The most popular definition is that of the American President, Abraham Lincoln, “Democracy is a government of the people, for the people and by the people.’ (Gettysberg speech). It is that form of government in which the mass of population possess the right to share in the exercise of sovereign power.” (Gettell) But there are many other aspects or forms of democracy.
Broadening its meaning and application, Giddings has stated that, “Democracy may be either a form of Government, a form of State, a form of Society or a combination of the three”. Still its scope remains narrow. Democracy has not only political and social aspects, but also moral and economic dimensions.
Miss Follet considers it ‘a spiritual ideal.’ It can be studied as:
(a) A form of government,
(b) A form of state,
(c) A form of society,
(d) A way of life, or philosophy,
(e) An ethical value system, and
(f) A system of economy.
Democracy (a) as a form of government regards the people as the base or source of power of government. They exercise power directly or indirectly. The government remains responsible to the people. In ancient times Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, and, later, Henry Maine, Lowell, Lincoln etc. held this view. But none of them have explained how do the people come to hold power or run the government. Operationally, only a few people held power which is exercised to benefit them.
Hardly, such government is of the people, by the people and for the people. Its apparent features, viz., popular sovereignty, adult franchise, free elections, majority rule, responsibility of the executive to the legislative rarely vests the people with actual exercise of power; (b) as a form of state democracy presents ‘a mode of appointing, controlling and dismissing Government’ (Hearnshaw).
Sovereignty resides in the general will of the people. The form of government and important policies are finally determined by the people; and (c) as a form of society is studied as a social philosophy and a lifestyle. Liberty, equality and fraternity are its basic values. Everyone is entitled to lead his life according to his will. Man is an end in himself, and never a means to others (Kant). Everyone is counted for one and no one more than one (Bentham). Family becomes a school of these values.
Value of equality involves eschewing all forms of discrimination based on caste, wealth, social status etc. The American Declaration of Independence makes it very clear: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable right; that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen also runs in similar terms. This equality has four aspects: political, civic, economic and social. Unless equality pays respect to merit and personality, it turns into some ‘monstrous fiction’ (Burke), ‘indefeasible proposition’ (Coleridge) or an ‘anarchic fallacy’ (Behtham).
Liberty is another key element of social democracy. It has two, negative and positive, aspects. Negatively it means absence of restraints. Positively, it involves creation of conditions in which one may find himself to be the best. Fraternity emphasises a sense of brotherhood. Sense of brotherhood brings about voluntary cooperation among human beings, (d) as a way of life it reflects special attribute towards life. It expects special nature and social behaviour from man.
“Do not do unto others that you do not want to be done to yourself.” Democracy has overtones of (e) an ethical value system which considers a moral ideal that can be realised only by leading a spiritual life. It is an all-round development of human personality: Man is an end. He is a spiritual being. He should never be treated as means. Democracy is universal preference of Brecht. It is the end-value of Dahl, Easton, Lasswell and the whole of the West. It assimilates even isms like nationalism.
Presently, it is also advocated as (f) a system of economy. Accordingly, the whole society should have control over means of production. There should not be unbridgeable gap between the haves and the have-nots and yet democracy has survived where the rich exploit the poor. Economic democracy does necessarily mean the end of private property, total nationalization, or public employment. The state should cater for the minimum needs of the people.