Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Has the term democracy lost its meaning?

We are living through the biggest election year in history, an exercise in democracy which testifies to its victory as a political system. More than half of the world’s population is expected to go to the polls at some point in 2024, but does that mean all these people live in democracies? Surely not. You may remember: during a fateful week in the middle of March, earlier this year, the Russian people went to the polls. Putin (shockingly) won, but that does not make Russia a democracy. So what does turn a country into a democracy?

When we talk about democracies, we actually talk about both an ideal and the form of government that strives to achieve that ideal. However, a quick historical recap reminds us how much the democratic ideal has changed. Centuries ago, colonialist countries relying on the exploitation of enslaved people, such as the United States, Great Britain, and France, were all considered ideal democracies. As recently as decades ago, countries in which the majority of the population (be it women or working men) did not have the vote were still considered democratic. And even after the majority of adults obtained the right to vote, colonialism, segregation, and political persecution remained common. Surprise! These countries were also considered democratic. Looking back, we refer to them as democracies, but we would never consider these political systems democratic in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

This could indicate that we think of democracy as a relative term compared to other countries in the same historical context. The early United States was arguably the most democratic country in the world at the time, even though it relied on a class of enslaved workers and only a tiny part of its population had the right to vote. Nowadays, we still rank democracies and discuss them relative to one another. Scandinavian countries are often looked up to because they are seen as most democratic. But how can we know that we will not look back at the Scandinavian countries as flawed democracies in fifty years’ time? What’s striking about this is that, as we have seen, democracy is an ideal and a set of institutions. So why should we consider it relatively – should countries not be either a democracy or not?

Indexes tell us in 2023 there are over 70 democracies around the world. However, in many cases of these 70 democracies, both public opinion and political theory pose substantial challenges to the categorisation as a democracy. These cases include Hungary, Singapore, Israel and the United States, states which you may consider democratic to different extents, if at all. 

Let’s examine the case of the United States. Looking back, would you consider a country where only some men have the right to vote, where people of a certain race are enslaved, and where indigenous people are killed and their communities destroyed systematically a democracy? Would you consider a country with a segregation regime that separates people according to their race in all areas of life a democracy? Would you consider a country that goes to war and kills indiscriminately (lying to its people about it, of course) a democracy? I would be surprised if you did. All of these policies go straightforwardly against democratic ideals as we understand them today and have understood them for a long time.

If this is not enough, we can look at the United States in recent years. In January 2021, the then President, Donald Trump, incited an insurrection in the Capitol leading to a mob of hundreds raiding the building and threatening representatives. The reason: preventing the democratic transfer of power. Accordingly, polling from the end of 2021 reveals that the majority of people in 16 Western and American-allied countries, as well as the American people, think the United States is no longer or has never been a democratic model.

Now, as he runs for office again, more and more details are revealed about what a second Trump presidency might look like. A recent Time Magazine interview with Trump and his closest aids reveals that in a second term he “would let red states monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans.” He “would be willing to fire a U.S. Attorney who doesn’t carry out his order to prosecute someone, breaking with a tradition of independent law enforcement that dates from America’s founding”. All that while “weighing pardons for every one of his supporters accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021”. And yet, the United States is the leader of the Western camp, which prides itself on its democracy and protection of human rights. We should all consider the hypocrisy of this, and whether the United States and other countries live up (or ever have lived up) to the standards which they claim to promote.

It appears to me that the word democracy has lost its meaning. How can it describe so many different regimes in the past and present, and how could all of them fall under the same category? “Democracy” covers all that is deemed good, so any regime that wants to increase its legitimacy will bend logical definitions to prove itself. Even in the year that supposedly proves democracy’s victory, it is not at all clear what and who democracies are.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles