What is democracy? It’s a system of government, but it’s not the only system, of course. To understand the democratic system, we need to consider the alternatives. There are three options we can distinguish between. Rule by one person... by a few persons, or rule by all. This way of classifying political systems... goes back to the Ancient Greeks. They called a system with one person ruling an autocracy. Nowadays, we would also refer to this system as an authoritarian regime, or a dictatorship. Then there’s rule by the few. Some people call this an aristocracy. But the real meaning of this term is rule by the virtuous few, by the good and the wise. Now, you may see why rulers call themselves good and wise... but that doesn’t make it true, of course. So, the better term is oligarchy. We often use the term oligarchy to refer to a system in which the wealthy few have power. But the power base doesn’t have to be wealth. It could be a religious elite ruling... or a group of distinguished families. However, these elites will often also be very wealthy. Finally, we come to rule by all: a democracy. A democracy is a system of government... in which people have equal power at crucial stages of the decision-making process. Let’s unpack this. Let’s start with the equal power bit. We need to distinguish between two things. On the one hand actual influence... and on the other hand opportunities for political influence. In a democracy, everyone should have an equal opportunity to influence decisions. But they don’t have to make use of that opportunity equally. Everyone should have the right to vote. But in many democracies, people can choose not to. What is important is you can influence a political decision equally, if you want to. Another important distinction is between formal equality and substantive equality. I’ll explain this with an example. Imagine we have a school trip. The teachers say all the students can come. The trip costs the same for everyone. That makes the children formally equal. But: The trip actually costs a lot of money. Not every child has that. Also, the trip isn’t wheelchair accessible. In that case we would say that, although the children are formally equal... they are not substantively equal. Substantive equality is about... having an equal effective ability to exercise your rights. This can also happen in a system of government. Legally, all citizens may have the right... to influence a political decision. But what if real influence costs a lot of money? The citizens would be formally equal, but substantively not equal. Can we still call this a system of democracy? Or does this begin to look more like an oligarchy? Keep that question in mind as you go through the course. When I talk about equality, I don’t mean opportunities have to be exactly equal. What matters is that opportunities are sufficiently equal at crucial stages of the decision-making process. One important stage is, of course, voting. Political equality here is something like... one person, one vote. But we also need to look at the stages prior to voting. In this stage people make up their minds. They do this by taking in information... discussing it, reflecting on what they know and forming their political opinion. This process is called deliberation. In a democracy, the process of deliberation... should be free and equal. People should have freedom of speech and a free press... so they can exchange ideas with one another. They also should have the freedom... to set up associations, like political parties. Those help them to develop and channel ideas. If some people are silenced, the process of deliberation is not equal. Another problem arises when a few people own all the media outlets, for example. They could skew public opinion by giving us only the information they want us to believe. In that case, we would say the deliberation is not substantively equal. So, what can a democratic system look like? There are two varieties to distinguish between. Direct and representative democracy. In a direct democracy, citizens vote... on laws and policies directly. This was typical of the ancient democracy of Athens. Nowadays, this is practiced less. We still see it in local democracies... for example, in the USA and in Brazil. There are important limits to direct democracy. In a complex society, it isn’t desirable that people vote on all policy issues. It would require too much time and way too much knowledge... on a host of political issues. The more important variety of direct democracy today... is the referendum. In a referendum, people don’t vote on all the policy... and laws in that country, but on just one. For example, whether the U.K.... should leave the European Union or not. The more important variety of democracy today... is representative democracy. Here people choose their representatives... who then make laws and policies on their behalf in a parliament. This usually happens through elections. For this system to work properly... citizens have to be able to set up parties. So they have to have the freedom of association. This is because different political parties will defend different interests and ideals. A system in which you can only vote for one party is not a democratic system. So, let’s sum up. The ideal of democracy is a system of government... that gives people equal power at crucial stages of the decision-making. Now that you know what the ideal is, we can ask what makes it valuable. We’ll talk about this in the next lesson. Then, in lessons 3 and 4, we’ll ask how this ideal is threatened by economic inequality.