Democracy is based on the idea of political selfdetermination. The emergence of democratic communities dates back to the ancient Greeks. Between 800 and 600 BCE, the political system of isono- mia developed, a system of equality upheld by the willingness of its citizens to act in the interest of the common good. This lifestyle evolved as part of a cultural development, fostered by the interaction of a variety of factors, including geography and religion. Of particular significance was that in a Greek polis, the potential socioeconomic powers were relatively widespread. A tyrant was usually unable to stay in power for long; moreover, monarchy was not a generally popular idea in ancient Greece. So politics was a matter concerning a wide range of social classes in a polis (demos); it was not something “invented” by centers of power. However, this idea of integrating the masses has often been rejected by political philosophy. It is true that Aristotle (384-322 BCE) centered his concept of polis around the idea of free and equal citizens, and he emphasized that the ability to rule, as well as to be ruled, was a political virtue. Yet he rejected democracy as a political community under the rule of the rabble, as, for instance, Socrates (469-399 BCE) and Plato (427-347 BCE) had done before.
This perspective has proven most effective in the history of ideas: Until the modern era there was hardly a notable political philosopher who spoke out in favor of democracy, with the exception of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677). One of the reasons is that in earlier times democracy was often equated with direct democracy, such as in the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). So when democracy is discussed, it is always necessary to explain precisely what form of democracy is meant: Are there limits to democracy, for example, in a body of regulations? Is democracy seen as an end in itself, or does it serve other (higher) purposes? Are democratic decisions the immediate expression of the people’s voice, or is the people’s voice mediated by representative institutions?
Under the conditions of modern societies, democracy is typically temporary rule. The principle of political self-determination can be appropriately applied only by allocating power temporarily—first and foremost, by electing parliamentary representatives but also by selecting and democratically controlling government officials. The question of power separation and control was pointed out in the Federalist Papers, a series of articles in favor of ratifying the U.S. Constitution in 1787-1788. In Article No. 53, it is precisely described as follows: the greater the power, the shorter its reign; and vice versa. The lesser the power, the less dangerous it is to lengthen its reign.
In many ways, democratic elections are full of prerequisites. One prerequisite is that the political participants consent to prevailing conditions; another prerequisite is that the “loser” accepts the election results, and the “winner” is committed to carrying out his or her political responsibility for the common good during his or her term in office. However, using elections to achieve division of power represents nothing more than a temporary consensus that can be justified only in the light of a people’s political self-determination, provided the democratic “rules” of the political system permit a real chance for a change of government. In this sense, the conditions governing the right to vote are of particular significance, as well as the structures of the party system, both of which determine whether all the relevant groups of a population are allowed to participate politically and essentially form a new majority.
The change of majorities is connected to the idea of creating an innovative contest among the pluralist concert of opinions to find a better argument, one that distinguishes the democratic system from other systems. This type of pluralism, which is upheld primarily by parties and political associations, binds time and therefore gives the impression of being “lethargic” with regard to democratic institutions’ abilities to learn and respond. In fact, the cost of making decisions increases with the amount of time required, and that usually depends on the number of participants. As a result, democratic processes must be examined on a regular basis to evaluate the balance among the elements of participation, innovation, and efficiency. Yet, only such systems in which today’s minority can become tomorrow’s majority are capable of integrating political dissatisfaction and achieving reform. The key figures in this type of system- derived process are the floating voters. Nevertheless, a decisive prerequisite for this type of voting behavior is that decisions and responsibility are conveyed rationally (and, in that sense, topically), so that the voter can develop his or her own opinion on the matter in question.
Finding the right moment to make a political decision (kairos) is a question not only of luck but also of judgment that belongs, in an Aristotelian understanding of ethics, to prudence—a capacity that especially distinguishes the extraordinary politicians from the run-of-the-mill types. Following sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), particularly democratic systems should have a strong interest in prudent political leadership, because the temptation is omnipresent that lures politicians to act in accordance with opinion polls to increase their own popularity (if only temporarily). Nonetheless, politics often require unpopular decision making, thus opening the way for a range of actions that are contrary to contemporary thinking or outside the spectrum of long-established routines. In view of accelerated developments in science and technology, not only has an alienation toward the past been growing but also the political responsibility not to submit to the linearity of events. It is important to retain the opportunity to reverse decisions. Otherwise, the limits of the majority principle are quickly reached: It loses its peacemaking character when decisions with irreversible results are made by the present generation for following generations— specifically in the field of risk technologies.
Just as democratic politics should not waste their energy dealing with the inherited problems of a former government’s sins of omission, the horizon of political design should not be limited to one legislative period. According to the 20th-century German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, temporal- ized systems should always be capable of differentiating between reversibility and irreversibility. This challenges political systems to gain temporal autonomy with regard to the surrounding systems; the functionality of democracies depends primarily on the time available for negotiating decisions. Essentially this type of “limited government” is the result of a historical development, which also takes time. A democratic culture grows over centuries, a constitution begins to take shape only over decades, and several years are necessary to achieve governmental efficiency. If there is only “one” specific time period for the development of a democracy, it is, according to political scientist and sociologist Claus Offe, hardly possible to prevent the dilemma of simultaneousness. The transformational societies in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1990s fittingly illustrate this point; the failing attempts to democratize countries in the Middle East would be another case in point.
Failed attempts to implement democracy should not divert attention from democracy’s almost inexorable triumphant progress. There is hardly a political system left that can refuse to justify its decisions democratically—or to at least create the impression of democratic legitimacy. This tendency is further promoted by the processes of globalization and particularly economic liberalization. In a modern state the relationship between a liberal economy and democracy may not be compulsory, but it has proven to be effective. With the increasing internationalization of political (as well as economic and ecological) challenges, the following question becomes more and more significant: How can democratic responsibility be organized on a global scale? History shows how democracy has been culturally bound to polis and the nation state. But what a democratic cosmopolis looks like remains to be seen.
Oliver W. Lembcke
See also Aristotle; Change; Enlightenment, Age of; Ethics; Kant, Immanuel; Law; Marx, Karl; Plato; Spinoza, Baruch de; Time Management; Weber, Max; Zeitgeist
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