What Is Democracy?

The central theme of this week’s chapter is that of legitimacy. Legitimacy is very hard to define because it seems to be a situational and multi-faceted term used to convey fairness. I would argue that legitimacy has nothing to do with fairness, only due process. Established legal systems have set our procedures by which legitimate laws are created, amended , and stricken.  Miriam-Webster defines the term legitimate as follows:

a : accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements <a legitimate government>

b : ruling by or based on the strict principle of hereditary right <a legitimate king>

4: conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards  <alegitimate inference>

 By definition legitimacy comes when something is in accordance with the law or conforms to established legal forms and requirements. This poses a problem for morality. The German Nazi’s in World-War II used the established legal forms and requirements to pass laws that governed the treatment of certain groups of people. The Nuremberg laws of 1935 were created through all proper legal requirements and therefore fit the definition of laws created legitimately. These laws effectively made people of Jewish backgrounds alienated and disenfranchised . They were no longer able to marry people of German blood lines , vote, or hold a position in government(USHMM,2012). As is well documented these laws soon led to one of the most horrific genocides in human history. It stripped Jewish people of all of their rights as citizens in a free and democratic society. The word democracy is something that is generally very loosely defined within the context of freedom and society. Miriam-Webster defines democracy as:

a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority

b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Even in a government like Canada’s at present, I do not believe that the term democracy fully fits from a definitional standpoint. From my point of view true democracy must come from checks and balances exercised by society. For instance, our Current Prime Minister was voted into office through democratic means initially but has since been left to his own devices without any accountability to the people who elected him. A government by the people denotes that society ultimately has some control over the operation of Canadian affairs and procedures. Canadian’s ultimately do not have the “supreme power” as mentioned in the definition of democracy. The only power we have is to entrust others with our well-being. British Columbia’s recent HST debacle has proven that although elected by the people, the representative that we elect has sole control over everybody. Even if we disagree with the actions of said representative we must obey. In order to accurately distinguish between a democratic ruler and a tyrant ruler we must be able to effectively define the limitations of each. It is often a very fine line and difficult to separate on the basis of conventional definitions. For example, we generally categorize the Canadian government as being a democratic institution. Our Prime Minister is an elected official who is representative of Canadian society. The blurred line becomes apparent when we look at situations where the Prime Minister can be categorized by part of the traditional definition of a tyrant. Recently Stephen Harper was found to be in contempt of parliament.(The Globe and Mail 2011) This is the first instance of a Prime Minister being held in contempt in the history of Canada. This motion points to the first definition set out by Miriam-Webster of a tyrant.1a: an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution”(Miriam-Webster). Therefore, Canada’s Prime Minister fits into at least one definition of a tyrant according to Miriam-Webster’s definition. Furthermore, there were very little repercussions stemming from this motion. With little repercussions we can clearly see that the Prime Minister does indeed appear to be “Unrestrained by law or constitution”. This  illustrates the difficulty of defining figures of government into tyrants or democratic rulers.

Miriam-Webster defines Tyrant as:

1a : an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution

b : a usurper of sovereignty

2a : a ruler who exercises absolute power oppressively or brutally

b : one resembling an oppressive ruler in the harsh use of authority or power.

 There is little difference between “democratic” and “tyrant” rulers from a definitional standpoint. Either is able to impose their will on the larger populations without many (If any) consequences. I feel that the laws created by the tyrant ruler are more legitimate simply because a false sense of accountability does not exist in their job description. Tyrant rulers can do what they please without having to answer to any other person or body. A democratic ruler need only learn how to manipulate the situation to get past the lax checks and balances in place. In the minds of society I believe that the key difference is the severity in which rulers wield their powers.  Tyrant rulers tend to rule much more forcibly with serious consequences to those who question his authority. Democratic rulers tend to appear more sympathetic and fair to his public. For all intents and purposes we can say that any law that is created through the proper legal channels regardless of public opinion should be respected as legitimate in nature.









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One response to “What Is Democracy?

  1. Your opening paragraph is engaging. I would be interested in hearing more about the relationships between legitimacy, fairness, and due process. It is important to explain how you arrive at the position that legitimacy is equivalent to the existence of legal procedures that govern decisions. This sounds like a position informed by the positivist legal tradition.

    Does the existence of formalized legal procedures necessarily imply the existence of due process or a legitimate legal regime? This is an important and topical question.

    You raise the issue of democratic accountability – a favorite topic of mine! I look forward to further discussion on this matter. I am particularly interested in your observation that democracy and tyranny (or, more accurately, authoritarianism) are not binary or mutually-exclusive categories. In fact, we can speak of authoritarianism within the context of democracy and the emergence of forms of ‘sovereign impunity’. We will explore this topic later in the course, particularly in the context of our engagement with the works of Giorgio Agamben and other theorists of sovereign power.

    This was a thoroughly interesting post. Note that the relationship between legitimacy and legality, the role of legality in legitimating sovereign decisions, and the possibility of holding officials to account according to the rule of law are central debates in contemporary socio-legal studies.

    A parting question: Your critique of impunity and the undemocratic actions of nominally democratic states leads you to adopt a positivist stance regarding the legitimacy of legality. This seems like an effective opening position, but I wonder where it leads. What ought to be done to foster substantive accountability in a democratic government? Does the fact that this goal is thwarted mean that it is not worth pursuing?