4.2.3 Where does ‘democracy’ fit in?

Back to 4.2.2

Unit 4 Contents

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The main distinctions we have just been studying, both of different forms of government and between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ government, were articulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book known simply as The Politics.  We need to know about them for this unit because Aristotle set the initial terms of a discussion that has endured right down to our own time.

But there is one thing in Aristotle’s way of characterizing the forms of government that I have not mentioned until now.  He used ‘democracy’ for the bad version of ‘rule by many’.  In a passage referring to all three ‘perverted’ forms, he said:

Of the above mentioned forms [kingship, aristocracy and republican government], the perversions are as follows: – of kingship, tyranny; or aristocracy, oligarchy; of constitutional [or republican] government, democracy.  For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.1

Earlier in The Politics, Aristotle notoriously described humans as divided up into two very different categories, those whom he saw as by nature free and capable of ruling, and the rest – notably slaves, manual workers, women – who were not capable of ruling (Book I).  In Aristotle’s city of Athens, this distinction corresponded with the distinction between citizens and non-citizens.  If the latter ruled, he thought, there would inevitably be bad government: democracy, rule by the demos, by the common people.

Aristotle’s negative usage of democracy stuck.  For many centuries the term connoted something that was akin to mob rule.

The contrast I made on the last screen between ‘rule by citizens’ and ‘rule by non-citizens’ reflects Aristotle’s distinction, although with one huge difference.  For Aristotle, there really were many people who were ‘non-citizens’.  In contrast, I used this term to refer to the way in which, even though all adults in a modern democracy are citizens, any of them can act as non-citizens if they use political power merely in their own private interests.

Christianity rejected Aristotle’s distinction of people into natural rulers and natural servants or slaves.  Certain basic affirmations of Christian theology contradicted that.  All humans are made in the image of God and share in the responsibility of God-given dominion (Gen. 1:26-28; you can study what it means that people are created ‘in the image of God’ in Module A, Unit 3).  In the community of the Church, a fundamental human equality was recognized very soon: in Christ “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek… slave or free… male and female”, wrote St Paul in one of his earliest letters (Gal. 3.28).  The most influential Early Church theologian in the west, St Augustine, saw slavery, not as something natural, but as a consequence of human sin, although in his context he could not conceive that it could actually be abolished.2. Refusing the Aristotelian vision of natural rule and slavery, Christianity contributed historically to recognition that all, not just one class of people, may be citizens.  (We shall look later at Jacques Maritain’s appeal to such a historical argument.)

Nevertheless, the distinction between the good and bad versions of ‘government by many’ continued for many centuries to be made by contrasting ‘republican rule’ and ‘democracy’.  The general view was that ‘democracy’ referred to something equivalent to ‘tyranny’ and ‘oligarchy’ – a kind of rule by people who were out for themselves, an irresponsible and undisciplined mass, who were bound to fail to govern for the common good.

Eventually, in the early modern period, the meaning of ‘democracy’ began to change.  It began to refer to ‘rule by many’ in both its bad and good forms, and gradually it even became a label for an inherently good form of government.  Some historians have identified the extensive debates in the American states after independence from Britain in 1776, which were all about what constitution the new United States should adopt, as the historical moment when that change happened.  The arguments for unification, that is, for ‘federal’ government, are recorded in what has become a classic work of political theory, known as the Federalist Papers.  Speaking about this, one contemporary writer says:

The Constitutional debates represent a unique historical moment… in which there is a visible transition from the traditional indictment of democracy to the modern rhetorical naturalization of democracy for all political purposes, including those that would have been regarded as anti-democratic according to the old definition. Here we can even watch the process of redefinition as it happens. The Federalists alternate between sharply contrasting democracy to the republican form of government they advocate and calling that very same republican form a ‘representative democracy’.3

As this quotation indicates, in English the words ‘republican’ and ‘democratic’ began to have the same meaning from that time onwards.  In France after the Revolution, which began less than two years after the United States Constitution was agreed, a similar shift was occurring.

Therefore ‘democracy’ can now name either a good form or a bad form of government.  We can revise the third row in the table so that it is as follows:

                               Good government                            Bad government

Rule by many:         Republican government /             ‘Mob rule’ /

                                  rule by citizens /                              rule by non-citizens /

                                  democracy (good)                           democracy (bad)

                                                

This screen is headed: Where does ‘democracy’ fit in?  We now have the answer: in both columns.

But is this helpful?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Reflection

Is it sensible to use one word to refer to two profoundly different ways of governing?

In the way the word ‘democracy’ is typically used in the contexts with which you are familiar, e.g. media coverage of politics, does it generally have positive or negative connotations?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

As we prepare to study what CST has to say directly about democracy, it will prove worthwhile to explore further what is meant by those two versions – and indeed to find labels that contrast them.

Even though ‘democracy’ can refer to both good and bad government, the term is very often used in a way that simply assumes it is a good thing – the opposite of how it was used for 2000+ years after Aristotle!  Indeed some people might say that this is justified because democracy can only be a good thing.  They might claim that the basic distinction between good and bad government is a statement of the obvious, and that, of course, when people participate in democratic politics they should seek to act for the good of the whole society.

This does seem obvious, once you see it, and if you are someone with a fundamental commitment to society as a whole.

The trouble is that it is not obvious to everyone.  When looking at the main principles of CST in Unit 1, we saw that CST is not ‘individualistic’ (1.3.10).  As defined there, individualism means seeing ‘the human good’ or ‘human wellbeing’ as something each individual, you or I, could enjoy regardless of whether other people also do.  If we each have a mindset that is individualistic in that way, then, as long as you and I can get what we each want, or can do what we each freely choose, we can enjoy the good life.  Other people come into the equation only as means for gaining what you or I individually pursue.  In this perspective, other people are means to the ends we each have as individuals, not essentially different from consumer goods which we try to obtain to satisfy our individual preferences.

Individualism is relevant to this distinction between good and bad forms of democracy because it legitimizes the bad form and, in effect, abolishes the distinction.  To the extent that people are individualistic, they don’t have reason to recognize that there is such a thing as the good of the whole society – and certainly not the common good in CST’s sense of this.  Instead, they will see politics as an arena in which people compete as individuals to get out of government as much as they can for themselves.

This brings out why the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a very real one in the way politics actually takes place in modern democracies.  Some people see participation as about being citizens and seeking the good of the whole ‘city’, whereas others see it as about everybody acting in their own private interests and government as merely the arbiter of these.

From very deep roots in the linked traditions of western and Christian political thought, the Catholic Church is bound to reject this individualistic view of democracy, seeing it as a subversion of good government.  In this view government is, morally, no different from tyranny, because each individual acts as a mini-tyrant in competition with all the other mini-tyrants.

This is why the fundamental distinction that we have been studying is so important.  Whatever constitutional form government might have, it is ‘good’ only if it is exercised for the sake of the whole society, not merely in some people’s private interests.  To the extent that individualistic ways of thinking are prominent in modern societies, they pose a very basic challenge to that distinction.  They say, in effect: you should see democratic politics as an arena out of which to get as much as you can for yourself.

In light of the above, we can distinguish two contrasting versions of democracy which correspond to the traditional distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ government.

  • On one hand, there is what can be called ‘civic democracy’.  This label is appropriate because ‘civic’ implies commitment to the good of the ‘city’ as a whole. (The term ‘civic democracy’ was used in a book I referred to earlier for the kind of participatory politics that emerged in nineteenth century Latin America.4)
  • On the other hand, there is what can be named ‘consumerist democracy’.  In this, people take part essentially as individualistic consumers, seeing democratic procedures as only means for taking out what they can for themselves.

We have hardly looked yet at what the texts of CST say about democracy.  However we can already see that CST’s overriding commitment to ‘good government’ means that, in principle, it can identify strongly with ‘civic democracy’.  At the same time, it will make a radical critique of ‘consumerist democracy’.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Reflection

Does the difference between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ variants of democracy seem to you to be large or small?

If you live in a democracy, do you think people generally vote for what’s best for the society overall, or just for themselves?  In other words, do you think democracy, as you observe it from within, corresponds more to the ‘civic’ or the ‘consumerist’ form?

Are these labels, ‘civic’ and ‘consumerist’, appropriate, or can you think of better names for the good and bad forms of democratic government?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

In this lengthy discussion of the significance for democracy of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ government, I have focused on what individual people do when they vote.  But it is equally relevant to what people do in politics collectively, whether through pressure groups, political parties or other forms of campaigning, and of course in government.  All these kinds of collective political action can contribute to rule that is ‘good’ only if what people are seeking through them is to benefit the whole community.  Of course, any particular public policy is very likely to benefit particular people, but the point is that it must do so as a contribution to the good of the whole.  In the next unit we shall look closely at a number of ways in which people can participate practically in politics, including in pressure groups and political parties, and we shall return to this point then.

In conclusion, the fundamental distinction between ‘good government’ and ‘bad government’ presents a basic challenge.  The use of political power is good only if it is for the benefit of a whole society.

This is true in a democracy just as much as when government is by a king or by an aristocracy, or by a mixture of all three.

Here is the table of different forms of government, now incorporating the distinction between the ‘civic’ and ‘consumerist’ versions of democracy.

Forms of government

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

End of 4.2.3

Go to 4.2.4 Monarchy, democracy and the Catholic Church

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.


  1. Aristotle, The Politics, ed. Stephen Everson, trans. B. Jowett and J. Barnes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), Book III, sec. 7, 1279b1.  The next paragraph adds: “Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers”. 

  2. St Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) Book XIX, chaps 15-16 

  3. Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Demos versus “We the People”: Freedom and Democracy, Ancient and Modern’, in Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (eds), Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern (Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 132. 

  4. Carlos A. Forment, Democracy in Latin America, 1760-1900, referenced on 4.2.1. 

Go to Top