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Introduction to democracy and its variations

LOR‑1.B.1 (EK)
LOR‑1.B.3 (EK)
Democracy means "rule by the people," but what general forms does it take? Here we describe participatory democracies, pluralist democracies, and elite democracies and think about some of their potential benefits and negatives.

Video transcript

- [Instructor] What we're going to do in this video is dig a little bit deeper into the notion of democracy. And the reason why this is going to be valuable is it's going to inform the decisions that the Founding Fathers had to make when they thought about whether to ratify the Constitution. It'll also inform our thoughts on government as it is today in the United States. What flavor of democracy does it take on, especially at different layers of government? So just as a review, and this is something that we have talked about in other videos, democracy comes from Greek from rule by the people. Demo from demos, which is referring to people, and cracy coming from kratia, which is referring to rule. So, rule by the people. Now broadly speaking, we can think of three general flavors of democracy, the first we can consider to be participatory. Participatory democracy. The second we can call pluralist democracy, and I'll define these in a second. And then the third, let's call that elite democracy. Elite democracy. Now, what do you think participatory democracy means, based on the word participatory? Yes, as you might have guessed it implies broad participation of the population. Broad participation. What are examples of a participatory democracy? Well, imagine a small town that has maybe a few hundred or a few thousand people and if there's an issue of whether to build a stop light at an intersection or a change in some of the zoning laws, you can imagine a large chunk of the town showing up to weigh in on that decision. Now, what are some of the benefits of a participatory democracy and what are some of the negatives? Well, the benefits are, and I'll do those as pluses, a benefit is, well, it kind of seems closest to the original spirit of a democracy. It's coming out of ancient Greece, ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy where you did have residents go together and debate the major issues. Although even in ancient Athens you have to take participation with a grain of salt because it wasn't everyone who was participating. It was, for the most part, wealthy men who had the time to actually sit and debate these issues. But, if we want to give a participatory democracy its credit say in a small town, is that you really are representing the views of the people. Representing the people well. The people are directly involved. Now, what are maybe some of the negatives? Well, it can get logistically difficult. We talked about a small town, but what if the town gets a little bit bigger? Or what we're dealing with a state? Or we're dealing with a country where we're talking about tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions or tens of millions of people? How do you get all of those people to weigh in on an issue, even logistically? How do they get informed about it, and are they even prepared to weigh in on those issues? Sure, if you're in a town you can think about whether an intersection should be there or whether they should put a stop light there, but if we're talking about matters of national or international importance influencing hundreds of millions of people, can you depend on people to be informed about the intricacies of the banking system or the military or foreign policy? And so this is really a question of, does this scale? And there really aren't any good examples in history of direct democracy scaling in significant ways beyond fairly small groups of people. In the United States the biggest scale where you might see this are in things like ballot measures at the city or the state level where people are directly voting on certain measures or certain laws. But even there, it's a limited scope for what the people will actually weigh in on. Now, the next category that we talk about is a pluralist democracy. Pluralism is referring to the idea of many different parties. Same root as the word plural, you have many things. So you have many different parties and many different competing interests that are going to have a vigorous debate with each other on deciding what are the best ideas. And what are examples of pluralist democracies? If you think about the United States, there are many different interest groups. You can think about all of the different lobbyists, all of the different groups that represent different types of people trying to convince members of Congress, either at the national level, or even at the state level that their interest is right. Even within Congress, even though you have two major parties you can have different factions that are really trying to argue it out. Now, what are the benefits of a pluralist democracy? Well, you can imagine that because there is this vigorous debate, maybe the good ideas surface. Good ideas surface. You don't have domination by just one party. No one group or a small group of people domination. But then, on the other side of it, maybe they're some negatives, what might those be? Well, maybe all of this debate and argument is very inefficient, maybe it's slow decision making. Slow decisions, or at an extreme, no decisions. Some things like gridlock because people can't agree to things, that in order for anything to get done, you have to make too many people happy and they all have their interests. Maybe the opposite of good ideas surface. Maybe good ideas die because it's very hard to make everyone happy. Now, the last category that we're gonna talk about is the idea of an elite democracy, and this is where you have more limited participation. So in some ways it's almost the opposite of a participatory democracy. So this is limited, limited participation. And even though I gave ancient Athens as an example of a participatory democracy, it really was more of an elite democracy where the people had the time and the influence and the money, those were the ones who were really weighing in on the issues of ancient Athens. And if you were to go to the Roman republic, the Roman senators, these were, once again, elite men. So what would you think are benefits of an elite democracy? Well, one might be that these elites, so to speak, maybe they are more educated than the general public and so that allows them to make more informed decisions, especially on things that are quite complex that would be hard for everyone to weigh in on. If you're going to change a new accounting standard, or think about how do you regulate the telecommunications industry or some very sophisticated trade negotiation or foreign policy negotiation, that education might help. And maybe it's also more decisive than either one of the pluralist or the participatory. The participatory they might be able to appeal to maybe baser instincts, just, you know, people's passions while the pluralists, since you have all of these groups competing even if something makes sense they might not be able to make that decision, but if you have a smaller, more limited group, limited participation, maybe they can make these decisions a little bit clearer, but what are the negatives here? Well, the clearest negative is, well, maybe this goes against the whole idea of a democracy. If it's all about the elites, maybe they do a good job at truly representing the interests of the people, but maybe they are good at representing the interests of the elite. So do they really represent the people? Is this a democracy where the people are sovereign, where the people rule, or is this an oligarchy where only a few people rule and they rule in their own interests? And so after watching this video, look at the world around you. Think about, in the United States, or whatever country you're watching from, what elements of a participatory democracy do you see? What elements of a pluralist democracy, and what elements of an elite democracy do you see? And as we'll see in other videos, these dimensions of democracy were vigorously debated by the Founding Fathers when they thought about whether to ratify the Constitution. We'll see this debate when we look at the Anti-Federalist Papers, especially we'll look closely at Brutus number one. We'll see this debate when we look at the Federalist Papers, especially Federalist number 10, written by James Madison and I'll let you decide, when we look at that, who was right and what flavors of democracy are most dominant in the United States at different levels.