A democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, as Churchill put it. It is Greek for “rule by the people”. In a democracy power changes hands peacefully through elections. In a working democracy power changes hands at least once every ten years.
In an election for a given office (president, senator, judge and so on), each citizen gets one vote. He casts it for whomever he believes can best fill the office. Whoever gets the most votes wins and stays in office till the next election (in one to five years, depending on the office).
All the large, rich countries in the West are now democracies. In the 1900s this was not always true. In fact, at times it was not clear whether democracy itself would last. Many thought fascism or communism was the wave of the future.
Americans are taught, from the time they are small children, that democracy is the best form of government. To them it is as plain as saying two and two make four.
Aristotle said that democracy, by which he meant rule by the people at the expense of the rich, would in time be overturned by the rich. The best form of government, instead, is one that balances the interests of the rich with those of the people. Democracy in the West seems to have achieved this: the people vote but only the rich, in practice, are able to stand for office.
Hobbes says that a democracies are not good at war: it takes too long to make decisions and it can change its mind. In practice, most democracies choose leaders they trust. They in turn make the necessary quick decisions. But it is true that democracies do change their minds about war and pull out. This makes them poor at fighting guerrilla wars.
For a democracy to work at least three things are required:
- Good schools: If the people have a bad education, then the democracy will destroy itself by its bad decisions. Or, more likely, it will be led by a demagogue that brings democracy to an end.
- Respect for the law: if those in power will not
play by the rules, if they think they are above the law, then any democracy that is in place will break down. That is what Hitler did to Germany and it is what Nixon could have done to America.
- No deep divisions: not the sort which leads to war. Example: in America in the middle 1800s the slave states in the south found themselves outvoted by the free states in the north. This led to war which almost broke the country in two.
America is trying to set up a democracy in Iraq. Banana republicanism has already been tried and found wanting. But while the schools in Iraq may be good enough, respect for the law is plainly missing and so is the lack of deep divisions. So as things stand now democracy cannot take root there.