Democratic ideals are an expression used to refer to personal qualities or standards of government behavior that are felt to be essential for the continuation of a democratic policy. Advocates for causes across the political spectrum use this expression in attempting to engage in persuasion, particularly by contrasting some situation which has been allowed to continue for pragmatic or social reasons, but which those advocating an opportunity, and that equality is a democratic ideal. Other times, advocates of one political outlook or another will use the expression to energize support among their constituencies, despite knowing that their political opponents use precisely the same phrase to do precisely the same thing.
While democracy was rare before modern times, democratic ideals were originally conceived by ancient philosophers. Early examples of democracies include the Ancient Roman Empire, where they collectively agreed that there was to be annual elections for the Romans magistrates, as well as have them be checked internally by two or more colleagues. Another example of early democracy was in Athens where they implemented a system of direct democracy. At the time, decisions were made by an assembly open to all adult male citizens. However, due to the time period, the levels of democracy were limited; they denied political rights to children, women and immigrants, as well as having slaves. Therefore, there were very few citizens who did have political rights, and so this made up a small proportion of the population of the time. In the 20th century, T. H. Marshall proposed what he believed to be central democratic ideals in his seminal essay on citizenship, citing three different kinds of rights: civil rights that are the basic building blocks of individual freedom; political rights, which include the rights of citizens to participate in order to exercise political power; and finally social rights, which include the right to basic economic welfare and security. Frequently the importance of human rights is listed as a central democratic ideal, as well as instilling in military and civilian governmental personnel the attitudes and methods which will prevent their actions from infringing on those rights. The United States Bill of Rights in the Constitution of the United States is a prime example of the democratic ideal of human rights and liberties being implemented in the foundation of a country’s governance. These individual freedoms include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. Voter enfranchisement and political participation are two key democratic ideals that ensure the engagement of citizens in the political sphere. Who has the right to suffrage has changed over the centuries and universal suffrage is necessary for a nation to be considered a democracy and not a dictatorship.
Democratic ideals are often cited as a reason for patriotism, for example Woodrow Wilson’s argument that America needed to enter World War I in order to make the world “safe for democracy”.
Features of ideal democracy
At a minimum, an ideal democracy would have the following features:
Effective participation. Before a policy is adopted or rejected, members of the democratic have the opportunity to make their views about the policy known to other members.
Equality in voting. Members of the democratic have the opportunity to vote for or against the policy, and all votes are counted as equal.
Informed electorate. Members of the democratic have the opportunity, within a reasonable amount of time, to learn about the policy and about possible alternative policies and their likely consequences.
Citizen control of the agenda. The democratic, and only the democratic, decides what matters are placed on the decision-making agenda and how they are placed there. Thus, the democratic process is “open” in the sense that the democratic can change the policies of the association at any time.
Inclusion. Each and every member of the democratic is entitled to participate in the association in the ways just described.
Fundamental rights. Each of the necessary features of ideal democracy prescribes a right that is itself a necessary feature of ideal democracy: thus, every member of the dēmos has a right to communicate with others, a right to have his voted counted equally with the votes of others, a right to gather information, a right to participate on an equal footing with other members, and a right, with other members, to exercise control of the agenda. Democracy, therefore, consists of more than just political processes; it is also necessarily a system of fundamental rights.
In modern representative democracies, the features of ideal democracy, to the extent that they exist, are realized through a variety of political institutions. These institutions, which are broadly similar in different countries despite significant differences in constitutional structure, were entirely new in human history at the time of their first appearance in Europe and the United States in the 18th century. Among the most important of them is naturally the institution of representation itself, through which all major government decisions and policies are made by popularly elected officials, who are accountable to the electorate for their actions. Other important institutions include:
Free, fair, and frequent elections. Citizens may participate in such elections both as voters and as candidates (though age and residence restrictions may be imposed).
Freedom of expression. Citizens may express themselves publicly on a broad range of politically relevant subjects without fear of punishment (see freedom of speech).
Independent sources of information. There exist sources of political information that are not under the control of the government or any single group and whose right to publish or otherwise disseminate information is protected by law; moreover, all citizens are entitled to seek out and use such sources of information.
Freedom of association. Citizens have the right to form and to participate in independent political organizations, including parties and interest groups.
Institutions like these developed in Europe and the United States in various political and historical circumstances, and the impulses that fostered them were not always themselves democratic. Yet, as they developed, it became increasingly apparent that they were necessary for achieving a satisfactory level of democracy in any political association as large as a nation-state.
The relation between these institutions and the features of ideal democracy that are realized through them can be summarized as follows. In an association as large as a nation-state, representation is necessary for effective participation and for citizen control of the agenda; free, fair, and frequent elections are necessary for effective participation and for equality in voting; and freedom of expression, independent sources of information, and freedom of association are each necessary for effective participation, an informed electorate, and citizen control of the agenda.