4.1.2 Political participation – made possible by democracy

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Unit 4 Contents


This module is entitled ‘Living in a Just and Free Society’.  In both Unit 2 and Unit 3, we paid much attention to justice, in different ways.  This unit will give more attention to freedom.

One of the things that is generally meant by use of the phrase ‘free society’ is this: citizens have freedom, through elections, to change who governs them.  A word that refers to a political society in which citizens can do this is ‘democracy’.  A free society is, in that way at least, a democratic society.

Literally, the word ‘democracy’ means ‘rule by the people’ or ‘people power’.  (It comes from the Greek, demos, meaning ‘the people’ or ‘the common people’, and kratos, meaning ‘power’/’rule’/’government’.)

However, we need straight away to recognize two kinds of democracy.  What the word generally denotes is rule by representatives of the people, not rule directly by the people.  In other words, in most societies called democratic, there are elections in which voters elect just some people actually to do the governing.  They elect representatives, who form a parliament or an assembly and who actually have political power between elections. Such a system is called ‘representative democracy’.

I said above that a society is a democracy if citizens have freedom, through elections, to change who governs them.  This statement assumed that democracy means ‘representative democracy’, because it distinguished citizens from those who actually govern.

This contrasts with ‘direct democracy’ – in which the people make decisions directly by voting at an assembly of all the people.  It is obvious that in practice there can be direct democracy only in fairly small communities, in which it is feasible for citizens themselves to vote on all matters needing political decision.  Some people see ‘direct democracy’ as a more pure, and therefore a better, form of democracy than ‘representative democracy’.  They would say that direct democracy really gives people freedom to rule themselves; it is ‘rule by the people’.

All democratic nation-states are representative democracies.  At the same time, there are elements of direct democracy in all of them (to differing extents), most obviously that votes of all the people take place on some issues, called referendums.  For example, in 2011 there was a referendum in the UK on whether to change the voting system for elections and in 2014 there was one in Scotland on whether it should separate from the UK and become a nation-state (the outcome of both these was a ‘no’ vote).  In 2016 there is a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member-state of the European Union.  Some countries have many more referendums than the UK, for example, Switzerland and the US State of California; these are, in this way, closer to being ‘direct democracies’.

Here is a definition of democracy that takes into account both of those forms:

Democracy is any form of political organization in which all adult citizens may participate by voting freely in order to do one of the following (or a combination of both):

  • make political decisions directly
  • elect some people from among candidates who are freely standing for election, to take political decisions on behalf of all, for a limited period.1

Democracy makes political participation possible.  Look again at the quotation at the start of this unit:

The characteristic implication of subsidiarity is participation, which is expressed… in… activities by means of which the citizen… contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs.  (Compendium, #189, italics original)

Where there is not democracy, only a very small proportion of people actually participate in political life.  Even though representative democracy involves electing only some people to govern, it makes political participation by all citizens possible.  This can be in the form of voting governments into and out of office, seeking to stand for election, working for particular candidates to get elected, or joining in public conversation in order to convince representatives (actual or potential) to back certain policies.  If there is a non-democratic political regime, many people might have considerable freedom to participate in cultural, economic and social life (to use the terms in that quotation), but their freedom to participate politically is very limited.

I say it is ‘limited’ because there is one main way in which large numbers of people do participate in political life in non-democratic regimes from time to time.  This exception is protest, such as in Egypt in 2011, when huge numbers of people occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo to call for the end of the 25-year rule of the authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak.  But one reason people resort to protest is because other avenues of political participation are not open to them.

As we shall see as we work through this unit, modern CST supports democracy largely because it enables participation. At the end of a period in which many countries had become democratic for the first time, Pope John XXIII wrote this in 1963:

It is in keeping with their dignity as persons that human beings should take an active part in government… [They] will find new and extensive advantages in [being] allowed to participate in government.  In this situation, those who administer government come into frequent contact with the citizens, and it is thus easier for them to learn what is really needed for the common good. (Pacem in Terris, ##73-74)



Following up the exercise on the last screen, in what ways have you participated specifically in political life?

If you have done more than voting, was your activity to do with local or national issues?  Was it with a pressure group or a political party, or in some other way?



End of 4.1.2

Go to 4.1.3 This unit’s question: how should government be constituted?

Module B outline

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  1. This way of defining democracy spells out some things that are not explicit in the following definition from Oxford Dictionaries Online: “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”.  The final phrase “for a limited period” is added in order to put across the basic point that in a democracy citizens have freedom to vote a government out of office. 

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