Democracy and Human Rights in Developing Countries

By Zehra F. Arat | Go to book overview
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Defining and
Measuring Political Democracy

A democracy is a government in the hands of men of low birth,
no property, and vulgar employments
.— Aristotle

My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same
opportunity as the strongest
.— Mahatma Gandhi

Discussions about democracy, arguments for and against it, are intellectually
worthless because we do not know what we are talking about.

Bertrand de Jouvenel


"Democracy" is a popular and even honorific term. However, words usually have more than one meaning and meanings change through time. The meanings attributed to the word "democracy" vary from "a way of life" to "a form of government." For the purpose of this study, "democracy" is used to cover a narrow concept: the formal decisionmaking methods of political systems.

The common dictionary meaning of "democracy" appears to be "self-government" or "rule by the people," a definition implicit in several usages. But it provides few guidelines to distinguish a democratic government from others. James Burnham in the early 1940s pointed out the ambiguity of the definition with a rather cynical statement: "If we examine not the verbal definitions that most people, including dictionary-makers, give for 'democracy,' but the ways in which they use the word in political application to affairs of our time, we will discover that it does not have anything to do with self-government." 1

Nevertheless, the implication of "self-government"—or the notion that power is derived from the authority of the people—has promoted democracy as a legitimizing source for governments and increased the popularity of the term. Today one rarely encounters an argument against democracy. One may criticize this or that aspect of a "democratic" system—even question if it is really a democracy—but one can hardly claim to be antidemocratic himself. An inquiry


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