Non-Participation and Consent in Democracy (Part Three)

In this part, I want to consider consent.

One question has to be asked at this point, what is meant by democracy?  The first two parts just assumed that we knew what we were talking about and even gave two examples.1  Democracy is a multiply ambiguous word but, for our purposes, we can consider that democracy describes a variety of systems on a continuum and we are using democracy to cover at least a large part of this.2

In whatever way democracy is defined, it must be to do with the will of the people, or more accurately the will of a section of the people, who are entitled to vote on decisions or for representatives (called, of course, the voters, or better still as they have rights beside this, citizens).  This still gives a wide segment of the continuum, where the definition of who are the people is important as they could narrow the range of citizens quite significantly.  To go back to the first recognised modern democracy, that of Athens (from 508 BCE onwards), we have quite tight restrictions on who can be citizens [footnote: women, metics (foreign residents or freed slaves), slaves, youths and others were excluded, leaving a citizen body of about 10% of the entire population].  This does mean that the citizens were ruling over a number of people who were many times larger than they were.  This means that a vast body of people within the democracy were not giving their consent.

So to take a stab at a, to me, more congenial definition, I propose to use the Lincoln definition of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” [footnote: Gettysburg Address from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm] This is, of course, little better than a slogan, however inspiring it is.  There are also two different meanings to people in this short phrase as ‘by the people’ will mean the citizens, but anyone else who will be affected by the decisions of the voters and their elected representatives.  Even in the widest franchise possible, there will be those who cannot vote, such as infants, those in comas, those deemed to not be competent and those excluded as having not joined the society.

Democracy is, almost by definition, inclusive.  A democracy should be aiming to include not only current voters, but anyone else that is otherwise eligible, but currently excluded.  Taking this notion further, we can see that there is no such thing as a democracy where the citizens all give their consent and without consent, democracy loses legitimacy.  And this is where I find difficulty when I started out on this three part blog, I had thought I would at this stage show that a democracy worthy of the name would be based on the consent of its citizens and though it is and no matter how many times I have redrafted this, I have failed to show this to my satisfaction.  This is a bigger topic than I had first thought and I will return to it once I have worked out what I mean and what I think is required, but much later.

1. One is more democratic than the other; it should also be clear that the UK systems have substantial undemocratic elements – this will be looked into later.

2.  Some regimes, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the German Democratic Republic, were only democracies if severe damage was done to what would generally be meant by democracy.  Note that I am not an essentialist and that one word means only one concept, but neither do I think that any old meaning should be attached to a word; sometimes a meaning for a word has to be defended.

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