Is Democracy about process or meaning?

In addition to a wide ranging debate over centuries about what democracy means at the level of ideals, meaning, procedures, and process, the basic notion of what constitutes a genuine democracy is not clear or widely agreed upon.  This leaves space for a variety of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to claim to be a democracy even though they may have no respect for the rule of law or individual rights.  Some current examples include the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and perhaps most notably, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). 

While the trend may finally be abating, for the past 70 years or so, much of political science thought has worked to be scientific and empirical by concentrating on a narrow description of the mechanics of democracy and consciously avoiding attention to norms and ideals.  I believe this to be a highly damaging approach that removes the heart and soul and reason for being, of democracy.  Joseph Schumpeter, in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy written in 1942 followed a long line of social scientists seeking to add to the legitimacy of the social sciences through seeking to adopt the methods and approach of the physical sciences.  This is misguided at best and sometimes quite problematic.  Schumpeter focused on narrowly describing how actual democracies work: “an institutional arrangements for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote” (Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p. 269)  This approach has had a major impact with the result that often there is an emphasis on democracy as a particular method of selecting leaders. As Mitchell points out “democracy is concerned with more than procedures for electing leaders. It is an ideology, a set of political ideals derived from a particular view of the nature, dignity and social needs of human beings. Procedures and institutions of democracy are dictated by these ideals, designed to make them a reality. It is these ideals that form the defining characteristics of democracy. Their realization is the end, the procedures and institutions are the means.” (Mitchell, Democracy’s Beginnings, p. 3).  

“These ideals first emerged in their full form in Athens at the end of a long search for a durable, broadly accepted the political order. The Athenians rejected the time-honored belief that political power belonged to the privileged few, and replaced it with a new vision of the state as a community or partnership of political equals, equal in freedom, equal in political rights, equal in justice under a communally sanctioned rule of law, with a form of government that was of the people, by the people, for the people, and with a form of citizenship that entailed civic participation and promotion of the common good. Procedures and institutions were evolved to implement and protect these ideals.” (Mitchell, p. 4). Of course, democracy has developed and broadened substantially, now containing elements not envisioned by the Athenians.  And while democracy remains fragile and disappeared for a very long time, the meaning of democracy, who it applies to, and the institutions to protect it, have expanded nonetheless.  In democracy’slong and tortured past, “there is a core of the first principles that has prevailed, and that will always constitute the heart of the democratic ideal. if these principles are ignored, or seriously diluted, or perverted, democracy will… never achieve the high expectations that it can create a more enlightened social and political order for all humanity.” (Mitchell, p. 4)