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What is democracy after all?

Democracy has become the most common form of government around the world. But democracy doesn’t just happen. People sacrifice their lives to achieve something we take for granted: freedom of speech and the right to vote anonymously in general elections.

Text: Lena Eskilsson, associate professor, and Kjell Jonsson, professor emeritus, both in history of science and ideas at Umeå University
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Illustration: Felicia Fortes

The word democracy comes from the Greek word meaning ‘rule of the people’. What that actually means has been discussed for thousands of years, but there’s still no unequivocal definition. That’s because democracy is constantly changing. Nevertheless, a lot of people agree that some important characteristics are: human rights, freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and freedom of speech, legal equality as well as free and fair elections.

Over half of the countries in the world now count as democracies.

The word democracy can be used as a term for processes on several levels and areas of society. For instance, economical and political democracy, but it’s the latter that is discussed here.

Political democracy is first and foremost a form of government, a way of reaching political decisions to deal with a society’s shared concerns. This is also in close relationship with the original democratic term, which meant that the people had the power over their own doings. Here, one can see a development from a direct democracy, where citizens reach political decisions together, which is currently unusual but takes place for instance through referendums to an indirect democracy where citizens choose representatives to reach decisions.

Political democracy has gone through many phases of development. The first phase took place during the classical era in about 500 BCE, when the city-state Athens had direct democracy for adult free men who were citizens. Women, immigrants and slaves weren’t allowed to participate in public decision-making. In fact, the well-known philosopher Aristotle was denied to partake in democracy since he wasn’t born in Athens.

A similar form of government, but with significant restrictions, could also be found during the Roman Republic between 509 and 27 BCE.

The next step in the transformation of democracy came at the end of the 1700s, first in North America and later in Europe. Now, representative democracy was born, in which citizens – though for a long time only adult men – chose who were to decide on political issues through majority resolution. The old, God-given or nature-provided, social order started being questioned by a group of philosophers who instead saw society as a human construction. What was created by man could also be changed by man, was the idea. With their concept of society being built up by individuals, not primarily families and civil status, these enlightenment philosophers paved the way for their political ideologies that developed in the 1800s.

Democratic views were shared by conservative, liberal and socialist thinkers, although these views didn’t always include all individuals and very rarely women. In the 1900s, particularly after World War I, democracy spread through the introduction of the general right to vote, which gradually started to also include women. The right to vote for all men and women in general and municipal elections was introduced in Sweden in 1918–21, which was after its Nordic neighbours and other parts of Europe.

Representative democracy is nowadays the dominating form for political democracy. Over half of all countries in the world now count as democracies.

What votes count?

A central part of political democracy is the general right to vote. Previously, the right to vote was often limited. Underage citizens, foreigners, women and the poor had no right to vote. New Zealand was the first nation to introduce voting rights for women in 1893. The last country in Western Europe to introduce the same was Liechtenstein. That took place in 1984.

More recent studies of democracy suggest that a further transformation of democracy is taking place brought about by the rise of supranational entities, such as the EU. As we find ourselves in the middle of this change, it’s rather hard to foresee what this might mean in the future.

Currently, not everyone seems to share democratic ideals either. In a large survey from a few years ago, 26 per cent of young adults aged 18–29 thought it would be good or reasonably good if Sweden was ruled by ‘a strong leader who didn’t care about the Riksdag or elections’. And one in five young Swedes would consider selling their vote for a small amount of cash. Hence, we probably shouldn’t take democracy for granted.

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2018.


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Think 1 2018 focuses on democracy.

In this issue of Think, we have gathered a number of Umeå researchers who give their view on what democracy involves, what’s important for upholding democracy, and what the threats to democracy are.

Read Think 2018

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