In 322 BC, it got "swept away" by the Macedonian conquerors and was replaced by a kind of 'republican rule' characterised by an even more restricted franchise (Arblaster, 1989: 16). In the years that followed, the idea of a republic also "perished" under the rule of the Roman Empire and it was only centuries later that the idea of democracy gradually revived (Ball & Dagger, 1991; 26).

Democracy only became increasingly prominent during the revolutionary era - the period of the American and French revolution - and gradually became more and more popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Lewis, 1992).8 Throughout this period however, the meaning of democracy underwent a major reconstruction or what Parry and Moran describe as "a process of political recreation" (Parry & Moran, 1994: 3). As social communities expanded, became more pluralistic and developed into complex modern nation-states, it became inevitably difficult for all the mass population to gather together and make decisions (Phillips, 1993: 124). In order to describe this evolving 'social reality', democracy eventually became predominantly (re)defined as "a system of representative government" instead of 'direct rule'. Such a system combined the democratic idea of 'rule by the people' with that of 'rule by elected representatives'. It meant the formulation of a legitimate government to protect the conditions for peace, security and freedom of individuals who are assumed to be endowed with natural rights and liberty (Parry & Moran, 1994: 3).

Despite its increasing prominence in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the negative perception of democracy continued to persist. During this period, democracy was frequently linked to what is known as 'the tyranny of the majority'.9 According to Alexander de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, democracy could threaten the 'negative liberty' which individuals were believed to inherently possess. This liberty was seen to be 'negative' because individuals were perceived to be born with the right and freedom to act in self-interest but incapable of self-rule because they were egoistic and self-centred in nature.10 Based on this assumption, when left to democratic (direct) rule, 'the common people' were condemned to bring about chaos in society.11 Democracy, which was assumed by de Tocqueville to be about equality, was also seen to promote conformity at the expense of individual liberty. According to de Tocqueville, when everyone is supposed to be equal, there will be tremendous pressure to succumb to public opinion and think as well as behave in the same way as everyone else (Ball & Dagger, 1991: 39).

The shift in the dominant (re)definition of democracy from 'popular rule' to 'representative rule' is characterised by a process of struggle between different social groups and classes. According to Arblaster (1987: 16), the attempt to redefine democracy in ancient Greece was driven by conservative elites concerned with protecting their interests for fear that the rising influence of the popular masses might threaten their social positions.12 Such a fear stemmed from the lingering belief that democracy is a bad form of government which can lead to the 'tyranny of the majority'. As we will see in the next section, the way in which democracy gradually became entrenched in Britain also reflect similar attempts by conservative elites to maintain their social status and privileges.

Anglo-American Forms of Democracy

Although it is a general consensus among many people today that the liberal-democratic systems in Britain and the United States represent examples of 'stable democracies, I would like to point out that the democratic systems in these two countries are not homogeneous. Britain has a parliamentary democracy whereas the United States is a constitutional democracy and these forms of democracy are very different. While the United States has a written constitution, Britain does not. Democracy in the United States also emphasises popular sovereignty and bases its political system on a system of checks and balances which separates governmental powers into three branches - the legislative, executive and judicial - and operates on a Bill of Rights (see Binstock & Wall, 1975). Britain, on the other hand, favours a form of "government with firm leadership", "places sovereignty on the parliament" and does not have a notion of "the people". In other words, it views elected representatives as "independent maker[s] of national laws and policies" and not as "agent[s] for their constituents or for sectional interests". Moreover, democracy in Britain is rooted in the "conventions that protect the privileges of Members of Parliament' (Birch, 1993: 59).13

The idea of democracy was not initially welcomed by conservative leaders in Britain. This was because these leaders deemed democracy to be a threat to the position of the dominant class and the stability of the social order of the country which was strongly based on a social hierarchy of class differentiation (Lewis, 1992). These sceptical elites included Edmund Burke (often referred to as the founder of Conservatism) who had sought to establish restraints on the 'popular will' to protect the interests of the rich and propertied by restricting the electoral franchise to property holders (see Roper, 1989). Other political philosophers like John Stuart Mills, who has been called "a clear advocate of democracy" (Held, 1989: 26), was also wary of the 'dangers' of democracy. Mills chose to understand democracy not as a political system which sees people governing themselves but rather, as one which allowed them to choose to be governed by persons whom they recognised as better, wiser and thus more able to understand their real interests (Arblaster, 1987: 49).

Although Britain is currently considered an 'established democracy', it is significant to note that the extension of the electoral franchise to the majority of the population had been a much debated issue. According to Birch, fewer than 5 per cent of adult citizens were entitled to vote (1993: 59). This was because the British political system had originally excluded the labouring classes and women from the right of entry into formal political life and participation. It was only in 1928 that the electoral franchise was extended to women. In Britain, constituencies were also "wildly unequal", the electoral process was deemed to be highly corrupt and wealthy landowners were said to control almost half of the seats in the House of Commons (1993: 59). It was during the period 1867-85 that reforms were made to rectify electoral corruption and the inequality that existed in the constituencies (Birch, 1993: 62).

It can be said therefore, that although democracy conceived in terms of equal rights to vote could evolve within the 'theatre of politics' in Britain, the incorporation of an ideal of social equality in the country was not widely accepted (Roper, 1994). Due to the reservations the British elite had on the idea of democracy, it was gradually and reluctantly accepted only during the First World War, when "the drive for national unity transcended the truism of class differences" (Lewis, 1992: 25). Even then, democracy was acceptable only because it was "absorbed" into the existing constitutional structure through controlled and unrevolutionary reform (Roper, 1989: 21); (see also Lewis, 1992: 23; Birch, 1993: 62).

In the United States, democracy was said to have begun as a "revolutionary idea" in the 1770s and developed as "part of the political fabric of the nation' - that is from the time of its independence in 1776 (Roper, 1989: 212). The political tradition of the United States was grounded in an ethos of equal rights to liberty for everyone. Based on this ethos, the US constitution was consequently established in 1787 to serve as the guiding principle for democratic government in the country. However, despite the establishment of the constitution, slavery had continued to exist in the United States and that posed a major contradication to the cherished principles of equality and liberty. To quote Roper, "Americans loved liberty but hated slavery. For themselves that is. A slave was not an American. Indeed, a slave was not man" (1989: 41). Although the United States is currently seen as an ideal example of a modern democratic state, it should be noted that it was only during 1920 that suffrage was extended to women. Furthermore, strict literacy and poll tax requirements had barred many people from the voting booth in the southern states and it was only around 1970, with the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment, that black adults were included into the political community and given the vote (Lewis, 1992).

Significantly, the 'Founding Father's' of the US Constitution did not have democracy or popular government in mind when they first drafted the country's constitution. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for example, were said to have had a negative view of democratic government and they were "selective" of whom they would include as 'the people' (Arblaster, 1987: 40). According to Birch, James Madison argued in The Federalist that "democracies have been found to be incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property". The establishment of democracy was also deemed by Madison to be dangerous as it could lead to 'majority faction' (1993: 45).14 What the constitutionalists wanted for The United States was a 'republic' or 'representative institution' characterised by 'limited government' (Birch, 1993: 45; Ball & Dagger, 1991: 35) and not democracy.


1. Democracy in classical Greece provides a good point of departure here because it is frequently looked upon as the most ideal form of democratic rule and as if it "were a lost and somewhat recuperable paradise" (Sartori, 1987: 279).

2. According to Terry Eagleton, a discursive formation can be defined "as a set of rules [or social, historical, institutional, political conditions] which determine what can be said from a certain position within which social life". He argues that "expressions have meaning only by virtue of the discursive formations within which they occur, changing significance as they are transported from one to another. A discursive formation thus constitutes a 'matrix of meaning' or system of linguistic relations within which the actual discursive processes are generated" (1991: 195).

3. Democracy in its Greek origin was a combination of two shorter words, 'demos' and 'kratos'. Both terms had more than one meaning -'demos' could mean the whole citizen body living within a particular polis or city-state, but might also be used to mean 'the mob' or the 'lower orders'; 'kratos' could mean either 'power' or 'rule'. In general, democracy meant 'rule by the people' (Arblaster, 1987: 13).

4. Athens, the largest Greek polis, has frequently been referred to as the best example of a democratic city-state. For a comprehensive discussion of how democracy was generally understood in Ancient Greece, see Dunn (1993: 1-41).

5. It has been argued that based on this standard of direct popular rule, the prevailing system of 'representative democracy' in most 'Western' societies can actually be regarded as non-democratic. (Lewis, 1992).

6. As 'the masses' were generally poor, democracy understood as 'rule by the masses' is frequently also referred to as 'rule by the poor' or by 'the ignorant'. See Arblaster (1987: 13-14) and Birch (1993: 45-68).

7. Aristotle proposed the establishment of a mixed constitution instead. It was his belief that such a system allowed each group to keep an eye on the other - ie., the well to do few on the many and vice versa - so that neither class can pursue its interest at the expense of the 'common good' (Ball & Dagger, 1991: 26).

8. Although it was believed that the advocacy of natural rights, social equality and political reform during the Enlightenment contributed significantly to the strengthening of democracy in the modern 'Western' society, Lewis argues that democracy was at that time still "not a major feature of political thought" (1992: 14).

9. The term 'tyranny of the majority' was first used by Alex de Tocqueville. See Tocqueville, A. (1954) Democracy in America, New York: Vintage Books.

10. The tension between liberty and equality which is said to be an "ethical dilemma" of democracy reflects the paradoxical and contradictory character of the concept. This is so because "democracy [with its emphasis on equality]...appeared to attack the very individual liberty which its mission was to extend" (Roper, 1989: 201). In trying to deal with this so-called "ethical dilemma", attempts have been made to provide an interpretation of democracy based on an idealistic rationalist assumption that saw individual liberty in a more positive light - individuals were perceived to possess a latent capacity which could be developed into an ability of 'self-governance'. They were seen as unselfish and part of a commitment to society. When perceived this way, the "democratic ethic" could then be promoted "[through the] simple principle of participation in decisions of common concern, coupled with a realisation [on the part of the individual] of the constraints involved in living in an egalitarian society" (ibid).

11. Those who held this perception of individual liberty thus advocated a limited form of government (in opposition to 'popular mass government') that was to perform the function of regulating individuals and protecting their rights.

12. According to Arblaster, the system of 'representative rule' allowed "the poor to have a voice and share" but prevented them from "outweigh[ing] or vot[ing] away the interests of the propertied and the wealthy" (1987: 52).

13. According to Birch, a good example illustrating how members of the British parliament enjoyed protection was an incident which occurred in the 1980s when an editor of a national newspaper was made to apologise to a member of parliament for publishing the private telephone number of this MP and for advising those of his readers who disagreed with the views of the MP to telephone him and say so. (see Birch, 1993: 63).

14. Refer to the discussion on 'tyranny of the majority' in page sixteen and seventeen of this chapter.

New: 30 August, 1997 | Now: 28 April, 2015