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  • 12/18/2011

Ambiguity in the Nature and Principles of Democracy


One of the great flaws of democracy is the ambiguity in its essence, principles and nature. The variety and multiplicity of different kinds of democracy has created obstacles in the way of achieving a unified definition about most fundamental aspects of this term, and has sometimes increased the conflicts. An example is the three different interpretations of the concept of majority reflected in the following three phrases: “the rule of majority”‌, “the rule of law”‌ and “the multiplicity of the groups in power”‌.  Some thinkers maintain that there are contradictions among these three, which cause ambiguity in the meanings of democracy; this ambiguity in turn, has given rise to the different interpretations of democracy in the twentieth century.

Democracy is a complex and multi-dimensional concept and the vagueness in its meaning is due to the emphasis of scholars and supporters of democracy on some of its certain aspects.

The fact that different governments call themselves democratic is not surprising for various reasons. Because the tradition of democratic notion is very widespread and it contains different and sometimes contradictory ideas about the principles of the state, its relations with citizens, man and special duties of government, etc.

For example, the phrase “government by the people”‌ might seem to be devoid of ambiguity, but appearances are always misleading, while the history of democratic ideas is complicated and gives rise to contradictory interpretations. There are many controversial matters in this field. As a matter of fact, each of the components of this phrase is hard to explain. Andrew Vincent writes in this regard: Another problem of the notion of the sovereignty of the people is: who are the people? Some might be considered as the people according to the theory of public will, but at the same time a group of representatives and voters can be considered as the people too. Of course, in the last one and a half century, there have been some changes regarding qualifications of the voters or individuals eligible to vote. In other words, the definition of people has constantly undergone changes.

Hence, the question is: what do the terms “government”‌, “government by the people”‌ and “people”‌ mean. If only the ambiguities in the word “people”‌ are to be considered, the following questions could be raised;

- Who are the people?

- What kind of participation has been defined for them?

- What are the given qualifications and conditions for their participation?

As a matter of fact, different types of democracy could not provide clear answers to these questions. David Held states in this regard: Efforts in order to limit the meaning of “people”‌ to certain groups, such as property owners, white people, educated ones, those with special skills and professionals, adults or men only has a long history. The same is true about what is said to be ‘government’ by the ‘people’.”‌

Many other analyzers of democracy, such as Anthony Arblaster admit that the Western kind of democracy has no precise and unanimously admitted meaning. Therefore, there is no convincing answer to the following question: ‘What is democracy?’

Translated by: Sadroddin Musawi

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